Hail The New Rail

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June 23, 1898, marks pivotal time in Port’s history with debut of a new steam train line

(Historical photos courtesy of the Port Washington Public Library and the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society)

There was a time in Port Washington’s illustrious history when horse drawn wagons outnumbered automobiles and the term “traffic lights” didn’t exist. The same time in our historical past when the early residents of Port Washington had no other choice to travel via stagecoach to NYC than to travel to nearby Great Neck to hop a train to Hunter’s Point in Long Island City and then ferry across the East River to the 34th St. Manhattan ferry terminal.

A long, hard commute, indeed. But in the year 1866, political feuds thwarted efforts to extend the Great Neck railway into Port and it wasn’t for another three decades in Port’s history that residents celebrated the inauguration of train service from Port Washington to Manhattan. That pivotal date in history—June 23, 1898, permanently transformed Port Washington’s reputation as a farming and fishing “village” into a thriving commuter suburb of NYC.

On Wednesday, June 23, the present-day Long Island Railroad station on Main Street was the scene of a memorable tribute to the date in history that literally put Port Washington on the map and attracted thousands of new residents like flies to fly paper, eager to settle into new homes, raise families and seamlessly commute to NYC for their jobs.

Port’s Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society (CNPHS) proudly placed a commemorative plaque on the exterior wall of the train station, a permanent reminder of the most important date in Port’s history.

Several dignitaries attended the Port Washington Train Station historical event.

“I am proud to be here on this date when the first train arrived at our town in 1898,” Chris Bain, a Schreiber graduate and President of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society said to those who came to celebrate. Bain pointed out that the engineer who drove that first train into the village in 1898 was William H. Graven and introduced his grandson, Peter Gravson, who still lives in Port today.

“Our mission at the CNPHS is one of education, particularly about our shared local history and the ways in which people lived and worked over the centuries,” Bain said. “We encourage our residents to participate in our robust lecture series and historic walking tours. We also mount serious exhibitions at the Sands-Willets house every two years and just launched a brand-new walking tour of the Mill Pond Historic District.”

Port Washington resident Kenneth Buettner, as “Henry Thomas Dodge.” The Dodge family were one of the first settlers of Port Washington and lived at the now historic Dodge House on Harbor Rd. (Photos courtesy of Andrea Mastrocinque-Martone)

Henry Thomas Dodge made a surprise and delightful visit from the afterlife at the commemorative event, wowing all with his tales of that date on June 23, 1898, when he and his family was one of 1,400 residents of Port Washington.

“I was born here in Port Washington in 1850 in our family’s historic home on Harbor Rd, a home we lived in for many generations since 1721,” the proud landowner and original founding families of Port Washington said. He stood proud that day, noting that the Dodge house and its outbuildings have been listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places since 1986. The home is also a designated landmark of the Town of North Hempstead’s Historic Landmark Preservation Commission.

Some anecdotal information from history:
• The first LIRR train station in Port was built as a wood-framed structure with wood siding. It was remodeled with brick facing in 1930 and then restored to close to its original condition for the 100th anniversary celebration in 1998.

• It was the first steam locomotive in 1898 that set out towards the small hamlet of Port Washington, which then had a population of just 1800 farmers, shell fisherman, shopkeepers, sand miners and families. The locomotive and her two passenger cars hadn’t come from Manhattan. In 1898 it would have come from the western terminus at Hunter’s Point, in Long Island City. Travel to and from Manhattan still required a ferry ride across the East River to the 34th street ferry dock. It wasn’t until early in the 1910’s that a tunnel under the river and the streets of Manhattan, allowed the rail line to reach all the way to Pennsylvania Station.

• Despite a failed attempt to extend the line from Great Neck to Roslyn in 1882, wealthy Port Washington residents persuaded the LIRR to bring the terminus to their hometown in 1895. This required the construction of the Manhasset Viaduct over the marshes at the southern end of Manhasset Bay, which was authorized by an LIRR subsidiary called the Great Neck and Port Washington Railroad (GN&PW).[7] According to Manhasset’s website, “in 1897, a contract was given to the Carnegie Steel Company and a subsidiary, the King Iron Company, undertook the job of constructing the bridge.” The trestle bridge cost about $60,000, and the first train crossed it on June 23, 1898. The GN&PW was disestablished as a subsidiary in 1902, and that segment simply became part of the Port Washington Branch.

• The railroad that ultimately became the Port Washington Branch was borne from two competing railroads, the Flushing Railroad (later the New York and Flushing) which incorporated as early as 1852 and ran from Hunter’s Point to Flushing along a route quite similar to today’s line, and the Flushing and North Side Railroad, built by ‘rubber baron’ Conrad Poppenhusen and extending to Great Neck by 1866. Poppenhusen would later take over the Long Island Railroad by 1876, but it foundered and by 1880 it was in the hands of who may have been its greatest president, Austin Corbin. By 1889 all the railroads in competition for service in northern Queens County were under the control of the Long Island Railroad. Today the LIRR is under the auspices of the MTA.

• In 1890, Port Washington’s population was 8,194. Today (2020 census), the population is 15,808

For more information about the CNPHS website visit, www.cowneck.org

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