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Abandoned, Overgrown

The Rockaway Beach Branch, Queens’ Forgotten Railroad

A platform still stands at Woodhaven Junction Station over Atlantic Avenue.

New York City’s narrowest jungle stretches across 3.5 miles of Central Queens, concealing the ruins of a rail line that’s been gathering rust for half a century.  Abandoned by a bankrupt Long Island Railroad in 1962, the Rockaway Beach Branch is stirring debate today as opposing visions for its future emerge.

A passenger traveling on the Rockaway Beach Branch in the 1920s would board a southbound train at Whitepot Junction, pass through developing neighborhoods in Forest Hills, Glendale, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, and Ozone Park, and traverse a burgeoning estuarine habitat called Jamaica Bay before arriving in the sandy Rockaways, then a popular vacation destination for privileged Manhattanites known as “New York’s Playground.”  Today, the neighborhoods are flourishing, Jamaica Bay is losing 40 acres of marshland a year, and the isolated Rockaways are entering a stage of redevelopment.

The right-of-way was purchased by the city in the 1950s with plans to incorporate the entire line into its subway system, but the NYC Transit Authority ended up linking only the southern portion to the A train, cutting off the 3.5 mile stretch north of Rockaway Blvd.  Through its 50 years of disuse, the remaining Rockaway Beach Branch has heard a stream of failed reuse and reactivation proposals as a forest has matured within its borders.Rockaway Beach Branch

In 2005, community boards from Rego Park, Forest Hills, and other areas intersected by the line passed resolutions in favor of a linear park conversion, encouraged by the success of Manhattan’s High Line—a once abandoned rail line in Chelsea renovated into a futuristic above-ground park.  According to the plan, bicycle paths and walkways would replace the derelict railroad, providing a much-needed green recreational space for the public.  The Trust for Public Land is seeking private funding for a feasability study as a first step toward making the park, dubbed the “Queensway,” a reality.  Beleaguered Rockaway commuters instead call for a reactivation of the line, which would provide a speedy link to Midtown Manhattan and a welcome alternative to the circuitous A-train.  In response to this proposal, the MTA cites high operational and construction costs as deterrents to the project.

Rockaway Beach Branch RailsTrudging through this palsied limb of the New York City transit system, it’s hard to imagine either plan coming to fruition here, a place where few people venture and fewer have a good reason to.  Detritus from teenage excursions and midnight meetings collect in piles along the forgotten spur—scrapped car parts, a coil of barbed wire, scores of bottles, a forsaken shopping cart, and most memorably, a discarded cleaver.

In a different season, the century-old rails would be obscured by vegetation, but they’re clearly visible on  this brisk February afternoon.  Forty-year-old birch and oak reclaim the soil, shoving aside iron rails assembled in the 1910s.  Fallen branches and debris intersect a continuous line of tracks; most electrical towers still stand, others lay mired in the overgrowth.  Leaves crunching under my feet alert a chain of backyard sentinels to my presence.  Aside from the dogs and the postman, little else stirs in this quiet residential community; change is coming to the Rockaway Beach Branch—but it could take another 50 years to arrive.

Backyard Railroad

Rockaway Beach Branch DebrisOvergrown Trestle Bridge

Discarded Weapon

A jagged weapon discarded on an overpass.

LIRR Abandoned Substation

A nearby substation abandoned by the LIRR.

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Discussion

18 thoughts on “The Rockaway Beach Branch, Queens’ Forgotten Railroad

  1. Great stuff; I always enjoyed climbing the towers when I came here. Walked the whole stretch in a few visits.

    Posted by Dan | 1-24-13., 6:08 pm
  2. My grandparents’ house in Forest Hills backed up to this rail line. Their house was built, and purchased by them in the 40’s. After the line was abandoned, my grandfather built a terraced area with stairs up to a sweet picnic spot bordering the rail right of way.

    It was a lovely forest (for Queens, lol) even then. I would take long walks along tracks through the urban “forest” and was fascinated by the abandoned cars and such (how the heck did they get back there???). It was the only place close by that I could pretend was rural. ;)

    When I took up photography, I took many a black and white roll (developed in my college’s darkroom) n my travels along the rail line. Now I have to go dig up some of those pics! :)

    Thank you so much for this post and for these memories!

    Posted by Debbie Cunningham | 3-17-13., 8:58 pm
  3. I have a railroad tracks right outside of my windows. Can you tell me if these are the same tracks that are in this story. The location of your tracks is on Yellowstone blvd and Kessel st. Thanks in advance
    Roberto

    Posted by Roberto Rivera | 4-9-13., 9:16 pm
  4. Thanks, Will. You offer us a new way to reflect on both our past and our future. Your photography and prose paint unforgettable stories.

    Posted by Donna | 5-5-13., 3:12 pm
  5. Hey, Will! How’d you get up there? Looking on Google Streetview and I can’t seem to find a good entry point. Thanks!

    Posted by Ben | 5-21-13., 12:37 pm
  6. The Rockaways have been cut off for too long, and Queens subway lines and buses are packed; thus, in terms of economic development, many urban and transportation planners have been advocating reactivation of the Rockaway Beach line for years. Housing values also generally rise near transit stations, NJ, which has heavily invested in new and improved commuter rail lines, clearly understands this. And property values have gone up greatly within walking distance of the new stations. Personally, I think reactivating the Beach line would benefit many more people than creating a bike path thru neighborhoods that already have nice parks. Folks in Rego Park or Glendale who now spend 1 hour each way commuting to lower Manhattan, as well as people in the Rockaways who have to allow 90 minutes or more each way, would LOVE to see reactivation of this line. It’s really only the people who have encroached upon the railroad’s land in these neighborhoods who have issues. And if you bought your home next to a rail line, you can’t say that you weren’t warned.

    Posted by Ellen | 6-11-13., 6:19 pm
    • Just so you ln

      know i work for the lirr and they ARE contemplating opening back up the old rockaway branch they’ve actually done surveying in the past year on it.

      Posted by Anthony Pascarella | 8-6-14., 3:43 pm
  7. Hey there. Love the photos, spent a good part of my afternoon in this searing heat (well, I was in A/C!) looking at these incredible spelunking shots. Just awesome, the lighting, the subject matters, the studies of details. Excellent, and thank you for showing me places that I could never visit myself. One question, however. This last photo of the abandoned LIRR Sub-station 2… where is it? I’ve been trying to find it between the Google street view and Bing maps and couldn’t find it. Found Substation 3, but not 2. Help! Before I go crazy! Thanks! Keep up the good work.

    Posted by JiveNJingle | 6-27-13., 4:16 pm
    • Thanks, Jive! It’s on the corner of Snediker and Atlantic, right outside the Atlantic Ave L stop.

      Posted by abandonednyc | 6-27-13., 4:41 pm
      • Thanks, I was way off! I just love these photos, you’re incredibly talented. Thanks for sharing, and I’ll be checking in often for new submissions. Any projects planned for the near future?

        Posted by JiveNJingle | 6-27-13., 7:11 pm
  8. My grandparents house was at 67-03 Alderton Street.

    Posted by Debbie Cunningham | 6-28-13., 12:51 am
  9. What exactly is the address to Rockaway Beach Branch ?

    Posted by katie | 8-9-13., 11:49 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: QueensWay, similar to High Line, a greenway on abandoned tracks | Queens NYC - 9-27-12.

  2. Pingback: A Baseball Graveyard in Queens' Forgotten Railroad | Untapped Cities - 6-4-13.

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