This overpass, which once carried the Long Island Motor Parkway over 73rd Avenue near Francis Lewis Boulevard in Fresh Meadows, Queens, carried a bikeway and hiking trail after the parkway closed. A recent trip to the area reveals that the bikeway itself has fallen into disrepair and neglect. (Photo by Jeff Saltzman.)
The Long Island Motor Parkway was a private toll road that eventually stretched for 45 miles from Queens to Lake Ronkonkoma, one of the first concrete roads in the nation, and the first highway to use bridges and overpasses to eliminate intersections. Long before the Long Island Expressway, the Long Island Motor Parkway was the first high-speed route from Queens to Suffolk County.
THE PARKWAY'S RACING HERITAGE: The story of the Long Island Motor Parkway begins with William K. Vanderbilt Jr., a descendant of the family that presided over the New York Central Railroad and Western Union. His desire for racing stretched almost as far back as the birth of the automobile: on a Florida beach in 1903, he raced his custom-built Renault over 90 MPH to set a speed record for the mile. He frequently entered races in America and France, but was irritated at the hold the French racers had on the winner's circle. To spur American manufacturers into racing, he established the Vanderbilt Cup races in 1904. Sixteen drivers competed for the $2,000 cup, which was designed by Tiffany and Company.
During the next three years, Vanderbilt held his contest over 30 miles of local roads in Nassau County. Although the races stimulated interest in automotive design, Vanderbilt was disappointed that no American was able to win. Further disappointment came in 1906, when two spectators were killed and many others were injured by a racing car on Jericho Turnpike (NY 25), near the intersection of what is now NY 106-NY 107 in Jericho.
THE NATION'S FIRST SUPERHIGHWAY: Instead of running the race over dangerously narrow local roads, Vanderbilt conceived of a landscaped parkway, where banked curves and the elimination of grade crossings would permit speeds of 60 MPH or more. Along the course of the parkway, 65 reinforced steel-and-concrete bridges would be constructed, none of them having a span that exceeded 23 feet long. The 16-foot-wide roadway (later widened to 22 feet) would be constructed of reinforced concrete. To optimize speed and safety, commercial vehicles would be prohibited from using the parkway.
Vanderbilt organized the reigning captains of industry and Long Island's most influential families to organize the financing and design of the road. While the incorporators of the parkway did not share Vanderbilt's passion for speed, they were receptive to the long-term possibilities of a 60-mile-long, limited-access road from Queens to Riverhead. Landowners hoped that the parkway would increase property values. Auto and tire manufacturers were eager to use the road as a testing ground for their products.
Arthur R. Paddington, vice president of the Long Island Motor Parkway and general manager of the Vanderbilt Cup races, remarked the following at the 1908 groundbreaking ceremony in Bethpage:
There have been in the past highways for all kinds of vehicular traffic, canals for the movement of freight, railroads for the transportation of passengers, and trolleys for the convenience of those living in the suburbs of our large cities, but in no case has the motorist been considered. And now the day of the automobile has come. A highway is about to be constructed for its use, free from all grade crossings, dust and police surveillance, and a country opened up whose variegated charms are hard to equal in any part of the world.
Think of the time it will save the busy man of. Speed limits are left behind, the Great White Way is before him, and with the throttle open he can go, go, go and keep going, 50, 60 or 90 miles an hour until Riverhead or Southampton is reached, in time for a scotch at the Meadow Club, a round of golf and a refreshing dip in the surf, and all before dinner is served, or the electric lights begin to twinkle.
Land acquisition was a long, arduous process, and plans for a straight-line road from Jamaica to Riverhead were cut back. The revised plan called for a winding, 45-mile-long road from Flushing to Ronkonkoma, along with a spur - which ultimately became Harned Road - north from the parkway to NY 25 (Jericho Turnpike) in Commack. The 23-mile-long extension east to Riverhead was never built.
Despite the innovations of the parkway, the most primitive methods were used in its construction. Horses provided power and transportation, while a simple beater-in-a-barrel on wheels sufficed as a cement mixer.
To cover the $2.0 million construction cost, the incorporators decided to open the parkway to the public, but would charge drivers a toll of $2.00. Tolls were collected at 12 "toll lodges" located in Hollis Hill, Lake Success, Roslyn, Mineola, Garden City, Westbury, Levittown, Old Bethpage, Melville, Dix Hills, Brentwood and Ronkonkoma. These toll lodges, noted for their architecture, included living quarters with two bedrooms for the toll takers and their families.
In 1908, Automobile magazine wrote the following:
The Long Island Motor Parkway will supply an uninterrupted route across the Island that, owing to its proximity to the metropolis, is destined to be the home of millions with business and social interests in New York City. Someday the state will supply such motorways.
Two 1998 views of the former Long Island Motor Parkway in New Hyde Park, Nassau County. LEFT: The deteriorating roadbed, now used as a LIPA right-of-way, looking west. RIGHT: In an eastbound view, the Old Court House Road overpass spanning the Motor Parkway right-of-way in Manhasset Hills was closed to traffic in the 1970's. The deteriorating overpass is expected to be torn down in the near future. (Photos by Michael Abbey.)
OFF TO THE RACES: The first 10-mile section of parkway was opened in time for the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race. In front of more than a quarter million fans, 23-year-old George Robertson of Garden City, New York became the first American to win the Vanderbilt Cup. Driving his "Old 16 Locomobile," he won the race with an average speed of 64.39 MPH, and reached an unheard-of top speed of 102 MPH.
The races continued through 1909 and 1910, when Americans won in both years. But after the 1910 race, where four spectators were killed and 20 others were injured, the New York State Legislature banned racing outside of race tracks, effectively ending the Vanderbilt Cup races.
FROM SPEEDERS TO SOCIALITES: By the 1920's, with the Cup races and the World War I years over, the Long Island Motor Parkway was transformed into an access road for New York City socialites, who used it to travel to estates on the party circuit. Other drivers took their families on Sunday drives through the bucolic Long Island countryside.
Christian Ernst, a former parkway gatekeeper who continued to live in the Garden City toll lodge into the 1970's, recalls how the parkway changed in the 1920's:
The big cars - the Rolls-Royces and Stutz Bearcats - came through here then. People who came this way wanted to get somewhere fast, and they had the money to go in style.
During the Prohibition years, the parkway gained a reputation as a "rumrunners' road." Since the parkway was privately owned and operated, away from official police jurisdictions, bootleggers found the parkway the quickest, safest distribution route between New York City and Long Island.
To counter this reputation, and to improve traffic safety, Vanderbilt made some changes. For the first time, he introduced a 40 MPH speed on the parkway, with slower speeds posted on the parkway's many sharp curves. In addition, he replaced the private patrols with state police officers in patrol cars and motorcycles.
During the 1920's, 150,000 cars per year used the road, each paying a reduced toll of $1.00. At its peak year in 1929, the Long Island Motor Parkway had 175,000 motorists travel along its 45 miles. For $55 per year, motorists could purchase an annual pass that allowed unlimited use of the parkway.
VANDERBILT MEETS MOSES - AND DEFEAT: In 1929, as New York State Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was seeking to build his Northern State Parkway through Nassau County, the Motor Parkway incorporators approached state officials with an offer to sell the parkway to Moses. The incorporators argued that Vanderbilt's road could be used as part of the right-of-way for the Northern State Parkway.
Moses refused the offer, stating that the modernization necessary to bring the road up to modern parkway standards would be prohibitively expensive. Many of the original raceway curves would have to be straightened, and the road would have to be widened. Instead, Moses selected a new, straighter right-of-way for his Northern State Parkway.
Under competition from Moses, Vanderbilt reduced the toll on the Motor Parkway to 40 cents. By 1937, the Long Island Motor Parkway was no longer able to compete with the state-of-the-art, toll-free, more modern Northern State Parkway. Negotiations soon began with Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties to dispose of the road.
In April 1938, the Motor Parkway was officially closed to motorists, and the deeds were sold to county officials in exchange for the cancellation of the parkway's $90,000 tax debt. Three months later, Moses opened the Queens section of the Long Island Motor Parkway as the "Queens Bicycle Path" before an audience of hundreds.
Not far from where this 1998 photo was taken, this stretch of the Long Island Motor Parkway once ran through what is now Cunningham Park in Queens. The right-of-way for the parkway was used as a bikeway, but even the bikeway ended up being a victim of fate. In the early 1960's, construction of the Clearview Expressway (I-295) caused the bikeway to "dead-end." Still, after more than 90 years, the old concrete guardrail posts remain standing. (Photo by Jeff Saltzman.)
TIME MARCHES ON FOR THE MOTOR PARKWAY: After it closed, the right-of-way for the Long Island Motor Parkway was split up among several state and county agencies. Some parts of it were sold to developers, some were converted into parkland and trails, while others were sold to the Long Island Lighting Company (later the Long Island Power Authority). By the 1950's, only the easternmost 13-mile stretch, from Dix Hills to Ronkonkoma, remained open to the public. Toward the end of that decade, the Suffolk County Department of Public Works designated this stretch of Motor Parkway as County Road 67.
In 1973, the Town of Huntington adopted a zoning amendment designating the original Motor Parkway within the township a historic district. This two-lane segment remains true to the contour of the hilly terrain. However, many of the curves were straightened to improve safety.
Further east, through the Towns of Smithtown and Islip, the Long Island Motor Parkway was transformed into a modern arterial, relieving traffic from the Long Island Expressway (I-495) and the Northern State Parkway. The parkway was reconstructed, realigned and in some locations, widened to four lanes. Along Motor Parkway from Commack to Islandia, progress has been in abundant evidence. Over the past three decades, modern office buildings, shopping centers and hotels have been built to serve Suffolk County's burgeoning commercial and industrial base. As it was in the beginning of the 20th century, the Long Island Motor Parkway in Suffolk County is once again important at the dawn of the 21st century.
Near the western terminus, the New York City Parks Department rehabilitated the Queens section of the Long Island Motor Parkway (the "Queens Bicycle Path") through Alley Pond and Cunningham parks in 1986. In 2002, this section was placed on the New York State Register of Historic Places, after it had been rejected by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission three years earlier.
MOTOR PARKWAY ARTIFACTS: While most of the 65 bridges have been demolished over the years, there are still several standing in Fresh Meadows, Hollis Hill, Manhasset Hills and Old Bethpage. The Fresh Meadows and Hollis Hill bridges, which are maintained by the New York City Parks Department, remain in structurally sound condition. Local and state officials, as well as private groups, are working to save the Manhasset Hills (Old Court House Road) and Old Bethpage (Bethpage State Park) bridges. In addition, the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is studying the conversion of the one-mile-long parkway segment within Bethpage State Park into a historic trail.
The original Garden City toll lodge was moved (from Clinton Road to 7th Street) and restored in 1989. Today, this artifact of Long Island history is home to the Garden City Chamber of Commerce.
SOURCES: "What Ever Became of the Vanderbilt Parkway?" by Colleen Sullivan, The Newsday Magazine (4/15/1973); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); Robert Moses: Single-Minded Genius by Joann P. Krieg, Heart of the Lakes Publishing (1989); "100 Years of Driving on Long Island" by Sylvia Adcock, Newsday (6/10/1996); "History Takes the High Road" by Sylvia Adcock, Newsday (4/05/1998); "The Road Mr. Vanderbilt Built" by John Hanc, Newsday (6/14/2001); "Finally, Some Respect for a Pioneer Parkway" by Jim O'Grady, The New York Times (3/17/2002); "Falling Into a Queens Time Warp" by Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times (4/04/2008); Michael Abbey; S. Berliner, III; Daniel T. Dey; David J. Greenberger; Fred Hadley; Vince Fitzgerald; Nick Klissas; Robert Miller; Jeff Saltzman.