The LIRR’s Unlikely Track

In 1832, railroad travel was still very much a novelty. Inventors had experimented with early steam engines and “engines” that were pulled along rails by horse. Small railroads served regional areas of the east, both for industry and for a limited number of passengers who surely didn’t enjoy comfort or safety. In 1834, the eastern and western sides of America were 37 years from being linked. Traveling on faster, cleaner, more efficient rail systems was a dream. Despite the fact that rail technology was still in its infancy (and not very reliable), the Brooklyn and Jamaica Rail Road Company recognized the need for better transit to New York City and started construction on a 10-mile rail route along the East River.

Larger rail companies as well as wealthy New Yorkers and Bostonians supported the plan, which originally called for the creation of a Boston-to-New-York route. Two years later, the tracks were finished but Brooklyn and Jamaica never ran their own trains on the line. The inaugural day of the route was also the day the company leased the line to the newly-chartered Long Island Rail Road for a little more than $33,000 a year—a substantial sum of money at that time.

The railroad was not intended to serve Long Island traffic—perhaps in part because Long Island wasn’t very populous, which led to the decision to run the rails down the center of the Island. That would be an unfortunate design flaw in years to come.

For its first 14 years, the LIRR enjoyed growth, although that didn’t always mean growth along the track. Some stops ended with the necessity to board a stagecoach for further travel, while others included a ride on a steam train pulled by horses. Extra stations were constructed and ridership boomed, but by 1850 the LIRR went into receivership (though it was not foreclosed upon). That opened opportunities for a renewal in interest and a chance for other leases, which would connect the LIRR to the rest of Long Island. Shortly after the Civil War began, the Long Island Rail Road’s charter was amended to allow the building of branches, rather than leasing them.

In 1900, the Pennsylvania Rail Road bought the LIRR following years of industry growth and battles with competition. The PRR built Pennsylvania Station in 1910 and was serving more than 30 million commuters annually. But, travel by rail steeply declined in the years following World War II. Due to high debt the LIRR declared bankruptcy in 1949 and the PRR transferred the railroad to another subsidiary. It looked like the end of the line for the LIRR until the State of New York pulled the nearly dead railroad out of bankruptcy in 1954, pouring funds into it and putting it on track to be what it is now.

Today, the LIRR has 11 branches and offers several other special or seasonal stops. Shortcomings aside, the LIRR was the first to install locomotive steam whistles, the first to embrace all-steel passenger cars and the first to offer computerized inventory control. The Long Island Rail Road is also the oldest U.S. railroad to continue operating under its original name.