H. Strehm, 34th Street Ferry, 1910
New York Public Library Digital Collection

Hicksville Becomes a Suburb (Part I)

Can you imagine a Hicksville with no commuters?

I don’t know if there ever was a Hicksville like that, but for many, many years, there was something that closely resembled it.  In the beginning, commuting between Manhattan and Long Island was difficult.  It remained difficult for most people until September 8, 1910, after which many more residents of Nassau and Suffolk could seek careers in Manhattan , and people who worked in Manhattan could dream about homes on Long Island .  The door had been opened.  The change was so significant that the editors of the Huntington Long-Islander saw fit to announce it this way:

Let’s look at how things worked out that way.  We’ll begin about 190 years ago.

A Railroad Station at Nowhere

In their Images of America Series book about Hicksville , historians Richard and Anne Evers look back to the 19th century, and they see a village which they describe as “an emerging railroad community.”  Those are pregnant words, for they emphasize how entwined Hicksville and the LIRR have been since their contemporaneous origins.  Note: See the Appendices at the end of this article for a discussion of the relevance of the Williams land purchase to Hicksville ’s birth.

In the early 1830s, Valentine Hicks, a member of the Board of Directors of the new Long Island Railroad, and later the road’s President, spurred the creation of a new “ New York to Boston ” route.  It would be five hours faster than traveling all the way by water, which at that time was the quickest way.  LIRR trains would take passengers to Greenport, from which LIRR ferries would deliver them to Boston .  The line’s investors were not interested in the railroad’s serving any towns which the Greenport trains might pass along the way.  They just wanted a fast, direct route, and they wouldn’t pay for anything beyond that.  Thus, the route to Greenport would be as straight as possible, and indifferent to any towns it happened to go near.  East of Jamaica, it would go through the Hempstead Plains – flat, open, and mostly unpopulated.  Curiously, there would be a few stops, perhaps made because early steam locomotives often had to replenish fuel and water, and these stops would be at obscure places like Clowesville.


The investors were short-sighted.  They ought to have realized that the express service would keep any given stretch of track busy for only a fraction of the time.  Idle tracks produce no revenue.  It would make sense to introduce local service to the communities along the route, allowing their residents to travel and ship goods – except, of course, that the railroad was being built where there would be no communities along its route.  Anticipating this problem,* the enterprising Mr. Hicks took advantage of it.  He formed a land association to purchase undeveloped Long Island real estate.  Once the railroad got going, once-useless properties could be sold at a profit, as new communities sprouted up along the line.  Hicks’ future looked bright indeed.

*Anticipating it, or deliberately creating it?  The railroad’s strategy of bypassing existing towns may have actually been an effort to enrich the members of the land association.


In 1836, things went sideways for a great many Americans, including Valentine Hicks.  For years, Andrew Jackson had fought strenuously in Congress against the Federal government’s Second Bank of the United States .  As President, he ensured that the Federal bank would cease to exist in 1836.

The resulting instability had changed American banking practices, such that payments for large commercial loans often were tied to the Bank of England ’s lending rate.  When the latter found it necessary to repeatedly increase that rate, American business, debt-laden and overstretched, could not make its loan payments.  Within months, the whole country was mired in the Panic of 1837, a severe crisis that would endure for seven years.  No one could get investment capital, and the railroad was forced to wind down construction.

Work on the new tracks temporarily ceased.  The place where the rails ended was desolate; even the Hicksville Historical Society’s web page calls it “the middle of nowhere.”  That was true enough, but there was something positive to be said about the spot: people passed through it a lot.  Near the impromptu end of the line, the New Bridge Road met the Jerusalem-Jericho Road, as did the Massapequa Road, the combined intersections forming the distinctive birdsfoot-like pattern that long has characterized maps of the core of Hicksville:

Not a lopsided Peace Symbol, but the intersection at which Hicksville began
This eloquent artwork created by the author

With the connection to Greenport postponed indefinitely, the LIRR needed another source of revenue, and it changed its mind – it would introduce local service.  The well-worn converging roads would keep bringing travelers right past the end of the line, and those travelers would realize that they could find the railroad useful now and then. A tiny depot was built where the track ended, with a sign that bore a brand-new name: Hicksville .

Some years later, construction of the Boston connection resumed.  Rail service to Greenport began in 1844, with trains stopping at intermediate towns, as shown in the timetable below.  Boat service between Boston and Greenport, and special express rail service, would be introduced soon thereafter.

Yes, the U.S. once minted half-cent coins.
Wikipedia entry for LIRR

There were not many trains, a sign of how sparsely populated Long Island was.  As an example, the 1830 U.S. Census indicates that the entire Township of Oyster Bay had a population of only 5,200.



In the end, the Boston-NY service was a success for some years – until it was rendered obsolete by the building of the New York , New Haven , and Hartford Railroad.  Hicksville developed into a small but robust village, with everything a village should have: homes, churches, a schoolhouse, some light industry, a few shops, and farms.  The LIRR had helped the village grow.  For example, farmers could ship produce westward by rail, and they could have equipment, building materials, and other supplies brought to town the same way.  Around the 1850s, the arrival of a number of new immigrants helped the population grow some more.  The newcomers brought with them some new things, like the gold-beating industry, and resort hotels for city folk who wanted to come east to relax, hunt, and sleigh.

By 1900, the population of the Township of Oyster Bay had tripled, but Hicksville remained basically rural.  There were large farms, and several agriculture-related businesses, including the very large A.J. Heinz facility.  Looking back at the local newspapers, one sees that village residents had little difficulty taking pleasure trips into the City, or having friends from there come out to visit once in a while (both things being so unusual that the newspapers mentioned them).  In 2019, one feels nostalgia about people once having been able to enjoy a rural existence so close to Manhattan .  But the more one contemplates that, the more one starts to ask questions.  Where did commuters live?  Why were there so few of them?


Water Barrier

As can be seen in the timetable shown earlier, the original western end of the LIRR was in Brooklyn; even the successful Boston - New York service never touched Manhattan .  In the 1830s, the technologies and materials needed to construct tunnels under the river, or long bridges with clear spans over it, did not yet exist.  Until that situation changed, Manhattan (except for a small corner of its northern end) would remain bounded by too much water for it to be connected to other land masses.  One had to reach it by boat.


Early 1800s lithographs of New York Harbor are usually picturesque scenes, dotted willy-nilly with toy-like boats.  I think the intent was to depict the craziness of New York ’s water traffic.  There were three-masters galore, little commercial schooners running errands, paddle-wheelers traveling up and down the river, one-man boats powered by sail (or oars!), and ferries forever shuttling between the shores.

David William Moody, View of Brooklyn, L.I. from U.S. Hotel, N.Y., 1846
New York Public Library Digital Collection

If you were a businessman setting out on a fast trip to Boston , you might not think twice of taking a ferry over to Brooklyn to start the trip.  That was the 1840’s equivalent of taking a cab to the airport for a flight to California .

If instead you were a clerk in an office, or a courier, you might find cheaper accommodation across the river than downtown.  You would travel over the river twice a day, on a cheap, perhaps uncomfortable vessel.  The ferry trip was the entirety (or maybe in some cases, the majority) of your commute.  You accepted it as it was, because using it enabled you to live in better quarters than you could get for the same money in Manhattan .


If you were an occasional visitor to downtown – say, someone who lived in Queens or further east – who came to Manhattan once or twice a year on business… well, then you had a long journey before you got to the river, and the ferry would cover less distance per minute than anything else you rode on that day.  Ferries were not “big fish” in the river; they had to yield the right-of-way to river steamers, tugs, and ocean-going tall ships.  You might have to wait a long time for your ferry because earlier crossings had put it behind schedule.  Although an ideal crossing in a good steam ferry could take only a half hour, waiting to board, harbor congestion, rough water, fog, or mechanical issues could double the expected elapsed time.

The quality of the ride was inferior to what one experienced on a train, and perhaps even on a horse-drawn omnibus.  Steamboats were still fairly new; some ferries instead were team boats.  Picture two simple wooden sides with a flat wooden roof, mounted on a flat hull, everything put together to form a long floating box with no ends.  More than 200 passengers could crowd inside, where at the center stood a team of horses, tethered so that they walked in place on a turntable.  It rotated; a shaft connected it to a paddlewheel.  The whole boat reeked of its history of hard-working horses and sweaty passengers, and as it crossed, it would be rocked a little by each new wave.  Team boats were cheap to build, economical to operate, dependable, and slow.  No one looked forward to riding on them in rush-hour, but the fare was cheap.

Steamboats were preferable to team boats.  Like the trains of the era, they were thought fast, and they had risks.  Like trains, steamboats might break down mid-trip – a very significant difference being that in such situations, ferries would be helplessly adrift on the water, whereas trains would be stuck where they were.  Like trains, steamboats had boilers, which if carelessly tended might explode spectacularly.  Again, the outcomes were different; train passengers usually survived, whereas ferry passengers usually died (the ferry invariably sank).  As late as 1871, 66 people on a New York ferry died because of a boiler explosion.

Understandably, when an early 1800s Long Island resident returned safely home from Manhattan , s/he likely felt relieved, tired, and above all, grateful that such trips were rare.


Progress, But Not For Everybody

As the century continued, things changed, and sometimes they improved.  Trains got more reliable, and they reached their destinations faster.  By 1850, there was a railroad line in Manhattan , running south from the Bronx on a bridge across the narrow Spuyten Duyvil.  Ex-ferryman Cornelius Vanderbilt soon acquired and improved that line, and he connected it to a few railroads upstate.  People started to commute from the north.  In 1871, profits from Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad financed the creation of Manhattan ’s first imposing Grand Central Depot, which occupied 12 city blocks between Lexington and Madison Avenues.

Alas, Long Islanders got no Grand Central equivalent, but they did get improved ferry service, courtesy of the LIRR.  The railroad bought ferries, built a ferry terminal at Long Island City , and established routes to destinations in three different parts of Manhattan .  By the 1870s, the railroad had improved things further by introducing faster, more stable double-ended ferries, with iron hulls.

Long Island Historical Journal, Volume 17, Nos. 1-2

The Flushing , an iron-hulled LIRR side-wheeler ferry built in the 1870s.  The sides of its bulging upper hull concealed the upper portions of its paddle-wheels.

An imposing venue, no?
Highlighted on the left is a corner of the same ferry boat, the Flushing .


Meanwhile, elevated trains began connecting Manhattan neighborhoods in the 1870s, making more workplaces accessible to river ferries.  In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge made it possible for those who worked south of Wall Street to live further away from Manhattan .  Streetcars ran from the City Hall area in Manhattan over the bridge to Brooklyn (near the LIRR terminal) and beyond, into Queens .  In 1904, the first NYC subway opened, speedily connecting more neighborhoods in Manhattan .  More New York City jobs than ever were within reach of ferry commuters.

The ferries, however, could not keep up.  Only so many ferries could safely travel in close proximity at any given spot in the harbor.  The faster ferries went, the more space they needed between them.  The bigger their passenger capacity, the slower they went, and the more time they needed to load and unload.  It seemed that the East River ferry services could never move enough people fast enough to cease being an impediment to long-distance commuting.



New York City took bold steps to improve East River movement between Boroughs.  By 1910, there would be four bridges across the East River, all of them moving people via public transit (all carried streetcar lines; three of them also carried either elevated lines, or subway lines on above-ground forays).  Intra-city commuting was booming.

Streetcars on the Manhattan Bridge ; subways also traveled across the bridge

Hudson River ferry services prepared for their demise as construction of tunnels for the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad (the predecessor to PATH) progressed.  When the line opened in 1908, mainland commuters could reach Manhattan via rail from both the Bronx and New Jersey .  Unless they found ways to get from the LIRR to local transit lines over bridges, Long Islanders still had to resort to ferries in order to set foot on Manhattan .


The Change

For decades, several interstate railroads (other than the New York Central) had offered “ New York service” by connecting to ferry terminals in New Jersey .  They did not dare attempt to actually cross the Hudson .  The financing needed for a railroad to move scores of passenger trains daily between Manhattan and the mainland over or under the Hudson River would be astronomical, and a bridge or tunnel of the requisite length would be without precedent.

Exchange Street Ferry Terminal

And then the Hudson and Manhattan demonstrated that technology finally existed to build a safe, workable rail tunnel under the Hudson .  The Pennsylvania Railroad, long jealous of its arch-rival New York Central, was one of the wealthiest railroads in the country; it decided to undertake such a project.  New York passengers on the Pennsy’s “name” trains finally would be able to sit in their luxurious parlor-car seats and ride end-to-end between Manhattan and say, Chicago , Philadelphia , or Washington D.C. , without even hearing the word “ferry” mentioned once.

PCPOST HudsonRiverTubes Diagram.png
Wikimedia Commons

That was the concept of the project, but there was more to making it real.  There would be collateral impacts, for the Pennsylvania would need storage and service facilities east of the new station.  That meant constructing the first tunnels under the East River, to extend the tracks through the new station into Queens .  It also meant the Pennsy would acquire
control of the Long Island, and expand the latter’s property in Queens into the world’s largest passenger rail yard.  There also would be tunnels for the LIRR’s use, and dedicated LIRR tracks at the new Penn Station.  Long Island riders would finally get to say “goodbye” to the East River ferries.

On September 8, 1910, when a Long Island train became the first train to ever use Pennsylvania Station, people all over the Island celebrated.  On that first day, many Long Islanders rode the trains through the tunnels to Manhattan and back, just to be able to brag about it afterwards.

The first passengers to arrive in Pennsylvania Station

Others went down to local stations all over the LIRR and waited, which raises an interesting point.  Did these people realize what they were waiting for?

Only electric-powered trains were allowed in the new tunnels, but only part of the LIRR used such trains.  Most of the railroad relied on steam locomotives, which meant that people who waited at, say, Hicksville or Northport would be greeting steam trains, which had not passed through the tunnels.  People coming back to those stations from Manhattan had to change trains at Jamaica (Who could have guessed?
J).  So, the people who celebrated in the photograph below, with their flags and perhaps their picnic baskets, were at the station to welcome neighbors and friends who had ridden through the tunnel, just not on the trains that brought them home.

People waiting in Northport to greet passengers who rode through the new tunnels on their
first day of service.  This train would have passed through Hicksville en route to Northport.
Steel Rails to the Sunrise



It is not hard to understand what the change meant to the people of Hicksville .  Regular travel between home and New York now was feasible for just about everybody, because the tunnels had cut at least an hour off a day’s total commute to midtown.  More Long Islanders could work in Manhattan now, and more people who already worked there could think of moving to Long Island .  In its Hicksville pages, the Long-Islander rhapsodized about the possibilities:


With Hicksville now squarely in commuting country, its transformation could begin.  Next month, Ancient Hixtory will discuss the start of suburban Hicksville , and how it changed in the years before World War I.  Not surprisingly, newspapers (no doubt encouraged by real estate agents and developers) took the lead in marketing the future suburbs.  Among other things, we’ll look at a prominent newspaper article that appeared about a year after the tunnels opened, and see what it says (and what it fails to say) about moving to Hicksville.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 3, 1911

End of Part I


Appendix 1: Unintended Village

Even without a railroad, Hicksville might have taken root at that ungainly intersection.  But as events unfurled, three fundamental ironies, unintended consequences of actions taken elsewhere, played crucial parts in Hicksville ’s history:


The railroad that triggered the permanent settlement of Hicksville was focused on quickly moving people between Boston and Manhattan .  It had intended to ignore the spot on which Hicksville took root.


The reason the village developed when and where it did was a nationwide calamity, prompted by the Bank of England’s raising its lending rates.  One suspects that the British bankers did not have Hicksville in mind when they set their new rates.


Hicksville finally was able to begin transforming itself into a thriving suburb because a railroad on the mainland, one which had no interest at all in Hicksville, decided to take its trains across a river on the opposite side of Manhattan from the LIRR.



Appendix 2: How Many Candles for Hicksville ’s Cake?

In 1648, Robert Williams purchased a large piece of land from the Matinecock, land which today includes all or parts of Hicksville, Plainview , Jericho , Woodbury, and Syosset.  Because of this, the year 1648 has become enshrined in the minds of Hicksvillians, so much so that significant anniversaries of it have been celebrated over the years (e.g., the ceremonies held in 1948 and 1998), as if they actually marked the village’s age.  While commemorating the purchase is a worthy thing, it may lead people to think that Hicksville now is 371 years old (especially since the 1948 celebration was referred to as Hicksville’s Tercentennial).

The British and Dutch had explored much of Long Island before the purchase; Williams knew first-hand what he was buying.  Villages were ready to congeal, especially where there were springs or ponds (e.g., Jericho ) – villages that soon would add churches and inns to their houses.  Footpaths (later widened into roads) crisscrossed the area, connecting places that were populated.  Today, many of those old routes are still important, and some of the towns they connect boast of landmarks preserved since the 17th and 18th centuries – but not every town that today occupies the land which Williams purchased had been settled by 1648.

I am not aware of any remnants of an organized 17th century village on the site of today’s Hicksville .  I have read that early residents of Jericho used the barren grasslands to the south as pasture, but that’s part of Jericho ’s history.  It is possible that in the early decades, cabins or houses were sometimes built within the borders of today’s Hicksville , but what of it?  An isolated family home, especially one that fell into ruin and left the surrounding area devoid of settlers, certainly was not the beginning of a village.  I am not aware of any continuity between people who might have lived on the land in that manner in the 17th century, and the people who settled where the roads intersected c. 1837, thereby starting a thriving community that persists today.

Respected local historians Richard and Anne Evers’ book refers to the Williams Purchase as the start of Hicksville ’s “documentary history” (emphasis added) – that is, the purchase is not the start of the village’s history, but part of the prequel.  As noted earlier, the same book calls 19th century Hicksville “an emerging railroad community,” acknowledging that what prompted its initial settlement was the railroad, which arrived in the area in 1836 or 1837.  Together, these statements seem to make clear that the date of the Williams Purchase should not be confused with the birth of Hicksville .

Sorry Hicksville ; you’re only about half as old as some people might think.



See you in September