SEPTEMBER 2019


Arthur H. Heiser, Bird’s-Eye Map of Long Island (annotated by author)
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 8, 1910

Hicksville Becomes a Suburb (Part II)

On Tunnel Day (the day in 1910 on which the LIRR first carried passengers beneath the East River), the Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed a two-page detailed aerial drawing of Long Island .  The implication was clear: For New Yorkers who had been longing for homes outside the City, the whole of the Island now was within reach.  There also was a corollary: For developers – land speculators and builders, who for a number of years had prepared for this day by acquiring inexpensive farms and woodland – the time to harvest the profits of their investments was approaching.  Caught up in the frenzy of Tunnel Day, many city-dwellers began to think about riding trains east, in search of suburban homes or weekend beach properties.

Other pages of the same edition featured large advertisements that tried to attract readers to specific towns.  The whole Tunnel Day issue was quite educational, and also well-sprinkled with hype.  For example, readers learned from it that Patchogue was The Metropolis of the South Shore, and even that Northport was The Naples of the North Shore .

 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 8, 1910

Apparently, someone found it difficult to believe this was not Long Island .
1910 postcard of Naples at picclick.com


It is easy to be cynical, but there were good reasons for city folk to relocate to Long Island, and many communities on the Island welcomed development and a chance to grow.  Today, with more than a century of hindsight available to us, we have more perspective through which to trace how the transition to suburbia began in the years before the U.S. went to war in 1917.


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Jumping the Gun

No one ever had been able to ride a train under the East River , and then one day anybody could – the change happened overnight.  Yet, like the tunnels themselves, the public’s interest had been growing steadily for years, years during which some people decided not to wait, but to move east to Nassau County .  The promise of the tunnels had lured “leading edge” commuters to the Island , people who were willing to tolerate commuting the old way for a few years.  These early birds reasoned that their new suburban homes would have cost much more had they waited to buy them until the tunnels opened.

LIRR statistics illustrate how the ranks of these new commuters grew.  In 1901, the railroad had carried passengers on 14.5 million trips; in 1909, there were 27.5 million trips.  By the time direct service to Manhattan began, the number of commuter trips likely was twice what it had been back in 1901.  For August 1910 (the last pre-tunnel month), the railroad sold 17,354 monthly commutation tickets.  For stations in the vicinity of Hicksville , monthly commutation ticket sales for that August were as follows:

 

Westbury

32

Syosset

36

Central Park (now Bethpage )

50

Farmingdale

58

Mineola

67

Massapequa

79

Hicksville

85


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One Lot at a Time, or A Whole Lot at a Time?

To those of us who grew up in Hicksville after WW II, seeing a few standard models of houses repeat across large subdivisions seems normal.  In early 1900s Nassau County , however, it was something new.  Traditionally, most rural homes had been built one at a time, usually for the people who expected to live in them.  Sometimes, when there was a need to house a number of new people in a village, several homes might be built at more or less the same time.  There was a limit as to how much could be done at once, for building many houses at the same time in one locale took more materials and skilled labor than most small country builders could muster.



New York Sun, May 6, 1913

Now, like holes forming in a dam, the tunnels were almost ready to release pent-up pressure.  A flood of New York City families was going to need thousands of new homes, all at once.  To meet that need, builders would resort to building houses in a few standard varieties, designed to anticipate the tastes of hypothetical average buyers.  Small, hands-on individual builders began to fade, as construction companies built subdivisions.  Every month, more farms and woodlands were turning into open land with new streets.  There was not much town planning; houses were erected wherever land convenient to transportation could be purchased.  Chunk by chunk, the character of Long Island was beginning to change.

Long before the railroad finally rolled trains into Manhattan , speculators had bought large tracts of land.  As the tunnel construction progressed, “land companies” offered parcels of land to builders, who would construct houses and put them on the market as soon as they could.  Advertisements like the one below had appeared well in advance of Tunnel Day, and they would keep appearing, as long as there was land to be sold.




Note that one advantage of Massapequa was Hicksville Road ,
one of “ Long Island ’s two great thoroughfares.”
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 17, 1909

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The Long Island Railroad placed a full-page ad in local newspapers, promoting the idea that Long Island (thanks to its beauty and variety) was a great place to visit, and also a great place to live.



Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 8, 1910

After the introductory words above, the advertisement took the reader from Pennsylvania Station, “the handsomest and largest [railroad station] in the world,” through the “marvelous” tunnels, to places where everyone could find everything they might ever want.  No exaggeration there, right?  There were fertile soils in which to plant, beaches at which to bathe, fishing reserves, and golf courses galore.  The local roads (almost all of which were unpaved, incidentally) were “superb.”  Along the way, the reader was treated to pictures like One of Long Island’s Charming Nooks, A Bit of Long Island Sea Coast , or this one:

 


The photographs were well chosen to entice vacationers, but none of them hinted at all the houses that would have to be built nearby in order to house new middle-class residents.  Obviously, there was a flaw in the idea of encouraging commuters by the thousand to live in unspoiled rural surroundings.  The more people who bought into the idea, the less likely it was that idyllic spots on the Island , the magnets that drew people eastward, could survive as they were.  Soon there would be coal-fired generating stations, power lines, new roads, sidewalks, gas stations, clumps of housing, and at least twice as many people as before.

Looking back at that day’s edition of the Eagle, one may feel that there was more naďveté than dishonesty at work, but either way, it overlooked most of the negative implications of the suburban life that it was promoting.  At times, there even was some levity:



Yes, this was the lead-in to a Long Island real estate advertisement.

***
Some Places Are More Equal Than Others

Not every town on the Island could inspire glowing advertising copy.  The earlier ad for lots in Massapequa mentioned a bay, the ocean, some beautiful fresh-water lakes, and (glossing over the fact that all towns funneled into the same East River tubes) even the “great terminal” in Manhattan through which new commuters from the town were to travel.  In contrast, the modest ad below took a pragmatic stance.



Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 16, 1912

There were good reasons for this.  Most New Yorkers already had some idea of Hicksville .  Its hotels, especially the Grand Central, long had attracted New Yorkers who wished to hunt or go for sleigh rides.  In recent years, it had become the end point of a trolley line that penetrated into Queens .  The first Vanderbilt Cup race had gone through Hicksville , as did the 1909 and 1910 races.  It was a “real place” – Mr. Heinz, who could put factories wherever he chose, had built a big plant there.  Did anyone reading this advertisement need to be told much more about Hicksville ?

The other side of the coin, of course, was that for all its advantages, the village had no bays or lakes.  It was about as far from the seashore as one could get on Long Island .  It would have been impossible to argue that Hicksville was remarkably picturesque.  But did that matter very much?  The advertisement told prospective commuters things they needed to know.  The village had trolley service, schools, churches, and good shopping.  It was only eight miles from New York City (well, from the Queens County line).  Houses built on lots near the station allowed commuters to walk to their trains, even in bad weather.  Lakes and seashores would have been appealing, but commuters only cared about such things on weekends; during the work week, Hicksville gave commuters what they wanted.


A Personal Reminiscence:

I still recall very clearly my first visit to Hicksville , when I was seven years old.  As the real estate agent showed a house to my parents, he told them that from it my sister would be able to walk a few blocks to what would become the old High School, that the new High School would be even closer, and that my elementary school would be almost as close.  My father observed that he would be able to walk to the railroad station.  I realized then that I was looking at my new home.

***
Hicksville , the 1911 Version




Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 3, 1911

As noted here last month, the newspapers of the day offered profiles of various communities on Long Island .  The Eagle ran a regular series of such profiles, and about a year after Tunnel Day, it turned its eye to Hicksville and Farmingdale.  The contents of the profile which relate to Hicksville are discussed in this section; if you would like to read the entire profile, you can do so by clicking on this URL: https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/53899087/

The profile tried to demonstrate that both villages were good places for the families of commuters.  Indeed, the story begins by suggesting that Hicksville is so desirable that it already is in the midst of a severe housing shortage.  Curiously, although the text of the article is balanced equally between the two villages, the photographs are not: Farmingdale gets four of the six photographs – as with the earlier advertisement, perhaps a symptom of the core of Hicksville not being very elegant.

Which parts of Hicksville are used to make a good impression on the reader?  First is the new railroad station (and its lovely landscaping!), which had cost $82,000 to build.  Incidentally, the Eagle’s reporter erroneously states that the depot is at Broadway (this was actually the location of its predecessor), whereas it was just west of Jerusalem Avenue .  Very little else is said about the building itself, but there is a lengthy discussion of the LIRR’s history, and also mention of a competition among all the line’s railroad stations, to win prizes for cleanliness and landscaping.



The only other Hicksville photograph depicts an unlabeled stretch of Mary (soon to be renamed Marie) Street, its broad unpaved roadway flanked by trees and large houses.  I imagine that this was the most picturesque view the photographer could find in the time allotted to shoot pictures of two villages  No sarcasm is intended; when I was young, I loved walking around the old streets – which by then had been paved; I’m not that old – under their big trees, especially in the autumn.

 


*

What is said about the village as a whole?

Determining the population accurately would be difficult, due to the ongoing influx of new residents.  The profile estimates it at 3,000, which is inaccurate.  Even at the end of 1917, the village had not yet become home to that many people.  It states that the citizens of the village have consistently voted to pay for civic improvements, such as cement sidewalks.  The village is home to a number of industries, including gold-beating, dressmaking, brushmaking, making food products, and – if things go well – airplane manufacturing.  Hicksville ’s “central role” with respect to the area’s farms is acknowledged.  Its retail stores are highly recommended, its Fire Department is excellent, its water is good, and its financial institutions are to be praised.

Much attention is devoted to Hicksville ’s educational institutions.  In the school buildings on Nicholai Street (which have benefited from a recent $30,000 expansion), teachers instruct students in grades ranging up through the second year of high school.  The total number of students (450) includes some high school students from other communities, whose own schools do not offer education at that level.  At the German Lutheran Church , there are classes in German language and literature.  St. John’s Protectory provides both academic and work-oriented studies for hundreds of resident boys, orphans “from Brooklyn” (an indication that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had confidence in the village, but otherwise, the Protectory’s good work was unlikely to attract new residents to Hicksville).

***

Conclusion

Between 1910 and 1917, Hicksville ’s population increased by 19%, from fewer than 2,400 to about 2,850.  One can assume that a good part of that increase was due to an influx of commuters.  Perhaps 75 new families had settled in Hicksville , many of them in new houses.  The figures suggest that the recent expansion of the school would not get the job done for long, as within a few years the student population would increase substantially.

The infrastructure of the village was already expanding (e.g., new gas lines were being laid), and total farm acreage was shrinking a little; Hicksville was on the brink of a big change.  But the country soon would be at war, and such matters would be put on hold for a few years.

*

I find one part of the profile intriguing:

As we saw last month, Hicksville got its start when the railroad tracks temporarily ended at a junction of three well-used roads.  Because everything – roads, rails, and people – came together there, a thriving village developed.  Railroad crossings had always been at the heart of Hicksville .

By 1900, however, there were more wagons, a growing number of automobiles, more and faster trains, and more tracks to cross.  Because of all the grade crossings, navigating the village now was more dangerous than it was when Hicksville was a sleepy little place.  Everyone knew that, and yet for decades no one – not the governing powers of the village, of the Town of Oyster Bay , or of Nassau County – would do anything about it.  And in the end, no one would find a way to preserve the character of old “downtown” tree-lined Hicksville when the problem finally was addressed.

***

Post Script: Something Completely Different


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 7, 1909

In 1909, young Hicksvillian Frederick Ruther was inspired by the promise of the tunnels between Manhattan and the lands across its rivers.  He understood that Nassau would become a place of suburbs, but he had a novel – some would say a frightening – idea of what instead could, and what should, happen to Suffolk .  He devised a proposal that showed how the Eastern part of Long Island could be made prosperous.  It also was a way to accomplish other things which Ruther felt were important, such as generating work in Suffolk for people with technical educations, and making possible a restructuring of freight rates, so that eastbound and westbound freight transported by the LIRR would finally be subject to the same tariffs.  Key to his proposal was a direct rail connection, running part way by bridge, part way by tunnel, across the Sound between Orient Point on Long Island and Watch Hill Point on the shoreline of Rhode Island .

 


Ruther was opposed to reserving parts of eastern L.I. as “playgrounds for the wealthy.”  For that matter, he saw little use for Suffolk ’s natural beauty, except perhaps for attracting a “better class” of wealthier tourists, who would spend more money at resorts.  He lamented that Long Island ’s hundreds of miles of coastline were being wasted, because the “sea coast, with all its deep harbors and bays, is of no value to the manufacturer.”

In his proposal, the Long Island Railroad was to become a connecting railroad for the shipment of manufactured products and raw materials, a link between New England and (via the tunnels to New York City) “All Points West.”  Better access to new markets and materials would spark an industrial boom in all of Long Island .  Clearly not inclined to be modest, Ruther predicted that his proposal’s economic benefit upon the Eastern United States would exceed the transformation which the Erie Canal had triggered a century before.  He foresaw steady and enduring growth, so that people could work where they lived, leaving no room in the east for commuters from NYC.  As they grew, all the villages and towns would blend into one. In Frederick Ruther’s vision of a happy future, prosperity would “make one big city of Long Island .”  Imagine that!


*

Of course, his proposal fell mostly upon unreceptive – not necessarily deaf – ears, for there were many arguments against it.  To the north, several other railroads already had effective freight links between New England and the West, links which bypassed Greater New York.  If there was any merit to connecting LIRR rail freight service to Rhode Island , to some degree that could be accomplished putting freight cars on “car floats” (i.e., barges with railroad track on their decks) and using tugboats to get them across the Sound.  For higher volumes of freight, plans were already being finalized for the Hellgate Bridge , which in a few years would serve as a direct freight rail connection with New England .

In his proposal, Ruther does not discuss the details of a through freight connection from the LIRR to western railroads.  The reader might infer that the freight trains he discusses could travel through the new tunnels then being built for use by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the LIRR.  Not so – those tunnels were designed to withstand only the load of passenger trains; freight trains would weigh significantly more.  Regardless, for the sake of safety, rail tunnels beneath New York City were restricted to trains moved by electric power.  It would be almost two decades before an electric locomotive suitable for heavy-duty freight would be in service anywhere in the country.  Until then, batches of freight cars – not trains – would continue to creep across New York Harbor on car floats.  All the region’s railroads already owned tugs, floats, and special docks for that purpose.


New York Central Railroad tugboat moving a float of boxcars in the harbor
Museum of the City of New York    https://collections.mcny.org


In addition to the apparent impracticalities, the proposal presented a conceptual challenge, the implications of which could be sweeping. From the beginning of European settlement, development had been shaped by the land’s being an island.  Roadways ran from the shore to inland, or from shore to shore.  As Manhattan grew from a handful of Dutch houses to the most populous city in the country, Long Island responded to its neighbor’s eminence, and the east-west routes of transportation became dominant.  Brooklyn long was a buffer between the City and Long Island .  As Brooklyn grew to be the country’s second-largest city, it tried to present itself as an alternative to New York (in the same way that 7up used to identify itself as The Un-Cola).  After a while, people considered the Island an adjunct to Manhattan , not to mainland America .  As a whole, the Island was a destination, not someplace to pass through on the way to somewhere else.

Constructing the link that Ruther proposed would guarantee nothing to Suffolk County , except for long freight trains running non-stop through it.  Was it necessarily true that new Suffolk industries would be a logical part of a cross-country rail service, or would the requisite local access points just get in the way?

Let’s say that local industry did blossom.  Jobs might make it necessary for people to frequently travel back and forth between Long Island and the factories of Rhode Island and Massachusetts .  Some people from one side would commute to the other.  Others would pack and move their homes across the Sound.  The New Haven and the Long Island might merge into a single railroad.  Eventually, the mega-city of Long Island would lose its “island” identity, and be just one more “someplace” through which people happened to pass.


*

From time to time, Frederick Ruther made other, less grandiose proposals.  One was to develop the deep natural harbor of Greenport into a transatlantic port, which would have meant creating a smaller version of New York’s waterfront with busy docks, warehouses, fuel dumps, cranes, etc., so that freight could be moved back and forth between ships and the LIRR.  The town of Greenport seemed to be much in favor of the idea.

While waiting for the world to embrace his foresight and reinvent itself, Ruther worked as a real estate agent, first in Hicksville , and later in Center Moriches.  Occasionally, he organized tours of Eastern L.I., some of them quite lengthy, in which he shared his extensive knowledge of the area’s history and geography.   He also wrote books, with photographs which now are of great interest to local historians.


*****

Finito!