NOVEMBER 2020

 

 

It’s 1908, and in about two years, the LIRR will start operating electric-powered trains under the East River between Manhattan and Long Island , creating a tsunami of new commuters.  If you live in a town where the trains are powered by electricity, you will have an advantage – you will not have to risk extra delays by changing trains at Jamaica twice a day.

If you’re a property owner, a developer, or a real estate agent, you stand to earn good money from people who move to your town to commute.  If the trains that stop in your town are electric-powered, demand for homes will be higher, and so will prices; you’ll earn a little more.


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 Hey, We Could Be a SUBURB!

Change was in the air; any day now, the influx of early-bird commuters would begin, and towns would start to blossom into suburbs.  Well, not really, not in Hicksville or in any other town east of what today would be central Queens .  Wannabe suburbs would have to be patient, and wait for the fast rail link across the East River .

Anyone who is interested in the years that led up to Hicksville ’s morphing into a suburb, and missed what was said here about them last year, can read two earlier Ancient Hixtory articles by using the links below:

Ancient Hixtory talks about the start of Suburban Transformation

August 2019: Conquering the East River makes it feasible to commute between New York and Hicksville every day

http://hixnews.com/1908/Hixtory.htm

September 2019: Suburbia means less farmland, more houses, more commuter trains, and more schools

http://hixnews.com/1909/Hixtory.htm


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If one could afford it, 1908 was a good time to buy land, either for one’s own use, or for resale at a profit to some future developer.  Thus, newspapers (for which real estate ads always were a significant source of revenue) were avidly promoting the building of suburban homes.  After all, new commuters meant multiple newspaper ads – ones that attracted them to their new community and homes, and ones for the city homes that they were leaving vacant.


Newspapers did more than offer ads for commuter residences.  They also ran profiles of places that wished to attract commuters.  These profiles were the predecessors of the “puff pieces” which today appear in weekend papers, touting new subdivisions or condo towers.  Back then, they would have spoken of villages that were suddenly to become accessible to Manhattan .

A typical profile said the best things it could about a community.  It glossed over the ordinary and tried to ignore the bad.  Although it seemed factual, it was not necessarily objective; now and then, fiction was presented as fact.  Looking back, it’s amusing to see that the same newspaper page might simultaneously promote several towns that were competing against each other to attract commuters.


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A Snapshot of Hicksville , 1908

One August Saturday, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle featured a portrait of Hicksville; it occupied about half the front page of the Long Island section.  Five photographs chosen to show off Hicksville – we’ll look at them more closely later – were displayed prominently.




The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 1, 1908

Unless otherwise specified, all images used
in this article are taken from this profile.

Note that the other half of the page (the portion that is greyed out above) was primarily devoted to Rosyln and Port Jefferson.  It featured two large photos, one of a rustic “arched, vine-draped bridge,” and one of a harbor in a vale, dotted with sails.  The text extolled romantic settings: lush woods, yachts on the sound, a lake bordered by rhododendrons.  As we shall see here, the Eagle’s approach to Hicksville was quite different.

The portrait of Hicksville interweaves two views, both of historic interest today.  One describes the village that was; the second tries to look ahead.  Let’s examine this final glimpse of rural Hicksville , written before the waves of suburban change started washing over it, and try to appreciate them both.


***

Not a Promising Introduction

The headline for the Eagle’s profile – shown at the very top of this Ancient Hixtory article – focuses on the railroad, and the role that Hicksville will play in the future.  It suggests that being at the end of the LIRR’s electrified zone will be of great advantage to those commuters who live in Hicksville .  An overview (partially excerpted below) reinforces that idea, invoking the village’s historic connection to the LIRR.



To boil down what is stated and implied:

If you’re looking for a picturesque place to live, look elsewhere.  This place is flat, with no streams or ancient woodlands.  It was born as a railroad town, and all these years later, being on the LIRR is the still the first thing one must say about it.  In the near future, electrification of the line should make it an especially good home for commuters.


*

Is this overview accurate?

As many of us know from personal experience, Hicksville would not be included in the railroad’s electrification program for a number of decades to come.  The testing, which would be conducted later in the year, was completely misunderstood by the Eagle, and likely by the people of Hicksville .  As we’ll see later, the tests were conducted for and by the Pennsylvania Railroad, not the Long Island .

This means that the profile’s fundamental selling point for the village is untrue, the result of wishful thinking.  Take that selling point away, and commuters would see a less compelling picture of Hicksville .


*

The overview goes on to state that the LIRR has projected an astonishing 30% reduction in commuting time to Brooklyn within two years.  The bulk of the gain will result from improvements on the railroad’s line between Flatbush Avenue and Jamaica.  Obviously, such an improvement will apply to all railroad towns east of Jamaica.  Hicksville will get no unique benefit from the faster service.

For reasons unknown, this section ends with a superficial discussion of Hicksville’s weather.  Like the rest “of the Hempstead Plains,” the village enjoys a “dry and equable” climate.  “Breezes from the sound or ocean” fan it during “the hottest days of summer.”  Really?  Do these words square with the Hicksville in which you, I, and anyone else grew up?  I never realized that I had once lived in such a meteorological Paradise.

The Eagle’s readers in Greater New York would have scoffed, for they had learned to endure oppressive heat and humidity, cold that froze bays and rivers, waist-high snowfalls, and hurricanes.

 
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Industry and Commerce

Much of what the profile states on this topic speaks for itself, and will be presented here without comment, but....  It is hard to comprehend why a profile that was written to attract prospective commuters devotes so much space to discussing local businesses that employ local people.  This is especially true of the two businesses that are mentioned first, and given the most exposure: gold/silver leaf beating, and the Heinz factory.  Both were very well known at the time, but mentioning them in the profile does not seem an effective way of attracting people who intended to work in Manhattan.

Let’s skip over them and look at what follows, and see what we can learn about 1908’s version of Hicksville.



Obviously, this is not a simple agricultural village that employs only farm laborers and people in service industries.  It makes goods for regional markets, and in at least one instance, for European markets.



For a village of 2,500 people, Hicksville is looking busier and busier, even before the changes that will be brought about by commuting have hit.  Prospective commuters can feel confident that the robust base of service industries will make living in the village “work” for them.


*

Next in the profile is a description of the village’s agricultural base.  Of course, as the tide of suburbia will erode and eventually wash away that base, it is ironic to find so much of this profile devoted to agriculture.

A lengthy preface to this section recounts how recent growth in New York City has displaced many farmers eastward to Hicksville and the towns near it.  Consequently, the area now accounts for a significant and profitable part of Long Island’s total agricultural business.  At night, local farmers drive their wagons (each filled with several tons of produce) to markets in Brooklyn or lower Manhattan.  Profits have been so high that per-acre farm prices in the area have increased nearly a thousand-fold – not a typo – since 1890.  The annual total price of farm produce raised within five miles of Hicksville’s railroad station is estimated at more than $1,000,000 (in 2020 dollars, more than $28,000,000).





Note that Hicksville farmland sold in 1908 for at least $500 per acre.


*

The section on Industry and Commerce concludes with some skeletal information about the new local bank:


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The Pride of the Village is in the Paving

A reminder: Elsewhere on the same page, the Eagle reader sees a view of Port Jefferson harbor, bounded by tree-covered hills, and a subtitle about Roslyn that praises its “avenues of forest trees.”  What appealing thing is said about Hicksville?



The text shown above is followed by a cataloguing of the roads already paved, those scheduled to be paved, those which have been surveyed for future paving, those which may be paved later, etc.  I cannot imagine what a city dweller, looking to relocate for purposes of commuting, would make of a place that saw macadam paving as its “chief pride.”

Incidentally, just what is a macadam road?  The process was invented in the 19th century; it is not paving as we understand the word today.  A macadam road has a base of coarse crushed stone, rolled in place, and then covered by a layer of finer crushed stone, the whole thing being kept in place (in theory) by oil, which is dripped into it as the roller goes through.  The idea is that water will drain away through the paving into the ground; no drainage sewer is required.  This is the way that 7th Street had been paved when my family moved to it in 1954.

Automobiles were not kind to macadam paving; they’d kick up pebbles even when driving at normal speed.  The loose bluestone chips would gradually collect where the gutters once were, and kids would play with them, throwing them at each other, or building landscapes full of little boulders on which their toy soldiers had battles.  Every year (I think), TOBAY would rake, oil, and roll the street.  Less often, the whole mess would be scooped up and taken away, and the town would “repave” it again from scratch.  Around 1959, 7th Street was finally paved properly, with asphalt.


*

Following the litany of roads, the profile returns to the topic of electrifying railroad service, and the changes already underway to the LIRR properties.  Other than electrification itself, the other changes were made, and they would endure until track elevation work was undertaken many years later.



Construction of a new, larger station, on the roomier land west of Jerusalem Avenue, and the simultaneous broadening of the LIRR right-of-way, was necessary to handle the anticipated increase in commuter traffic on the two-track Main Line.

The erection of a 50,000 gallon railroad water tank should have been recognized as an indication that local rail electrification was not in the offing.  Such tanks were built where steam locomotives were expected to fill up with some frequency.


*

The profile next speaks about utilities.  It lists the number of streetlights and their candlepower, and the number of hydrants, and the range of water pressures measured at their nozzles.  It credits the Village Improvement Association for its undertaking the introduction of new curbs and sidewalks, mentioning its officers: John H. Hahn, H. J. Nicklaus, and John Reinhard.

In 1908, construction of the New York and North Shore trolley line is in progress at Mineola; the Eagle mentions how it soon will reach Hicksville.  Anyone who missed the full story of “Hicksville’s Trolley” in August 2018’s Ancient Hixtory can find it at http://hixnews.com/1808/hixtory.htm


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Education


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Fire and Fraternal Organizations

Beneath a somewhat perplexing heading, the portrait concludes by depicting the Fire Department, tacking on a terse partial listing of the fraternal organizations then active in Hicksville:

The upcoming Firemen’s Association convention and parade is mentioned – it probably was of minimal interest to prospective commuters, but it certainly was an event that brought many visitors to town.

The profile ends abruptly, without proper conclusion, at the mention of the Carpenters Union.


***

The Big Pictures at the Front of The Profile

Now we know what the Eagle’s readers were told in an effort to sell them on Hicksville.  Keeping that in mind, let’s finally look at those eye-catching pictures that were placed up-front to entice people into reading the profile.



The photograph of the 1906 Fire House is well-known to many readers, many of whom know that the structure eventually was moved across Marie Street, renovated extensively, and turned into Peppercorn’s.  North Broadway (a raised crossing gate can be seen left of the picture’s center) displays the rough macadam paving of which the town fathers felt compelled to brag.  Today, the photo of the old St. Ignatius school building, with its quaint cupola, and the Protectory look rather charming.

Let’s pause to consider if these four photographs convey anything useful to a would-be commuter, someone who is trying to choose one future commuter town from all the rest.  The presence of the Protectory seems irrelevant to the choosing.  Good fire departments, schools, and paving are things that most Nassau County towns on the railroad also have.  These pictures may keep Hicksville in the running, but they give it no advantage.


*

Marketers sometimes say, “Don’t sell the steak; sell the sizzle!”  Well, compared to some other would-be suburbs, 1908’s Hicksville seems to have been awfully low on sizzle.  Clearly, it needed something more in that department.  Hence, we have the final picture (lower left in the group).

Question
: Just where in Hicksville did M.S. Burrill shoehorn in her/his little cottage?
Answer: S/he didn’t.

Middleton Schoolbred Burrill was a prominent New York City lawyer, and he was even better at being wealthy than he was at being prominent.  In Manhattan, he lived in a brownstone that since has been designated a landmark.  In 1906, as the tidy Hicksville Fire House was receiving its finishing touches, so was Burrill’s country home, Jericho Farm.  Designed by John Russell Pope, then a fashionable architect, it was the centerpiece of an estate of nearly 1,000 acres.



Aerial View of Jericho Farm, from American Architect, 1927

OldLongIsland.com/2014/08/jericho-farm.html

The “estate next door” belonged to William K. Vanderbilt. Obviously, the Burrill Residence was not located in Hicksville.

Presumably, the Eagle thought that Hicksville would make a poor showing, juxtaposed as it was to Roslyn and Port Jefferson, both of which had an abundance of sizzle – beautiful lakes, thickets of aged trees, sailboats in the harbor.  The overview had lowered reader expectations at the outset, pointing out that the village was flat, with no trees that predated settlement, and that it was as far from water as one could be on Long Island.  Hicksvillians probably were grateful that the phrase “remarkably unscenic” was not used.

To remedy this weakness, the reporter must have scoured the area for something photogenic, in the end settling on Jericho Farm.  It wasn’t in the village, but that was not a problem.  Would anyone move to Hicksville, and complain afterwards to the Eagle that Jericho Farm turned out to be in Jericho?


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Explanation of the Misunderstood Testing

In 1900, the Pennsylvania Railroad had bought a controlling interest in the Long Island.  It had planned to send mainland passenger trains under the Hudson into Manhattan – where, unfortunately, it could find no real estate on which to park and service its trains.  Getting control of the LIRR allowed it to tunnel under the East River, and purchase land for a huge train yard in Sunnyside.  The arrangement not only got it a Manhattan-accessible yard; it also positioned the Pennsy as the parent of the Long Island, which it would exploit, by having the LIRR lease or purchase some of the Pennsy’s surplus cars and engines.

This is the context for the decision to use a stretch of LIRR track (at the time, a scarcely used, steam powered freight-only line) in a Pennsylvania test – it considered LIRR assets to be PRR assets.


*

What was being tested?  A prototype electric locomotive, the testing of which would yield data to be used to design a new long-haul electric hauler.



Experimental Pennsylvania Railroad Electric Locomotive,
pulling obsolete wooden PRR coaches during tests on the
LIRR Central Branch, autumn 1908

from trainsarefun.com

The Pennsylvania was happy to continue using its steam engines over much of its coal-rich territory.  In the train-intense Northeast Corridor, however, electric locomotives – if they could be built sufficiently powerful – could haul trains more economically and more quickly than could steam locomotives.  Electric locomotives never needed to “waste time” taking on coal or water, or dumping out all the ash they had accumulated.  After stopping at a station, their trains accelerated more quickly than trains hauled by steam locomotives.  That meant that at every station stop, they might shave a few more minutes off the overall length of a journey.  Moreover, they would traverse the New York tunnels safely, belching neither steam nor dangerous byproducts of coal combustion.

In contrast to the existing steam locomotives, such electric locomotives could take trains from, say, Baltimore, run them north to New Jersey, and reach Manhattan via tunnel, getting passengers there sooner, with no delay due to changing locomotives.  And afterwards, they could use another tunnel to run the empty trains to Sunnyside for cleaning.


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The route used for the testing ran over the Central Branch, from Island Trees, past Garden City, and joined the LIRR Main Line west of New Hyde Park.  It then ran through Jamaica into Manhattan, and continued west under the Hudson to New Jersey.  It ended at what later would be known as Manhattan Transfer (try not to think of the singing group).  This was a special-purpose station at which, until Northeast Corridor passenger service was completely electrified, Pennsylvania passengers transferred between electric Manhattan trains and steam mainland trains.

Most of the test’s run already had third-rail power; the Central Branch was an exception.  Overhead wire was chosen to temporarily electrify it all the way to Island Trees.  Why wire instead of third rail?  In a light-duty rural setting, wire was cheaper to buy, and easier and faster to install, to operate safely, and to rip out afterwards.


*

The Pennsylvania already had evaluated smaller electric locomotives, designed to shunt cars around railroad yards, but building a big loco to reliably haul heavy, fast mainline trains was very different.  Many new things had to be tested, including its ability to stay on the rails at high speed.  The last comment is not facetious – in the past, new types of steam locomotives occasionally had experienced problems speeding through certain types of track arrangements.  The railroad applied its steam-based knowledge where it could, but so much was new about electric locomotives that thoroughly testing a prototype was considered a necessary step.  It helped that the chosen wheel arrangement mimicked that of a familiar type of steam locomotive.

The testing went well.  When it was finished, the findings and recommendations were used to further develop the prototype’s design principles and components into a more robust, dual-unit production locomotive.  When introduced in 1910, it was the most powerful locomotive ever put into service anywhere in the world.  And by the way, it took power only from third rails, not from overhead wire.




The result of the tests: the DD-1 locomotive, which
would see service both on the LIRR and on the PRR

Digital model of the DD-1, built from plans by the author
in AutoCAD 2017


***

Conclusion

That out-of-place photo of the Burrill estate (which, after falling into disrepair, was later revitalized as the Meadow Brook Club) fooled no one.  The overhead wire on the Central Branch was taken down as planned, and not stretched all the way to Hicksville (as was not planned).  When electrification did arrive, it came through a third rail, and in terms of the Eagle’s profile, it was very, very late indeed.  The demise of the two most prestigious local industrial employers – the gold leaf shops and the large Heinz plant – was a heavy blow for the village to weather.  Beetles and builders abruptly put an end to almost all the local farms.  Mercifully, the vaunted macadam roads eventually were overtaken by progress, as were the flagstone sidewalks.  No one has been seen counting Hicksville’s streetlights for a long, long time.


And yet, Hicksville not only survived, it grew.  Maybe sizzle is overrated.


*****


Ciao!