When retelling the history of railroads on Long Beach island, Roberta Fiore has favorite but ambiguous saying: "Long Beach was built by the railroad for the car."
As the Long Beach historian explains it, Long Beach was originally a vacation Mecca for people to escape the heat of New York City; a resort with cars all made possible by the railroad. "Cars were all over the island prior to the Model T," Fiore said.
The railroad's origins on the island are tied to William Laffan. Publisher of the New York Sun, Laffan was a sportsman who boated to Long Beach island with a group of artisans, dubbed the Tile Club, which included American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Long Island Rail Road employed Laffan to extend tracks to bring city people to the beach. Through Laffan, the Town of Hempstead in 1879 leased Long Beach island to a railroad syndicate for $300 and forbid steamboat access to the area.
The next year, the LIRR reached Long Beach, home to the world's largest seaside resort, the Long Beach Hotel, on the beach between what is now Edwards and National boulevards.
With tracks stretched as far as the Hamptons, the LIRR extended tracks from Sunrise Highway (then called Observer Street) in Lynbrook southward over farm and marsh land toward the ocean. When the tracks reached Island Park (then called Wreck Lead) to water that was later be dredged to become Reynolds Channel, the LIRR put the train on a barge and transported it to the Long Beach island in 1880, where it was reconnected to tracks that went to the beachside hotel.
By 1882, passengers could opt to get off the train at the hotel to take another train on the Marine Railroad line, built by railroad executive Austin Corbin, to the Pavilion, a smaller version of the Long Beach Hotel in Point Lookout.
"The problem was that in the winter the ocean would come up and cover the tracks," Fiore said about the Marine line, "so all the profit that they made sending people to Point Lookout was eliminated because the tracks were all rusted and had to be replaced."
The original Long Beach train station was built in 1880, on the property where Burger King is today, at West Park Avenue and Edwards Boulevard. As a photo caption of the station reads in a pictorial history book by Arcadia Publishing: "The station building was a two-story rambling Queen Anne style wooden structure topped by a multi-shaped shingled glass four-sided clock tower."
After the original developers abandoned the island, Senator William Reynolds arrived in 1906, and two years later he moved the station to where it sits today, about 1,000 feet northwest of the original site.
About the new train station, "Images" states: "The building that remains today had its beginnings with a nod to the Craftsman-style architecture of the period. The green-tiled roof has been replaced by one of the red tiles, but the century-old brick facades and original encaustic titles remain."
Senator Reynolds made a monopolistic deal with the Pennsylvania Railroad by restricting steamboat access to the island, the only other means for commuters to get to the island other than by train or car.
"As a result, the Long Island Rail Road gave Long Beach electric track," Fiore said. "And Penn Street got its name, after Penn Station, based on the deal."
Long Beach Road, which runs through Oceanside and Island Park, was built parallel to the railroad tracks. Nassau County and Long Beach had a primitive wooded car bridge that spanned across the channel to Riverside Boulevard. The briged was opened by a donkey on a harness that followed a carrot, and was operated by teenager Andy Carlo. In 1922, the same year that Long Beach gained status as a city, Reynolds made a deal with the county to build the million-dollar Long Beach Bridge.
By then, Long Beach had turned into a more residential community, where some people lived all year. "Men or fathers were starting to commute to the city," Fiore said, "and the train was no longer just a train to take to Long Beach for entertainment."