The Newtown Pentacle

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Posts Tagged ‘Montauk Cutoff Rail Bridges

these views

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Welcome to the Montauk Cutoff, Long Island City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recently, one found himself hitting the tracks just before sunrise. I was there with sanction, accompanied by an MTA employee and entirely “legal.” It should be mentioned, again, that illegal trespass is against a humble narrator’s code, and like a vampire – I need to be invited in to do my thing. You also really, really, don’t want to get caught trespassing up here by the railroad cops, by the way. You also really, really, don’t want to meet the sort of person who camps out along railroad tracks in LIC when you’re all alone in the wee hours.

The Montauk Cutoff in Long Island City was designed to connect the North Shore line with the Montauk Line. The Montauk Line uses the tracks which follow the shoreline of Newtown Creek through Queens, eventually intersecting with the Bushwick Branch and both head for the rail yard at Fresh Pond. The elevated trackway of the Montauk Cutoff crosses Skillman, 49th, 50th, 51st, and Borden Avenues, whereupon it meets a rail bridge called Cabin M which spans Newtown Creek’s tributary Dutch Kills.

The North Shore line used what are approximately the modern LIRR passenger tracks, give or take a few yards, which transverse the Sunnyside Yards and head through Woodside on their way east. The Montauk Cutoff was built for freight, as were the North Shore and Montauk Lines. Passenger service was always a loser for the LIRR. Modern day freight on the LIRR is handled by the New York & Atlantic company.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The first discussion, which I’ve been able to find at least, about building LIC’s Montauk Cutoff was in 1906 – as part of a series of railroad projects either proposed or already under construction at the start of the 20th century by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company – projects which included Penn Station and Sunnyside Yard. Other documents I’ve examined state that the LIRR was paying taxes to New York State as early as 1912 on the Montauk Cutoff, which suggests that it came into service around the same time that the Sunnyside Yards came online. The surrounding Degnon Terminal wasn’t far behind the rail complex, either, with the Loose Wiles factory and other mega factories opening in the 1920’s.

As is always mentioned, old Mitch ain’t no authority on the whole railroad thing. If there’s something wrong in my little summary, please let me know in the comments and corrections or an errata will be incorporated. I can speak pretty intelligently about the maritime/locomotive complex around Newtown Creek, but I’ll admit to having vast gaps on the particular subject of the iron road. That was my pal Bernie Ente’s area of expertise.

For a historic series of shots, maps, and technical descriptions of anything involving the LIRR, you are going to have to visit the fairly excellent Here’s their Montauk Cutoff Page.

Another set of maps and historic shots can be accessed at an equally fantastic site called Here’s their Montauk Cutoff page.

I’ve written about the Smiling Hogshead Ranch before, which sits on the interchange between the Degnon Terminal Railway and the Montauk Cutoff, over at my old Brownstoner Queens column.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The view from up on the Montauk Cutoff is unique. That big parking lot at the bottom of the shot above is a UPS shipping center, the one on 49th avenue. Rearing above and behind it is the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway, which arches up and over Dutch Kills some 106 feet from its beginning at the Queens Midtown Tunnel – which is around a half mile away.

My MTA companion and I met up at the Smiling Hogshead Ranch at 5:30 in the morning to get these shots, which gave me a solid hour to work in absolute pitch darkness up on the tracks. The shots in today’s post are obviously tripod shots, and long exposures. Leaving the shutter open for 20-30 seconds at a pop, you can gather a tremendous amount of light and color, but the hot spots of electric street lighting always cause certain problems. Compensation for this is to move the aperture into “hyperfocal” range, f11 and narrower, which is counterintuitive for night shots but nevertheless effective. It also produces those neat little star bursts around the lights.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, why was I out on a chilly November morning with an MTA property manger, walking on a century old rail spur in Long Island City?

The MTA has decided to “abandon” this line. Abandon doesn’t mean the same thing in “railroad” as in does in english. It means that the agency has no current plans for the line and wishes to free itself of the duties necessitated in maintaining it as functional track. It means that the MTA will retain ownership of the Montauk Cutoff, and can at any time reactivate the pathway should “future use” require it. Given the speed with which rail projects generally move, however, that means a window of at least a couple of decades of inactivity awaits the property no matter what happens.

Accordingly, MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest,” or RFEI, regarding the Montauk Cutoff and is seeking potential lessees for the space.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As defined in the RFEI document, the MTA is seeking out creative uses of the land with an eye towards community improvement. The agency has set down a few ground rules for any potential lessee of the site, many of which are quite expensive – such as insurance, utility service – those sorts of things. The property, as defined in the RFEI, includes the Smiling Hogshead Ranch – who currently lease and pay insurance on the parcel in which the community garden is operated.

Before certain web masters start pointing their fingers and shouting “j’accuse” at me while spinning a conspiratorial tale, Smiling Hogshead is indeed associated with Newtown Creek Alliance, as am I. You can absolutely bet that I’m a fan of SHHR’s operations and programming, and friends with a lot of their members. Long Island City needs every bit of green space it can get, which is how I finally get around to explaining why me and the MTA guy were here on the day before Thanksgiving and just before sunrise.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A “Request for an Expression of Interest”? You can say that I’m interested. I’m interested in seeing this trackway converted over to green space, in much the same way that the Degnon Spur on Pearson and Skillman – a weedy dumping ground and homeless camp – was turned into a lush garden by a group of dedicated volunteers.

Can you imagine what a group like Smiling Hogshead’s could do up here?

If you want to get in on the conversation, or contribute some time and knowledge to the project – shape the future, as it were – whatcha doing on the 2nd of December? A bunch of us are going to attend a “visioning meeting” at Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) which is set to happen between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My companion and I had discussed the possibility of getting up here in the pre dawn hours, and a couple of previous appointments had to be cancelled on account of weather. We had met on a walk through of the site which MTA had conducted back in October for parties interested in acquiring the land, an excursion which occurred just before solar noon – which is not the most efficacious time to photograph LIC. I made the case to him that a “proper” set of photos would be needed for this project and quite handy to boot, which my new friend at the agency agreed with. Hence, where we were, when we were, and why we met up in the dark on Skillman Avenue on the day before Thanksgiving.

The wrinkle in this potential project is this – it doesn’t necessarily have to become a green space. Anyone can “express interest” in the Montauk Cutoff, and as long as their proposed project meets the requirements set aside by the MTA, it will be considered a viable option.

I see this as being a frankly huge opportunity to create an enormous acreage of green space in an otherwise completely barren industrial area which can be best described as a “devastation of concrete.” My interest in this thing is simple – this property touches Dutch Kills, where the borders of the “abandoned” section ends, which is “my house.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff begins at Sunnyside Yard, and at its southeastern edge connects to the M Cabin truss bridge over Dutch Kills which connects to the Blissville Yard, which in turn feeds the tracks that travel under the Greenpoint and Kosciuszko Bridges to Maspeth, Ridgwood, and all points east. The RFEI states that the M Cabin bridge will be opened, and secured in that position, and that a barrier of some sort will be erected at the edge of the Montauk Cutoff’s lot.

Additionally, I cannot begin to, nor have I ever believed that this is the original bridge on this site. I’ve got some Intel that suggests the early 1940’s for its origins, but nothing solid enough to to stick a pin into. The original early 20th century bridge is long gone at any rate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I can tell you with some certainty that the nearby DB Cabin rail bridge is from 1919, and is a swing bridge that hasn’t opened since 2002. My pal Bernie, mentioned above as having been THE authoritative source on all things rail around LIC, told me once or twice that two industrial wreckers are required to tow it from either side to open the bridge. The swing bridges motors are non functional, something that has caused no small amount of grief for the EPA’s Superfund investigators. DB Cabin allows access from the Wheelspur Yard to the Blissville Yard and the Montauk Line.

Like I said, Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking northwards along Dutch Kills, at a scene familiar and loved by long time readers of this – your Newtown Pentacle. That’s the Borden Avenue Bridge, with the LIE above, spanning Dutch Kills. I’ve been writing about this neighborhood for years, it’s one of my favorite locations in New York City. The Montauk Cutoff leads directly to this spot, which in my mind directly connects it to the environmental problems of the Newtown Creek watershed.

Know how I’ve been rattling on for years about “combined sewer outfalls” and the problems presented to the ancient sewer system during rain events? Montauk Cutoff represents an opportunity to create a nearly four acre long green sponge that can drink up a significant amount of the storm water that carries garbage, grease, and poop into this water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff. This is a once in a generation opportunity to do something right for the environment in the ruined biome of Long Island City. Every elected official I’ve spoken to about this idea is “into it” although they haven’t made any public declarations yet (too early in the process to bring them in) and recently – Community Board 2’s environmental committee voted to support the use of these tracks as “green infrastructure.”

Want to get involved in the future of the Montauk Cutoff? As mentioned above, a “visioning meeting” which be taking place at LIC’s Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) on December 2nd, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

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grim facade

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More on the dock delivery dilemma at Dutch Kills with HarborLab, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Once we passed under the derelict railroad swing bridge – DB Cabin – at the mouth of Dutch Kills, it was pretty much smooth sailing for the crew from HarborLab to steer the new dock designated for the usage of faculty and students from LaGuardia Community College to its destination. Dutch Kills is about a mile long, and flows back towards Sunnyside Yards in direction of Queens Plaza. In its primeval incarnation, this tributary of Newtown Creek once had several tributaries of its own, and fed a swampy wetland that was nearly 40 square acres in size. It terminated its navigable path at about 29th to 30th street and 40th avenue in the neighborhood of Dutch Kills.

That’s across the street from St. Patrick’s Romanc Catholic Church and around a block from where Jackson Avenue becomes Northern Blvd., if you need a landmark. The waterway was truncated to its current bulkheads in the first decades of the 20th century during the construction of the Sunnyside Yards, Queensborough Bridge/Queens Plaza, and the Degnon Terminal.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The second movable bridge over Dutch Kills is a single bascule rail bridge called Cabin M.

Before you ask, and I’m talking to you – George the Atheist – I have no idea where the naming convention on these bridges originates from, and would suggest that there is an enormous community of rail fans out there on the interwebs who could likely fill you in on every detail about the LIRR’s Montauk and Montauk Cutoff tracks.

Also, and this goes to GtA as well, check out that rusty patina.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking back at DB Cabin, for a view unavailable from the landward side. You can check both of these bridges out from Borden Avenue, but the view of DB Cabin is occluded by Cabin M.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As with all things LIC involving maritime industrial water, there is an advanced state of decay present here in the infrastructure. Rotting piles, remnants of an earlier time when clear eyed Mariners plyed these waters, abound.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Passing under Cabin M, the redoubtable Borden Avenue Bridge and the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway come into view. Borden Avenue, or at least this section of it, was constructed in the late 1860’s as a plank road for horse and donkey carts through the “sunken meadows” and was built to connect coastal Hunters Point (which was virtually an island back then) with upland properties in Blissville and Maspeth.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Accounts of the sorry condition of pack animals who crossed this plank road are found in historic anecdote. 

Horses, oxen, and donkeys were described as emerging from the low lying path – beginning their climb towards the Maspeth Plateau at Greenpoint Avenue – covered in a wriggling gray coat of mosquitoes and other biting insects. When the pests were brushed away from the pack animals, the critters were covered in a sheen of blood.

These insects were a plague even to the riders of the Long Island Railroad, who described what they perceived as smoke rising from hundreds of camp fires on evening trips along the tracks. The “smoke” was actually multitudes of insects rising into the air from watery nests. 19th century Queens was notorious for waterborne diseases like Cholera, Malaria, and Typhus.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There was a succession of wooden structures that were called Borden Avenue Bridge, an iron swing bridge which carried trolley traffic was built in the late 19th century and removed in 1906. The modern bridge was opened in 1908, and it’s a retractile bridge. Retractile means that the roadway pulls back from the waterway, and the only other bridge of this type found in NYC is at Caroll Street, spanning the Gowanus Canal. Retractile Bridges are actually quite common in Chicago.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Opened in November of 1940, the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway is some 106 feet over the water, and it is the “high speed” road that feeds traffic into the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In tomorrow’s post, we get to cross under the last movable bridge on Dutch Kills and enter the loathsome waters of the Turning Basin.

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Upcoming Tours –

June 11th, 2015 – TONIGHT
BROOKLYN Waterfront Hidden Harbor Boat Tour
with Working Harbor Committee, click here for details and tickets.

June 13th, 2015
The Insalubrious Valley of the Newtown Creek Walking Tour
with Atlas Obscura, click here for details and tickets.

June 20th, 2015
Kill Van Kull Walking Tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, click here for details and tickets.

mounting eagerness

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Man, I’ve barely mentioned my beloved Creek lately.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Yesterday, business took me to Red Hook’s Erie Basin, a trip which turned out to be abortive as that which I went to photograph would not be available until next week. Having a free afternoon, unexpectedly, one decided to walk home to Astoria. Shots from the journey are being processed, but your humble narrator found himself all along the river, and everywhere from Brooklyn Bridge park to The Navy Yard. My back started to ache in Williamsburg, and discretion being the better part of valor, I cut the walk off at Metropolitan and Roebling. Not bad for my first serious perambulation of 2014, but I am badly out of shape after a hibernation forced by incessant ice and snow.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Vast soliloquy governed my thoughts on the walk, and a realization that I havent been spending much time on the Newtown Creek- personally and at this blog – in the last few months left me thunderstruck. Accordingly, pictured above is the DB Cabin rail bridge, spanning Dutch Kills, which carries LIRR Montauk branch traffic. DB Cabin hasn’t been opened since 2002, as its motors are non functional. Accordingly, Dutch Kills is an industrial canal which cannot accept anything larger than a rowboat, and that’s only at low tide. There are those who would like to throw this inheritance away, and turn it into some sort of bullheaded swampland, but that’s something that sounds good at cocktail parties. They forget about Mosquitos, and jobs for those beyond their clique, and that M1 zones are for industry – not water sports or bird watching.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This bridge frustrates me as I’ve never gotten a decent shot of a train crossing it. There’s another rail bridge at English Kills which has stymied my desires in similar fashion over the years, but its just a matter of time until I get both. That’s the thing about me and my beloved Creek – I ain’t going nowhere. There are some who wish I would just fall in and disappear into the black mayonnaise, probably due to my brash nature and overwhelmingly unwholesome aspect, but they can go jump in the East River and swim to Manhattan to beg the Mayor for a job for all I care.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Creek is the subject of much speculation, discussion, and debate. All over the world – architects, planners, and engineers sniff at the air and smell a giant bucket of Federal money about to spent here. They anxiously twist their hands trying to conceive of some angle by which their pet projects can be shoehorned into the Superfund process. They forget that this is the home of industry, which must be encouraged to not just stay here, but to reinvest in Brooklyn and Queens – albeit in a manner which is less destructive to the processes of human and animal life along the waterway. You can have both.

Also, all bets are off, and your Newtown Pentacle is back in session.

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ponderous and forbidding

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned in a post the other day, an opportunity arose for me to accompany a representative of Riverkeeper on a survey mission to Newtown Creek recently.

Demanded by the top leadership of the Newtown Creek Alliance itself, this was an expedition whose agenda would require the photographic documentation of bulkheads and shoreline conditions all along the Creek. Of special interest to those involved in the renewal and resuscitation of brownfield sites, the mission as put forward was to get a shot of everything possible. This survey would include observation of the lesser known tributaries of the Creek- Dutch and English Kills, as well as Maspeth Creek, and the East and West Branches which lie beyond the Grand Street Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The barriers which guard the secrets of Dutch Kills, which branches from the main body of Newtown Creek just .8 of a mile from it’s locus point with the East River, are two rail bridges. As mentioned in the past, I am no expert on the intricacies of the trackways which snake around the Queens side of the Creek. The expert on this subject was Bernard Ente, who recently passed away, and I wouldn’t offend his memory by pretending to know more than the following:

Neither Bridge (both are moveable) has opened for some time, and it is my understanding that they are part of the “Montauk Cutoff”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The survey team was small, as we were in a tiny craft. Hardly more than a rowboat with an outboard motor, three of us sat less than a few inches above the water. There was a mist hanging in the air, as it was early morning, which was quite invisible to the eye but will occasionally become visible in these shots (when I fired off the flash).

Our plan was to take advantage of high and low tides to gain access to the various sections which we were mandated to record, and the low ceiling of the swing bridge at Dutch Kills demanded we make our attempt at ebb tide and exit the tributary before it again flooded.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I will admit to prayer that a train might pass overhead, for this would be a prize photo for your humble narrator, but alas- no such luck. I don’t know very much about the rails, but I do like taking pictures of trains from odd angles. There was a ghastly sensation afoot in me as well, as I knew that the very air which we were breathing was a hideous miasma of vapor emissions rising from the poison sediments which line the bed of Dutch Kills.

Everywhere, there were tiny bubbles erupting to the surface of the water, and as we disturbed them- mephitic smells swirled about and enveloped the boat.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Many times have I been down Newtown Creek on the water, but it has always been in nothing smaller than a NY Water Taxi. Additionally, Dutch Kills is “mine”, a branch of the Creek that has received extensive study and historical analysis here at Newtown Pentacle as well as having been thoroughly catalogued photographically. No surprises in store here thought I, English Kills is a bit more “unknown territory” and would likely yield something to hang my hat on.

That is what I thought at the start of this trip.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To start, the first rail bridge seems to be in a deep state of corrosion, which would make sense given its century long existence. I am no engineer, of course, but this thing hasn’t seen a paint brush in a very long time.

Witnessing the rust and metal fatigue on this bridge actually made me glad that a train wasn’t passing by overhead. The works and motors which power this bridge’s swing action have been burnt out for some time I am told.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I have never seen it happen (as you would have seen a photo of it here by now) but word is that if the bridge needed to be opened, rail workers would utilize the sort of tow trucks known as “wreckers”, situated at both banks, to winch the thing open.

Sounds bizarre, but the aforementioned Bernard Ente told me that one, and “Bernie was always right” about this sort of thing. Can’t tell you how many crazy stories he would tell me about the history and lore of this place, which my own research would prove him to have been purposely understating.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

All across Dutch Kills, everything bore that unmistakable colour which typifies the lament and sickness of the Newtown Creek watershed. Iridescent, it is neither black nor white nor any normal color, rather it’s is like something alien coating everything in rotten decay. Metal corrodes, wood molders, stone and cement simply crumble away.

The swampy wetlands which existed here in aboriginal times were known as the Waste Meadows in the 19th century, and perhaps this is still the appropriate terminology for them.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pilings and structural elements squamously protrude from the water, whose surface seems thicker than expectation would predict. Normal fluid dynamics apply of course, but the turgid waves behaved in the manner of a broth or syrup as opposed to the more wholesome (but still polluted) water found on the nearby East River.

Additionally, high tide was not marked by invertebrate communities of barnacles or mussels here, but rather by tree ring like deposits of sediment.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking back toward the swing bridge, in the direction of infinite Brooklyn, a long walkway is attached to the pier which the bridge is anchored into.

One thing which I can categorically show in these “bulkhead survey” shots of the Newtown Creek, is that much of the so called land along the Queens bank of the Creek (and large parts of English Kills in Brooklyn) is actually an engineered surface of pilings intermixed with fill and capped with a cement slab- reclaimed land.

One of the scarier ramifications of this, and again– not an engineer- is witnessed in the deleterious condition of these century old wood pilings visible from the water’s edge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Next up on this trip is the truss rail bridge, which is built quite a bit higher in elevation than the initial structure and is found at the other side of the pier and walkway which connects to the Swing Bridge. It’s a drawbridge, and the elevated height must have been part of a plan to reduce the need to open the span for water traffic on the once busy Dutch Kills.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Apologies are offered for vagueness, lords and ladies, as I fear that I’ve spoiled you over the last several years with vulgar displays of “info-porn”. Normally, you’d be reading stats and figures, hearing the name of engineers and learning of long forgotten disasters. Unfortunately, as these two bridges are not publicly accessible, and to study them in any real detail would mean trespassing and demand mandatory jail time… these are the bridge structures which I can describe in the least detail anywhere along Newtown Creek.

Railfans of NYC, anonymous LIRR employees, please leave a comment below and share the wisdom.

As mentioned in the past- I never trespass- like a Vampire your humble narrator needs to be invited inside to do his best work and in the age of terror- no one is invited to look too closely at railroad infrastructure.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Others, however, are not as constrained as I.

A garish banner caught my eye as we passed beneath the truss bridge. My mind concocted that I was seeing just another windblown tarp or plastic container bag at first, but then as we approached… I realized that it was some kind of painting.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Hung at a level which allows it to interact with the high tide level, this painting seems to depict- to my eye- a middle eastern city withering in flame beneath the burning thermonuclear eye of god.

What’s more, for once, I can brag to Ms. Heather, over at, that I finally got something before she did.

Note: as always, clicking the photo will open a new window at Flickr. Clicking the view all sizes option under the “actions” tab will take you to ever larger incarnations of the shot for closer examination. If anyone knows who the artist is, or what this situation is about, I’d love to hear about it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It would seem that someone has set up camp under here, or perhaps it is just a studio space. The undocumented men and women who live in both these “Waste Meadows” -and the Newtown Creek watershed as a whole- are too numerous to count. Many are exactly where they belong, while others are trapped by circumstance and ill omen.

All need to be coaxed away from this place, before the Creek does to them what it has to so many others in Greenpoint and Long Island City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

No human being should be living in this place, except as part of a penal sentence for an especially heinous offense. Trolls live under bridges, not Americans. Additionally, in the age of terror, how exactly does this go unnoticed by the gendarme?

I cannot stress how often I ask this question as I wander across the Creeklands.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Despite the fearful atmospherics and forbidding appearance of the water, we pressed on. Our steward from Riverkeeper kept a steady hand on the outboard motor and the tiny boat slid forward across Dutch Kills. This shot is looking back at the two rail bridges of the Montauk Cutoff which we had just passed beneath.

Still no trains.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dead ahead was the Borden Avenue Bridge and the high flying Long Island Expressway, the experiencing of which which will be discussed tomorrow at this- your Newtown Pentacle.

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