Tuesday, January 17, 2006


My latest inquiries into the mysterious nexus of elemental and cultural forces comprising that little sector of the world where I was raised involved typing the words Winchester Boulevard into a search engine and then scanning for images. The first photo to get my attention appeared on a site about historical railroads on Long Island. The picture was shot across a swath of asphalt horizontally bisected by a double yellow highway line, the lens focusing on the butt end of a brick block of two-story apartments behind a small iron fence; nothing remarkable. I immediately recognized the place. Some developer had squeezed these units between the backyards of an unusually wide block west of Winchester Boulevard. This precise location was the halfway point between my family's house and the home of David Kershaw, a friend who lived on Springfield Boulevard.

When I first started taking psychedelics as an enthusiastic teen, after confirming a deal by phone, David and I would meet here, about a ten minute walk for both of us. Here in this suburban no-man's land, we would pause, share a few short words and make the exchange.

I read the caption above the large, color picture; LOOKING NORTH FROM WINCHESTER AVENUE, FORMERLY ALLEY ROAD.

Knowing that Winchester defines the eastern boundary of the park, I immediately associated the name Alley Road with Alley Pond. These apartments occupied the old right of way for the railroad bed. Further research revealed the existence of a mile long trestle landing a half mile from my house and ascending to the top of 'Rocky Hill', the local summit of the glacial moraine which runs the length of the island and at 206 feet, the second highest point in Queens. The old rails of a few spur lines embedded in the asphalt of some nearby streets were the only clue that trains had ever run through here, but I never had any idea of where they came from or went, what they carried or how long ago it was operable. Nobody ever talked about it.

The decade after the Civil War was a time of great investments in railroads. In 1872, the Long Island Central ran a line from Flushing to Floral Park with depots in Kissena, Frankiston (73rd Ave. in Bayside, formerly Black Stump Road), Hillside, Creedmoor and Floral Park. Agriculture and cattle dominated this part of Queens until after the second world war.

The Creedmoor property was obtained by the NRA in 1872 by a group of Union army veterans who felt their troops were poor marksmen and needed a place to practice. Flat, open land in eastern Queens which had originally belonged to the Creed family farm had been acquired by Central and North Side Railroad. One can get an idea of the extent of their holdings by the location of the Creed family farmhouse (1780) on Springfield (once Creed Road) and 93rd Avenue. The railroad owners felt that the range on the rural outskirts of the city would stimulate business for their trains and sold the NRA a 70 acre parcel. An NRA officer commented that the grassy open plain was akin to the Scottish moors and the resultant name stuck. This acquisition marked the beginning of the National Rifle Association (NRA). General Ambrose Burnside of Fredricksburg infamy, served as the group's first president. At first, the range was exclusively used by the NY National Guard and trains full of reservists would arrive each summer to practice. Tournaments were held and a dramatic American victory over an Irish team in 1874 drew international attention.

Two hotels operated between the range and the Creedmore Depot. On the corner of Range Road, proprietor John Klein built the two-story Creedmoor Range Hotel in 1877, which promised 'refreshments of all kinds, ales, wines, liquors and cigars, kept constantly on hand.' Captain Klein was killed in the summer of1879 after being thrown from a carriage. Mrs. Klein continued to run the business for nearly three more decades.

Accomodations were also available on the range at the Creedmore Clubhouse and Pavilion. One of the 'prominent features' advertised was the 'handsomely furnished Ladies Parlour and Retiring Room, with proper attendance' which probably meant there was a black woman to help you dry your hands. Women were also granted exclusive access to the 'extensive Piazza running the whole length of the building' which offered an unobstructed view of the shooting range. Men dressed in formal attire could be observed firing at targets from 200 to 1000 yards away. Creedmoor was billed as a 'delightful and attractive resort to everybody taking an interest in the National Sport of Rifle Shooting.' Now that the war was over, gun manufacturers wanted to to find new avenues for sales. Remington Arms manufactured a Creedmoor black powder rifle.


The gun was a beautiful weapon, known as the long range "Creedmoor." It was a Remington, highly finished, and cost $125. It had a front sight, known as the wind-gauge, with the spirit-level, and with the vernier sight on the stock, which is raised from its flat position when the hunter wishes to shoot a long distance, and is graduated up to a thousand yards, carrying a 44 cartridge.

"That isn't of much account in this part of the world," said Sam Harper, passing the weapon back; "it's light enough, for I don't suppose it weighs more than six or seven pounds."

"It's just the thing for these woods," said Herbert, in his important manner, "for I calculate to bring down game a half mile away, if I happen to see it."

-Edward Ellis, Through Forest and Fire:
Wild-Woods Series No. 1 (1891)

Winchester, Springfield and many nearby streets are named after weapons and martial themes; Musket, Pistol, Saber, Range, Gettysburg, and Lyman (black powder guns). Some say Annie Oakley 'got her gun' here (although I have not come across anything more definitive about that). Still, the management was aware that not everyone in the weekend crowds arriving from the city was into spending the day amidst the smell of gunpowder. They made sure to provide 'croquet, archery, lawn tennis and other outdoor sports' for the ladies. And plenty of liquor to be sure.

Construction of the rail line from Flushing was rapid, the only difficulty being the descent off the glacial moraine, as primitive steam-shovels were employed to move tons of earth and a mile-long trestle was built on the southern slope of Rocky Hill, near the point where the Grand Central Parkway overpass presently crosses Springfield Boulevard (formerly Rocky Hill Road).

This portion of the Central Line ran for less than seven years. By 1879, new routes established by competitiors put an end to rail business between Flushing and Creedmoor. The Central Line was financed by two rich immigrants. A.P. Stewart came to America from Ireland and fathered the modern department store, pioneered mail-order and founded the town of Garden City. To provide rail service from his community on Long Island to Manhattan he invested in a line which became known as The Stewart Road (map c.1905). Long Island rubber tycoon Conrad Poppenhusen, a German immigrant already in the New York railroad business, was also involved and oversaw the operation after Stewart's death. Stewart died in 1876, the third richest man in America behind Vanderbilt and Astor. Poppenhusen, a name virtually unkown outside of College Point, went bankrupt in 1878 and never recovered his losses.

Public interest in marksmanship was waning and by 1890 the NRA became dormant. The shooting and tournaments continued until technical improvements provided longer range bullets, and complaints about drunk guardsmen and stray shots from surrounding residents led to the closing of the rifle range in 1910. In 1912, the land became a 'farm colony' for 32 patients from Brooklyn Psychiatric Hospital. The idea, prior to the current emphasis on pharmaceuticals, was to get people out into more natural environments involving manual labor to facilitate better healing and emotional integration. Before WW2, there were over seventy buildings on the grounds and the institution became known as Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.

When I was growing up, the name Creedmoor evoked the archetype of an underfunded, inhumane mental institution, a place of social isolation and unspeakable horrors. We always referred to it as the nut house. The window in my childhood bedroom faced east, the eye being drawn across the relative confinement of backyards toward the space between brick houses, across the pot-holes of Winchester Boulevard, beyond the iron and evergreen barrier no more than a hundred yards away, where a large American flag still flies on the grounds of Creedmoor. My brother and a few uncles were employed as janitors there at various times. A troubled teen named Lou Reed got electro-shock treatments here in 1959. On the upside, a little publicized program undertaken in the early sixties, provided daily doses of acid and psilocybin to boys in the children's units for months at a stretch. According to the report, nearly all of the children, many of them severely autistic and schizophrenic, "responded, became more straightforward, and here".

American folk-hero Wood Guthrie passed away here the day after I turned 12. Pete Seeger wrote, About eight months before he died in 1967, I visited him once more, this time with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Woody was in a wheelchair. He couldn't walk anymore, so the hospital attendant wheeled him out onto a porch where it was warm. Sonny, Brownie and I played some music for Woody. We did "Rock Island Line", with Sonny blowing his harp, sending beautiful notes into the air. Woody must have liked what he heard because you could see how much he wanted to be part of our little group. He tried to get his arms going, but they were just flailing around like a windmill. It got to the point where it looked as though he might hurt himself, so the attendant said, "You better quit playing that loud tune" and we played some quiet blues instead.

In the words of a former inmate, "Creedmoor Hospital was the most picturesque and traditionally gothic of the psych institutions in which I ever slept. Some of the more modern ones were worse in terms of their determination to establish complete control over the inmates, but for sheer creepiness, Creedmoor stands by itself."

The old railroad bed between Flushing and Creedmoor is still traceable through the Kissena Corridor, a green strip obvious on any good map, crossing the Long Island Expressway southwest of St. Francis Prep (formerly Bishop Reilly High) School and disappearing into the woods on the east side of Francis Lewis Blvd., before reappearing as a dirt track in the woods northeast of the junction of Clearview Expressway (formerly Queens Road) and 73rd Ave (formerly Black Stump Road).

I originally came across this old right of way while exploring the woods northeast of the junction of 73rd and the Clearview with cousin Daryl, (who would also eventually get electro-shocked in Creedmoor) back in '67 when we were barely 12. Always on the lookout for the hidden doorway, we had wandered into the woods and soon came across the old right of way. Eager to see where it led, the road was sandy and hard to ride so we decided to drop our bikes and sit down to talk for a minute. Things being what they are in this world, a man had followed us in and while standing about twenty yards away, exposed himself and commented on the process, "Excuse me," in what was probably a fake-British accent, "I just want to show you something. This will only take a minute..." as he briefly explained the process and brought himself to climax in about thirty seconds. He thanked us for watching, pulled up his pants and disappeared. Daryl and I, still pre-pubescent, had never seen anything like this. We laughed and shook our heads. What a world! We were quickly learning to beware.

The sandy bed rolled across the northern end of Cunningham Park, through the projects before sliding under a bridge on the Old Motor Parkway just west of Bell Boulevard. The right of way followed Stewart Road between the Roman Catholic church property and the public school where we used to hold our year-end recitals. Our church-school was just a few minutes further up the hill. Mr. Pittlekow was the principal at Redeemer, and lived in those projects. A few weeks before the above incident, I was standing upon the base of a lampost in the vicinity of 73rd and Clearview, hanging and rotating around the aluminum shaft by one arm when I saw the Pittlekows drive by in their robin's egg-blue Ford Galaxy. Old eagle-eyes saw me and and called my folks to let them know how far I was from home. We were on the northwest edge of our range, although not really that far from Daryl's house. The bike path on the Old Motor Parkway ended nearby, providing easy access and the combination of a chaotic construction scene around the expressway and the lure of nearby woods which converged here was irresistible. Pittlekow was at least six foot nine with shocking white hair, huge, shiney black shoes, and usually favored baggy, ash-gray suits with cuffs on the pants. We were all terrified of this man. He had a piercing visage and what I would eventually come to recognize as a Calvinist temperament. While Mister made everyone uneasy, big-breasted Mrs. Pittlekow was all love and hugs. She wore those thick matron heels, ate cottage cheese and peaches with tea for lunch and taught first and second grade for years. Mr. Pittlekow taught seventh and eighth. I felt lucky that he had died the summer before I was to be in his class.

Rails crossed Hillside Avenue a block east of Braddock Avenue and followed street patterns across Winchester Boulevard behind P.S.18, where I attended kindergarten. A spur line crossed Hillside between the school and the little league ballfields, leading on through the green iron gates of Creedmoor to deliver coal to a small power plant built there after WWI. Even as a child I knew about the rusty tracks running behind the playground but never have seen a train rolling on them. There were some large concrete silos in the same neighborhood which used to hold coal once supplied by freight trains. Along the edge of these tracks, near the abandoned silos, I touched pieces of coal for the first time. Service on this end of the line was virtually non-existent in the sixties and permanently discontinued by winter solstice of 1966.

After crossing Union Turnpike, the block plans around Redeemer Lutheran continue to conform to the gradient of the old railroad bed as it nears the summit of what was once called Rocky Hill Road, with streets running diagonal to the surrounding grid before descending (i imagine) upon a formidable structure of braced posts, a style perfected by Union army engineers during the Civil War. I had always wondered why the section of Hillside Avenue between Martin Van Buren Highschool and Springfield Boulevard was so wide. On the south side of the road, they built the first supermarkets in the neighborhood. To the north, the slope is filled with two story apartments we called 'Little Israel'. Between the two sides of the road lay a stark asphalt median big enough to contain a few football fields, an unexplained open space which was always empty except for broken glass and bottlecaps. Now that I can picture a monstrous trestle and numerous side rails occupying that space, a mere century before I lived there, I wonder why no one ever told me and roused my curiosity about local development and changes in infrastructure. More than likely of course, it is because, outside of a few history teachers or railroad buffs, no one living was aware of it.

No comments: