The Calvary Line: Trolley to the Cemeteries - JuniperCivic.com
Serving Middle Village and Maspeth since 1938.

Originally published in the June 2017 Juniper Berry Magazine

The Calvary Line: Trolley to the Cemeteries

Maurice Ave at Borden Ave looking east, 1930

Riders on the MTA Q67 bus line are probably unaware that this seemingly ordinary route has a long, colorful history: beginning in the 19th century as a horse car line with the sole purpose of carrying Manhattan visitors to the Calvary Cemetery on the outskirts of Long Island City.

The true saga of the Calvary Cemetery horse car and trolley line cannot be told without mentioning one James Patrick Gleason, who along with other roles, served as the last mayor of Long Island City before the unification of Queens with the rest of NYC in 1898. Gleason might be described by some as a New York kind of guy ‒ similar to an Ed Koch or Donald Trump of more recent times.

Born in Ireland in 1844, Gleason came to America and made a fortune in the distillery business, but refused to pay the federal taxes. He lost it all, fled to Central America and arrived in California penniless. From a $300 loan he created a second fortune in distillation before heading east.

In this period of his life, he somehow became interested in the traction business. On April 2, 1871, Gleason secured from the legislature in Albany a charter for a horse railroad to be called the Long Island City and Calvary Cemetery Railroad. Gleason personally supervised the construction of the tracks himself, often joining in the track laying. He was at the same time dabbling in politics. Between his horse car and political maneuvering, he led a stormy and interesting life. He began his political career as alderman of the first ward and ran for mayor in 1883. In 1886 he ran for mayor again and this time was elected; characteristically he insisted on retaining his alderman seat so that he might vote for his own measures.

In the selection of his horse car route, Gleason displayed considerable foresight. The Roman Catholic Church had purchased a huge tract of land on the edge of Long Island City in 1848 for a new cemetery because a law was passed that prohibited further burials in Manhattan. The trustees of St. Patrick's Cathedral had therefore decided to acquire fresh burial ground across the river in the suburb of Laurel Hill on Newtown Creek. It was large enough that they anticipated it holding the capacity of a century of burials. Gleason, a Catholic himself, quickly realized the business possibilities of a car line to bring New York visitors to the graves of their dead in Queens, and hence planned his car line to serve this need for transit.

Gleason's route began at the 34th Street Ferry Terminal at the foot of Borden Avenue, continued along Borden to Bradley Avenue, then three blocks down that street to the cemetery gate at Greenpoint Avenue. In 1873, two miles of the road had been constructed and the line opened for traffic on March 1, 1874. The franchise called for construction along Laurel Hill Boulevard (Shell Road) to Winfield but this part was never built.

During these early years, Gleason himself would often act as operator or conductor, sometimes berating passengers who annoyed him with silly questions. When the offended passengers would visit the president's office they were shocked to find Gleason himself promising to discipline the offending employee.

On to Lutheran Cemetery

On March 25, 1874, Gleason received a second charter of incorporation, this time for a horse car line called the Long Island City and Maspeth Railroad. This route also began at the 34th Street Ferry Terminal and was to extend the Calvary Cemetery line, passing Mount Zion and Mount Olivet Cemeteries and terminating at Lutheran (now All Faiths) Cemetery. Gleason, being inclusive, believed that Protestants and Jews could also be good paying passengers. This line was to be finished within 3 years (March 1886). None of it was to be built.

On March 25, 1886, the company again applied for a franchise to the Lutheran Cemetery, the old franchise having lapsed 10 years before. The application requested a line from Bradley and Borden Avenue along Borden to 54th Avenue (Newtown Avenue), through private property from Maurice and 54th Avenue to the corner of Hamilton Place and Borden Avenue, thence along Hamilton Place to Grand Avenue, along Grand Avenue to Juniper Avenue (69th Street) and along Juniper to Metropolitan Avenue. This time the road was finished and the first cars ran in the fall of 1889.

From Horse Car to Trolley

On September 29, 1890, Gleason received permission to electrify his line and it was done in 1893. Charles Van Depoele's electric trolley installation opened on Jamaica Avenue, and proved to be superior to the horse car, thus encouraging other companies to electrify their lines. The fare situation on his line was interesting. The passengers paid only 5 cents on weekdays but 10 cents on Sundays. This made traffic reasonable for Queens residents but costly for cemetery visitors from Manhattan on Sundays.

In 1894, Gleason seems to have pulled out of the company and shortly thereafter it went into receivership. In 1895, the Steinway Company stepped in and operated it pending court action. On May 9, 1896, the Long Island City & Maspeth Railroad was put up for auction. Thus the Calvary Line passed into the Steinway system. The year 1896 therefore marks the final unification of all the trolley lines in Long Island City and Newtown except for the BRT lines in western Queens.

Steinway trolley line unification would last until April 27, 1922, when the court ordered the separation of the old Steinway trolley (later Steinway bus) routes from the New York & Queens (later Queens Transit bus) including the Calvary route. The Calvary trolley was isolated from the rest of the NY & Queens Railway lines and therefore had to use Steinway line tracks from the 34th Street Ferry Terminal along Northern Blvd in order to reach the Woodside car barn which the NY&Q shared with the Steinway lines.

The decade of the 1930s would see the cessation of all Steinway and New York & Queens trolleys with the exception of the tiny Queensborough Bridge Railway, which would last until April 7, 1957. On October 3, 1937, the Calvary line ceased. A big ceremony was arranged, befitting the last car to run on the New York & Queens line. Old #332 made the final wild ride from Middle Village to LIC bearing Queens Borough President Harvey, along with a car full of civic officials and rail fans. Fare boxes along with other items were carried off as souvenirs. At the end of the ride, the car was run to the Woodside car barn, soaked in gasoline and set afire to the sound of taps. At this sad and solemn hour, more than one onlooker had a pardonable lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. Orange and cream (Q67) Queens Transit (later Queens Surface Corp.) buses replaced the trolleys. MTA Bus took over private lines throughout the city in 2003.

Today, all traces of the colorful Calvary Line have been obliterated by the hand of time. The Q67 line has inherited its route, which today starts at Queensboro Plaza rather than the East River, and had to be adjusted in order to maneuver over and around the Long Island Expressway, but otherwise remains mainly the same.

Credit for this story is due to the late Vincent F. Seyfried, from whose book The New York and Queens County Railway and the Steinway Lines 1867-1939 much of the trolley and other information for the preceding article was derived.

June 2017 Juniper Berry Magazine

June 2017 Table of Contents