The Brooklyn Dodgers were so named because Brooklyn was once a stronghold of the trolley car and in order to reach Ebbets Field one had to be a dodger of trolleys. What a fitting name for our own Midville Nine Brooklyn horse car and trolley lines playing such an important role in developing western Queens. An early history of Maspeth and Elmhurst could be called “A tale of two trolley lines, Grand Street and Flushing-Ridgewood.”
Brooklyn was incorporated into a city in 1834, soon acquiring its own horse car and elevated railway system and with its own major league baseball team, rivaling New York (Manhattan). By the time of unification (1808) Brooklyn had attained a population of over one million people.
Queens at the same time remained largely undeveloped and because of its nearness to the then city of Brooklyn, was targeted for suburban expansion. To this end the Grand Street & Newtown railway was incorporated on August 18, 1860, to build a double track railroad from the easterly side of first street (Kent Avenue) in Williamsburg to the village of Newtown (renamed Elmhurst in 1896 because of a stench caused by industrial pollution in Newtown Creek). This was not to be built until 1876 when Grand Street extended into Queens. The extension of Grand Street, (Grand Avenue in Queens) channeled an increasingly heavy and profitable flow of traffic through Grand Avenue and converted lower Grand Street into a downtown shopping center with large department stores that compared favorably with New York in variety of goods and services.
The volume of traffic on Grand Street soon exceeded expectations, causing the Newtown stables built in 1876 to become inadequate. The Maspeth Depot, which would last throughout the whole era of trolley operation was built located on the south side of Grand Avenue between Fisk Avenue (69th Place) and Juniper Avenue (69th Street). The Maspeth Depot was ready for operation in mid-June 1884.
After 1893 changes were in store for the western Queens horse car lines, namely electrification and expansion. Electric trolley service began on Grand Street on May 21, 1894, from the Maspeth Depot to the Broadway ferries. On Sunday, May 27, the trolley reached Junction Blvd., Corona. when the Brooklyn city railroad embarked on its big program of trolley expansion northeast from Newtown Village (now Elmhurst). In the early nineties, it was worth building for the Flushing area which had a large population center (12,000 inhabitants).
The trolley reached Flushing on Saturday, October 24, 1896 at 12:00 Noon among much celebration. The Grand Street trolley broke the LIRR’s monopoly on travel to the city and connected Flushing directly with Brooklyn for the first time.
On Thursday, June 20, 1896, the BRT announced the opening of the Fresh Pond Road Line: cars began at the Ridgewood Depot at Myrtle Avenue and Palmetto Street, continued along the Lutheran Line to Fresh Pond Road, then along Fresh Pond Road, Grand Avenue, Corona Avenue and Junction Blvd. to Bowery Bay (now LaGuardia Airport). This was the first time service was possible along Fresh Pond Road and the route formed the beginning of the later Flushing-Ridgewood route.
Flushing-Ridgewood began in November 1899. Cars on the Flushing -Ridgewood route were now routed through to Flushing instead of Bowery Bay as before. Junction Blvd. then became a shuttle with Grand Street cut back to the Maspeth Depot. This arrangement would more or less last until the end of trolley operation.
The twentieth century would see Flushing-Ridgewood become the most important trolley line in the Maspeth and Elmhurst communities. Flushing-Ridgewood gained some glory by carrying the heaviest traffic in years to the 1939-40 World’s Fair and in the summer months of 1939 40, Flushing-Ridgewood was easily the biggest revenue earner in Queens.
The old wooden Depot, built in 1884 was no longer adequate and what would become a Maspeth landmark, an entire new brick building on the corner of 69th Street (Brown Place) and Grand Avenue was built in its place. By December 1907 the new structure was finished. The completed building was two stories high with a facade of red brick. It was triangular in shape with a 50 foot frontage on Grand Avenue, 424 feet on 69th Street along the rear and 400 feet on the east, or storage yard side. A large open storage yard adjoining the new depot was added with a capacity of 105 cars. With all these new facilities Maspeth became even more important than before. At this time five lines operated out of the Depot: Flushing-Ridgewood, Flushing Avenue, Grand Street, Junction Blvd. and Metropolitan Avenue. Sadly the Maspeth Depot did not have the same fate as the New York & Queens County Traction Company’s Woodshed car barn in which the front facade has been preserved as a front entrance to a shopping center.
With the coming of the automobile and the development of a practical motor bus, the days of the once seemingly immortal MT trolley system were numbered by the late 30’s. However, due to a gasoline and rubber shortage, some lines, including all western Queens ones, won a reprieve until after World War II. When I was a six or seven years old during the mid-forties, my mother took me to the Aquacade on the Flushing-Ridgewood trolley. Against the Flushing Meadows backdrop the trolleys appeared to be dinosaurs in a Jurassic theme park. They would soon be extinct.
On June 12, 1949, Flushing-Ridgewood received (Q58) buses. Junction Boulevard followed, (now Triboro Coach Q72), on August 1949. Grand Street which played an earlier important role in the Maspeth and Elmhurst communities, received (Q59) buses on December 1, 1949. In 1952, the landmark Maspeth Depot was obliterated by the LIE.
Today, more than half a century later, a little exposed rail in Bowery Bay Road is about all that remains of a more leisurely form of transportation and few are around who remember when a large MT trolley trundling along a busy commercial street was as familiar a piece of the western Queens landscape as Flushing Meadow Park or Forest Park.
Credit for the following story is due Vincent F. Seyfried, from whose book, “Brooklyn Rapid Transit Trolley Lines in Queens,” I derived much trolley information.