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Peter Charles Park

Horse Car Rest Stop

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This site remembers the large carriages pulled by a team of horses through the city’s streets and the once nearby Maspeth Depot where they took on passengers, before the advent of the automobile.

Horse cars played a vital role in the history of mass transportation in New York City and Long Island. In 1832, the New York and Harlem Rail Road began laying down tracks for a Harlem-Downtown line. Those first horse cars carried about thirty people per trip, rushing them to destinations at a record seven to twelve miles-per-hour. Five years later, the fare was just 25 cents to ride from City Hall to Harlem. While the railroad company would have liked to use engines for the whole ride, complaints against noise, sparks, pollution, and hazard led to a city ordinance requiring horses to be used. Subsequently, cars were pulled by horses south of 27th Street in Manhattan, and powered by engines from 27th Street north to Harlem.

Horse cars were used until the turn of the 20th century, with several competing companies running lines through lower Manhattan. One city estimate from that time approximated that an average of 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine were deposited onto streets each day by the thousands of horses pulling horse cars, private carts, and carriages. In 1895, the Street Cleaning Department was established to deal with this waste problem, and sweeping reforms were made to clear off the refuse and the bodies of horses who had been abused and left to die on the streets.

Brooklyn did not embark upon a horse-drawn railway system until the 1850s, after witnessing its success in Manhattan. In August 1860, the Grand Street and Newtown Railroad laid down a double-track railroad, and by October, the Grand Street line opened along the old stagecoach line to Calvary Cemetery, charging 3 cents per ride. The Grand Street line cars were easily recognizable, with their bright yellow paint and green lights for night trips.

In 1870, the Railroad decided to run all-night cars along Grand Street for the specific use of evening employees of daily papers and other night workers. These “owl services” only lasted for a year and were canceled, although they were later revived in 1881. Throughout the 1870s, horse cars gained popularity, in large part because customers were fed up with the unpredictable and expensive service of the Long Island Rail Road. Additionally, in 1878, the Grand Street and Newtown Rail Road became a feeder to the Manhattan Beach Rail Road, which was convenient for commuters and vacationers. That year, the horse cars themselves underwent several improvements, including the installation of stoves to heat the cars during the winter months, and better headlights.

The popularity of horse cars in Brooklyn and Queens skyrocketed in the 1880s, especially in the summers when the cars were packed to capacity carrying passengers to parks, amusement areas, and to Manhattan Beach. Popular lines, especially the line to Calvary Cemetery, ran as frequently as one every 6-15 minutes. By the end of 1884, horse cars were carrying an average of 7,668 passengers daily in Queens and Brooklyn.

The Maspeth Depot was only a few blocks from this parkland, and its construction in 1885 caused a major shift in traffic patterns for the Grand Street line. When it opened, traffic through the Newtown depot (in present-day Elmhurst) dwindled so much that the station was forced to close. In fact, all cars stopped at Maspeth, and passengers riding on to Newtown now only had a shuttle service.

In 1888, most of the Brooklyn lines (and their Queens extensions) were absorbed into the Brooklyn City Rail Road. This movement was completed in 1890, and opened the doors to new trends in unification and electrification.

This site was built in conjunction with the Queens-Midtown Expressway, now known as the Long Island Expressway. In 1953, the City acquired the property and assigned jurisdiction to Parks in 1957. Renovations on the park were completed in June 2001, and included new sidewalks, curbs, benches, fencing, and landscaping. The park offers a pleasant glimpse of green to neighborhood residents, and its name invokes the very beginnings of the rich history of Queens mass transit.

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