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Cunningham Park

Long Island Motor Parkway

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

The Long Island Motor Parkway, also known as the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, survives today as a bicycle path, but began as America’s first limited-access road for cars.

Originally started in 1908 by the railroad mogul and financier, William K. Vanderbilt Jr. (1878-1944), the parkway was the prototype for today’s superhighways.  It was the first long-distance, concrete highway, utilizing bridges and overpasses to eliminate cross traffic, super-elevated curves for safety and speed, and was the first high-speed route from Queens to Suffolk County.  The parkway’s history is filled with extraordinary racing cars, bootleggers, public controversy and historic preservation efforts.

‘Willie K.’ Vanderbilt, great-grandson of the noted railroad developer Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), became a serious devotee of a brand-new mode of high-velocity transportation: the automobile.  Having participated in the Grand Prix cross-country races in Europe that ran from Paris to Monte Carlo, ‘Willie K’ tried to create a similar, long-distance road race back home.  He chose Long Island because of its good roads which linked many towns of the countryside with one another.
Over the next three years Vanderbilt held his races on 25 mile routes, mostly over Nassau County local roads.  In 1906, after a car crash in which a spectator was killed, Vanderbilt decided to remove the races from local roads and build a landscaped parkway to hold the races, without creating a danger for spectators, and to create a road for pleasure driving for the rest of the time.  He chose to build his road between eastern Queens and Riverhead.  To this end, along with other financiers, corporation heads and car manufacturers, he formed the Long Island Motor Parkway, Incorporated.

On June 6, 1908 construction began on what was to become the nation’s first long-distance roadway for cars, featuring reinforced concrete paving, as well as bridges and underpasses to eliminate dangerous intersections.  To cover expenses, two-dollar tolls were collected at 12 “toll lodges” designed by John Russell Pope (1874-1937), the New York architect who later designed the Jefferson Memorial and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., as well as the American Museum of Natural History’s Theodore Roosevelt wing in Manhattan. 

The first section of the road was finished in time for the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race, which was attended by a quarter-million fans.  The races continued there until 1910, when three spectators were killed and twenty others injured.  The State Legislature eventually banned racing outside of self-contained racetracks, effectively ending the Grand Prix sport here.  
In 1912, the parkway was fully opened to the public as a private toll road for its entire 45-mile length.  It was used primarily by New York City’s elite, travelling to and from their Long Island estates.  With the onset of Prohibition in 1920, the parkway acquired the nickname ‘Rumrunner’s Road’ because bootleggers often used it to avoid the police.

In 1929, Robert Moses (1888-1981), then president of the Long Island State Park Commission (1924-64), began planning for the construction of the Northern State Parkway through Nassau County.  Vanderbilt offered to sell his parkway to Moses, but the Commissioner refused to include the antiquated road in the modern parkway network he planned to link the five boroughs and relieve ever-increasing traffic.  Vanderbilt reduced the toll to forty cents to remain competitive, but by 1937 the parkway was no longer solvent.  Vanderbilt shut down the parkway in April of 1938.  The components of the parkway were deeded back to the respective counties through which it ran.  Within three months, NYC Parks’ Commissioner Moses obtained portions of the parkway’s right-of-way for park purposes.  He transformed the Queens section of the parkway into the “Queens Bicycle Path” before an audience of hundreds.  This stretch of road is now used by walkers and joggers as well as bicyclists. 

Only a few of the parkway’s original 65 bridges and underpasses survive.  In 1998, then Mayor Giuliani approved $1,072,000 in funds for the reconstruction of the overpasses at 73rd Avenue, Hollis Hills Terrace, Francis Lewis Boulevard, Bell Boulevard and Springfield Boulevard, all of which Parks continues to maintain.  The bridges and the road itself reflect the state of the art roadway technology of the early 20th century, when the parkway was built and modernized.  Some of the original roadway material was a patented form of reinforced concrete.  In years prior, road building used different methods and materials, ranging from ‘corduroy’ (log) roads to wood planks, and from oyster shells to plain dirt and oiled dirt surfaces.  Parks later repaved the roadway with additional asphalt, but portions of the original concrete and asphalt surfaces, together with markers and fence posts, can be seen as one walks along the route.

In 1986, Parks rehabilitated this section of the parkway through Alley Pond and Cunningham Park.  It was then incorporated into the NYC Greenway program in 1993 as part of the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway.  The Greenway Program, a collaborative effort of the Department of Transportation, the City Planning Office, and Parks, is one of the most ambitious networks of landscaped paths in the nation. 

In 2002, due to the efforts of the Friends of Cunningham Park, the parkland section of the Long Island Motor Parkway located in present day Cunningham and Alley Pond Parks in eastern Queens was placed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.  This section amounts to approximately 2.5 miles of roadway. While efforts are underway for preservation of other sections of the historic Motor Parkway, this section of the parkway that falls under Parks’ jurisdiction is the largest preservation effort of this type for the Motor Parkway.

The overgrowth alongside the road has resulted in a canopy of trees over much of the length of the parkway, making the parkway true to its name – as much a park as a right-of-way, and a truly green progenitor to the current parkway system.

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