Cunningham Park

Vanderbilt Motor Parkway

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

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

Originally built in 1908 as a racecourse by the railroad mogul and financier William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. (1878-1944), the Parkway would later develop into a major public thoroughfare.  It was one of the first concrete roads in the nation, the first highway to use bridges and overpasses, and the first high-speed route from Queens to Suffolk County.  The Parkway’s largely untold history is filled with intrigue: race cars, bootlegging, historic preservation efforts, and public controversy.

Vanderbilt, the great-grandson of the famous railroad developer Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), entered the family business, but became a serious devotee of a brand-new mode of high-velocity transportation: the automobile.  After two years of organizing his own automobile race, the Vanderbilt Cup (1904-1910), over narrow local roads, Vanderbilt decided to build a new, limited-access landscaped parkway between Queens and Riverhead.  In 1906, along with other financiers, corporation heads, and car manufacturers, Vanderbilt formed the Long Island Motor Parkway Corporation.  The first ten-mile stretch of the Parkway opened in 1908.  Two years later, after two spectators were killed during a Vanderbilt Cup race, the New York State Legislature banned motorcar racing on the Parkway.

By World War I (1914-1918), the completed 48-mile, privately owned Parkway was open to the public as a toll road.  It was used primarily by New York City socialites travelling to their summer estates on Long Island.  After the dawn of Prohibition in 1920, the toll road acquired the nickname Rumrunner’s Road, because bootleggers often used it to outrun the police.

When Robert Moses (1888-1981) developed the free Northern State Parkway in 1929, the Long Island Motor Parkway lowered its fare to 40 cents (from a dollar) but still lost revenue, and had to shut down in April 1938.  Three months later, Moses transformed the Queens section of the Parkway into the Queens Bicycle Path.  Only a few of the parkway’s original 65 survive, Parks maintains the ones at Fresh Meadows and Hollis Hill.  The stretch running through nearby Cunningham Park is now a tree-lined path used by joggers, walkers, and bicyclists, and part of the NYC Greenway program.

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