This park is named for the Long Island Motor Parkway; a private toll road built in 1908 by the young auto enthusiast William K. Vanderbilt Jr. (1849-1920). One of the first concrete roads in the nation, the parkway originally stretched 48 miles from Queens to Lake Ronkonkoma. While only portions remain, the section that begins here and ends at Cunningham Park has been restored as part of the NYC Greenway program, a planned network of over 350 miles of landscaped bicycle and pedestrian paths throughout the city.
The history of Motor Parkway begins with young “Willie” Vanderbilt’s fascination with fast driving. As the great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), the shipping and railroad giant of the 19th century, William took over the family business and was the last in his line to head the New York Central Railroad. In an era when automobiles were still rare, Vanderbilt had a passion for racing and to that end, he established the Vanderbilt cup races in 1904 to spur enthusiasm for the sport in America.
Over the next three years Vanderbilt held his races on 30 miles of local roads in Nassau County. After a 1906 car crash in which two race spectators were killed, Vanderbilt imagined a landscaped parkway where banked curves and overpasses would allow for speeds up to 60 miles per hour without creating a danger to pedestrians.
On June 6, 1908 construction began on what was to become the nation’s first long road featuring reinforced concrete and overpasses to eliminate crowded intersections. To cover construction costs, two-dollar tolls were collected at 12 “toll lodges” designed by John Russell Pope (1874-1937), the New York architect who planned the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and the National Gallery in Washington D.C. The first ten-mile section of the road was opened in time for the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race, which a quarter-million fans attended. The races continued there until 1910, when four spectators were killed and twenty others were injured as a result of a car crash. The State Legislature banned racing outside of racetracks, effectively ending the Vanderbilt cup races.
Throughout the 1920s, the Motor Parkway remained popular among socialites who used it to travel to their Long Island estates or to take leisurely weekend drives. During Prohibition, the parkway gained a reputation as the “rumrunners” road because it was privately owned and operated and thus outside of official police jurisdiction. With cars becoming more affordable, use of the road increased and Vanderbilt lowered the toll to just one dollar.
In 1929, New York State Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) began planning for the construction of the Northern State Parkway through Nassau County. Vanderbilt offered to sell the parkway to Moses, but the Commissioner refused to include the antiquated road in the modern network of parkways he had designed to link the five boroughs and relieve ever-increasing traffic. Vanderbilt reduced the toll to forty cents, but by 1937 he was no longer able to compete with the new, toll-free Northern State Parkway. In April 1938, the Motor Parkway was officially closed. Three months later, Robert Moses opened the Queens section of the road as the “Queens Bicycle Path” before an audience of hundreds.
Parks rehabilitated this section of the path through Alley Pond and Cunningham Parks in 1986. 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 1998, Mayor Giuliani approved $1,072,000 for the reconstruction of the overpasses at 73rd street, Hollis Hills Terrace, Frances Lewis Boulevard, and Bell and Springfield Boulevards.