Railroad Sights of Long Island: Riverhead and Greenport

Although Riverhead can be considered the virtual end of Long Family Island, it was only the beginning of the originally intended intermodal rail-and-sea link’s traverse of the North Fork toward the eventual cross-sound ferry connection.

Taking its earliest-settlement name of “Head of the River” or “River Head,” the ultimately designated, single-word “Riverhead,” the ninth of Suffolk County’s ten towns, was created out of the west end of Southold on March 13, 1792.

Thus separate and autonomous, it was injected with growth with the arrival of the railroad and the very station, built on July 29, 1844 and serving the South Ferry, Brooklyn, to Greenport line, was constructed on present-day Railroad Avenue. Despite its through-purpose, it channeled its own disembarking passenger to stage coaches, which brought them to Quogue and other south island destinations.

Eastbound trains served the town on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, while westbound ones, back to Brooklyn, did so on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Mercantile, milling, and manufacturing, its prevalent commercial undertakings, catered to a 1,600-strong population in 1875, the community boasting two grist mills, offices, 20 stores, three hotels, and six churches.

Replacing the original train depot, which was transformed into a home for railroad workers, a wood-framed one, designed by Charles Hallett and featuring scalloped trim and elaborate finials, was built west of Griffing Avenue between 1869 and 1870. This was subsequently replaced with a third, this time incorporating brick in its construction, on June 2, 1910.

“In the early 1900s, the east was a place of prosperous potato farms in summer and deep snows in winter,” wrote Ron Ziel and George H. Foster in their book, “Steel Rails to the Sunrise: The Long Island Railroad” (Ameron House, 1965, p. 158).

“From the time of its realization that the original reason for its existence had vanished with the building of the New Haven Railroad to Boston (fifty years earlier), the LIRR has played a major role in developing the areas way out east,” they continued (p. 158). “… Business and civic organizations all over the island joined with prominent citizens, newspapers, and the railroad to promote travel and settlements on Long Island.”

That development, however, was hardly rapid and when rails were later replaced by roads, the Long Island Railroad’s re-invented, intermodal transportation purpose had vanished, leaving the bulk of its passengers to commute to Manhattan during the mass morning exodus.

Indeed, by 1963, main line service east of Riverhead had been reduced to a single daily passenger and thrice-weekly freight run, using the track originally laid for the rail-to-sea link in the mid-19th century.

Today’s high-level concrete platform, which does not bear a single shoeprint on certain days and in certain seasons, was constructed between 1996 and 1997, but for rail enthusiasts, some of its history has been preserved at the Railroad Museum of Long Island across from it.

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