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On the Sunnyside Yard, Part 4: A History

Jan 28 2019
April 1954, Sunnyside Yard of the PRR and an Astoria Subway Train, from The New York Public Library

Over the next 18 months, the City and Amtrak are engaging in a master planning process to explore the future of Sunnyside Yard in western Queens. Learn about the history of Sunnyside Yard.

Like all of New York City, Sunnyside Yard has evolved over time, responding to the changing demands of the city, its residents, and the railroads that use it.

Farm to Yard

It may be hard to believe, but when Queens became a borough at the turn of the 20th century, it was still very much made up of farmland. The land—made fertile by the city’s extensive waterways—was good for providing food, but it was also cheap land. And rapidly expanding industries, like railroads, needed the real estate.

At the time, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the nation’s largest railroad company, was in the middle of an ambitious regional expansion: building rail tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, to connect to New Jersey and Long Island, respectively, and building Penn Station as a new regional hub. The company needed a main railyard to store and service the trains that would utilize these new connections.

And so the table was set for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which, between 1902 and 1905, proceeded to purchase all of the land south of Northern Boulevard between 21st and 43rd Streets, the nearly-200 acres that would become Sunnyside Yard.

Construction of Sunnyside Yard, which was named for a farm on a nearby hill with breathtaking sunrise and sunset views, began in 1906 and was completed in 1910. When it opened, Sunnyside Yard was the largest coach yard in the world.

A New Age for NYC

The yard, and all the new infrastructure built by the railroad company, signaled a new stage in the city’s history. No longer a disconnected island, Manhattan was now the center of a rail network that stretched hundreds of miles, moving goods and people to all over the US. Sunnyside Yard was the engine that kept the system functioning.

As the railways prospered and expanded, so did the economy of New York City and Queens. The industrial landscape of Queens can trace its history directly back to Sunnyside Yard—industrial companies built their factories around the yard, using the railway infrastructure to move goods. There was so much activity in Sunnyside Yard that, in the early 20th century, the Queens Borough President’s office was located there.

The 1940s saw another significant change—the rise of the automobile. As cars gained popularity, people began to move to the suburbs, changing the role of railroads. In 1966, the State of New York purchased the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Central (formerly Pennsylvania Railroad) and along with it, 30 acres of Sunnyside Yard.

In 1970, Penn Central went bankrupt and the federal government took over much of the railroad, creating the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, otherwise known as Amtrak. In 1976, Amtrak took over ownership of Sunnyside Yard and sold a portion to General Motors, which today uses the site as car repair center.

Under Amtrak’s ownership, the yard went through more changes: service grew and expanded, and the yard became a maintenance and layover facility for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. The yard adjusted to serve both the long-distance inter-city operations of Amtrak, and the shorter, more frequent service of LIRR’s commuter trains.

Shaping the Future

Today, with over 800 trains passing through daily, the yard is the busiest rail junction in the US. Nevertheless, Sunnyside Yard has plans to grow to over 1,000 train movements a day to accommodate an increase in railroad use. And the State and Amtrak are making numerous investments in the yard over the coming years to keep the region’s rail infrastructure modern and efficient.

The history of the yard, and current and future changes, make it clear that rail will always be a part of Sunnyside Yard. Now the question is: What else is in this future? How can the yard adapt for the needs of the next generation and beyond? How can it continue to a play role in supporting the city’s and region’s economy but look again to support jobs in Western Queens?

These are questions that the City is exploring as it undertakes the master planning process and looks into what can—and more importantly should—exist above Sunnyside Yard.

Learn more about the Sunnyside yard Masterplanning Process.