THE COMMUTE: The MTA does a decent job when it comes to finding and returning lost property to its rightful owners, except when it comes to finding its own property.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that the Long Island Rail Road, a subsidiary of the MTA, lost track of some of its own property right here in Sheepshead Bay until it was brought to their attention earlier this month by a reporter. The property in question is a corridor at least 20 feet wide and 520 feet long between Avenue U and Avenue V and East 17th Street and East 18th Street. It was the former right-of-way for the New York, Brooklyn, and Manhattan Beach Railway, which operated on the surface for 30 years – until 1907 – to the Manhattan Beach Hotel, which was razed the same year.
The railroad, however, continued in operation until 1924, after it was rerouted and placed upon an embankment alongside the Brighton Line in 1907 between East 15th Street and East 16th Street. It continued to serve the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack, terminating just north of Oriental Boulevard between Corbin Place and West End Avenue. For any who are interested, a complete description of the history and route of the Manhattan Beach Railroad, (as well as great photographs) can be found here. In part 7, there is a photograph of the Manhattan Beach Railroad where it crosses Sheepshead Bay Road (referred to by a former name, Shore Road). The right fork of East 17th Street at Bill Brown Square is actually a remnant of the at-grade right-of-way of the Manhattan Beach Railroad.
The origins of the New York City subway go back further than the opening of the IRT in 1904. Elevated lines began popping up in the 1880s and surface steam railroads such as the Brighton line began operating shortly after the Civil War, both of which were later incorporated into the subway system now operated by the MTA.
Not all the railroads survived, of which the Manhattan Beach line is an example. Like the Brighton line, it was originally operated to take city goers to luxurious suburban seashore hotels such as the Brighton and Manhattan Beach Hotels, both long since gone, not to shuttle commuters from outlying Brooklyn to the “City,” its primary purpose today. (The Sea Beach line operating to the Sea Beach hotel and the Canarsie Railroad are yet other examples of former railroads incorporated into the subway system.
Back to the Times article. Most of the property formerly belonging to the Manhattan Beach Railroad adjacent to East 18th Street was sold in 1924, except for a small portion of the right-of-way in question. A spokesman for the MTA believes the LIRR still technically owns the land. However since some homeowners have decided to extend their backyards and build structures on it, ownership is no longer cut and dry. Since the LIRR abandoned the property so long ago, due to squatter’s rights, the property may actually now belong to the homeowners. The Times states. “In 1959, the Freedmans joined 11 other property-owners in a legal agreement recognizing ‘the right of each of the other parties to possess and enjoy by right of adverse possession, that part of the said 20-foot strip immediately to the rear of or abutting the lot owned by each of the other parties.’” It will be up to the courts to decide, should the MTA decide to make an issue of it. Earlier this year, the owners of a two-story house and an adjoining vacant lot on East 18th Street sued to legally claim the railroad land that borders their property.
Of course, had the MTA or the Long Island Railroad not forgotten about the unsold portion of the right-of-way, the land could have been formally sold to the homeowners, with the MTA and taxpayers being the beneficiary of the proceeds. Oh well.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).