On the fabric of every southwest-northeast street of the Bushwick grid, a subtle disjoint somewhere between Irving and Wyckoff Avenues marks the scar of a 19th-century railroad that once cut through the entire length of the neighborhood. This forgotten line originally carried passengers from the Greenpoint waterfront to Manhattan Beach, and for the following century supplied freight to Bushwick industries. Few residents would have reason to notice the Evergreen Branch from street level, but in satellite images a straight-arrow track through Bushwick still jumps out, traced by parking lots, scrapyards and mismatched modern buildings.
We followed the vanished right-of-way with filmmaker Francis Arpaia, walking from one old junction at the edge of Cemetery of the Evergreens to the other beside English Kills. Along the way we tried to recreate the traversal with a nod to one of cinema’s oldest camera tricks, the locomotive-mounted phantom ride. The narrow fault line has sprouted everything from (slightly radioactive) grassy lots and apartment buildings to a coal yard, a supermarket, a senior citizens center, a White Castle drive-thru, and a 9/11 memorial.
The Evergreen Branch began life in 1878 as a segment of the narrow-gauge New York and Manhattan Beach Railway, offering Manhattanites a service "By Rail to the Sea." This began with a short connection on the excursion steamer Sylvan Grove from 23rd Street to a terminal on Greenpoint’s Bushwick Inlet. (The Sylvan Grove later ended up plying a beach service in Cape Fear, North Carolina, where it lies on the bottom after burning and sinking in 1891.) From Greenpoint day trippers would speed on "double track, steel rails over entire road" to Manhattan Beach. Express trains made the entire 14.25-mile run with only one stop in East New York. Bushwick residents, however, could hop on the local service at stations on Varick, DeKalb, Myrtle and Cooper Avenues.
In 1885 this direct line became less necessary when the LIRR’s Long Island City service at Fresh Pond was linked up to the Bay Ridge Branch just below Cooper Avenue. The Greenpoint segment was dropped in 1886, and its right-of-way has all but vanished. Bushwick’s piece of the line remained, however, as the Evergreen Branch, running a passenger shuttle until 1894 before transitioning entirely to local freight service for the 20th century.
A 1920s map of freight consignees shows the industrial needs served by these rails. Though outdone by the thicket of industry lining the Bushwick Branch above Johnson Avenue, the Evergreen Branch served a string of customers like Marka Storage Battery Co., Inc., Englander Spring Bed Co., Rubel Coal & Ice Corp., and Master Bakers Purchasing Association. A gap between consignees in the neighborhood’s residential core foreshadows where eight blocks from Himrod Street to Starr Street would be removed from service – and the annoyance of a level crossing on every block – in 1939.
Other portions followed suit as road freight took over in subsequent decades, until the LIRR finally acquired and discontinued the last remnant of the line in 1984. The sole freight customer left to be inconvenienced was a lumber yard above Putnam Avenue, now the soon-to-expand footprint of the Wyckoff Food Bazaar.
The lowest stretch from Cooper to Eldert became something marked on maps (up to and including Google’s) as "Old Railroad Grade Alley," though any actual alley is now divided up between fenced back lots and factory yards. The rest of its former right-of-way, aside from the odd piece of rail rising up through cracked pavement, is marked only by the uses that the neighborhood has made of the narrow gaps. Apartment site, scrapyard, parking lot, drive-thru, or memorial: the city reclaims its own.