LIC’s Wheelspur Yard / Poultry Market – Past, Present & FutureMarch 11th, 2013 by Bad Guy Joe
On the north shore of Newtown creek lays a plot of land with a strangely unique history - a place that was once a rail yard, then a poultry market and later an office for small businesses and other food distributors. All of these are gone now, and soon this land will become a rail yard once again. In a city where real estate is at a premium - such a full circle transformation is unheard of - especially in an area such as L.I.C. - where the city's industrial past has rapidly been whitewashed to make way for high priced housing. Mix in the drama of flooding and fire caused by Hurricane Sandy, and you've got a unique New York story.
The key ingredient to this most unlikely tale is that the Long Island Rail Road has owned this property since the 1800s. In the early 1900s, L.I.C. was the hub of the LIRR. There were no tunnels built to Manhattan just yet. All of the property south of Borden Avenue, east of where the present day Pulaski bridge is and west of Dutch Kills (a creek), was one huge rail yard for storing passenger trains. This yard was called 'Wheelspur Yard'. (Note, that the passenger yard west of the Pulaski is generally known as the 'LIC coach yard' - a much larger station with canopies and station building once resided here). Some of the land immediately south of Borden was converted to various buildings - most notable at the moment is the headquarters of Fresh Direct. Behind these buildings lays an LIRR track which, up until very recently, was used a few diesel passenger train runs out to Long Island. South of this track is the location we're focusing on today.
According to Arrt's Archive, Wheelspur yard was in use from the 1800s until around 1930. it was reopened from 1939-1940 for storing trains for the World's Fair. After this it was used by the Pennsylvania Rail Road (PRR) (which owned the LIRR at the time) to store their passenger trains - until around 1958. PRR kept these cars warm with steam heat generated by several old steam locomotives which were parked and used exclusively for this purpose. Right around this time is when the poultry market came to be. It didn't seem to last very long though - the internet is currently devoid of any mention of it having existed.
At least 2 modern-ish buildings were built here, likely around the 1950s. The furthest to the west was an office building, and the one furthest east was merely a double ended loading dock, where freight cars could be parked on one side and trucks on the other. The middle building may have been a conversion of an old RR shop building - see the photos and judge for yourself. I couldn't find any information on this, and by the time we got in it was too burned up to get a good interior assessment.
Historic maps show these buildings to be 'The NYC poultry market'. One can assume perhaps that the NYC Government tried to run a chicken market here, much like the old Fulton Fish Market or the huge Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx. Whatever the case was, by the 1990s it was being rented out to various food distribution companies. Upon the time of our inspection, leftover cans of Asian food littered the eastern building.
Meanwhile, the westernmost office building hosted a slew of small businesses: a lawyers office, an industrial real estate firm, a messenger service and carpentry shop.
All of these tenants were unceremoniously evicted or otherwise pushed out by the MTA sometime between 2010 and the summer of 2012. They had no idea how lucky they were.
On the evening of October 29th 2012, Newtown creek overflowed its artificial banks. A surge of at least 4-6 feet of water rushed inland. The buildings on the property were hit hard. Much of the contents of the first floor floated out and pushed up against the western fence. Fresh Direct's delivery truck fleet was parked in the lot next door and also sustained heavy damage, putting Fresh Direct out of business for a short while.
Barely 3 weeks later, a major fire broke out in the middle building, where an auto shop was located. The cause of this fire is unknown to me, but it is very possible that the demolition crew tasked with cleaning out these buildings didn't realize it was flood damaged - and an electrical short brought the building to a full blaze, not unlike all of the homes on the Jersey Shore and Rockaway that burned up during and just after the hurricane. The 2nd alarm fire here even brought a response from one of FDNY's fire boats.
All of the flooding and fire just added drama to the conversion of this property. The buildings were slated to be demolished regardless.
Mere hours after the fire was out, we arrived. We didn't know there had been a fire, but were not terribly surprised with all of the destruction that unfolded post-Hurricane Sandy. Myself and Ntwrkguy made the trip, evading Fresh Direct's rent-a-cop security in order to gain access. Once on the property everything was a breeze.
The most interesting part was the office building. The fire had been confined to the 2nd building, leaving the offices 99% untouched (thanks FDNY). Many of the companies that rented space here left a ton of stuff behind - and the stuff on the second floor was not pushed out of the building by Hurricane Sandy's flood waters. The best of the lot was the construction company that left behind tons of blueprints for various jobs. Who doesn't love staring at blueprints? We could have spent all night foraging that pile for paper gems.
Shocking but true, two of these buildings have now been demolished to make way for a freight yard. The LIRR has been keen on getting their tenant freight railroad - the New York and Atlantic (NY&A)- out of the nearby 'arch street' yard - which they can use as part of their East Side Access project (they already took over most of Arch Street to build a new shop building). In building a new yard for the NY&A at the old Wheelspur yard, the LIRR can trade and get the rest of Arch street. The NY&A, on the other hand, now gets a similar sized property to maintain their existing customers, and the advantage of a transload yard on Newtown creek, enabling potential direct maritime-to-rail transfer. For the first time since the early 1980's there will be freight customers on the track west of the dutch kills creek drawbridge.
This won't be the first time since the 80's that a freight train has come across the drawbridge. Just this last summer (2012), the NY&A used it to park freight cars in the newly rebuilt Blissville yard (the cars have to be backed in from over the bridge).
While it's sad to see the equally old yard at Arch Street taken out of freight service, it's a definitely plus that Wheelspur is being used for it's replacement. NYC is currently (and rather severely) under-served by freight rail. The cost of delivering goods to NYC via truck drives up consumer prices for everything - from lumber to Chinese food. Overall, I'd give this land reuse a thumbs up for smart urban planning. L.I.C. (and NYC on a whole) needs some real estate devoted to moving goods in and out of town. The dwindling space for delivering goods has driven up costs for just about everything when compared to just about every other major city in the US - all of which receive significantly more goods via rail than truck - but this is all fodder for another article.
(thanks to Arrrrt's archive for much of the history info above - as well as the older historic photos)