Rails and Regattas on Flushing Creek, Queens

Among the hidden waterways of New York City, Flushing Creek is my favorite as I continue to find more historical photos, maps, and stories along its course. Among the photos from a century ago is one of Wahnetah Boat Club, which stood on the west bank of Flushing Creek next to Flushing Bridge.

wahnetah 1906.JPG

On the 1906 image above from Jason Antos’ book on Flushing, the scene would be unrecognizable today. Taken from the Northern Boulevard Bridge, we see a rowboat heading towards the Whitestone Branch trestle, with the Lawrence family’s Willow Bank estate in the background. The family’s roots here date to 1643, but they knew their ancestry going back to the Crusades and the Roman period!

Where This Was

downtown today

To get a good understanding of this section of Flushing Creek, I modified a DoITT NYCity Map to show today’s most visible structures along this reach. Wahnetah was located opposite the site of Town Dock, the main point of arrival in Flushing prior to the construction of Flushing Bridge.

Wahnetah Boat Club

Prior to urbanization the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan had numerous yacht clubs and rowing clubs located along their shorelines. Harlem River hosted more than a dozen in the early 20th century, as I noted in my essay on Sherman Creek. But I had no idea that Flushing Creek had its own rowing scene.

wahnetah 1905

The most descriptive article on Wahnetah appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Nov. 12, 1905, describing it as “among the first clubs in the East.” The club was founded in 1900 as the successor to the Nereus club that dates to 1875. In its glowing description of Wahnetah, the newspaper noted that it has 34 boats that competed in New York, Philadelphia, and Worcester, Mass. But it also noted that as new golf courses opened acorss Queens, that sport took many spectators and participants away from boating. Wahnetah is a Native name associated with a tribe in northeast Pennsylvania. Nereus was an ancient Greek sea god.

wahnetah 1.JPG

The design of the boathouse enabled for the storage of long boats, and its balconies provided excellent views of boat races, as seen in this undated colorized postcard. Next to it the Flushing Bridge of 1906 had the appearance of a medieval fort guarding the approach to town. The club appears to have ended operations by 1917, when its members organized a “veterans association,” as reported in New York Times. But the name still appears in Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1923 as a competitor on Flushing Bay. It made sense by then to leave the site as Flushing Creek was becoming increasingly industrial with gravel, cement, and coal yards lining its banks and barges crowding out the rowboats.

1938 wahnetah.JPG

Was the boat house demolished upon the club’s dissolution? I am not so sure. In 1938, city photographer Percy Loomis Sperr captioned this photo as “just north of Northern Boulevard, looking east from the river’s west bank.” If that’s the case, then the dilapidated structure here is not the club house, but once in a while a caption could be mistaken in its description.

wahnetah today.JPG

There’s hardly any maritime traffic these days at the site of the clubhouse, although there are docks for cement barges on the northern side of Flushing Bridge. The creek here is not ideal for rowing.

Whitestone Branch

wahnetah 1906

Returning to our title photo, the train track behind Wahnetah carried the Long Island Railroad’s Whitestone Branch across the creek. There was hardly any clearance here for a ship to pass, let alone a rowboat. This was a swing bridge that turned sideway to enable vessels traffic. This train line was built in 1869, running from present-day Flushing Meadows to Whitestone Landing with stops in Flushing, College Point, and Malba. It was a “stepchild” of the system with only one track, and more than a dozen grade crossings.

In the 1920s it failed to turn a profit and the railroad sought to transfer it ot the city for a subway concersion, as it had done with some of its Brooklyn lines. The city had no interest and despite the efforts of local residents, the last train crossed the creek on Feb. 12, 1932 and the bridge was quickly removed soon afterward. It’s sad to think that Queens had more train stations a century ago when it had fewer residents than today when such a train line would be very useful.

1937 reach.JPG

In this 1937 aerial survey from the NYPL collection showing the municipal asphalt plant at Harper Street, we see train tracks dead-end at the water’s edge on top of the photo. This stub was the remnant of Whitestone Branch used for train storage into the 1970s.

Port Washington Branch

1937 tidal gate

In the above photo from NYC Parks Archives, we wee the Port Washington Branch crossing Flushing Creek, with the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge in the background and Tidal Gate Bridge under construction. The track paralleling the creek is the dead-end stub of the Whitestone Branch, used for another half century for train storage.

1940 tidal gate

In this NYC Parks Archives photo we see Tidal Gate Bridge protecting the fairgrounds from tidal fluctuations and storm surges. It also closed the creek to boat traffic. The eelvated walkway connecting the 7 subway train, the Port Washington Branch and the fairgrounds still stands today. Branching off from the active train line is the spur that carried the Whitestone Branch; and on the lower right is the double-decker Roosevelt Avenue Bridge.

tidal nypl

Above we see an aerial photo from NYPL Digital Collections of the fairgrounds under construction, with the Tidal Gate Bridge and Port Washington Branch highlighted. I was not sure if this train crossing opened for boat traffic, as the creek upstream did not have any docks or businesses, except for the Corona ash dump. But I also know that a mile upstream  Strong’s Causeway had a drawbridge and there were plans in the early 20th century to transform Flushing Creek into a cross-borough canal.

1922 lirr plan.jpg

A plan of the train tracks from 1922 indicates that indeed there was a drawbridge here that enabled boats to travel further inland on Flushing Creek. On its east bank, a short spur (not seen above) branched off to serve a factory. Prior to 1876, that spur ran further east along Kissena Creek, merging with the LIRR central line at Floral Park. Had this line survived into the 20th century, it would have picked up commuters in Auburndale, Fresh Meadows, and Hollis Hills. Instead, most of its route had been repurposed as Kissena Corridor Park. The railroad’s drawbridge was useless at this point.

tidal today.JPG

At some point after the World’s Fair, the useless trestle was lined with earth and today’s trains run atop a causeway, with a pipe beneath to enable water to flow. The lack of flow means less favorable conditions for native plants and aquatic life.

USACE flush 2007.JPG

Fortunately the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recognizes that as this section of Flushing Creek has no boat traffic, it has become an unintentional nature preserve, but subject to pollution from a CSO that discharges sewage during heavy rains. It 2007 it conducted a study of natural conditions between the Port Washington Branch tracks and the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge. Bound by train tracks, the Van Wyck Expressway and Corona Yard, this section of the creek is nearly inaccessible to the public.

Today there again a boating scene on Flushing Creek at Meadow Lake and on Flushing Bay with the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, TASCA, and Row New York plying the creek.

riverkeep.JPG

In 2018, the advocacy groups Riverkeeper and Guardians of Flushing Bay published the Flushing Waterways Visioning Plan that aims to expand public access to Flushing Creek with a boardwalk on the site of Wahnetah Boat Club, a new waterfront park near the site of Willow Bank, and a gateway to the park near the Harper Street yard.

I support this plan but at the same time I do not want to see the remaining concrete plants displaced. Their use of the creek to deliver its products means fewer trucks on the roads, and provides for views of an actively used waterfront. As long as industries keep their properties clean and keep runoff out of the creek, they should have a place in this plan. And if it reduces overcrowding on the 7 train and the Port Washington Branch, why not revive ferry service on Flushing Creek to serve residents of the recent waterfront developments?

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2 thoughts on “Rails and Regattas on Flushing Creek, Queens

  1. Dave in DE February 26, 2019 / 6:35 pm

    Very good article sir! When I was a kid in the 60’s the Creek had already been totally polluted and stunk. Nice to see a bit of it’s previous glory being recovered. Dave in DE.

    Like

  2. Andrew February 27, 2019 / 11:25 pm

    Enjoyed your historic photos and detail of active row clubs in Flushing.

    Like

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