Some New Yorkers still lament the loss of the High Line in its abandoned state but there are other disused railways still lying fallow in New York City. One such is the Montauk Cutoff, a railroad line built in the 1900s and located in Long Island City, Queens. Known these days as a haven for urban explorers, the Montauk Cutoff has an interesting history of prosperity and neglect.
The Montauk Cutoff was likely built in 1908 among a wave of other overpasses being constructed in industrial Queens. Called a “cutoff” because it bypassed the bustling city below, the Montauk Cutoff was used to get trains in and out of Sunnyside Yard. At only a third of a mile long, it was quite the popular line until the 1970s when freight traffic in Long Island City began to decrease. During the weekdays, the cutoff was also used to turn locomotives. There was no turntable in Long Island City and thus, the trains were gathered and reversed for an evening commute back. The 1990s ultimately saw the end of this practice too.
Woefully abandoned, the small section of tracks has since hosted its share of occupants. Homeless camps, cat shelters, and shanties were prolific until Hurricane Sandy flooded them out. At one point, the now defunct Sextantworks (aka Wanderlust Projects) organized an event on the Montauk Cutoff tracks (think speakeasy mixed with urban exploration). A guerrilla garden was also established in 2011, and eventually issued a lease by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The volunteer-run project, called Smiling Hogshead Ranch, continues to meet to this day to plant and run workshops.
Though the Montauk Cutoff has officially been decommissioned, the MTA wants to keep tabs on the property for potential future use. However, in 2015, the MTA requested ideas from the community for temporary solutions. A group called the Cutoff Coalition led the charge with a vision of urban architecture that expanded upon the Smiling Hogshead Ranch’s success. At the present, nothing has come to fruition but the most recent revitalization plan sees the Montauk Cutoff transforming into an elevated park. Meanwhile, the City of New York and Amtrak has launched a master planning process for the future of Sunnyside Yard, and any proposal will undoubtedly impact the Montauk Cutoff.
Slow progress means time to tiptoe along the overgrown tracks of the Montauk Cutoff. Check out the view over Queens or perhaps lend a hand to the folks of the Smiling Hogshead Ranch.