The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 5, “East Side Story”: Islands off the U.S. Coast

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

Five, very mixed, island-rail scenes are covered here, all in the USA and close by its mainland coast: one still active today, the others long – in some cases, very long – defunct. It so happens that all sites concerned are on the eastern side of the country. Grateful acknowledgements to Thomas Kautzor for information re this piece.

Starting at the northernmost point and working “down the map”: a little way off the southernmost mainland coast of the state of Massachusetts are the two islands of Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. Both are “thinnish”, 20 to 30 kilometres long; low-lying; reputedly quite idyllic, and with a long standing as holiday resorts of a fairly up-market kind. Earlier on, up to roughly the mid-nineteenth century, their chief livelihood was whaling, with fleets venturing to distant parts of the globe. In the islands’ “resort” era, each island had, independently, a 914mm (3 feet) gauge railway. In both cases, the lines were fairly short-lived and not very successful; and from the perspective of the present day, all took place in the distant past.

Martha’s Vineyard, though larger than its neighbouring island, had the railway of somewhat lesser magnitude. The Martha’s Vineyard Railroad was opened in 1874, running along the island’s eastern side between Oak Bluffs, the principal ferry terminal for the mainland; Edgartown, the island’s main community; and the resort of Katama Lodge. A short extension to South Beach followed in 1876, bringing the line’s total final length to 14km.

Initial power was a steam railcar; this unit proved unsatisfactory, despite modifications – among its defects, was a problem with coping with the line’s curves. An 0-6-0 built by Porter (201/1874) was bought to replace it – this loco bore a succession of different names during its island career. Rolling stock comprised two or three coaches, and a baggage car; the line is understood to have been passenger-only. From the outset, the MVR -- which ran only in the tourist-season, more summery part of the year – was bedevilled by financial problems; it experienced several changes of ownership in its brief lifetime. As things came about, the line did not even last to see the new century; the section south of Edgartown was abandoned in 1894, and the remainder in 1896.

Martha’s Vineyard also had a tram system of sorts, which both pre-existed and outlived the steam line. The island’s trams – gauge not known for sure, but an “educated guess” might suggest 914mm – began operation, horse-hauled, in 1871. Their first section appears to have been a spin-off from the tradition among American zealous Christian believers, of evangelising-and-morale-boosting “camp meetings”, for which Martha’s Vineyard was long a favourite venue. It is recounted that the 1871-opened section ran directly from the boat terminal to one of the main camp-meeting sites, avoiding the heart of Oak Bluffs – which tiny ferry port was seemingly regarded by the godly, as a wicked City of the Plain full of potential sources of temptation.

The tram system expanded modestly from this beginning: its maximum extent comprised 11km, basically in the Oak Bluffs area, and involved the routes of several different and often competing companies. More ambitious plans set out for tramways to cover much of the island, were never realised. By some accounts, there developed within the small compass which the tram network did serve, a scene of on-rails big business and cut-throat rivalry – taking on the aspect of a Lilliputian version of that era’s ferocious wars between main-line railroad barons. In the mid-1890s, the transistion was made from horse to electric traction. Quoting one source: “In 1914, the street railway companies were buying and selling portions of one another’s rails. The result was confusion.” One begins to have thoughts of the whole thing’s having potential for inspiring a rail-oriented comic film à la “Oh, Mr. Porter”... The USA’s entry into the First World War in 1917 apparently put a stop to the fun: tram services on Martha’s Vineyard abruptly ended, and the rails were lifted and sent to Europe for use on the Western Front.

Nantucket, the neighbouring island, had for a while a 914mm gauge railway (never any trams). The line, opened 1881 – 1884, ran from Nantucket town (here, the ferry port in its own right) southward to the far side of the island, thence along the coast to Siasconset, maximum total 18km. Steam locomotives were mostly obtained second-hand from 914mm railways on the mainland – a couple over the line’s lifetime, came from the Boston, Revere Beach & Lynn, a narrow-gauge Boston suburban line with a lifespan 1875 – 1940 (electrified 1928). Passenger stock was got at least in part, second-hand from the briefly 914mm gauge New York & Manhattan Beach line. One – in appearance, seemingly relatively luxurious – coach, has survived up to the present day, converted to a bar / restaurant on the island. It is thought that as with the Martha’s Vineyard line, Nantucket’s railway carried no freight – and for much of its life, ran only in the summer tourist season.

As was the case with its steam counterpart on Martha’s Vineyard, the Nantucket line underwent in its lifetime successive financial ups-and-downs, and a number of changes of ownership. One such was concurrent with a severe storm in 1893, which obliterated an exposed section of the line on the south coast. This resulted in truncation of services for a year or so, while the railway went into new ownership and was rerouted inland of the devastated stretch, shortening the route length by some 3km. Nantucket’s railway was never a great success or money-spinner, but for the period when the twentieth century succeeded to the nineteenth, it was able to survive by reason of the forbidding, essentially, of private-car use on the island.

One ownership-change, in 1907, occasioned a brief upturn: the new owner was able to secure a mail-delivery contract, whereupon the railway came to operate year-round. This innovator replaced steam with a new Fairbanks-Morse petrol railmotor, with a ten-passenger capacity. A revolution which proved short-lived; in 1910 the railway changed hands yet again, to a proprietor who seemed not into newfangled internal-combustion gadgets. He reorganised the line, introducing a brand-new Alco 2-4-4T as motive power. 1917 brought the whole thing to an end, thanks to two complementary factors. Restrictions on private cars on the island were lifted; and with the USA’s entering World War I, the railway was abandoned and dismantled, and its rails – plus the new Alco machine – were shipped across the Atlantic for war use.

The Nantucket narrow-gauge line, and the Martha’s Vineyard trams, thus suffered basically the same fate and for the same reason. However; even given no World War I, or the US’s never getting into that conflict – either undertaking’s lasting long past 1917, would seem very unlikely.

The next location down the coast may be seen as an unlikely one for this piece; but in this “Garland” series, the author reserves the right to break his own rules – in this case, to include a portion of one of the world’s most prominent cities. Staten Island is one of the five boroughs of New York City, and a slightly unlikely member of that company: geographically closer to the continental State of New Jersey, from which it is separated by a narrow water channel; whereas Brooklyn, the nearest other borough of the city, lies a couple of kilometres away across salt water. Staten Island is generally reckoned the most nearly-rural part of the big city; other New Yorkers tend to see its inhabitants as being a little country-bumpkinish and behind the times. Up to 1964, the only direct link between Staten Island and the rest of the city was by ferry. In that year, the Verrazano-Narrows road suspension bridge was opened, linking Brooklyn with the island; however, the ferries remain busily in service.

The island – approximate shape, an irregularly-sided triangle -- has been rail-served since opening if its first line in 1860. Its system, always 1435mm gauge, was for long a subsidiary of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad; which used it, plus passenger and freight ferries, to gain access to New York City itself. Historically, the island’s railways have comprised three lines, fanning out from St. George at the island’s north-eastern extremity, the ferry terminal for other parts of the city. One route parallels the island’s longest, south-eastern side, running for 23km to Tottenville near the island’s southernmost point. Another, the North Shore branch, closely followed the island’s northern side for 11km to the New Jersey boundary, thence further west to junctions at Linden and Cranford, with parts of the country’s interconnected rail network. A 7km branch from Clifton, a little way south of St. George, followed the shore to South Beach.

The St. George – Tottenville route is the only remaining part of the Staten Island system with a passenger service. It has third-rail electrification, and is operated by the New York City Transit Authority, essentially as an isolated portion of the New York subway system, with modified versions of the subways’ standard rolling stock. Electrification on the third-rail system was carried out on all three of the island’s lines in 1925; however, passenger services were withdrawn in 1953 on the North Shore and South Beach branches, and the latter was abandoned. The North Shore line stayed in use for freight, providing the physical link for freight traffic to the island’s rail system, until the early 1990s. After a period of disuse, parts of this line at its western end were reopened for freight in 2007. Plans have been floated for a possible light-rail system to serve parts of the island, which would involve passenger reopening of the North Shore branch.

Parts of Staten Island were at one time served by electric tram routes, the last of which ceased to run in 1934. The island also played host for a while to trolleybuses – going by the photographs, these were of an extremely primitive kind. It is understood that the currently operational St. George – Tottenville rail line affords quite a pleasant ride: over an unusual and above-ground detached portion of the New York subway, as near to a bucolic branch as that mass-transit system can offer.

There was an “island line” in the USA which was, and remains, better known than many; but which nonetheless had a spectacularly short life-span – 23 years. This was the Florida East Coast Railroad’s extension to Key West – at the end of the Florida Keys: a chain of islands a little way above sea-level, which runs some 150km south-west from the tip of continental Florida south of Miami. Famous in its brief life, as “the railroad which goes to sea” – it hopped from island to island, over long viaducts (the longest single stretch of same, 11km) crossing the sea between them.

The name intimately associated and identified with the Key West line, is that of Henry Flagler, 1830 – 1913: an entrepreneur and railway magnate who was responsible more than anyone else, for making Florida into a tourist destination par excellence. He was the driving force for his Florida East Coast Railroad’s reaching Miami in 1896: he then set his eyes on Key West, at the end of the Keys chain – great tourist potential; plus, Key West was the nearest point in the USA to Havana, the capital of Cuba. Enticing and lucrative possibilities offered, involving ferry services.

Flagler set in motion from 1904, the extending of the FECR from Miami to Key West. Construction once the mainland was left behind, was arduous, difficult, expensive, and time-consuming – with hurricanes, a recurrent scourge of this part of the world, making matters harder still. Regular services between Miami and Key West did not begin until early 1912. The aged Flagler was able to attend the opening ceremony, and experience his dream coming true. The new line, crossing the sea to Key West, was thenceforth marvelled at; hyped at times, as “the eighth wonder of the world”; during its short life, it gave considerable delight to tourists. Ferry facilities for Havana, for passengers and for freight cars running through between the US and Cuban rail systems, were put in place. A through express, the “Havana Special”, ran between New York and Key West in just under 38 hours – its popularity enhanced by the prohibition of alcoholic drink in the USA between 1920 and 1933; no such nonsense obtained in Cuba just across the water.

The Key West line was always expensive to run, including its having to operate many water trains, which earned no revenue, to supply that commodity to fresh-water-bereft outposts en route -- and to the steam locos which worked the line throughout its existence). The onset of the economic depression of the 1930s, plus the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 (fewer US citizens eager to visit Cuba to imbibe), lessened patronage of the line, and receipts from it. An already parlous situation economically, was pushed over the edge by an act of nature at the beginning of September 1935. A severe hurricane hit the Florida Keys, washing away some 60km of the rail route. The FECR, already unhappy with their loss-making extension, seized on this chance essentially to abandon it; they retained the part of the route south of Miami but still on the mainland, and sold the rest to the state of Florida, with view making of a road route. 1935 was a horribly bad year for light railways and “fringe” rail lines generally, worldwide; the Key West line, and England’s Lynton & Barnstaple, were only two casualties among many in that hapless year.

The Key West line’s bridges and viaducts between islands, proved more durable than its roadbed actually on island terra firma; as per plan, they have been adapted on a large scale for the making of a highly effective roadway from the mainland to Key West. Had Mr. Flagler been endowed with second-sight regarding the nearish future – or with a lesser degree of tunnel vision concerning railways – he might have foreseen a very short life for his dream, and decided to let it remain just a dream. However, that’s what his compatriots call “alternate history”.

Going further west, but still basically on the country’s eastern side: much of the coast of Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico, is fringed by long and very narrow islands, separated from the mainland by lagoons. The port of Galveston is situated at the eastern end of one such island, some 30km long. This scene played host for a while, to a 914mm gauge railway – briefly, troublously, and not very successfully, as was often the case with minor lines in the USA. The idea which set things rolling, was for a narrow-gauge rail route to start out westward from Galveston; at first along the island, then crossing over to the mainland and continuing to points westward or south-westward, on the national rail network. The first undertaking to try to implement this plan was the Galveston, Brazos & Colorado Railway (à propos of this area and time, the word “railway” seems to have been preferred to “railroad”). During 1876 / 77, the GB & C laid about 25km of track out of Galveston, running along the island to a location called Seaforth – the furthest point reached by the line. The railway served little purpose traffic-wise, other than hauling sand from pits along its route, into Galveston for foundations / landfill. Between 1878 and 1888, the line went through administrative vicissitudes and changed hands between a number of different owners; it is thought probable that at some point in this period, all traffic on it ceased.

The line’s role as ball in the game of “catch” just described, ended in 1888 with the newly incorporated Galveston & Western Railway taking it over; with the intention, once again, of creating a long-distance narrow-gauge line from Galveston along the island and thence onto the mainland (with a different mainland goal, from that of the GB & C). “Reach exceeding grasp” – the new company managed to bring into use only the section from Galveston to a seaside resort at Lafitte, a few kilometres short of Seaforth. At least, passenger services were instituted, with two return trains per day between Galveston and Lafitte. Early in its existence, the G & W began to facilitate 1435mm gauge access to various sources of freight in Galveston; connecting with the standard-gauge lines entering Galveston from the mainland to the north. A third rail was thus laid along some 8km of the line’s route at the Galveston end.

Island railways in the Americas and their “sphere of influence” would seem to have had a penchant for their lives being ended by natural disasters. The narrow-gauge element of the G & W’s operation perished in this way in 1900, owing once again to a frequent feature of these shores – a hurricane. Not just any hurricane, but a tremendous one which ranks as the most devastating natural disaster to have occurred to date, in the USA. It did immense damage to Galveston and the surrounding area, with a death-toll involving uncertain numbers, but with a guessed-at figure of 8,000 (the “butcher’s bill” of 1,800 for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, pales in comparison). The great storm obliterated the resort at Lafitte, and did much harm to the narrow-gauge line; plus, the City of Galveston subsequently refused permission to the G & W, to rebuild some of its line which involved street running. This meant the end for the 914mm. Some 4 / 5km of standard gauge in Galveston, serving various customers, survived for freight; a local subsidiary of the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad took over the working of this traffic on the G & W’s behalf, in 1910, and purchased the line from them outright in 1923.

This 914mm gauge action on Galveston Island extended over only a quarter-century. Without Mother Nature’s intervention, it might well have lasted rather longer; but as things in fact occurred, this takes the shape of something of a ghost line, knowledge of which is limited – the nature of motive power and rolling stock used, certainly seems shrouded in mystery.

Useful internet links for further information.

Searching Google appropriately for images works well for Martha's Vineyard Railroad (but not the trams), Nantucket Railroad, Staten Island Railway (modern scene) and Key West Railroad.

The following additional links are worth checking out: - “Martha’s Vineyard Railroad Home Page” which has a few historical photos of the steam line. has a fair number of pictures of trams, highly primitive trolleybuses, and a couple of the Staten Island Railway in old times. Set around the Key West Museum – commentary about the line’s history, with some contemporary film clips. “Riding the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad” – reminiscences by aged locals of childhood journeys on the line, with fascinating contemporary film clips.

If anyone knows of suitable material covering the Martha's Vineyard Trams and / or the Galveston Island Railroad, do please get in touch.

Rob Dickinson