One of our Nation’s best known unknowns is the Long Island Motor Parkway, which ran from the eastern part of New York City’s Queens County through Nassau, terminating on the west shore of Lake Ronkonkoma in Western Suffolk. Originally conceived by William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr., great-grandson of the famous Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the popularly called Motor Parkway was designed to give the public pleasant, dustless highway access to those areas in Nassau and Suffolk counties not served by the Long Island Railroad, be a commuting road for those wishing an alternate way to work or home, be a test track for automobiles in those pre-Detroit days, as well as provide a safe, satisfactory route for the world-famous Vanderbilt Cup races, which he also created. The multi-purpose thoroughfare was, according to AUTOMOBILE magazine, in October, 1908, “The world’s first road designed and built for daily use of the automobile.”
In essence, it was the grandfather of our modern superhighways. With the exception of drainage and lighting systems, the Jersey Barrier, cloverleafs and long entrances/exits, all we do in today’s high-speed roads was first introduced in the Motor Parkway. This includes: a limited access, separated right-of-way from all other roads, reinforced concrete pavement, super-elevated curves, steel and concrete bridges, reduced or completely eliminated crossings with other roads and railroads/trolleys, as well as landscaping. All of the above was successfully achieved in this 45-mile long two-lane highway. By October 1908, when it was only one-quarter finished and that section put into operation, there was more reinforced concrete paving in one continuous stretch (12 miles) than in the rest of the 46 continental United States combined!
Public highway construction rapidly made the Motor Parkway an outmoded facility. Abandoned in 1938, only 14 miles in Suffolk County remained for local use. Sections in Nassau County were utilized as power line right-of-way, while Queens’ Cunningham Park segment became a bicycle/jogging path, as well as for horseback riding. The general public largely forgot this pioneering highway landmark over the years, but not entirely.
Several individuals, and later some organizations, strove to keep its memory alive, seeking recognition for its achievements. The Queens portion was put on the National and New York State registers of Historic Places in 2002, through the efforts of the Friends of Cunningham Park, a dedicated park advocacy group.
Recently, new signs have been installed along the Parkway by the New York City Department of Park and recreations telling the history of the Parkway.
It is our hope that the road’s fame will spread so others may realize and appreciate the historical significance the Long Island Motor Parkway has had in the lives and culture of “a Nation on wheels.”