Looking back: Thoughts and recollections of Long Island City

Soot covered the streets

There is a building located at 2nd Street between 50th and 51st Avenues in Long Island City. It was called the Pennsylvania Rail Road Building. The building was quite memorable as it had four smoke stacks.

When I was a young boy back in the 1930s and 1940s, those smoke stacks would shoot out soot that would cover the entire neighborhood. It would be everywhere, on the cars, the buildings; you could not even hang out your laundry on the clothes line because it would get all black. If you walked out of your house you would think you were walking on the moon as the soot would cover the sidewalks, too. It was really something to see.

Today, the smoke stacks are gone and the building has a new look. They are still working on the construction and you can see it will be a very beautiful building when it is finished. Nevertheless, it will still keep something from long ago. If you go into the building you will be able to see the steel beams of yesteryear. A piece of the past will still be with us.

Our little “start-up”

When I was a young boy of 10, back in 1940, all of us boys would get together and go down to the railroad tracks. Today if you walked over to 48th Avenue (between Vernon Boulevard and 5th Street) you would see a park with basketball courts and young boys of around the age of 10 would be shooting hoops. Back then, you would see young boys waiting by the tracks for the trains to come in. We were not interested in shooting baskets but more interested in making some money.

When a train would come in, my friends and I would climb up on the train and get a 50-pound bag of coal. We would carefully get down and carry the bag around to our neighbors’ houses. Coal was very important because it was the way people would heat their houses back then. We would go around and sell the coal for 50 cents. That was a lot of money to us back then. We had a great business going.

For our business to be successful, the train had to come in on the first track because it was the track against the wall and easiest for us to get the coal. In those days, the railroad hired private detectives, called steam dicks, who guarded the trains. If they caught anyone stealing anything they would hit you with a big stick. Although we were careful not to get caught we really did not worry about them because we were younger and faster than they were.

In the winter we would wait patiently for the train to arrive on that first track but sometimes we had a problem because it would come in on another track. A lot of people knew of our business and since our prices were better than the coal man, they would ask us when they could buy from us. We hated to say we did not have any coal because the train hadn’t come in.

One cold and snowy winter we knew we had to do something. We came up with an ingenious idea. My friend had a house right next to the rail yard. We went into his yard and cut a hole in the back wall. We put a chute through the hole and when the train came in we filled his whole yard with coal and then quickly took down the chute. This way we had a steady supply of coal for our business. So, now we just went into his yard and filled up bags of coal and sold them. We didn’t have to wait for the train to arrive on the first track since we now had a supply area. Our business prospered – it was a great way to make a living.

Frank Carrado, 80, is known as the unofficial “Mayor” of Long Island City. He has spent his entire life in the neighborhood.

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