January 2023

Rabbits Island

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

If you've ever taken the Long Island Railroad out of Manhattan's Penn Station, then shortly after emerging from one of the East River Tunnels into Queens you've passed through a massive rail yard, a vast parking lot for coaches belonging to Amtrak, the LIRR, and even New Jersey Transit (whose business lies one island and a continent to the west.)

This holding pen of parallel tracks where sleeping cars sleep and Pullmans wait to get pulled is called the Sunnyside Yard. All us kids in Woodside called it Rabbits Island.

When it was constructed in 1910, the Sunnyside Yard was the world's largest coach yard, nearly 200 acres containing 25 miles of track if you laid them out end to end.

Technically, Amtrak owns the whole place. When I was ten, though, it belonged to me.

Rabbits Island—or just "Rabbits," as we often shortened it—was my favorite playground, a forbidden world of trains, tracks, trails, abandoned cars, railroad detritus, and the excitement which attended the dual dangers of imagined peril—getting captured or killed by the Germans while on a secret mission behind enemy lines—and real trouble—getting arrested for trespassing.

I think Rabbits Island got its name because there was a bridge off 43rd Street near Barnett Avenue which spanned a single set of Amtrak rails. It had to pass very high over the line since Amtrak uses catenary for its trains. We typically scooted down either side of the bridge and then scrambled below it to pass unobserved into our familiar turf. That big bridge gave the place a sense of being separate from the rest of Sunnyside. As for the rabbits, I never saw a single hare.

The fences bounding Rabbits Island now are topped with coils of razor wire, but when we were kids we could walk right in. Anyway, the best barbed wire they had then was the classic variety developed to corral cattle, just braided strands of steel wire with spiky clusters every foot or so. Even today it poses little trouble to me, but with smaller hands when I was ten or eleven it was literally child's play to scale a cyclone fence topped with three parallel lines of the stuff.

Sometimes we biked to Rabbits Island. The best way—the route with maximum adventure—was on foot, especially if we began near the 61st Street Station where the LIRR intersects the New York Subway's 7 train. From there we walked alongside and just below the raised LIRR trackbed, breathing in the smell of creosote-treated railroad ties and listening for the rumble of an oncoming train which sent us scurrying for cover. We passed stealthily behind the backs of small light-industrial buildings—auto-body shops, tool and die shops, warehouses, a sign maker—and dashed across short trestles which passed over Woodside's narrow streets. It was a secret passage hidden in plain sight, a nebulous margin of brush and gravel which thousands of commuters vacantly stare at every day but never really see. We knew every inch of it.

This rail route to Rabbits Island held one more challenge, one more dose of maximum adventure. Just as trains roll over trestles, they sometimes roar through tunnels…. Before you reached the big coach yard, there was a short but harrowingly narrow concrete tunnel, probably no more than 50 yards in length. Through its square aperture you could clearly see Rabbits Island at the other end. The problem was, unless you waited for an LIRR train to go through or got lucky and one went past just as you approached, you didn't know if you might meet the express halfway into your run. And we were never patient enough to wait.

If sprinting along a trestle's gravel trackbed 40 feet above traffic got your blood flowing, the all-out, do-or-die sprint through that tunnel left you heaving for air and slightly sick to your stomach with adrenalin surge.

But now you were "on" Rabbits Island. Off in the distance you could see the Swingline Staplers factory on Skillman Avenue with its iconic sign atop the building touting "Easy Loading." And passing in front went yet another 7 train, its otherwise lifeless cars joyfully adorned with graffiti, some of them "whole car" pieces, literally a moving mural by the likes of Tracy, Chi-Chi, and the legendary Woodside native, Caine 1.

But remember, it wasn't Sunnyside Yard and Long Island City, it was deep in Germany's industrial heartland somewhere in 1944. The derelict Railway Express Agency building looked like a bombed out factory in the Ruhr—and that's just what it was. We had orders to blow up a critical section of the rail yard and deal another crippling blow to the Nazi war machine.

If we rode our Ross or Schwinn bikes, we could race along a maze of trails which ran through a small patch of woods. One day we discovered that some genius had constructed a ramp at the base of a short but very steep hill by rolling a 55-gallon oil drum on its side then placing a car's hood (back when cars had hoods made of steel) over it at nearly a 45-degree angle. It wasn't a ramp so much as a launch pad!

But the best thing to do at Rabbits Island—the activity for maximum adventure—was hitching rides on the slow-moving Amtrak trains. Just a few hundred yards up the tracks from where the big bridge went over the line, there was a huge cleaning station, a car wash for trains with foam sprayers and giant angled brushes that scrubbed the long coaches as they slowly pulled through it.

After half the train had crept through the cleaning station, we'd run alongside a passenger car and grab onto the steel handrail flanking the door at either end of the car. Then you'd hoist yourself up onto the steps and enjoy the ride for half a mile or so until you started to get close to the busy part of the yard where there were workers moving about and the fearful specter of railroad detectives who could arrest you or, so went the unquestioned mythos, shoot you with "pepper guns" as you ran away. What a pepper gun was—whether they actually existed—and what they fired remains a mystery, but everyone knew you couldn't run far if you got winged by one.

Our parents never found out about our forays to Rabbits Island. I told my mother about playing there when I was in my late 20s and she nearly had a retroactive heart attack. Every time I've taken the train through the Sunnyside Yard I've carefully scanned its familiar corners, hoping to catch a glimpse of some adventurous kids. But security has increased and kids' interests have changed. To be fair, though, the LIRR trains go through the heart of the yard where there are all kinds of workers and cops, so savvy kids wouldn't play in that area. And if they did I'd never see them anyway: they'd be well hidden in order to avoid enemy patrols.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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