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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Luckenbach Pier Explosion and Streetcars

Photo from the organization that is supporting the Waterfront Streetcar Line.  It just so happens that this rendition is showing buildings on the west side of Third Avenue near 33 or 35th Street, so near the site of the  explosion in 1956.

  Many of you from the New York area have heard about news to bring back streetcars along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront.  The mayor of the City of New York said that he will support this project and this did get and continues to get much press.  This proposed line is supposed to run from Astoria in Queens to Sunset Park in Brooklyn.  The above image comes from the group that is supporting this project.  This project is not without its' critics, however.  The above picture shows  a streetcar that appears to be running under the Gowonas Expressway, actually Third Avenue.  Notice that the car is wireless and it appears to be in the western lane of the avenue.  While I am not sure, this artist's picture appears to be on Third Avenue, under the highway in the 30's.
   Whenever I am in this area, the general Sunset Park area, I get a strange feeling dealing with the Luckenbach Pier explosion that occurred on December 3, 1956 at 35th Street.  I was in the first grade at the time and though I was not near the explosion, it left a mark on me.  Also at this time, which was only 33 days after the Church Avenue Trolley stopped running, I wonder what it would have been to be in the trolley at the First Avenue Loop, at 39th Street and First Avenue, at the time of the explosion just four blocks away?  Of course, the trolleys stopped running 33 days before but what was it like in the diesel bus at the loop at the time of the explosion?

    I happened to be near the intersection of 39th Street and Third Avenue a few days ago and I spoke to a merchant that was in the area on that faithful day.  The glass skylight caved in at his store but thank G-d, no one was hurt. Notice the highway above.   The store owner told me that the force of the explosion caused a piece of metal to drop from the highway and hit a young boy in the head near his store.  The boy died immediately.  There were 10 fatalities on that day, none Fire Department personnel but over 200 civilians were injured.

  It is funny that streetcars may come to this area again, even though it may take decades.  This area is so rich in transit history.  There was a Third Avenue Trolley along the street that our new streetcar may someday travel.  Above, the Third Avenue-Fifth Avenue  BMT el ran to Bay Ridge.  Our beloved Church Avenue, and Eight Avenue trolleys ran on 39th Street.  South Brooklyn RR had a yard in the area, full with trolley wires.  Historic 19th Century train stations were in the area and so on.   West End and Culver Subway trains curved into the Fourth Avenue Subway near this location.

On another tragic day, the day of 9-11, I traveled to work but I did not get off the subway.  We were told that no trains were going through lower Manhattan.  I started home by subway but between 10 and 11 am, we were kicked off the F-train at Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street.  I walked to Fifth Avenue and took a Fifth Avenue (B-63) bus westbound.  Guess were all service stopped?  Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in view of the bay.   Needless to say, I felt very bad with this ongoing tragedy with similar tragic feelings that I link to the the Luckenbach explosion.   Basically the feeling was connect with destruction near the harbor facing west.
  In 1956, I was in a retail market thirteen avenue blocks away from the harbor.  The force of the explosion blew open heavy exit doors and various stores on 39th Street near 13th Avenue had their windows blown out.  Although the fire preceded the explosion, the sky at that time started to darken fast, but remember, this was a shorter winter day.  I was told that pieces of the pier or storage building were blown over 1000 feet into Red Hook.  I was also told that at the time of the explosion, on what is called now the Culver Viaduct, at that time D trains with R1-9 subway cars suffered window damage as well.  Someone told me that the pocket that the door closes into on the R1-9 subway car, which contains a small window cracked at the time of the explosion but no one was hurt. Passengers saw the flames and smoke from the Smith-9th Street station.

   Below is a Google Map image of the area taken from the highway structure at 3rd Avenue and 35th Street.  The Waterfront Streetcar rendition appears to be taken around the same area.  You are facing north west.  To the left side of the image, you are facing 35th Street and you can see the bay.  This was the general location of the Lukenbach Pier that exploded in 1956.  I could imagine the shock wave that was felt by cars on the highway just as the dock exploded while the cars were passing this point perpendicular to 35th Street.  By the time the pier blew, the pier was on fire with heavy smoke for some time.  Perhaps traffic was stopped on the highway before the explosion.

The new waterfront streetcar may run below on Third Avenue at this location.


  1. I don't have anything against trolley cars/light rail in fact im all for it. but,lets get real running them through already congested city streets will make traffic problems much more worst and rush hour is murder in a fast paced town as N.Y.C it would be more economical to use the under utilized freight railroad tracks in and around the city which don't interfere with street traffic i can give you a good example the south Brooklyn railway corridor the freight line that runs all the way up to the Bronx it would be perfect for light rail because the subways,and bus routes,intersect with it.making it ideal to transfer to would be based on the system they have over in Newark N.J.that would make sense the infrastructure is already in place that just needs to be cleaned and fixed up it's much better than disrupting life in the neighborhood And it's hell of a lot cheaper in the long run.

    1. Hi Anonymous:

      Thanks for your feedback. I think that you are referring to the Tri-Boro Plan that involves using the Bay Ridge - LIRR trackage from the waterfront across Brooklyn, to East New York and into Queens. This would make an ideal light rail line. Some planners want to make this into a full fledged rapid transit line. Yes, the line is in place already and is similar to the Newark City Subway outdoor operations. It however needs a second track in some sections. platforms and overhead. I suggest that a short test line for a few stations can be built cheaply with temporary platforms and second hand light rail vehicles and temporary trolley wire support poles. This would be a nice test.

      My best: Tramway Null(0)