Three Feet: Plunging Ahead to Raise East Hampton’s Railroad Trestle

East Hampton railroad overpass sign
East Hampton railroad overpass sign, Photo: Dan Rattiner

Just 36 hours after the Long Island Rail Road announced they would soon complete their $20 million project to raise the railroad trestle at the eastern end of Main Street in East Hampton three feet, so people driving tall trucks wouldn’t crash into it as they occasionally do, a driver at the western end of Main Street in East Hampton apparently missed the 90-degree turn at Town Pond and instead drove straight into it. This occurred at 4:45 a.m. on Saturday morning last week, police said. It was raining. The ducks and swans were asleep. It woke them up.

The police showed up. The car was sitting in the water, up to its fenders. Five men got out and waded through the water to shore. The man driving the car was interviewed by the police, determined to be in his right mind and was not arrested, though his car—a now-un-drivable Hyundai Sonata—was pulled out onto the grass to the amusement of passersby at that hour who pulled over to watch. Nobody was injured.

As for the other end of Main Street, where trucks too tall to fit under the railroad trestle crash into it in spite of a total of 12 big, bright yellow signs reading CLEARANCE 10 FEET, six warning you on each approach, an official from the railroad, John Kettel, spoke to the Village Board. He said the project raising the trestle will be completed by November 30 of this year.

The crashing into the trestle has been an amusement for many, many years. The number of trucks getting stuck going under has remained steady at about 16 a year, every year (versus one every two years driving into the pond.)

“It’s a bridge we’ve been looking at and studying for many years,” Mr. Kettel said in The Southampton Press, “and I’m happy that we’re finally replacing it.”

The 16-a-year number has held steady over the years in spite of increasing numbers of yellow signs. For many years, maybe 50, there was just one sign on either side of the approach road. With two on each side, the number held steady. Then about five years ago, probably at the request of the railroad, the number of signs on each side increased from two to six.

The Hook Mill windmill in East Hampton
The Hook Mill windmill in East Hampton, Photo: Dan Rattiner

It was a virtual Times Square of signage as you approached the trestle, which was particularly galling because on the western side was the magnificent, historic 200-year-old windmill that all tourists like to photograph. Now they had to battle the signs just to get a clear shot. And still, much to everybody’s surprise, 16 trucks got stuck under there the next year. It didn’t matter how many signs you put up.

So that’s when the railroad finally decided to raise the trestle three feet—and $20 million is a very impressive amount of money.

As you probably know, the trestle is about a mile east of the East Hampton railroad station, so the trains heading east will, just before getting to the trestle, go into a mild incline to get up the three feet, and then after they pass across, decline down to where they had been before. As they will be near that station, they will probably do it slowly. The trains will do the same thing coming from the other direction. It will be an interesting sensation.

The railroad has been working on this project with big machinery down there by the trestles for more than a year. Among other things, they’ve been strengthening the abutments. New steel panels have gone onto the abutment walls, and stone has been added to handle what will now be a heavier weight-bearing situation. The abutments should be finished in by October. After that, the new higher trestle and trackage will go in. And that work is to be completed by November 10.

“We hope to be out of here before the year is out,” Kettel said.

My guess is that even with the clearance raised to 13 feet from the current 10, determined drivers will find still taller trucks to hit the trestle at the rate of about 16 a year. It’s a tradition, something to do. We shall see.

Interestingly, one month ago, the railroad installed its own signs. They are smaller and there are two of them. Of course, they are pretty much lost in the forest of big yellow signs.

The East Hampton railroad overpass
Photo: Dan Rattiner

One of them is right on the abutment facing down North Main Street, so motorists can see it as they approach—although to read it, they’ll have to stop. The writing on the small sign is really small. The second sign, identical, is on the inside wall of the abutment facing whatever might get stuck under there. I have photographed one of these signs, and here is what it says (see photo at top of page).

Please Call
Long Island Rail Road
Montauk Branch
Bridge ID: 40-0-007
The safety of trains
May be Affected
Thank You for Your Cooperation
MTA – Long Island Rail Road

They might have put these signs up 20 years ago, but they didn’t. Even five years ago might have been helpful. The thing is that for all these years, most everybody concluded these abutments and trestles were immoveable. They get hit. They don’t move. So there’s no danger to the safety of the trains. Unless everybody’s wrong. I suppose having a big heavy truck hauling steel I-beams under there might result in the worst derailing and train crash in the history of the railroad. So now they tell us. At the last minute. Just in time for them to take the signs down.

So for the next six months, if you get stuck under there and wonder who to call, it’s right there at eye level. A courtesy.

I have a favorite story about the driving into Town Pond experience at the other end of Main Street.

It was told to me by a retired rumrunner many years ago. Prohibition was in effect. Two men were driving an open air Model A Ford from East Hampton to Riverhead and then out the North Fork to one of those bootleg hooch parties in Greenport.

The party lasted well into the night. On the way home, the driver and his passenger came back around Riverhead and then down the Montauk Highway to East Hampton, drunk. It was 3 a.m. There was a splash, then the car stopped and the engine stopped. They could see the water lapping the sides of the car in the moonlight.

“Franklin,” said the passenger, “I do believe we have missed the turn and instead have driven into Town Pond.”

“I believe you are correct, Horace.”

“What do we do?”

“You stay here,” Franklin said, “and I’ll get out and go find help.”

“Okay,” said Horace.

Franklin pushed open the door, climbed out into the water, waded to shore and, now in wet pants and shoes, walked into the center of town to get help. But by the time he got there, he’d forgotten why he had come. So he just walked home and went to bed.

Horace, meanwhile, sat in the passenger seat and waited. Around 7 a.m., as the sun rose, the town school kids were walking to school when they passed this Model A Ford planted in the center of the pond, with Horace snoring away in the passenger seat. They just let him be.

And that’s the story.

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