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  • Beneath New York

    Text and Photography by Brian Solomon except as noted

    The ground shakes, a waft of qistinctive air-part ozone, part mold and mildew, part burning electric motor oil-blows a brown bag, candy wrappers, and dead leaves off a sidewalk grate. Not one passer-by blinks; it's not an earthquake, nor an act of domestic terrorism: it's just the D train!

    The New York City subway is one of America's great rail systems. Its 230-mile network moves 3.5 million people each weekday more than Amtrak does in a month. Some 500 electric trains prowl subterranean corridors, shake venerable elevated structures, and zip along on exclusive right-of-way. It's the largest, most comprehensive rail transit system in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most interesting. Its complex history rivals that of any Class I and involves great financiers such as Jay Gould and August Belmont. Its elaborate network of routes, epic multi-level stations, intricate operations, and varied equipment make the New York City subway one of the most intriguing transit systems in the United States.

    By the 1870s, New York's burgeoning population desperately needed more effective methods of moving through the city's crowded streets than horse drawn carriages and trams. One solution was the elevated steam railway, and in 1868 the first such line was constructed. This unusual transportation, method quickly became popular and by 1897 there were some 35 miles of elevated railway in Manhattan and the Bronx alone, and more than 325 diminutive steam locomotives hauling trains above the city's still-crowded streets. The elevated railways were lucrative properties, and controversial railroad mogul Jay Gould soon dominated all four of the Manhattan elevated systems. Though these "els" carried hordes of passengers, many New Yerkers felt that the els' smoke, noise, and darkened streets caused as many problems as they solved. Soon other methods of transit were investigated.

    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 32
    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 33


    By the turn of the century, New York followed the lead of London, Boston, and Budapest by building an electrified subterranean railroad - a subway. When the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (financed by the European Rothschilds and their American banker, August Belmont) began work on its first subway line in March 1900, there was great celebration. The subway, planned to run from downtown Brooklyn under the East River, up the length of Manhattan, and below the Harlem River into the Bronx, was hailed as the panacea for the city's transportation problems. Passengers would be whisked from downtown Manhattan to Harlem in just 15 minutes - an impressive travel time, even by today's standards!

    Subway as Art

    When the first segment of the IRT opened for service on October 27, 1904, it was not merely a utilitarian transportation conveyance; it was a thing of beauty to be enjoyed by all who beheld it. Considerable money and effort had been devoted toward making it aesthetically pleasil1g; August Belmont insisted on excellence. The company's franchise with the city stated "The railway and equipment constitute a great public work. All parts of the subway where exposed to public sight shall therefore be designed with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency."

    Clearly, today's transportation planners could learn from Belmont's initiative. The initial subway was every bit as visually pleasing as its builders intended.

    Success, Growth, and Competition

    The new subway carried 500,000 people per day at five cents each in its first year. In those days, moving passengers was lucrative, and the IRT expanded its subway by building other routes throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Not all of the IRT was underground; in fact, a great deal was constructed as elevated extensions, more substantially built than the former elevated railways.

    Soon Belmont's IRT had competition: Brooklyn Rapid Transit - which operated a network of street and elevated railways in Brooklyn - was enfranchised by the city to expand a network of subways and elevated electric lines into Manhattan and Queens. However, the BRT experienced a catastrophic underground wreck in 1918 that killed 98 passengers and ultimately bankrupted the company. In 1923, the company was reorganized as Brooklyn Manhattan Transit.

    Two years later, these two privately owned sub way systems faced new competition: the city of New York decided to build its own subway network, the Independent Subway System. This network's focus was the Eighth Avenue Subway line, already under construction, and originally planned as an extension of the BMT. The IND opened for service just after midnight on September 10, 1932. In sharp contrast to the IRT and BMT's elaborate Victorian-inspired opulence; this subway was sleek and modern - spartan, efficient, and brightly lit.

    In June 1940, the days of privately owned subways in New York came to a forced end: the IRT and BMT were taken over by the New York City Board of Transportation. From that point, the IRT, BMT, and IND were merely operating divisions of the New York City Transit System. Although it has been nearly 60 years since these companies ceased private operation, New Yorkers still refer to the three divisions. Tiled signs point to the "BMT Shuttle," and one does not have to look hard to find the letters IRT and IND below ground - though few natives remember what the letters stood for. Today all of the subway (except for the PATH lines to New Jersey), along with the city bus system, is operated by the New York City Transit Authorjty, known locally as the TA. (The NYCTA is part of the same state agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, operating Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road commuter trains.)

    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 34

    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 35

    Elevated Lines in the Bronx

    The IRT rapid transit service in the Bronx runs mostly on elevated structures that are extensions of subway routes from Manhattan. The IND Bronx route is entirely underground. (The BMT never built into the Bronx.) Generations have grown up around the sound of the el trains rumbling overhead 24 hours a day! The el is as much a part of the neighborhood as the grocery, delicatessen, bakery, thrift shop, and local movie theater.

    One of New York's most famous lines was the Third Avenue El - it ran above Third Avenue in Manhattan - controlled by Jay Gould's Manhattan Railway. This el was extended to the Bronx while under Gould's control and was later electrified and sold to the IRT (before its subway was completed). The IRT extended the Third Avenue line and integrated it with its White Plains Road elevated extension. While the Manhattan portion of the Third Avenue El was torn down in the 1950s, the segment in the Bronx survived until 1973 - one of the last portions of traditional el left in New York City.

    New York's rapid transit system has many ties to steam railroads. The Jerome Avenue El is the extension of IRT's Lexington Avenue Subway serving the West Bronx. The No. 4 Express train runs from Woodlawn Road through Manhattan to Brooklyn. At one time, the Ninth Avenue El in Manhattan extended across the Harlem River to connect witb the Jerome Avenue line at 167th Street in tbe Bronx. Remnants remained in service into the early 1960s as the Polo Grounds Shuttle, including a short tunnel under the High Bridge neighborhood. The bridge over the river dated back to the 1870s, when the New York & Putnum Railway (later the Putnum Division of the New York Central) ran its steam Trains down from Putnum County all the way to the tip of Manhattan at the Battery via the Ninth and Sixth Avenue Els. It's a pity New Yorkers can't enjoy such integrated service today!

    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 36


    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 37

    Queensborough Plaza

    Just east of the Queensborough bridge is the double-decked elevated junction of the Flushing and Astoria lines. Both routes come from Manhattan and travel below the East River, join at Queensborough Plaza, and then diverge again, heading to their respective destinations in the borough of Queens. The Flushing Line (once part of the IRT)takes a circuitous path around the vast Sunnyside Yard - storage facility for Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Long Island Railroad - while the Astoria Line (once part of the BMT) takes a more direct course. The enormous elevated station vibrates continuously with rail activity. Outbound trains use the lower. This is an incredible place to watch trains, and adding to the excitement is Sunnyside Yard - once the largest passenger yard in the world - just a block away.

    Though a big and busy station, Queensborough Plaza is only half its original size. Today, it has two levels and four tracks, but until the early 1940s two tracks continued eastward over the Queensborough Bridge to the Second AVenue El in Manhattan; the station featured eight tracks on two levels. It was twice as busy then. Furthermore, there were provisions for another "crosstown" line to Brooklyn that was never built. Dead-end, trackless ramps are reminders of these earlier times.

    Thanks to Richard Jay Solomon

    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 38

    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 39

    Article Details

    • Original Author Brian Solomon
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date September 1997

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