“AN INTERMINABLE BRIDGE”
All clear for elevated railway construction
The New York winter of 1877-78 was unusually mild with only 8 inches of snowfall rather than the more typical 40 inches just the year before.1 The two elevated railway companies took full advantage of it and pushed work along so fast that both the Sixth Ave and Third Ave Els were open in the summer. Scientific American described conditions in January: Along Sixth, Ninth, and Third avenues, Pearl street, West Broadway, and other great thoroughfares of this city, large gangs of men are at work, digging foundations and erecting the structures which form the roadway of the different elevated railroads.2
‘A few short months ago we were involved in many law suits and two injunctions were in force against us’, said Cyrus Field at the New York Elevated Railroad Company annual meeting in January. ‘We have a large balance in the bank and cash subscriptions from responsible parties, payable as required, ample to complete and equip a double-track elevated railway on the west side of the city, from the Battery to Eighty-first-st, and a double track on the east side from the Battery to Sixty-first-st, with branches to the Grand Central Depot, the City Hall, and the ferries. Many persons who, a few months ago were opposed to our enterprise, now frankly admit that they were mistaken, and some of these very parties are now coming and asking a favor to be permitted to subscribe for shares in our company. Some of the street railroads, who have for eleven long years fought us with an energy worthy a better cause, now suggest in a pleasant manner that we should come to some friendly arrangement.’3 At this meeting Milton Courtright, once president, relinquished his last title as company engineer, although he continued as a consulting engineer into 1879.4
Alfred E Beach on elevated railways
The editor of Scientific American made clear his opinions about elevated railways in a series of otherwise descriptive articles in 1878. Alfred E Beach— for he of course was the editor— began relatively dispassionately in January. Whether this solution will have been accomplished in the best possible manner and in conformity with the rights and convenience, both of the traveling public and of the public whose property is affected by the proximity of the necessary structures, is open to question. We have reviewed in these columns all the schemes having a like result in view, and have advised in favor of the underground plan, pointing out its entire feasibility, and directing attention to its successful operation in London, in this city, and elsewhere. In rather anomalous manner, however, the Legislature has authorized the Gilbert and New York Elevated railways to carry their tracks above the same routes, the franchises of which had previously been bestowed upon the street car corporations. Our lawmakers have set aside the old law maxim that right in real property is supposed to extend upward to the heavens ; and the highest court of judicature in this State has affirmed the legality of the privileges accorded to the elevated companies, and of the means whereby the latter propose to carry out their projects.2
It remains, therefore, but to examine into the practical features of the now adopted plans. Their disadvantages affect, first, the horse car companies, whose tracks are virtually enclosed in a tunnel ; second, the property owners along the route, before whose second floor windows trains constantly thunder, and whose buildings along the line are depreciated in value without any means of reimbursement or compensation being open to them ; and, lastly, the general public, through the obstruction produced by such large structures in important thoroughfares. Their advantages enure to whoever travels upon them, for certainly no more pleasant mode of locomotion can be suggested than to be rapidly whisked along in roomy, well warmed or ventilated vehicles, high above the dust and noise of the crowded streets.2
In February Beach apologized for running an article on the Sixth Ave El. Viewed simply as an engineering work, this structure does not present features of special originality or ingenuity. It is little more than an iron bridge as lightly built as is compatible with due strength, and entirely devoid of anything which would lead it to be regarded as ornamental. On the contrary, the reverse object, of making it as unobtrusive as possible, seems to have been sought— a questionable measure, under the circumstances, we think, for the obscuring of the lower stories of property in the narrow streets was inevitable, according to the essentials of the plan, and in the form of a light, gracefully arched structure along wide thoroughfares, it would have been much more pleasing to the eye. As it is now, the aspect strikes one indifferently, either as that of an interminable bridge, or as an immensely long tunnel, according to the position from which the observer takes his view.5
Neither do we present this railway in detail to our readers from any conviction that it is a work of major public benefit. On the contrary, while almost any system of rapid transit is likely to supply public wants in some good measure, yet we have always regarded the elevated railway conducted through streets as one of the least advantageous modes of meeting the need. Aerial lines led through the blocks are for many reasons— the chief of which is the imperative necessity which we believe exists in a great growing city like the metropolis of keeping the thoroughfares, the arteries of business traffic, unimpeded— greatly to be preferred, and the advantages of subterranean routes have been fully demonstrated to exceed those of all other projects. But the elevated system, having found public favor, is now an accomplished fact. It exists ; it is a new undertaking, and interesting subject for examination and comment, and hence we present it.5
An article on a successful trial run of the Sixth Ave El in May had to report the evident success of the project, but Beach changed its tone in the very last sentence. With the east side division, on which work has not yet begun, the total length of the line will be 22 miles, occupying and disfiguring the finest avenues in New York city.6
In June Beach could contain himself no longer and started off an article titled ‘The High-Level Street Railways of New York’ with the following words. Perhaps in the future, after people have become habituated to trains thundering over them, to thoroughfares blocked with great iron columns, to the impartial distribution of ashes, oil, and sparks upon the heads of pedestrians and on awnings (a couple of the latter were set on fire this way the other day), to the diffusion of dirt into upper windows, to the increased danger of life from runaway horses and the breaking of vehicles against the iron columns, to the darkening of lower stories and shading of the streets so that the same are kept damp long after wet weather has ceased, and to the numerous other accidents and annoyances inherent to this mode of transit, more such bridges will be erected, and we shall have two storied streets. Doubtless shops will be made in second stories on the lofty railway lines, with bridge connections, after the manner which a large fancy-goods dealer on Sixth avenue is already taking measures to put in practice. The business population on some thoroughfares will be troglodytes— dwellers in dark and shaded caverns— and the other portion will be aerial. There will thus be a differentiation, so to speak, the probable results of which students of evolution might profitably, perhaps, speculate over.7
But the pent-up demand for rapid transit and the excitement carried away most observers. The editor of the Daily Graphic viewed the Sixth Ave El and improbably told readers that instead of defacing the avenue it is rather handsome and an ornament.8
The Sixth Ave El : types of structure
The Sixth Ave El consisted of two main types of structure. From Grand St to 53rd St the el was double track over the center of the street carried on a viaduct with side trusses, with lattice girder cross beams in Sixth Ave and plate girder cross beams in Third St and South Fifth Ave. All other construction by the company was of a type called a ‘deck structure’, considered lighter in appearance than the others5 and capable of carrying more than two tracks. There were three tracks in Trinity Place from the south end to Fulton St, four in West Broadway between Chambers St and Franklin St stations, and three in Sixth Ave from 54th St to the north end.9
[ 16-1 ]
[ 16-2 ]
[ 16-3 ]
[ 16-4 ]
The mode of constructing the permanent way by using movable derricks … was devised by Dr Gilbert. The forward or leading derrick, that moves on the street in advance of the work, has strong wooden frames, well trussed, and a platform between the frames, placed at a height that allows the horse cars to pass under, and this does not stop or even obstruct travel. On the platform are a portable steam engine and boiler which give power for operating the crane used for hoisting material. As the permanent way is advanced, another derrick follows, and thus by means of these two portable derricks, the one leading on the street and the other following on the railroad, the heavy girders and truss work are lifted and easily adjusted to their places.5 By this means the elevated railway grew out from a few starter sections, advancing down the streets.
[ 16-5 ]
By the first week of March the Sixth Ave El was almost complete from Murray St to 42nd St with tracks laid as soon as the structure was up. The last short section of iron work at the south end was started on March 6 at Rector St. On foundations already prepared the contractors got fifteen columns up in a few hours. Clark, Reeves (later known as Phœnix Bridge) furnished the iron for the downtown section, and Edge Moor (the original contractor) and Keystone took different uptown sections.
The Sixth Ave El : stations
The stations were finally started at this time. The erection of the columns upon which the stations are to be perched was begun yesterday at Fourteenth and Twenty-third streets.10 Around the start of May an opening date of May 15 was briefly proposed but the incomplete condition of the various stations would preclude the reception or discharge of passengers at them.11
The structure was to be painted a light, agreeable color, designed to give it as graceful an appearance as possible … The idea is to make the structure as ornamental as possible, and to prevent it from becoming dirty.10 The color chosen was a delicate olive drab tint supplied as more than 600 tons of liquid.12 The cars are also to be painted in various colors, but the prevailing shade will be olive green.10
As late as this it was still planned that the principal down-town station of the Gilbert Railway is, of course, to be at the starting-place, Bowling Green. The next station is to be at the corner of Rector and Church streets, and is to be placed there mainly for the accommodation of the men who do business in Wall-street and its vicinity.10 The Bowling Green terminal would have been at 7 Broadway, the former New York Elevated terminal, reached by running through about a half block of private properties on the east side of Greenwich St. But this was never done and Rector St became the terminal with the structure and track continuing one block farther down to a dead end at the south side of Morris St at the side of the building at 39 Greenwich St. A terminal in lower Broadway was provided to some degree by construction of a hallway through the Union Trust Company Building13 at 73 Broadway14 leading to Rector St station.
The stations were designed by architect Jasper F Cropsey, best known today as a painter of the Hudson River School.15 They were framed with iron and then built with wooden walls, floors, roof and trim, and fireproofed with a sheet metal exterior. In contrast to the New York Elevated stations, separate complete stations were built on the uptown and downtown sides with comfortable indoor waiting rooms and roofs over the stairways and platforms, and passengers were not allowed to cross the tracks. Each station is a double structure, one on each side of the road corresponding to the up and down lines. The interior of both the ladies’ and gentlemen’s waiting-rooms are to be very tastefully furnished throughout, in what is known as the Eastlake style of decoration. An ornamental ventilator springs from the ceiling in each room. The exterior of each station is to be ornamented with iron pilasters and decorated panels of the same metal. The stations can be approached on either side of the line by covered stairs of easy ascent, the sides being protected and ornamented with appropriately desiged panel-work. The depot pavilion has a depth of eight feet, and affords a pleasant promenade in front of the track for the passengers. The general style of the exterior of the buildings, with their many gables, ventilators, finials, etc, might be properly classed as a modification of the Renaissance and Gothic styles of architecture, presenting somewhat the appearance of a Swiss villa. The glass ventilators are to be in variegated colors, and the ornamental bay windows in the waiting-rooms are to afford a view of the street below.16
[ 16-6 ]
The Sixth Ave El : locomotives and cars
On April 20 George M Pullman and some other company officials went to Albany to inspect the first twenty passenger cars. The cars were not surprisingly built at the Pullman works outside Chicago and they would travel as a special train on their own wheels over the Michigan Central, Canada Southern, and New York Central railroads. From the Grand Central Depot they will be brought by way of the surface roads down town, and taken into New-Church-street, back of Trinity Church, where an inclined plane is being constructed for the purpose of placing them on the elevated track. They arrived at Grand Central the night of April 2017 and the first car was pulled onto the structure on April 23.12
Locomotive number 1 arrived at Pier 1 North River on the afternoon of April 27.18 It had not travelled far, just from the Grant Locomotive Works in Paterson, carried on flat cars over the broad-gauge Erie to Jersey City and then by lighter across the Hudson.19 She was soon afterward transferred from the steam-boat to the Church-Street Horse Railroad, and drawn by horses to the inclined plane erected in the rear of Trinity Church. She was drawn up the plane by the power of a stationary engine, and was in position on the rails of the elevated road by 7 o’clock. The engine was oiled and put in steam, and it was then taken for two round trips to Duane St (two blocks north of Chambers St) passing around the Murray St curves.18
This was the first of twenty-five 2-4-2T dummy engines put on the line by June. Sixteen were available on opening day. These dummies were much larger than the ones on the Greenwich St El, about twice the weight and with large enclosures. However because of insufficient boiler capacity they could pull only three cars and this would limit train service for some months.19
[ 16-7 ]
On April 29, locomotive 1 pulled two cars on a trial trip to Leonard St (three blocks beyond Duane St) and therefore once again testing operation around the Murray St curves. The train moved easily around the curve, without the jerky motion frequently observed at the curves on surface roads. On reaching West Broadway the rate of speed was increased, in order to test the efficacy of the brakes, which were applied as the train approached Leonard-street, and which brought it to a stand-still within its own length. The average rate of speed attained during the short trip was eight miles an hour.21 Passengers included George M Pullman and Rufus H Gilbert.
Two days later the engine and four coaches made a ceremonial trial trip all the way from Rector St station to 58th St station, with two hundred invited guests, some of whom had to stand. The running time without stops was seventeen minutes, with a delay at the curve at Sixth Ave and Third St. At that point, the track being exceedingly slippery, the engine stuck to the rails, and it became necessary to back the train a short distance and increase the force of the steam pressure. This was probably the first hint that the locomotive could not reliably pull four cars. The next hint was a loss of power on the return trip that concerned the engineer at Canal St and stopped the train at Duane St. The engineer gamely blamed the quality of the coal and tried to explain that as no stoppages were made, he had no time to get up steam sufficient to draw the train so long a distance.20 If the engine needed the station stops to maintain enough pressure, the boiler was too small.
A newspaper reporter on the May 1 trip drew attention to the practice of running the engine around the train at the terminal.20 At both terminals the track continued past the last station far enough for the uncoupled engine to move forward and then switch back on a center ‘escape track’ to get to the other end of the same train. This forced having side platforms. At 58th St at least boarding passengers had to guess which side to go up. At Rector St there was enough length to pull the whole train past the station and there may have been arriving and departing platforms.
More engines and cars would arrive over the next few weeks. The exterior paint of both was light green or pea green with striping of dark green and gold.21 The Rapid Transit Commission’s requirement for half-fare workmen’s trains during rush hours would have allowed operating two classes of train at full and half fare, and the company ordered two types of car, but they never did try to separate passengers. Cars 1 to 40 were the workmen’s cars, of which 1 to 20 were built by Barney and Smith, a company that sometimes subcontracted jobs for Pullman. These and the first ten first-class cars, 41 to 50, were on hand for opening day.22 Descriptions always concentrated on the first-class cars. The ceilings of the cars are finished with oak panels, while the divisions and other wood work are of mahogany. The panels are decorated in the mediæval style of English Gothic. The central part of each car is covered with Axminster carpet, and rugs of the same material are placed at either end. Each car is lighted by three chandeliers of dual burners.21 The route ran close to the Broadway shopping district and fashionable uptown residential neighborhoods, and the company wanted to make the wealthier passengers feel well treated. Most of these cars were converted to electric operation in 1902-1903 and continued to run in humbler condition for the entire sixty-year lifespan of the Sixth Ave El and beyond into the early 1940s.21
[ 16-8 ]
[ 16-9 ]
[ 16-10 ]
[ 16-11 ]
[ 16-12 ]
[ 16-13 ]
The Sixth Ave El : the start of service
The Gilbert Elevated Road was practically open to the public on the afternoon of June 4 with trains about every five minutes, the most extensive test operation so far.23 The long lines of passenger cars that have been standing idle on the switches below Fulton-street were brought into use behind steaming locomotives. The attachés of the road made their appearance during the day, clad in smart suits of dark blue cloth, ornamented with a gold scroll of embroidery on the shoulder, and a button containing the initial letter M and ‘Elevated Railway’ surrounding it in the outer rim. They also wore uniform caps, with straight visors, above which were lines of gold cord and the letters ‘M E R’, and ‘Station Agent’ or ‘Ticket Agent’ in gold letters.13
The stations were open to everybody who chose the climb the stairways, and the number of those who seemed thus inclined was legion. The great attraction undoubtedly was the opportunity to ride free. All the trains stopped at all the stations, and all who could get on board the cars were carried to the end of the line. This opportunity was especially gratifying to several thousand small boys, most of whom were grievously disappointed, as enough discrimination was exercised against them to deprive all but a fraction of them the usual privilege.13
The object, primarily, was to accustom the horses in the streets below to the noise, but so many people crowded the stations, anxious for a ride, that finally the cars were thrown open free of charge. They were crowded all the afternoon with all kinds of people. Some tried to look dignified and uninterested, but the majority gave themselves up unreservedly to whatever pleasure they could find in being free passengers on the first trip. The horses in the streets gave little trouble. Those attached to the Sixth Avenue cars made the most disturbance, but did nothing more serious than standing on their hind feet occasionally.23
The ceremonial first trip ran at five o’clock, a two-car train carrying directors of the company and some officials of the New York Elevated as well as other invited guests. It had one of the workmen’s cars with cane seats and matted floors13 and one of the first-class cars. Starting from Rector St it reached Third St in five minutes, 14th St in seven, 42nd St in ten, and the terminal at 58th St in eleven and one quarter minutes. It took twenty-nine minutes to return, making stops. The stoppages were unusually long, owing to the great crush of spectators on the platforms, which made starting dangerous, and also to the fact that the brakemen had their hands full in expelling the innumerable boys who swarmed in at the windows only to be dragged out again.13 During the return the passengers gradually dispersed, so that when the train reached Trinity Church it was nearly empty.23
[ 16-14 ]
The next day was opening day, June 5, 1878. A special first train left 42nd St at 7:00 in the morning to carry George M Pullman and friends to Rector St on the first leg of a trip to Europe.
Train service began at either the scheduled 7:30 or 8:00, and the mandated half-price ‘commission trains’ began running in the evening rush hour. Passengers were supposed to pay ten cents at the entrance and get a ticket that they would turn in when leaving at their destination, but at some stations there were no tickets on hand at first and passengers were let in free, and at others the staff mistakenly took the tickets as passengers entered. An engine derailed while leaving 58th St at about 4:00 in the afternoon and delayed service for an hour. But nothing dissuaded the crowds of passengers eager to try the new railway.
There were twelve trains in service running on headways of three to five minutes. The crush was greatest from 5 until 7:30 o’clock, when the fare was five cents. The down-town stations were so crowded that the trains were filled before they made the third stop at Chambers-st. The crowd was composed not only of business men going home, but also of boys and laboring men and women who had waited for a cheap trip. The boys did not stop to enter the cars through the doors, but crawled through the windows despite the efforts of the employés. Nobody was reported hurt, but it seemed singular that some accident did not happen. Everybody was good-natured ; even the passengers whom the boys crawled over.24
Service had to stop at 8:30 on account of darkness. The gas supply to the stations was not ready and the platforms are incomplete and littered with building materials,13 but the problem that concerned the company was that the ticket agents could not see well enough to make change.24 During thirteen hours or so the Sixth Ave El had carried some 25,000 to 30,000 passengers.
The railway was pronounced a great success. The editor of Railroad Gazette sought the reason why the Sixth Ave El drew so much attention and so much coverage in the daily and periodical press even though it was not the first elevated railway in New York. The reason, then, why the new road excites so much more attention than the old one ever did is not due to its greater speed or frequency of trains or its handsome cars, but chiefly, without doubt, to its position near the centre of business and population. It takes the people where they want to go, which can be said only in a very restricted sense of the old New York Elevated Railroad. That starts right, but it leaves lower Broadway farther and farther to the east, so that above the first four stations, or about a mile, it is too distant to be convenient to that great central artery of New York. Ninth Ave was a half mile or more west of the shopping district and the more populated uptown residential neighborhoods and thus almost useless to ladies who are shopping. The people who did live near Ninth Ave were mostly not those who worked on Wall St nor those who had the disposable income to pay twenty cents a round trip. Now the new road is closer to Broadway down town, quite conveniently close to the retail trade of Broadway in its middle course, and directly through some of the best residence quarters of the city in its upper course. It is conveniently placed for the use of a great many of the ‘best people’.25
[ 16-15 ]
The Sixth Ave El’s worst problem was its popularity. The crowding in the ‘commission hours’ was especially severe, three hours morning and evening, as many as 100 passengers finding places in cars intended for 44.14 Company officials wanted to reduce headway further— they were turning away passengers— but they did not yet have the equipment to do so, with just twenty-five engines and fifty cars. Pullman shipped thirty more cars in July of the first-class type. Grant provided four more dummy engines in September and October, and also in October six larger non-dummy 2-4-2 engines. This made thirty-five engines and eighty cars for a five-mile railway.
The reason that the uniforms had ‘M E R’ was a late change to the company’s name. From opening day it did business as the Metropolitan Elevated Railway Company, and that became the official corporate title on July 1 by order of the Supreme Court.26 The preliminary papers were filed at Albany on April 29, the very day of the first locomotive run.21 By this change, Gilbert’s name was removed from the company he founded and was never used during operation of the railway.
The Sixth Ave El : a tour
[ 16-16 ]
[ 16-17 ]
[ 16-18 ]
[ 16-19 ]
[ 16-20 ]
[ 16-21 ]
[ 16-22 ]
[ 16-23 ]
[ 16-24 ]
[ 16-25 ]
[ 16-26 ]
[ 16-27 ]
[ 16-28 ]
[ 16-29 ]
[ 16-30 ]
[ 16-31 ]
[ 16-32 ]
[ 16-33 ]
[ 16-34 ]
[ 16-35 ]
[ 16-36 ]
The opening of the Metropolitan Elevated was the greatest single advance in rapid transit that the city had ever seen. But after years of delay things were now happening so fast that the the Sixth Ave El was to be surpassed within the same year.