“A COMPREHENSIVE SYSTEM”
The Rapid Transit Commissions of 1879-1880
The Rapid Transit Commission of April 1879 made big plans— too big for government and corporate leaders, mainly because of the new elevated routes in Manhattan. The solution was simple. Once again fifty residents signed a petition stating that there was a need for rapid transit, had it certified by a judge and had it delivered to Mayor Cooper. On August 30 the mayor duly appointed five men— different men of course— to form a Rapid Transit Commission. Four of the five lived in the Annexed District. The Commissioners, it is thought, will confine themselves to laying out routes in the annexed district and will not attempt to make plans for a road south of the Harlem River.1 The Commissioners organized on September 11 and together with a civil engineer began reviewing possible routes.2
Only one new route was proposed to them, an elevated railway in Third Ave from the Harlem River to Fordham. Their objections to this were, as they wrote, that such elevated railroad would damage much private property without compensation to the owners, and that its cost would be too great to justify any reasonable expectations of its being built at an early day.2
The commissioners passed a resolution on October 31 to propose, they wrote, a comprehensive system of steam railroads, running mainly between streets and avenues, and crossing none of the streets and avenues on grade, while such a system could yet be introduced at moderate cost.2 In doing so they admitted that they could not avoid laying out routes largely coincident with the suburban routes designated by the old commission.2
This would sound conciliatory, but the old commission had not yet willingly ended their existence. The theory was already being proposed that the old commission had wound up their business as soon as they created one company to build, namely the West Side and Yonkers. If so, the new commission had a clear field to designate the other routes again with modifications and create a company to build them. To solve the dispute, the two sets of commissioners agreed to submit the issue to the Supreme Court.2
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Fifty residents petitioned the mayor on December 17 for yet another Rapid Transit Commission. Instead of all the routes that both commissions proposed, this group of large property owners and developers led by Leonard Jerome wanted one route from the end of Second Ave mostly alongside the Harlem line to Fordham and then running northwest to Yonkers. They thought the New York Central’s fares were too high and that a rapid transit road might charge less and so increase their values.2 The mayor responded on January 15, 1880,3 by reappointing the same commissioners again as an additional commission.4
The Supreme Court ruled in February that the first commission was as the Times put it defunct, null and void, dead, and presumably buried.4 But the second commission (of August 1879) and the third (January 1880), both the same five men, were still alive. Not only that, but after fifty residents petitioned once again, Mayor Cooper reappointed the five to a fourth commission, on March 1.5
The second commission designated one route, from the end of Second Ave across the Harlem River and then parallel to the New Haven’s Harlem River branch to Westchester Ave.6 The stock of the Harlem River and Portchester Rapid Transit Company was all sold on March 6,7 and the company was incorporated on April 5.6 This company never constructed a road, and when it failed to open the bridge by the deadline of May 1882, it was declared extinct.6
As the third commission, the members somehow became pledged to give to Mr Jerome the right to build the two branch roads from Jerome Park, which, when completed, will bring the park within 40 minutes of the City Hall.4 This ‘rapid transit route’ was nothing but two spurs connecting mainline railways to a racetrack. Thus, after nearly 14 months’ delay, the appointment of four Commissions, and indefatigable work in the face of the most discouraging obstacles, these lines have at last been obtained, reported the Times.8 The Jerome Park Railway was incorporated on April 26.3 Its owners wasted no time building the one-mile eastern route, which opened on May 29.9 The route ran from a point on the Harlem line just north of the present-day Mosholu Parkway bridge in a large arc to the west and then straight to a point near Jerome Ave at Kingsbridge Road. The never-built western route would have run from the track gradually downhill to meet the railways along the Harlem River at the modern Morris Heights station.3 Needless to say, this railway had nothing to do with rapid transit in New York, but it was built under a rapid transit charter. It was operated by the New York Central system with shuttle service and special trains from Grand Central on racing days. The track closed in 1890, and the railway was then used until 1906 by the contractor for the Jerome Park Reservoir that was built on the site.
As the fourth commission, the members finally on May 11, 1880, officially designated a large system of routes throughout the Annexed District similar in concept to the plans of the commissions of 1879. From the end of Second Ave, the new route would bridge the Harlem River, connecting with the New Haven Railroad, and then running north for about a half mile before splitting into three routes parallel to Jerome Ave, Third Ave and Southern Boulevard.10 To build the routes they created a company called Suburban Rapid Transit. Stock was sold on July 1511 and the company was incorporated on October 19.12 This company eventually constructed the first rapid transit line in the Bronx, but it did not open until 1886.
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Rapid transit was a hot topic north of the city in 1880. With the elevated railway open to 155th St in December 1879, the West Side and Yonkers pressed on in January with plans to bridge the Harlem River.13 The route ran to High Bridge and then was coincident with the unfinished New York City and Northern to a point in Van Cortlandt Park where it set off for central Yonkers. The Rapid Transit Commission could designate a route only as far as the city line.
To continue the route, fifty residents of the City of Yonkers delivered a signed, certified petition to the mayor of Yonkers on March 6 stating that there was a need for rapid transit.14 This Rapid Transit Commission duly laid out a two-mile continuation of the West Side and Yonkers route from the city line to Getty Square, part of which would be an elevated railway over private property.15 The commissioners formed a company called the Yonkers Rapid Transit Railway, incorporated June 18.16 The president was Robert M Gallaway, also president of the New York City and Northern, and the directors were led by Gallaway and José Navarro of the Manhattan Railway group.17 Later known as the Getty Square Branch, the railway was not built until 1888.18
The Second Ave El : opened to 65th St
As the Upper West Side elevated railway was pushed to completion in the later part of 1879, as the Manhattan Railway took over operation of the elevated system, as Rapid Transit Commissions were appointed and reappointed, through all this, work on the Second Ave El continued.
Work on the foundations on the southernmost section in Division St and Allen St began in February 1879.19 Two-thirds of the pillars are up in Division and Allen streets, and the girders are in position from Rivington-street to Houston, it was reported late in April.20 At this time, with the two companies in competition, the Metropolitan Elevated wanted to capture some of the heavy ridership on the east side. By December 1879 the Third Ave El would see more than 100,000 riders on busy days.21
When the Manhattan Railway plan was announced in June, Cowing of the New York Elevated perhaps playfully told reporters that the Second Ave El would be abandoned north of 57th St, inciting a strong denial from William R Garrison of the Metropolitan. Garrison said that the company had expended too much money on the Second-avenue line already to think of abandoning it now, but agreed that the company was concentrating its energies on that portion of the route below Fifty-ninth-street, and trying to get it completed in time to catch the Summer travel to Central Park.22
A new strategy emerged for the Second Ave El. When the road shall be completed to Harlem, the Third-avenue line will be run to accommodate local travel, and additional stations will be provided. The Second-avenue road will then be run as a through line, with fewer stations and making better time than the Third-avenue road.22 The columns and cross girders were designed to support three tracks in Division St, Allen St, First Ave and 23rd St, and four tracks in in Second Ave.
This available capacity helps explain why the proposed network of routes in the Annexed District were rooted at the head of Second Ave rather than the busier location at the head of Third Ave. In fact logic would suggest that the somewhat excessive capacity had been planned to support through service to points north, but the chronology says otherwise. Routes north of the Harlem were not designated until June, not approved until May 1880, and not actually built until 1886. At any rate the Second Ave El was first completed with girders only for two tracks.
The first test run came on December 16, 1879. An engine and one car carrying company officials ran from South Ferry to 22nd St.23 It is to be equipped in all respects like the Sixth Avenue line. The cars are now building at the Pullman Palace Car Works, and it is safe to predict that when they run cars from the South Ferry they will carry at least 60,000 passengers daily, while the Third Avenue line, running from the City Hall up Chatham-st and the Bowery, will be relieved of the crowd which now takes possession of its cars at Fulton-st, and will be able to carry the thousands who are now driven back to the horse cars by reason of the crowded conditions of the elevated cars.21
The official time-table has been arranged, the conductors, gatemen, ticket-sellers, and brakemen have all been appointed, and all other arrangements have been perfected for opening the Second-avenue elevated railroad to public travel at 5:30 o’clock on Monday morning next, namely March 1, 1880. The road is ready for trains to Sixty-fifth-street, and the stations are in such a stage that all of them can be used on Monday except that at Thirty-fourth-street, where the road crosses the branch line of the Third-avenue road to the Thirty-fourth-Street Ferry at an elevation of about 20 feet, and which is practically a two-story station. The track here is at its highest point above the street, and the grade from Twenty-sixth-street up to it is quite steep.24 The stations from Chatham Square were Canal St, Grand St and Rivington St above Allen St; First St, Eighth St, 14th St and 19th St above First Ave; 23rd St; and 42nd St, 57th St and 65th St above Second Ave.
Opening day proved that the glowing report was barely accurate about the condition of the stations. The stations along the line are not yet completed, as usual, and only the iron framework is now in position. Little wooden structures are now provided for the ticket agents. Trains ran about every five minutes. The uptown terminal consisted of a center track from 57th St to 65th St and a small yard and shop in the block west of Second between 66th and 67th St.25
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The crossing at Chatham Square
The City Hall branch reopened at the same time. Third Ave El trains ran only to City Hall, and Second Ave El trains to South Ferry, to avoid grade crossings. A new platform was built at Chatham Square between the tracks on the South Ferry branch. To provide for the transfer of passengers from one road to another a high bridge connecting the two has been constructed. Passengers coming down-town on Third-ave are able to reach the Battery by crossing the bridge and taking the down-town train on the Second-ave line … The transfer of passengers … was attended with considerable confusion. The arrangement between the stations of the two lines, which becomes plain enough after being studied out, at first sight appears perplexing on account of the numerous gates, passageways and flights of stairs. It appeared to be a puzzle, especially to women, many of whom were only able to find their way over the bridge after repeated directions from the gatemen. The wooden stairs leading to the bridge, temporarily constructed until the iron ones should be finished, soon proved too narrow. Passengers meeting on them were obliged to squeeze past each other in single file or wait at the foot until the coast was clear.25 This system practically abolishes the danger of collision except among the passengers themselves on the narrow stairways leading to the bridge.26
At Chatham-square the people filled the platforms, waiting for trains, very much as sardines fill a tin box, crowded together till even a full breath became a luxury. The bridge over the track at this point, leading to the Second-avenue trains, was entirely inadequate, a line of people being kept long in waiting before they could make their way across.26 Workmen were engaged last night [the end of the first day] remedying this difficulty by making the stairs wider.25
From the first day it was observed that the Third Ave and South Ferry routes were the busy ones, and many passengers had to make the transfer. Officials of the company had the idea that with the lines only a block apart uptown, passengers would sort themselves out rather than change trains, so that very few, except strangers, will require to be transferred at Chatham-square, and the bridge, which is now crowded and almost impassable at some hours, will be comparatively little used.27 The passenger counts for the first day were: 82,000 on Third Ave, 9,000 less than usual; 20,000 on Second Ave; 69,000 on Sixth Ave; and 13,000 on Ninth Ave.27
At night and on Sunday, the Second Ave and City Hall routes did not run, and the Third Ave trains ran to South Ferry during those hours.25 There was of course grumbling over this. Some of the City Hall passengers were New Jersey commuters who felt that commuters to Brooklyn were being favored.27
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The Ninth Ave El
From June 1879, the old Greenwich St El was taken down piece by piece and replaced with new structure, along the east curb of Greenwich St and the west curb of Ninth Ave. It was described by December as a road under reconstruction, with only platforms and sheds for stations, with only a single track on portions of the line, and with slow and irregular time made, on account of having to wait for trains to pass at each end of this single track …21
The new Ninth Ave El was foreseen as playing a role similar to that planned for the Second Ave El. When reconstructed it will be the best line in the city for fast time and economic operation. It has no bad curves and very slight grades. The stations are to be located at convenient points down town, but once past Franklin-st there will be long distances between, and fast time can be made above.21
The elimination of the flimsy structure built for Harvey’s cable operation made it no longer necessary to run a separate fleet of small dummy engines and ultra-lightweight cars. The last of the old structure was probably gone by the start of April, because on April 8 the Denver Daily Times reported that the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railway had purchased sixteen cars from the New York Elevated Railroad for immediate delivery.27 The South Park was a narrow gauge railway, but the narrow width (6 ft 10 in) and light weight of the old el cars made them suitable for narrow gauge operation— and not much else. The South Park actually put only six of them on the roster, and they were gone by 1887.28
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The old stations had a station house and stairs on only one side, and passengers reached the other platform by walking across one track. A passenger killed on May 10 at Watts St station was probably the last to be struck by a train at one of these crossings. He attempted to cross from the down-town side to the opposite one, and was struck by the locomotive of the down train, just coming into the station, and was instantly killed.29 The old station at Watts St from 1872 was on the uptown side on the original track. This accident report clarifies how the work was staged. A temporary station was built on the downtown side, and then the uptown structure was removed. When the new uptown structure was in place, the old station arrangement was re-created in reverse: a foot crossing and bridge now led from the temporary station to a temporary platform on the new uptown side. A permanent station with access on both sides and no foot crossing was then completed as soon as possible.
The Watts-Street Station is a temporary one, used at present until the new station, now in course of construction at Desbrosses-street, is completed. Like a number of the stations on the Greenwich-street and Ninth-avenue road, there is a plank footway or bridge from one side to the other, passengers crossing from the up side or the down side to the train they want to take. The entrances to these footways are closed just before the trains arrive, to prevent travelers from crossing, and when the train passes, are opened. Mr Goodall, either not perceiving that the iron gate was closed, probably not conscious of the near approach of the down train, or believing, in his haste and excitement, that he could clear the train, jumped on the track and endeavored to get on the footway and reach the other side. His body was horribly mangled, portions of it falling into the street, which were afterward picked up and placed with the rest of his remains. Travel was impeded for nearly an hour and a half on the road, as it was necessary to raise the engine by machinery to get the body from under the wheels. A great crowd of people was attracted to the spot by news of the horrible accident.29
About two weeks later on May 30 the Ninth Ave El was officially open with full train service with all the facilities now enjoyed on the Third-avenue line, including larger cars and heavier locomotives.30
Lightweight engines 1 to 21 and cars 1 to 39 were withdrawn in favor of new equipment. The engines were only three to eight years old, so they were probably sold for light switching, but the disposition of only one is known: Yonkers was sold the Michigan Cedar Company. The unusual drop-center cars (1 to 16) were probably scrapped. Of the 23 side-door cars (17 to 39), six were rebuilt into work cars, and six or sixteen went to Colorado (see above). The Manhattan Railway added 25 engines in May and June 1880, probably for the Ninth Ave El. A steady stream of cars arrived from Pullman, about ten a month all the way from March 1880 to May 1881, covering the Second and Ninth Ave Els among other needs.31
The structure in Ninth Ave was a ‘mongrel’ incorporating columns and girders of the original second track along the east side built in sections from 1876 to 1878. As opened it may have had some third track. The stations were at the same streets as the old ones: 14th, 23rd, 30th, 34th, 42nd, 50th.32 30th St station supported what was left of the Hudson line local service, which ran a few times a day to Spuyten Duyvil or Yonkers.
In Greenwich St there were separate one-legged structures at the curb line as before from Little West 12th St to Liberty St. Many of the stations were resited for better connections to crosstown streetcars and ferries: Christopher St, Houston St, Desbrosses St for Canal St, Franklin St, Warren St, Barclay St, Cortlandt St. South of Cortlandt St station the structure extended all the way across the street almost from building to building, four tracks except through Rector St station where the platforms limited space to three tracks. Rector St was made a terminal: in addition to the extra tracks, south of the station there were overhead bridges to supply coal and water to engines.32
The Manhattan Railway plan of May 1879 involved routing the Sixth Ave El into Greenwich St at Morris St. The structures were only about fifty feet apart but the Sixth Ave El was at a higher elevation. The east side of the four-track structure was built as a ramp from Morris St easing the grade down to meet at Battery Place.32 Sixth Ave trains did not start running to South Ferry until November 1, 1881.33 Both els used their Rector St stations as the terminal for some runs, and a footbridge was built over Rector St connecting the two stations.32 At this same time Sixth Ave trains finally started running all night, as Third Ave trains had been doing since 1878.
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The 34th St Branch
Work continued on the east side. The 34th St branch from Third Ave to the Long Island Rail Road ferry opened on July 1, 1880.33 The Second Ave El’s 34th St station opened at the same time, since it was the upper part of the shuttle’s one intermediate stop. The branch was always run as a shuttle. It had one track connection to the other lines, a curve facing north into the Third Ave El.32
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The Second Ave El: completed to Harlem
The last part of the Second Ave El opened to Harlem on August 16. This completed the main lines of the elevated railway system in Manhattan.
The iron-work was finished about six weeks ago, but the stations were incomplete until Friday [August 13], when they were announced to be in readiness for the reception of passengers. Two test trips had been made early in August for company directors and guests. The new section north of 67th St had only three stations: 86th St, 111th St and 127th St, and the last was a temporary station. Additional stations will be erected next season, and as increasing business demands. The new engines from the Ninth Ave El (from June) were swapped with those the Second Ave El had been using, and twenty more cars were assigned to Second Ave. Trains started from Harlem only from 4:49 morning to 7:05 evening, and the last arrived at 8:14.34
Running time from Harlem was estimated as ten to thirteen minutes faster than on Third Ave, no doubt helped by the stretches without stations. The fast time was in accordance with the company’s plan announced in December to use the route for passengers from north of the Harlem River. At Harlem close connections will be made with the New-Haven and Hartford Railroad, the Manhattan Company providing transfer boats.34 The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad’s main service ran onto the New York Central’s Harlem Line at Woodlawn and on to Grand Central, but the company had to pay a fee for use of the Harlem’s tracks. The Harlem River branch from New Rochelle down to Third Ave bridge was built primarily to bring freight to tidewater, but if a good connection could be established, there was a chance of developing passenger service. The Rapid Transit Commission had also designated a system of routes for the Annexed District in May 1880 that would converge on the head of Second Ave, and they were organizing the Suburban Rapid Transit Company at the time the Second Ave El opened to Harlem.
More stations were added in 1881 as predicted. A map dated December 1881 shows stations added at 75th St and 120th St.35 The Manhattan Railway announced plans in November 1881 for stations at 70th St, 80th St, 92nd St, 105th St and 115th St.36 This group were hastily constructed of wood, without the usual iron structure, as if they might be temporary. Those at 70th St, 75th St and 105th St were removed before 1893.32 A few more stations were added and dropped before stability was reached in 1915.
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If there are any New-Yorkers who are thoroughly tired of everything, perhaps a little disgusted with everything, who can find nothing to interest them, the Times suggested in September, there was a place near at hand where they can be well stirred up, and have the ennui entirely taken out of them, for the time at least, with a very limited expenditure of time and money. The cure was the Second Ave El. They will find there a new sensation, something between a house on fire and a shipwreck. They will find themselves tearing along through the air, just a little above the roofs of the four and five story houses, at a speed that will be very likely to make their hair stand on end, provided they are not absolutely bald, and provided hair ever does stand quite on end. Up as far as the Sixty-fifth-Street Station they will go smoothly enough, but when they pass that point they will begin to feel the cars rock and jump, to hear the drivers hum, and to wish, unless they are much braver than elevated passengers usually are, that they were safely down on the ground again, jolting along in the street car.37
Between Sixty-fifth-street and the northern terminus of the road, at One Hundred and Twenty-seventh-street, there are only two stations, far apart ; the track runs down a steep incline, and the cars fly as if they were driven by the wind. They run at this point just as fast as the engines can drive them or the down-grade let the wheels revolve ; that is to say, between 30 and 35 miles per hour. This is a very respectable speed on a surface road, with heavy engines and cars, but on an elevated road, it is startling. I asked the conductor, while the train was bowling along at this rate, how fast we were going. ‘Why, we’re going a blessed sight faster than we ought to,’ said he, ‘that’s how fast we’re going. Just as fast as the engine can pull us down a hill, and that’s nearly 35 miles an hour.’ The passengers were bracing themselves in the seats, as they always do when they think there is danger, and even the conductor looked as if he would be satisfied to go a little slower.37
At the time of this bracing report, a month after opening, the stations north of 57th St still did not even have name signs. Sixty-fifth-street, for some time the northern terminus of the road, without any signs about it to show what station it is, and the brakemen generally forget to call it out … At Sixty-sixth-street, where the train stops a few minutes to change engines, or give the engine a rest, is the coaling station, looking like the entrance to a coal mine, with a maze of heavy black timbers in the air, and engines hissing all about.37 The writer praised the view to the East River on the way to 111th St station, in the midst of what is poetically known as the ‘goat region’. There are almost as many goats as people, and passengers at this station are few.37
The terminal at 127th St was not impressive, a miserable board affair, approached by wooden steps. It is, however, quite as good as the Harlem station on the Third-avenue line. Both are more like cross-road stations on some half-dead railroad in the country than like important depots for an elevated railroad in New-York. The floor of this Second-avenue depot is ornamented with rows of shining brass lamps, and passengers have to pick their way carefully among them to avoid breaking the chimneys.37 The track and structure continued to the riverside at 129t St.
As the preceding report shows, the Second Ave El was constructed to maintain good grades at track level, however high that caused it to run where the street grade dropped more steeply. As a work of civil engineering it and the Upper West Side route were a step beyond the older elevated railways. The construction of an entire railway line on an elevated iron structure, to be subject to the demands of steam traffic, would give rise to more than ordinary engineering problems, but when these conditions are coupled with others, required by an almost continuous use of the structure, the difficulties enountered are very materially increased. Although the speed of the trains on the elevated railways of New York are not high, the short intervals of time between them permit scarcely any rest to the metal of the viaduct. Hence the fatigue of the iron becomes and important consideration. This incessant use also gives rise to very wearing demands on the connections of the lateral and tranverse systems of bracing.38
The superstructure is composed of lattice-girders of a heavy type, carrying the railway lines, while a very firm system of transverse bracing is secured by the pairs of latticed struts in combination with the curved knee-braces at the tops of the columns. The latter … is of heavy Phœnix section. In short, this structure is built to secure that unusual degree of strength and stiffness that is necessary to withstand the extraordinary demands upon it.38 None of the Phœnix iron elevated structures remain today.
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Raven Rock Road bridge
Some Phœnix Iron bridges still stand. The Raven Rock Road bridge is northwest of Stockton NJ, a few miles from the Delaware River. Iron signs mounted over the entrances say that the bridge was built by the Lambertville Iron Works in 1878, but the iron parts are marked as the product of Phœnix Iron, Philadelphia (the location of the company office). The bridge has some more modern parts made of steel I-beams.
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The Manhattan Railway, 1880
Below, maps of the elevated system at the end of 1880. New York Elevated services in red, Metropolitan in blue, all operated by the Manhattan Railway. Other steam railways in black.
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