The horsecars and gas lamps of West 42nd Street

Fabled 42nd Street has long epitomized New York’s bright lights, glamour, and energy.

But not the 42nd Street at the turn of the last century, as this circa-1900 photo, from New York Then and Now, demonstrates.


That year, the midtown block of 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a still-residential stretch of muddy Belgian blocks, a single gas lamp, and horse-pulled streetcars.

“The horsecars were run by the 42nd Street, Manhattanville and St. Nicholas Avenue Railway as a crosstown line between the Weehawken ferries at the west terminal and the Hunters Point Ferry to Long Island City at the east end,” the caption tells us.

The church on the right is the West Presbyterian Church, and the el tracks on the left won’t be torn down until the 1930s.


By 1974, almost nothing remains, and West 42nd Street looks much more familiar to contemporary eyes.

“The building with the curved front is the Grace Building, built 1970-1972 on the site of Stern Brothers Department Store, which stood here from 1913 to 1969, having previously operated on West 34th Street for 36 years,” reads the caption.


Today, 42nd Street looking toward Sixth Avenue reveals more glass office buildings, a replica of an old street lamp, plus many of the same buildings from 1974—such as the Grace Building and the Gothic-like entrance to 11 West 42nd Street.

It’s not in the photo, but I imagine Bryant Park, which would be on the left, looks very different—this park had a bad reputation until the 1980s.

No one was taking there lunch break or watching movies on the lawn then!

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4 Responses to “The horsecars and gas lamps of West 42nd Street”

  1. Miguel Hernandez Says:

    Is that the 6th Avenue “EL” station in the center of the photo? “At it’s southern end ,the line turned off the 9th Ave line at Greenwich & Morris Sts. ran up Church St., went west on Murray St. went up West Broadway, went west on w3rd St. went up 6TH Ave. & west on 53rd st. to connect the 9TH Av line a second time . The line also went north on 6th ave. itself beyond the 53rd st turn out to 58th & 6th Ave sta. The 6TH AVE EL was opened by the METROPOLITAN ELEVATED RAILROAD COMPANY back in 1878 . The Metropolitan Co. also built the 2ND AVENUE EL in 1880 up to 65th st., And jointly with the NEW YORK ELEVATED RR COMPANY the 9TH AVENUE EL north of 61st street. Service on the 6TH AVENUE EL was discontinued in Dec. of 1938. and the line was torn down in 1938 & 1939.”

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yep, that’s the Sixth Avenue El!

  3. rich tintera Says:

    Speaking of horsecarts…have you ever seen “Speedy” by Harold LLoyd? Lots of old NY street scenes and Coney Island. At one point he crashes his horsecart into the legs (?) of an El.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, thanks for reminding me! It’s priceless. Here’s a clip:

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