An ode to the original Second Avenue subway

True, it wasn’t actually a subway. The steel road bed of the Second Avenue Elevated put belching trains two stories in the air from Chatham Square downtown to 127th Street.

But this lurching, unglamorous el, as it was called, was Second Avenue’s very own rapid train from 1880 to 1942.

It was a latecomer as far as els go. The Ninth Avenue line opened in 1868, while the Sixth Avenue and Third Avenue els were up and running in the 1870s.

secondavenueel125thstreetnyplNew Yorkers welcomed this el, which made the trip from City Hall to 59th Street in just 28 minutes, half the time it took via a horse-pulled, jam-packed streetcar.

But it had drawbacks. Loud and gritty, the train ran day and night, raining ash on pedestrians and blocking out the sun.

Still, the Second Avenue el helped colonize the northern reaches of Manhattan, transporting residents from crowded downtown slums to newer housing in areas such as Yorkville and Harlem.

secondavesubwaymapthethirdrail

Unlike the Sixth Avenue El, which was memorialized by poets and depicted by painters, the Second Avenue line didn’t get much love.

It did earn a gritty, gangland rep: Under its tracks at Allen and Rivington Streets in September 1903, the Five Points Gang and Monk Eastman’s Gang drew their guns and duked it out in a deadly turf battle.

Through its 62 years, the Second Avenue el saw lots of changes. Powered by steam early on, the tracks were electrified around 1900. Ridership dropped when faster, more convenient subways arrived.

The city took the el over in 1940, and the end came in 1942. Miles of tracks were cleared away and the steel girders removed, making way for sunlight again.

Now, the first leg of the Second Avenue subway is opening January 1. Think about the old el and how it shaped the East Side of Manhattan when you take a ride from one of the sleek new stations.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo: MCNY, 1939, X2010.7.1.1789; third image: The Third Rail; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: YouTube]

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