Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

The 1872 plan to get around Manhattan via elevated pneumatic tubes

February 13, 2023

In the 19th century, not unlike today, New York City had a mass transit problem.

As the city’s population boomed and the urbanization of Manhattan continued northward, it was clear that the horse-pulled omnibuses and horse-drawn streetcars—which carried thousands of people to their destinations every day and contributed to enormous, epic traffic jams—were not going to cut it.

Enter the Gilbert Elevated Railway (above and below, in proposed illustrations). Introduced in 1872 amid a flurry of other ideas for elevated transit, this railroad would run high above the surface of the city on elegant, decorative wrought-iron archways, ferrying passengers in cars powered by compressed air.

Basically, it would be an elevated railroad shuttling uptown and downtown through pneumatic tubes.

The man behind the much-talked-about idea was Rufus H. Gilbert, a former doctor in the Union Army who was troubled by the high rates of sickness in tenement districts.

“Gilbert’s answer to the cholera, typhus, and diphtheria rampaging among the downtrodden classes was, elliptically, rapid transit,” wrote Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin in an article for The Gotham Center for New York City History.

“He reasoned that fast and cheap public conveyances would allow the poor to flee their teeming, disease-infested neighborhoods, and live in the hinterlands, where they could enjoy clean air and water, and plentiful sunshine,” continued Lubell and Goldin.

The idea of mass transit via pneumatic tube sounds a little crazy, especially if you think of pneumatic tubes as an old-fashioned system banks and department stores used to carry cash and receipts through a vacuum-powered network.

But it had precedent. Two years earlier, a pneumatic-tube underground subway opened for business. Running just one block from Warren to Murray Streets under Broadway, the city’s first subway, built by inventor Alfred Ely Beach, attracted curious riders—but not the funding (or political clout) needed to extend the line any farther. Beach’s subway closed in 1873.

Gilbert (above) may have borrowed the pneumatic tube idea, but he also put a lot of thought into how his railroad would run. He proposed putting his stations roughly one mile apart and providing pneumatic elevators for passengers to ascend to each station, according to Lubell and Goldin, who authored the 2016 book Never Built New York.

“He also planned a telegraph triggered by the passing cars, which would automatically signal arrivals and departures from all points along the line,” they wrote.

Though Gilbert got the go-ahead from the city to start constructing his pneumatic railway along Sixth Avenue, his plans had the misfortune of colliding with the Panic of 1873—a terrible depression that left him without investors. With no capital, he was forced to abandon his idea.

Gilbert persisted over the next few years, modifying his elevated railroad so it would be powered by steam engines, not compressed air. In 1875 he received a charter to begin building. Three years later, the first leg of the Gilbert Elevated opened from Rector Street to Central Park. (Above, the debut of the railroad as it approached Jefferson Market Courthouse.)

By 1880, almost all of New York’s avenues had steam-powered elevated trains roaring and belching overhead. Traffic congestion was relieved—but a decade later, plans for a faster, less obtrusive, and more efficient underground subway would be in the works.

What became of Gilbert? Sadly, after his elevated railroad opened, he was ousted from his own company, which was renamed the Metropolitan Elevated Company. Gilbert threatened to sue his former colleagues, charging that they defrauded him. Ultimately he died in his home on West 73rd Street in 1885.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second illustration: Library of Congress; third illustration: NYPL; fourth illustration: Library of Congress; fifth illustration: Library of Congress]

What it was like commuting by sleigh in snowy 1860s Manhattan

January 23, 2023

The idea of getting around the city by horse-drawn sleigh might sound like a lot of fun to contemporary, snow-starved New Yorkers.

But as this detailed illustration from 1865 shows, sitting in an open-air omnibus as three teams of horses round a tight side street covered in snow was probably rather miserable.

What a rich scene the illustration offers, though. While two drivers direct three teams of horses to pull the streetcar to its destination, groups of boys are having a jolly time on sleds. A dog joins in the excitement, chasing the horses.

Ads for a tailor and a seller of shirts appear on the storefronts in the background. And when was the last time you came across a shop selling only wine and tea?

This omnibus appears to carry commuters to and from the Fulton Ferry, which allowed people to cross the East River in an era before bridges. I’m not quite sure how the omnibus got from the ferry on the East River to Broadway, Greenwich Avenue, Amity Street (the former name for Third Street), and Seventh Avenue.

More sleighing and sled scenes from old New York can be accessed here.

The hard work of shoveling snow during a New York winter

January 16, 2023

You can almost feel the bitter cold in this rich, evocative scene of faceless men battling piles of snow after a winter storm buried a street somewhere in New York City.

Completed in 1905, painter Harry W. Newman would have been 32 years old when he captured the gray skies, white snow, black coats, and red brick that composed a typical city block of the era. We can’t see her face, but the little girl on the far right might be the only person looking at this as a snowy wonderland.

Where was this block, exactly? I wish I knew, but perhaps not knowing is the point. I see what look like streetcar rails sticking out from the snow, and the telephone wires and poles make me think it’s not Manhattan—where wires were buried underground following the Blizzard of 1888.

Could this be the aftermath of that deadly surprise blizzard, painted from memory?

[Source: Cavalier Galleries]

John Sloan’s “obvious delight” with Jefferson Market Courthouse

December 5, 2022

As a prolific painter living on Washington Place and working out of a high-floor studio at West Fourth Street, John Sloan had a wonderful window into the heart of the Greenwich Village of the 1910s—its small shops, bohemian haunts, immigrant festivals, and all the life and activity of the elevated trains up and down Sixth Avenue.

[“Jefferson Market, Sixth Avenue,” 1917]

He also had a view of Jefferson Market Courthouse. Once the site of a fire tower and market that opened in 1832, the Victorian Gothic courthouse with its signature clock tower replaced the original structures at Sixth Avenue and 10th Street in 1877.

Like contemporary New Yorkers, he seemed to be enchanted by the Courthouse, which functions today as a New York Public Library branch. He was so entranced by it, Sloan put it in several of his works, either as the main subject or off to the side.

[“Sixth Avenue El at Third Street,” 1928]

“Sloan obviously delighted in the irregular rooftop patterns and the spires of several other structures beyond, contrasting the soaring tower and the gables of the courthouse with the swift rush of the Sixth Avenue elevated railroad below,” explained William H. Gerdts in his 1994 book, Impressionist New York.

His interest wasn’t just in the building’s architectural value. Sloan, a keen observer of what he described as New York City’s “drab, shabby, happy, sad, and human life,” regularly visited the notorious night court there to witness the human drama that appeared before judges—men and women typically brought in for drunkenness, prostitution, and petty crime.

[“Jefferson Market Jail, Night,” 1911]

“This is much more stirring to me in every way than the great majority of plays. Tragedy-comedy,” he said about the night court, per Gerdts’ book.

“Sloan was obviously drawn to the building’s. picturesque mass as well as its physical and symbolic situation with Greenwich Village, and no other New York structure, not even the Flatiron Building, enjoyed such distinctive monumental rendering by him,” wrote Gerdts.

“Snowstorm in the Village,” an etching from 1925, shows Jefferson Market Courthouse’s gables and turrets covered in snow and is worth a look here.

[Top image: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; second image: Whitney Museum; third image:]

Strange carriages on an unpaved, unknown stretch of Seventh Avenue

October 17, 2022

There’s a lot to unravel in this postcard of Seventh Avenue around 1900. First, what stretch of Seventh are we looking at? This doesn’t look like downtown, where Seventh Avenue would be lined with a mishmash of older walkup buildings.

This Seventh Avenue doesn’t look like the section below Central Park, which at the time had transformed into a luxury apartment house district.

Could the view be of Seventh Avenue above the park in Harlem, where rapid residential development at the end of the 19th century would explain the more uniform rows of apartment buildings? It could account for the yet-to-be-paved road as well.

Then there are the unusual vehicles with just a driver’s seat and four small wheels. They’re too small to be considered carriages or coaches, and the formation of them on the road suggests a race of some kind—with crowds on the sidewalk eagerly watching.

[MCNY: x2011.34.385]

The ghost of a colonial road on the eastern side of the Chrysler Building

September 15, 2022

There’s no finer example of a New York City Art Deco skyscraper than the Chrysler Building, which gleams with strength and grace 77 stories over 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

The Chrysler Building in 1931, rising above 42nd Street

This icon of Machine Age Manhattan was completed in record time between 1928 and 1930, in a race with 40 Wall Street to claim the title of New York’s tallest building. (The Empire State Building beat them both when it debuted on the skyline in 1931.)

Designed by William Van Alen for Walter Chrysler, the head of the car manufacturer, the building begins with a base and then features elegant setbacks as the slender tower rises higher and higher, finally coming to a crown and then a point, literally, with a stainless-steel needle spire that pierces the clouds.

The architectural loveliness of its exterior and interior deserve their own lengthy posts. This post is about how a slant along the Chrysler Building’s setback reflects the former presence of a primitive road traversed by colonial-era New Yorkers.

Gerald R. Wolfe points out this setback in his deeply researched book of walking tours, New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. “Around the corner on 42nd Street (best viewed from the south side of the street), it will be noted that the east wall of the Chrysler Building’s lower setback is not parallel to the north-south avenues,” wrote Wolfe.

This 1822 map shows 42nd Street and Eastern Post (Boston Post) Road as the road crosses Lexington and Third Avenues

Take a look when you’re in the neighborhood: you can see that this eastern setback was built on a rightward slant, while the other setback walls are straight.

What’s the explanation? It’s the ghost of Boston Post Road, a long-defunct thoroughfare and one of the city’s few reliable roadways in the 17th and early 18th centuries. (Boston Post Road was also called Eastern Post Road, or East Post Road—it was the thoroughfare to take if you were heading out of the city to New England.)

Plans for the trapezoid-shaped Chrysler Building

The plot of land on which Walter Chrysler planned to build his tower once bordered Boston Post Road, which predated the city street grid and ran roughly between today’s Third and Lexington Avenues, Wolfe explained. When he acquired it, the original border remained—even though the road was defunct.

With this meandering colonial road forming the parcel’s eastern boundary, Chrysler ended up with a slanted plot shaped like a trapezoid, as Sam Roberts put it in his 2019 book, A History of New York in 27 Buildings. Hence the angled setback, which reflects the angle of this de-mapped road.

Boston Post Road disappeared from city maps in the 19th century, though it’s unclear when. It was definitely gone by the Gilded Age: A New York Times article from 1881 describes it as “now obliterated and forgotten.”

Other ghosts of the Boston Post Road still exist though. One remnant is this East 49th Street courtyard, where travelers could catch the stagecoach to Boston.

In 1929, ready to wow the world

[Top photo: NYPL; third image: Map of the Common Lands;; fourth image:; fifth image: NYPL]

The relaxing country drive that New Yorkers like George Washington enjoyed in 1790

August 19, 2022

As magical as New York City can be, sometimes you really need to hit the road for the day and take a long drive into the country.

Kingsbridge Road, part of the “14 miles round” pleasure drive

New Yorkers in 1790 could relate. Residents who were lucky enough to have leisure time as well as access to a carriage and driver could leave the city limits and venture along Manhattan Island’s few reliable north-south roads. One especially popular day-long drive was known as the “14 miles round.” (Or “14 mile round,” as some sources have it.)

The name appears to be derived from the seven miles it took to get to the countryside of Upper Manhattan, and then the seven miles back to the lower city—which barely existed beyond Canal Street at the time.

A closeup of the Bien and Johnson Map of Manhattan, showing the Bloomingdale Road and the Kingsbridge or Post Road, both part of the 14 mile round. McGowan’s Pass is on the far right.

“In 1790, the favorite drive of the New-Yorkers was the ’14 mile round,'” an 1880 New York Times article states, quoting an author of a biography of George Washington, who lived in New York City during 1789-1790, the first two years of his presidency.

“This route went over the old Boston road, on the line of Third Avenue, crossed Murray Hill nearly on a line with Lexington Avenue, and bearing westward to McGowan’s Pass, went then to the Bloomingdale region, and so down on the Hudson River side of the island.”

McGowan’s Pass is at about today’s 107th Street in Central Park. The Bloomingdale region was only accessible via Bloomingdale Road, a former native American trail laid out in 1707 from roughly today’s 23rd Street to 115th Street and Riverside Drive.

Indeed, Washington wrote in his now-published diary that he did the 14 miles round with his wife, Martha, and Martha’s two young grandchildren.

On December 12, 1789, a Saturday, President Washington made the drive: “Exercised in the coach with Mrs. Washington and the two children, (Master and Miss Custis), between breakfast and dinner—went the 14 miles round.”

On January 9, 1790, also a Saturday, Washington did it again: “Exercised with Mrs. Washington and the children in the coach the 14 miles round. In the afternoon, walked round the Battery.”

In a footnote, Washington’s Diary describes the 14-mile round a bit differently than the New York Times article, calling what became the Boston Road by its original name, Kingsbridge Road: “The route was by the old Kings-Bridge Road, which passed over Murray Hill, where Lexington Avenue now does, to McGowan’s Pass at about One Hundred and Eighth Street; then across on a line with the Harlem River to Bloomingdale, and so down on the westerly side of the island.”

Bloomingdale country lane

Kingsbridge Road, “was the main road through Manhattan during the 1700s and early 1800s, before the current street grid was implemented, and was key to transportation in the area,” stated the Central Park Conservatory. “The road originated in southern Manhattan at around today’s Madison Square and proceeded north to the King’s Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan.”

Unfortunately, Washington’s diary doesn’t go into detail about what he saw during his forays on the 14 mile round. But if he went more than once, it’s fair to assume he enjoyed the beautiful sights of bucolic Manhattan: pretty countryside, large estates, small farms, and so many possibilities for the young nation.

Washington’s coach, but whether it’s the coach he took on the 14 miles round is unknown

Bloomingdale Road has a fascinating history and plays a major role in the development of the Upper West Side. Find out more on an Ephemeral New York walking tour that delves into the backstory of Riverside Drive! A few spots are still available for Sunday, August 21 and Sunday August 28. See you there!

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia; third image: painting by Rembrandt Peale; fourth image: Eliza Greatorex, MCNY, 57.138.3]

The staircases left behind after the original Penn Station was demolished

August 12, 2022

It took five years to build Penn Station: millions of tons of granite, steel, stone, and bricks were transformed into a triumphant Beaux Arts monument to modern transportation that officially opened in 1910.

(Constructing Penn Station leveled several blocks and hundreds of tenements in the Tenderloin, but that’s another story.)

A half century later, it took three years to demolish what was now an underused, money-losing station. On October 28, 1963, small groups of protestors could not stop the team of wreckers who began jackhammering the exterior and carting away the rubble.

While the old station was going down, it was being replaced by an unlovely, utilitarian station under a new Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza office complex. If you’ve been there, you know what was lost.

But amazingly, bits of the original Penn Station have survived all these years, hiding in plain site below the main level. Where can you find them? Head to the LIRR sub-level of the station and look at the staircases.

On some of the tracks, you’ll see brass and wrought-iron staircase railings. Compare the staircase images: in the above black and white photo, taken by Berenice Abbott in 1935, you can see the same wrought-iron design—kind of an X in a square—in the railings of the staircases today.

I’m not sure the brass handrail is original, but the ironwork looks a little too fanciful to be part of the 1960s Penn Station—which I can’t recall having a single architectural flourish or design touch of any kind.

The staircases aren’t the only relics of the old Penn Station that managed to survive the bulldozer. A wall of beveled glass panes with iron detailing remains inside the station close to the Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street entrance.

Cut off by construction, the wall separates a waiting room from the rest of the station.

And outside on 31st Street is a curious structure known as the Penn Station Service Building. Completed two years before the station opened, this was the power center for Penn Station, supplying electricity for train engines as well as heat, refrigeration, elevator hydraulics, and compressed air.

It’s the staircase railings, however, that feel the most compelling. Imagine the rush of adrenaline millions of passengers experienced as they descended those staircases to their awaiting trains—and then on to their destinations!

[Second image: MCNY,]

The pleasures of a New York summer on the Speedway

August 1, 2022

New York in the summer can be a miserable place. But not on the Speedway—aka, the Harlem River Speedway. Here, ladies strolled in their light summer dresses and sportsmen on trotting horses took in the pleasures of open, airy Upper Manhattan along the bluffs of the Harlem River.

Painter and illustrator Jay Hambidge captured a glimpse of this splendid roadway in his 1898 painting “Summer on the Speedway.” The Speedway opened that year in July, spanning the riverfront from 155th Street in Harlem to Dyckman Street in Inwood, according to the Museum of the City of New York.

The bridge is the 1840s High Bridge, stretching from Manhattan to the Bronx—it’s perhaps the only thing in this painting that still exists in the city today.

In 1920, the Speedway was paved and open to motor cars. By 1940, it had become part of Robert Moses’ Harlem River Drive. But for a brief time in Gilded Age New York, it was a refreshing place to stroll and catch cool river breezes on punishing summer days and evenings.

Plus, wheelmen—aka, bicycle riders—were banned, which pleased the upscale, genteel crowd. Too many menacing scorchers!

[MCNY: 34.100.33]

This 1905 power plant is one of the West Side’s most beautiful buildings

July 11, 2022

With construction of the city’s first subway system underway, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company needed to build a massive generating plant that would create enough electricity to run the new lines.

Industrial buildings aren’t always designed with beauty in mind. But this was the early 1900s, the era of the City Beautiful movement. City Beautiful held that urban buildings should be architecturally inspiring and promote civic pride rather than be plain and utilitarian.

So while a team of pioneering engineers designed the interior workings of the building, IRT officials gave the responsibility of the exterior to Stanford White—the celebrated (and scandalous) architect whose brilliant artistic and architectural aesthetic was on display all over New York, from the Washington Square Arch to Madison Square Garden to numerous mansions, among other noteworthy structures.

White’s creation, known as the IRT Powerhouse, was completed in 1905. Spanning the entire block from 11th to 12th Avenue at the far western end of 59th Street, it epitomized the City Beautiful movement and looked more like a museum or concert hall than a coal-fed power plant.

Its location gives it away as an industrial structure. The Powerhouse opened at the nexus of two rough-edged tenement enclaves, Hell’s Kitchen to the south and the former San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north. The area was open and gritty, blocks away from the cattle pens and abattoirs of the West Side stockyards but with access to the river.

“Executed in the Beaux-Arts style and drawing upon Renaissance prototypes, it is the embodiment of the aesthetic ideas of the City Beautiful movement, which held that public improvements could beautify American industrial cities,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2017.

“White’s design masterfully concealed the boiler house and generating station with elegant, unified façades cloaked in Milford granite, Roman brick and creamy terra cotta with neoclassical ornament.”

Sketch of the completed IRT Powerhouse, 1904

Christopher Gray, writing in the New York Times in 1991, had this to say: “Giant arched windows march down each side, separated by huge pilasters and topped by an attic story and, originally, an elaborate projecting cornice. Some of the detailing is patterned after electrical designs but most is like a stylebook of classical patterns: delicate wreaths, sharp palmette leaves, swags and the like—an esthetic anomaly in this industrial area.”

This commemoration of industrial might and power has undergone some changes in the ensuing years. The cornice was stripped, and only one of the original smokestacks survives. In the last decade or so, the formerly gritty neighborhood has become the site of modern apartment towers that offer a cool contrast to the warmth of the power plant’s brick and terra cotta.

When the IRT went under three decades after launching the first subway lines, the city took the plant. “The city took possession of the building in the early 1930’s when it bought the IRT lines, and Con Ed bought the station from the city in 1957,” stated Michael Pollak in the New York Times‘ FYI column in 2006.

Instead of electricity, the power plant now creates steam for Manhattan buildings. It’s also an official landmark as of 2017, “a monument to the engineers and architects who planned and built New York City’s first successful subway system,” per the LPC.

[Fourth image: Wikipedia]