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Early Rapid Transit In New York

From nycsubway.org

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The Interborough Rapid Transit subway, which broke ground in 1900 after many years of political manovering, was not the first attempt at rapid transit in New York City, nor the first attempt at transit tunneling in New York City. Photo above depicts the junction of the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els at Chatham Square in Manhattan, when the trains were still hauled by small steam locomotives.

The first experimental elevated train line appeared over Greenwich Street in the late 1860s. Service on the el was provided by cable car, from Dey St to 29th Street, but constant breakdowns led to the shutdown of the line. The line reopened in 1871 with steam engines pulling the former cable cars. The other major elevated railroads began appearing during the 1870s. They ran over Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues, and other streets downtown below the normal street grid. Bronx elevated service was introduced in the mid 1880s. The elevated trains were initially operated with steam engines pulling the cars but by the beginning of the 1900s, electrification was underway, with the wooden coaches being converted for electric operation. The various Manhattan elevated lines were consolidated and eventually leased to the IRT in 1903. Most of the elevated tracks were taken down in the 1940s, with only the Third Avenue Elevated in Manhattan surviving to 1955. The Bronx portion of the 3rd Avenue line survived to April 1973.

Elevated lines in Brooklyn began operation in May, 1885. Service was provided over the streets of Myrtle, 5th, Fulton, Lexington, and Broadway. As was the case in Manhattan, steam locomotives pulled coaches over the Brooklyn streets. Trains ran on lightweight structures. First el started at Washington and York Streets and ran to Broadway and Gates Avenue, called the Old Main Line. Cable service was provided on the Brooklyn Bridge (1883-1898) and was eventually through routed with the Brooklyn Els. Els would come down starting in the 1940s. Myrtle Avenue was the last original el with wooden bodied cars in all of North America to close (1969). Portions of the els were rebuilt for subway service (Fulton St, Broadway).

Major Documents

Early Rapid Transit in Brooklyn, 1878-1913
Mark S. Feinman tells story of the rise of rapid transit in Brooklyn, including the early days of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, from 1878 until the signing of the Dual Contracts in March of 1913.

Rapid Transit in Great Cities (1891)
A 1891 article describing the necessity for rapid transit brought on by population growth in major cities.

Rapid Transit in Cities (1892)
An article from Scribner's Magazine that discusses the effects of rapid transit on the evolution of cities, not just New York but also Chicago, Berlin, London, Paris, and Boston.

Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities (1906)
New York City's Chamber of Commerce published this summary of the work of the Rapid Transit Commission in building the first subway. It also includes an overview of the state of rapid transit in other major cities (22 chapters, 68 illustrations).

Fifty Years of Rapid Transit (1918)
This 1918 book by James Blaine Walker details the politics behind the development of New York's elevated lines, its first subway, and the Dual Contracts.

New York, London, Paris and Berlin Transit Compared (1923)
A 1923 article by Daniel L. Turner, consulting engineer for the New York Rapid Transit Commission, describes transit conditions in New York, London, Paris, and Berlin.

Other Documents

Beach Pneumatic Transit
An overview and some period articles about the most well-known early attempt at transit tunneling in New York.

The Blizzard of 1888; the Impact of this Devastating Storm on New York Transit

The Bridge Builder's Triumph (Williamsburg Bridge) (1902)
February, 1902 article from Munsey's Magazine about the construction of New York's second great bridge.

The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1889-1906
A series of early motion pictures depicting rapid transit scenes in New York City, including an early ride on the IRT subway to Grand Central.

Catenary Trolley Construction Used on Manhattan Bridge (1917)‎

Rapid Transit Station Design (1920)‎

Transportation for Greater New York (1920)‎

Functions of Rapid Transit Lines in Cities (1920)‎

The New Jersey Commuter in New York Subway (1921)

Radical Readjustment Proposed in New York City (1921)

Subways for City Transportation (1921)

Transit Tendencies in New York City (1921)

How Can the New York Transit Problem Be Solved (1922)
Engineer Daniel L. Turner describes problems facing transit in New York City in 1922 and proposes some solutions.

A Review of New York's Transit Situation (1923)

Engineers Report on Brooklyn Elevated (1924)

Extensive Rapid Transit Plan Proposed for North Jersey (1926-1927)

New York Transit Postcards









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