Cable cars, trolleys and monorails: Moving around on New York’s forgotten transit options

ABOVE: The Boynton Bicycle Railway, combining the best of the locomotive and the spinning wheel. This narrow little hot wheel took riders on a short ride through Coney Island.

For the third part of our Bowery Boys On The Go summer series, we’re looking back at the history of New York City public transportation. It’s a short ride on the long gone and forgotten methods of getting around the city. The streets were mostly dominated by horse-based transport, but this was smelly and slow — not to mention awful on the animals. So the city experimented with new ways of moving the masses: by cable car (exported form San Francisco), the trolley and the monorail.

Along the way, you’ll find out the connection between the cable car and New York’s most famous art-house movie theater, discover the origins behind the name of a classic New York sports team, and hear the contributions of a man known as ‘the black Edison’.

ALSO: Find out about what may be the world’s worst monorail technology!

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Click onto photographs for a larger view

Horse Drawn: New York City before the 1870s simply could not have survived without horse power, and the streets were filled with thousands of the animals pulling streetcars, omnibuses, carts and basically everything else that moved. As a result, life for a horse was pretty much appalling. Life span was relatively short. Although the city designated places along the waterfront to dispose of carcasses, it wasn’t unheard of to leave bodies in the street. This classic (but disturbing) photo from 1900, captioned ‘Close of a Career’, illustrates the absurdity. (Courtesy Shorpy)

The first cable car system in New York was actually a steam-engine hybrid that ran over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Engineers didn’t believe a regular steam locomotive could travel up an incline to get onto the bridge, so this dual steam/cable method was created. The powerhouses, pictured here, were situated under the approaches. (Read more about it here.)

Cable Vision: How many times have the streets around Union Square been dug up? Here’s one of the very first times, in 1891, as workmen install a cable line for New York’s very first cable car system. Notable about this particular stretch is the fact that this would become part of the notorious Dead Man’s Curve, where cars would speed around the northwest corner of the park. (Courtesy NYPL)

The frequent and frustrating traffic predicament on New York streets, a congested cluster of machines and horses, sometimes at a standstill. This picture, from 1892, depicts Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square.

From an 1894 Life Magazine illustration, echoing the public sentiment over New York’s wily, dangerous cable car system. (Courtesy NYPL)

A video look at the Brooklyn trolley system, which by the 1930s had become the standard method of transit for most residents of the borough.

A map detailing the vastness of the Brooklyn trolley system by the 1930s, by this point a component of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation.

Inventor Granville Woods debuted his ‘multiple distributing station system’ — a sort of ‘wireless’ trolley system using electromagnetic induction — for the American Engineering Company in February 1892. Unfortunately, Woods had to sue the company for any sort of credit. In fact, this article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of the trial doesn’t even mention his name.

Monofail: The first riders of the monorail system provided by the Pelham Park and City Island Railroad were greeted with a nightmare voyage culminating in the entire car falling over on its side. “Flimsy Structure Supporting It Gives Way and Many Are Badly Hurt,” cries the New York Times. Despite this not insignificant hiccup, the monorail operated for a few years before being replaced with a trolley system.

On Track: Looking down on Times Square from 1905, taken from the top of the Times Building. I’m putting this hear for a bird’s eye view on what the streets of New York looked like, grooved with trolley rails. You can still see several horse carts too, although most horses had been taken off of city streets by this time. (Please click on the photo for a close-up view)