New York City’s Elevated Railroads: Journey to a spectacular world of steam trains along the avenues

Above: The Third Avenue Line as it looked running along the Bowery, changing the nature of New York street life, even as its innovations helped expand the city.

PODCAST Before there were subways, New York City transported travelers up and down the length of Manhattan by elevated railroad, an almost unreal spectacle to consider today. Steam engines sat high above several avenues in the city, offering passengers not just a faster trek to the northern reaches of Manhattan, but a totally new way to see the city in the 19th century.

Welcome to our second podcast in our series Bowery Boys On The Go, a look at the history of New York City transportation. Before we get to those famous ‘El’ trains, we explore the earliest travel options in the city — the omnibuses and horse-drawn rail cars, the early steam successes of the New York and Harlem Railroad and Hudson River Railroads, and something affectionately nicknamed the one-legged railroad.

What were some of the more peculiar ideas for improving travel? And why was the idea of a subway immediately shot down by the city? Let’s just say — Boss Tweed and Jay Gould are involved.

ALSO: What were the different motivations driving transportation progress in the city of Brooklyn? Well, it has something to do with the beach.

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An illustration of the first traincar in the New York and Harlem Railroad system — the John Mason, named for the railroad’s president (Mason was also the president of Chemical Bank). It was designed by master engineer John Stephenson, who customized many of the New York and Harlem’s traincars.

Charles Harvey developed the first elevated system for New York, essentially a cable/pulley system that stretched along the west side from the Battery. Below, Harvey gives his ‘one-legged’ line a tryout in 1867. (Pic courtesy Merritt Island Subway South)

Rufus Gilbert, a Civil War physician, turned to trains after the war and dreamt up an imaginative pneumatic system, to zip passengers above the city in Gothic-themed arches. Gilbert was given the go-ahead to construct this oddity, but the love for steam and a financial crisis transformed the idea into a steam elevated line instead. (Courtesy Columbia U)

Ladies Mile along the Sixth Avenue elevated line. The trains might have made the city expand outwards, but it also made the streets smaller and darker. (Original pic from Shorpy)

The Third Avenue line, where it ran alongside Cooper Union and traveled south down through the Bowery. This intersectioni today still sits rather wide and empty, a vestige of the days when tracks hovered above the roads. [NYPL]

An ornate station for the Ninth Avenue line, at Christopher and Greenwich streets in the West Village.

The Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad, the precursor to the Long Island Railroad. The section illustrated here is along Woodhaven Boulevard, but much of the line went along Atlantic Avenue.