Category Archives: Planes Trains and Automobiles

A Brief History of Subway Cinema

Decades in the making, the Second Avenue Subway finally opened to the public this week, its glimmering new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets heralded with the pomp and circumstance of a movie premiere.

Of course, the subway doesn’t immediately come to mind as a photogenic movie star, but in fact, the various tunnels and stations of the New York City Subway have appeared as the backdrop for hundreds of movies.

Its route diversity — from deep under midtown to elevations above the outer boroughs — and its longevity have allowed filmmakers to turn the subway into a rolling sound stage.

So, in a tribute to the Second Avenue Subway, I recently revisited a post I wrote back in 2010, binging on a variety of subway films from several eras and noticing a definite pattern in their development. I suspect the gleaming new stations will find themselves irresistible as filming locations for future filmmakers in the years to come…..

The First Subway Movie: I posted this just a couple weeks ago, but the subway makes its first appearance at the inception of the very first IRT line, with a 1905 short (they were all short back then) called ‘Interior New York Subway‘. filmed by the Edison company, which was simply a camera following behind the first subway from Union Square to Grand Central. The film’s cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, went on to innovate standard filming techniques, like the soft focus and the fade out, and made his reputation working with D.W. Griffith on The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance.

A bit  later, in City Hall to Harlem In 15 Seconds, a slight plot would be added to the subway atmosphere.

The Musical Subway: Fiction films wouldn’t be shot on-locaton in the subway until the 1940s, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from transforming it (via a backlot) into a romantic set piece.

The most unusual of these is certainly the 1934 hokey gangbuster Dames, featuring an exotic dance number by Busby Berkeley as psychedelic as any 60s counter-culture movie. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler put on a wacky show — they’re always puttin’ on a show back then — featuring a crowded ride on an uptown train. Powell falls asleep and his dreams burst into hundreds of chorus girls.

BONUS: Earlier in the film, the pair woo each other on the Staten Island ferry with the song “I Only Have Eyes For You” (making its debut).

ALSO: Although it’s an elevated train — not a subway — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that King Kong (1933) didn’t much enjoy them rumbling down Sixth Avenue on an elevated train either.

Below: ‘Dames’ on a Train: Keeler and Powell dream of the innocent days

The Romantic Subway: On The Town (1949) is a candy-colored, on-location race through New York nostalgia, with our three dancing sailors skimming through the city’s greatest landmarks. A subway ride provides the impetus for the central romance, as Gene Kelly falls for a poster of Miss Turnstiles (a play on the mid-century’s quaint beauty pageant contest Miss Subways). Daydreaming similar to Dames produces an equally dance-filled response:

The Dark Subway: I’m not sure why more film noirs weren’t set on the subway — that would be remedied in the 1970s — especially when they’re as juicy as the 1953 Pickup on South Street.

The opening scene is one of its most famous, as an eerie Richard Widmark hovers over ditzy Jean Peters in a crowded subway car, gingerly relieving her purse of what proves to be a very troublesome item. From there, the action shifts to the piers of South Street — nearly unrecognizable, not an elevated highway in sight — before submerging back into the subway tunnels for a spectacular finish. Here’s a clip of the opening scene:

ALSO: With intrigue rumbling below, even the breeze from a passing subway train could elicit a sexual response as a defenseless young woman in a white dress stands above a grating in the 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch. Unfortunately, the actual footage of Marilyn Monroe standing above the subway grate was replaced with a studio-filmed version.  Here’s a clip of the film, and a still from the original Manhattan photoshoot.



The Hostage Train: That glowing sheen of the Berkeley musicals — even the somewhat clean shadows of ’50s crime dramas — would slowly fade by the 1960s, along with the conditions of the subway itself.

Presaging a rich future as a moving hellcar of violence and death, the 1967 film The Incident presents a group of unwitting passengers terrorized by two young, stereotypical ’60s sadists. Surreptitiously filmed and very low budget, The Incident would introduce the subway car-as-trap motif that would fuel the 1974 thriller The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3 and open its possibilities for urban horror.

A clip from The Incident:


Vengeance Underground: The movies hardly sugar-coated New York City’s hard times in the 1970s and rendered the subway into a place where anybody, at any time, could be shot, stabbed and assaulted. In Death Wish (1974), the subway is one of several locales of seething, bald-faced criminal activity, but it’s so dangerous that Charles Bronson goes down there twice to pick off bad guys. In the universe of this unsubtle action flick, you could be mugged and raped five, six, seven times a day, so best to be proactive and pick them off before they get you. Ten years later, Bernhard Goetz would reinvent this hyper, fictional fantasy by actually doing it.

ALSO: The greatest movie ever made using the subway, The French Connection (1971), actually has its most notorious moment that runs underneath an elevated line in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a breathless chase scene filmed famously without the city’s permission.

The Fantasy Detour: The reputation of the New York subway system was so poor in the 1970s that depictions went from the ultra-realistic to the absurd without missing a stop. In The Warriors (1979), the train becomes a virtual yellow-brick-row for a costumed Coney Island gang escaping a host of absurd villains. The Union Square subway station holds one of their deadliest challenges: suspendered, roller-skating pretty boy toughs with feathered hair.

It’s only a tiny step into pure fantasy and an actual yellow brick road in The Wiz (1978) with a creepy collection of gangly puppets, a pair of Scarecrow-eating trash cans, and living subway posts most certainly not designed by Heins & Lafarge.

Local Lines: While the mainstream movie depictions would get even more outrageous, the growth of independent filmmaking and thoughtful, locally filmed productions in the 1980s depicted the subway in more realistic tones — as a confusing place to lose a child in Gloria (1980), as an underground wild west for graffiti artists and hip hop dancers in Wild Style (1983) and Beat Street (1984, in the clip below), and as a restless throwback to film noir in King of New York (1990).

The Sequel Subway: With the advent of the Hollywood blockbuster came a restoration of the subway’s reputation — sorta. The subway in the cinematic 1980s and 1990s was still dangerous, but in wild, sensational and very unrealistic ways. The tunnels underneath Manhattan harbored rivers of ectoplasmic ooze (Ghostbusters 2, 1989), a train booby-trapped with explosives (Die Hard With A Vengeance, 1995), a supernatural danger zone of runaway trains and alien warriors (Superman 2 AND Superman 4), and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (who hole up in that abandoned City Hall subway station).

Midnight Horrors: As the subways became safer to ride, the usual tropes of knife-wielding thugs and rapists no longer made sense as objects of menace. Soon the subways were filled with supernatural beings, starting with the relatively sedate Jason from Friday The 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan and slowly elevating into humanoid insects (Mimic, 1997), monsters from the sea laying large lizard eggs (the Godzilla remake, 1998), and humanoid insect monsters from the sea (Cloverfield, 2008)


ALSO: For a more intriguing take on subway horror, I recommend Jacob’s Ladder (1990) which uses the Brooklyn Bergen Street Station to surreal effect.

The Worst Subway Depiction Ever: Of course, films are allowed to manipulate train lines, distort direction, even put trains next to landmarks that are, in reality, miles away. It’s fantasy.

But somewhere out there in the vast universe of fiction there is a vague, undefined point where a film steps over the line, and the movie which does this most shamelessly is the otherwise great Spider-Man 2, which inserts a vast, fantasy elevated R line through the heart of Manhattan, rebuilding what the city so painstakingly tore down in the 1940s and 50s. If they wanted a picturesque elevated through a dense downtown landscape, why not just put Spider-Man in Chicago?

21st Century Redux: In the last forty years, Hollywood has had a nasty habit of replicating itself, and that goes for subway movies, with rehashed old themes like vigilantism (in 2007’s The Brave One) and even remakes the older films, like the sorry remake to The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. (Incidentally, that remake’s two stars have two important subway films on their resumes — John Travolta in one of the greatest New York films of all time, Saturday Night Fever, and Denzel Washington, in an uncredited, unceremonious moment in Death Wish.)

But the most enchanting recent use of the subway in a motion picture happens in Inside Llewyn Davis, where a misbegotten cat experiences the rush of mass transit for the first time:

A version of this article first ran on this blog in 2010.

The First Subway: Alfred Ely Beach’s Marvelous Pneumatic Transit

PODCAST The unbelievable story of Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic Transit, a curious solution from 1870 to New York’s growing transporation crisis.

The first subway in New York — the first in the United States! – traveled only a single block and failed to influence the future of transportation. And yet Alfred Ely Beach’s marvelous pneumatic transit system provides us today with one of the most enchanting stories of New York during the Gilded Age.

With the growing metropolis still very much confined to below 14th Street by 1850, New Yorkers frantically looked for more efficient ways to transport people out of congested neighborhoods. Elevated railroads? Moving sidewalks? Massive stone viaducts?

Inventor Beach, publisher of the magazine Scientific American, believed he had the answer, using pneumatic power — i.e. the power of pressurized air! But the state charter only gave him permission to build a pneumatic tube to deliver mail, not people.

That didn’t stop Beach, who began construction of his extraordinary device literally within sight of City Hall.  How did Beach build such an ambitious project under secretive circumstances? What was it like to ride a pneumatic passenger car?  And why don’t we have pneumatic power operating our subways today?

FEATURING: Boss Tweed at his most bossiness, piano tunes under Broadway and something called a centrifugal bowling alley!

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We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

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We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!


Alfred Speer’s moving sidewalk concept would have lifted pedestrians off the street and onto a moving ribbon that would have stretched up and down Broadway.


Read more about this curious proposal over at Scientific American.

From Scientific American
From Scientific American


An 1880 issue of Scientific American, the publication owned by Alfred Eli Beach that provided the impetus for many extraordinary inventions during the Gilded Age.



The ‘atmospheric railway’ which ran during London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1864.


Another idea which transfixed New Yorkers (and in particular Boss Tweed) was the elevated viaduct which would have sliced through dozens of city blocks, creating an epic piece of architecture throughout Manhattan.

From the Tribune, July 8, 1871.  Courtesy Columbia University
From the Tribune, July 8, 1871. Courtesy Columbia University


Alfred Ely Beach, mastermind of the Broadway pneumatic tunnel project:


Beach’s ‘passenger tube’ which was displayed to great acclaim at the American Institute Fair in 1867:


Some images from Beach’s 1870 pamphlet on the pneumatic system:



An illustration from a newspaper of Beach’s workers ‘testing the position’ late at night over Broadway:

Testing the correctness of position at night-inkbluesky





How an underground pneumatic tunnel would have been situated under Broadway.  Pictured here in relation to the new post office (which sat at the spot of the southern end of today’s City Hall Park).


Had the Broadway Underground Railway actually been fully developed, here’s what a station would have looked like:

From NYC Subway
From NYC Subway

Stereopticon images of Beach’s pneumatic transit tunnel under Broadway, taken in 1870:



Beach’s later invention — the centrifugal home bowling alley:


Later application of pneumatic power in New York — shipping office tubes at a location at Franklin and Greenwich Streets (1905) and the series of mail tubes at the National City Bank, 1910.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York



Start with Joseph Brennan’s excellent research and presentation online.  Then jump into one of these great books on the history of New York City transportation — 722 Miles by Clifton Hood, The Race Underground by Doug Most, The Wheels That Drove New York City by Roger P. Roess and Gene Samsone and New York Underground by Julia Solis. There’s even a children’s book on this subject called The Secret Subway by Shana Corey and Red Nose Studio.

For some original documents from the period, look to an Illustrated Description of the Broadway Pneumatic Underground Railway (which we read from on the show), an 1873 presentation of the Broadway Underground Railway, and a very curious publication by Beach himself called The Pneumatic Dispatch from 1868.


A city of bridges: One century ago, Scientific American predicted a future of elevated sidewalks


Imagine a city where the High Line isn’t just a novel park, but the primary form of urban conveyance.

In 1913, with the proliferation of the automobile, it seemed humans were being crowded out at ground level.  People were beginning to think of themselves as removed from the street.  Daredevils were experimenting with flight, and small, single-man crafts began appearing over the skies of Manhattan.  The world’s tallest building, the Woolworth Building, had been completed a few months before.  Perhaps the streets themselves could elevate, granting pedestrians a space of their own?

Scientific American suggested the possibilities of a city of elevated layers in its July 26, 1913 issue. “The Elevated Sidewalk: How It Will Solve City Transportation Problems,” written by engineer and science writer Henry Harrison Suplee, posits that humans and automobiles are simply incompatible and opposing engines upon ground level, and that one will have to give way to the other.

“One of the greatest impediments to city transport today is the continuance of the obsolete method of attempting to conduct foot and vehicular traffic upon the same highways.”

Below: Cars and people seem to co-exist peacefully on Fifth Avenue (pictured here in 1913). But, darn it, automobiles are meant to go fast! 

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy

After all, cars are meant to go fast.  “In nearly every large city today there appears a tendency to enforce traffic regulations intended to permit the most conflicting elements to be operated together and the result is naturally the impeding of the very traffic which it is desired to help.”

By keeping people and automobiles on the same plane, one risks lives, sure, but more importantly, it slows progress by keeping the potential of auto motion on a short leash.

Suplee’s solution: “Take the foot passengers off the surface of the street entirely, and leave the highways solely for vehicles!”

Below: Evidence of the incompatibility of foot and automobile was being amply displayed all over New York City, most notably on “Death Avenue,” the trecherous tangle of roads on Manhattan’s West Side. Eventually the elevated freight railroad today known as the High Line was built to relieve this issue.



New York had many precedents for this.  The great passages over the East River (the Brooklyn, the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges) had all been completed with elevated pathways for pedestrians, situated over or alongside those paths for vehicular traffic.  Trains were either elevated overhead along the avenues, or buried underneath the ground.

Suplee doesn’t imagine a world were pedestrians become smarter, or any type of place with sophisticated traffic lights or crosswalks.  Instead, elevated sidewalks would hover over the major thoroughfares; “[S]uch sidewalks might be built on Broadway from the Battery to Union Square, there sloping down to the surface level until further extensions were required,” he writes.

In a city of skyscrapers, bridges could be constructed several stories above the street.  Store fronts would appear on the second or third floors, while the ground floor would be exclusively used for delivery and store.  Life would essentially reside many feet above the ground.

Bicycles figure nowhere in his model, but he does carve out one exception to his pedestrian only level.  “The power vehicles should be kept absolutely to the surface, and there given unrestricted facilities for speed, weight, and numbers; and the foot levels maintained for absolute freedom for pedestrians, with the possible exception of carriages for small children.”

As commenter Boris mentions below, while New York City never adhered to this suggestion, other cities certain did — to a certain extent.

You can read Mr. Suplee’s article here.

(A shorter version of this blog post originally ran June 2013)

PODCAST REWIND: Remembering the original Pennsylvania Station

PODCAST The story of Pennsylvania Station involves more than just nostalgia for the long-gone temple of transportation as designed by the great McKim, Mead and White. It’s a tale of incredible tunnels, political haggling and big visions. Find out why the original Penn Station was built to look so classical, why it was then torn down, and what strange behaviors the tunnels that connect it to New Jersey exhibit every night.


THIS IS A SPECIAL ILLUSTRATED PODCAST!  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #5-#79), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.


The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!


The view of Penn Station from the roof of Gimbels Department Store.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


For this round of photographs, let’s focus on the inside of the station, shall we? To look at other shots pertaining to Penn Station, please refer to the original post from this podcast from 2009.

Images of the spectacular main waiting room and the classical Corinthian columns. Read here about something very mysterious and tragic which occurred near here in 1914.

Penn_Station_interior pennstation1911waitingroom

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

This is what greeted you as you got off the train and headed for 33rd Street.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Crowds await the arrival of superstar preacher Billy Sunday in 1917. Read all about his visit here.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


The interior from the 1950s during rush hour. Getty has a terrific collection of Penn Station photographs over the years.

Getty Images
Getty Images

From this angle of the waiting room (taken in the station’s early days) you can see a statue of Alexander Cassatt, Penn Railroad’s former president, in its wall niche. Cassatt, brother of impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, never got to see the completed station, as he died in 1906. (The station opened in 1910.)

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


From this angle, you can really see the relation of the train platforms with one of the entrances. Seems easier to navigate than the current Penn Station, don’t you think?


Here are a few ‘cleaned up’ hi-res images from the fine folks over at Shorpy, who have a bit of a thing apparently for old Penn Station. Go over to their blog to check out the rest of their work.

Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy


100 years ago today: Seventh Avenue collapsed under rush hour traffic

One hundred years ago today, — a horrifying disaster on Seventh Avenue endangered the lives of New Yorkers on their way to work.

Excavations for the new Seventh Avenue subway line (the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue line, aka the 1-2-3 trains) were proceeding well below an active thoroughfare.  On the morning of September 22, 1915, two detonations inside the tunnel dislodged planking that was holding up the street between 24th and 25th Streets.  Dangerously weakened, the temporary roadway folded into the earth, creating a chasm and swallowing up everything on the surface.

The men working below didn’t stand a chance, buried beneath a deluge of automobiles and debris.   Among the vehicles thrown into the 30-foot hole was a streetcar filled with passengers. “Heads and arms were thrust from the windows, and those who looked on helplessly could hear the cries of the ones caught in the wreckage.” [NY Sun, 9/23/15]

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

Both the water main and gas pipes burst open in the tumult, and trapped streetcar passengers panicked as the enclosure began filling with water.

“Witnesses of the accident quickly recovered from the shock of seeing nearly two blocks of city street sink from sight, carrying down all traffic within reach of the cave in.” [NY World, 9/22/15 late edition]

Courtesy Library of Congress


Seven people were killed in the disaster with dozens injured. Most of the deaths were workers in the tunnel although two passengers in the streetcar also died.

Eyewitnesses describe a scene of utter chaos and total confusion.  A man named Joseph Urban was standing on the street and got pulled into the hole.  “There was a funny feeling on the planking — a trembling, jerking sort of sensation — and then the whole street seemed to slide down into the hole. There was so much dust that I couldn’t see anything for two minutes. When I could see I appeared to be in a forest of tangled timbers, pointing every which way.” [source]

Police went searching for the culprit. Although it was later deemed an accident, an intentional detonation could not be ruled out especially given the fact that terrorist bombs were going off all over the city. (Back in March, detectives thwarted a second attempt to bomb St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Below: Seventh Avenue as it looked 100 years ago


Fingers quickly pointed to the IRT’s inadequate ‘cut-and-cover’ method, identifying other possibly deadly roadways along Seventh Avenue. Mayor John Purroy Mitchel ordered additional supports be constructed at many excavation sports, and ‘heavy trucking’ was banned from these problem areas.

This wasn’t the city merely being over anxious. In fact, just three days later, another excavation collapsed at Broadway and 38th Street, swallowing a taxicab and killing its passenger.  What makes this especially hazardous was its proximity to the popular Knickerbocker and Casino theaters.

As you might imagine, the collapse snarled street traffic for weeks with street closures and detoured routes turning the Tenderloin and Herald Square districts into a mass of congestion.

Below: An illustration from the New York Sun, showing the location of the 24th Street street collapse and a Google Maps screen capture of this street today.





TAXI: A History of the New York Taxi Cab

PODCAST The history of the New York City taxicab, from the handsome hansoms of old to the modern issues facing the modern taxi fleet today.

In this episode, we recount almost 175 years of getting around New York in a private ride.  The hansom, the romantic rendition of the horse and carriage, took New Yorkers around during the Gilded Age. But unregulated conduct by ‘nighthawks’ and the messy conditions of streets due to horses demanded a solution.

At first it seemed the electric car would save the day but the technology proved inadequate.  In 1907 came the first gas-propelled automobile cabs to New York, officially ‘taxis’ due to a French invention installed in the front seat.

By the 1930s the streets were filled with thousands of taxicabs. During the Great Depression, cab drivers fought against plunging fare and even waged a strike in Times Square. In 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia debuted the medallion system as a way to keep the streets regulated.

By the 1970s many cabdrivers faced an upswing of crime that made picking up passengers even more dangerous than bad traffic.  Drivers began ignoring certain fares – mainly from African-Americans – which gave rise to the neighborhood livery cab system.

Today New York taxicab fleets face a different threat – Uber and the rise of private app-based transportation services. Will the taxi industry rise to the challenge in time for the debut of their ‘taxi of tomorrow’?

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #189: TAXI: The history of the New York City taxicab

Top picture: Photo by Albert Fenn/Office of War Information, Cleaned up image courtesy Shorpy (Get a print of it here)



The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!



A snugly dressed cabbie awaiting some fares at the Battery Park elevated train station — 1895. Note that the poor horse too is swaddled up for a bad winter.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New  York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


A hack from 1896.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library


A hansom cab from 1906. This was still the dominant cab ride in New York during the period despite the introduction of the ‘horseless carriage’ onto the city streets.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


A fleet of electric cars in 1896, and a couple Electrobats in action outside the Metropolitan Opera House 1898. Compare these with the picture of the hansom above.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst


A taxicab waiting outside Alwyn Court (West 58th Street/7th Avenue)

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York


A cab waiting passengers at West 150th Street.

Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A view of the bustling street life of Herald Square, 1935. The horses are off the street but there are many other kinds of transportation options joining the taxicab.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


Grabbing a Checker Cab on Park Avenue 1944

Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images
Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images


A row of Checker Taxis, sitting idle during a taxicab strike in 1940.

: Keystone/Getty Images)
: Keystone/Getty Images)


Some vivid 1960s photography by Ernst Haas capturing the mystery and allure of the New York taxi.

Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images
Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images

Ernst Haas (9)

Some scenes from the 1970s…

Courtesy City Noise
Courtesy City Noise

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The Horror Underground: New York’s first subway disaster — during rush hour, one hundred years ago today

On January 6, 1915, a seemingly minor incident under the streets of Midtown caused a terrible panic, “the worst disaster in the history of the New York subway” up to that date, injuring hundreds of commuters and killing one. 

That morning, two electrical cables feeding into manholes at Broadway and 52nd Street suddenly shorted out, causing a blackout in the subway tunnels below. The cable insulation, not fireproof, began issuing masses of “dense acrid” smoke that soon filled the tunnels.

The event occurred at the start of rush hour so there where three trains between 50th Street and Columbus Circle that were immediately affected. Over 2,500 people were trapped in the subway cars or stuck inside suddenly dark stations.

Nothing but the wires was actually on fire.  But the billowing, toxic smoke in darkened tunnels soon caused a panic as passengers began clawing for the doors, trampling the weak underfoot.


From some newspaper sources:

“The firemen found passengers struggling to get out of the few car doors that were opened while hundreds of persons lay upon the car floors,  having been asphyxiated or trampled on in this panic. Others escaped from cars only to fall besides the tracks blinded and with lungs full of smoke.” [New York Times]

“Blindly shouting and screaming, the passengers ran from the car they were in to the other cars, hoping to find some relief from the fumes and smoke. They knocked each other down in their wild scramble to get air and clawed each other’s clothing……In a few minutes the sound of crashing glass gave higher pitch to the panic.” [New York Tribune]

“There ensued a disgraceful and brutal battle for safety. Men and boys knocked down and trampled women and girls…….Most of the women had practically all their clothing torn off. Many of the men were stripped to the sides from the waist up.” [Evening World]

Hundreds were sent to the hospital with various injuries, mostly smoke inhalation, but many from the horrors of being trampled underfoot. Unfortunately, one woman was killed in the incident.

Firefighters had few options in rescuing passengers.  Most were delivered up ladders along a small passage at 55th Street.  The air was so toxic that many firemen were themselves hospitalized.

Subway service was naturally disrupted for a few a days afterwards. Officials initially shrugged off the incident. “In the present state of the art,” said Frank Hedley, general manager of the Interborough Rapid Transit, “there is nothing known which will prevent the recurrence of short circuits.” However, attention soon turned to woefully inadequate insulation used in subway wiring.

“New York received a warning, when hundreds of passengers were suffocated in the subway.   The next occurrence may be far more serious in loss of life due to a similar cause — suffocation. No time should be lost remedying the most serious defect of the subway, viz. lack of suitable ventilation at all times.” [source]

Redesigned subway cars and fireproof wiring would soon ensure such a disaster would not occur again.

The New York City subway system opened 110 years ago today; An interview with The Race Underground author Doug Most

Crowds at the now-defunct City Hall Station of the brand new New York subway system. (NYPL)

One hundred and ten years ago today, the first train of the New York City subway system began its first trip underneath the city, filled with eager and excited passengers.  Thousands lined up to take this revolutionary new ride, promising a jaunt from City Hall to Harlem in under 30 minutes. At the helm of the very first subway ride was the mayor himself, George B McClellan Jr., refusing to relinquish the wheel until he had completed most of the distance.

The subway is one of the defining creations of New York’s Gilded Age, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion.  Early attempts at underground transportation by innovators like Alfred Ely Beach were waylaid by political corruption.  Elevated railroad and streetcar companies were hardly enthusiastic about it. Even the idea of going below disturbed and frightened some people.  Proponents of the subway in New York must have grimaced when Boston beat them to the punch in the late 1890s.

Both the Boston and New York subway systems benefited from great genius and even greater wealth. As Boston Globe editor Doug Most notes in his terrific book The Race Underground: Boston: New York and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway, the systems even shared wealthy benefactors — the brothers Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, negotiating a  host of political and technical speed bumps on their quest to build the country’s first subterranean route.

At right: Subway riders, painting by F. Luis Mora, 1914 (NYPL)

Most’s story is especially fascinating in outlining the difficulties of these ambitious projects.  What seems an absolutely sound decision today was deemed highly risky and politically fraught in its day.  On this important anniversary, I thought I’d ask the author to elaborate on the significance of this day and the spectacular achievements of these two rival cities. (And I highly recommend picking up his book this week. After all, has there ever been reading material better suited to commute reading?)

The final chapter of The Race Underground is actually titled “October 27, 1904 “? This is obviously an important date for New Yorkers, but what is it about the events of that particular day that make this a milestone in American (and even world) history?

Doug Most: ​Well, first I loved the contrast between how Boston celebrated opening its subway and New York celebrated its subway opening. Boston opened in the morning and just treated it like any other day. Here it is, we built it. New York celebrated like New Yorkers, they made it a spectacle, a party, and all the politicians and key figures wanted to play their part. Very different openings.New York’s subway was a huge achievement for many reasons. That it was built, tunneling through the ​Manhattan schist, using dynamite where needed, was incredible. Many workers died during the construction and my book tells the dramatic story of how they worked, dug, and died tragically. But that’s how society makes progress, right? We have to learn through tragedy. The New York subway was a great example of that.

The newly completed subway tunnel in 1904, before the big inaugural ride on October 27, 1904 (Library of Congress)

The greatest obstacle for the creation of the subway wasn’t merely physical or political; it was convincing people that travelling underground could be a clean and safe experience. What were a few of the beliefs or superstitions people held in the early days?

DM:  ​It’s something we take for granted today. We bound downstairs staring at our phones and tablets and papers, and don’t give a second though to the underground. But back then in the 19th century, the underground was terrifying for people. It was where Lucifer lived! The Devil! Where vermin made their home.People needed to be convinced subways could be clean, safe, dry and healthy, that the air would not be poisonous and kill them. I love the story of London opening a pedestrian tunnel around 1840, and thousands of people taking one look down that tunnel and going right back up to the street, refusing to walk through it. That was 1840! In terms of history, not that long ago. It took a long time for society to accept the underground as a safe place to travel.​

Under Tremont Station in Boston (courtesy

Your story is framed as the glorious rivalry between two brothers – Henry and William Whitney – and two rival cities, Boston and New York. But Boston really manages to pull ahead for much of the story. Was this because the needs of the city were easier to accomplish or was it because of New York’s corrupt political system at this time?

DM:  I think it’s both. New York struggled politically with some big decisions and some key characters stood in the way of progress, including of course Boss Tweed. New York absolutely should have been ahead of Boston; they were talking about a subway in New York in the mid 1800s, but it didn’t get built until 1900.Boston didn’t start thinking subway until 1887 and then moved very quickly. New Yorkers were not happy to see that little podunk city to the north making so much progress while their city kept getting bogged down in politics.​

Digging up Union Square to lay cable-car lines, 1891. (New York Public Library)

The story of The Race Underground features an extraordinary build-up of transportation technologies, from noble but failed technologies (the pneumatic tube) to others that led to the birth of the subway (like electric streetcars). What do you personally consider the most interesting or surprising development in transportation prior to the birth of the subway?

DM:  Well the story of the cable car was fascinating, because it seemed like for a few years that was the future of urban transportation. It was cleaner and faster and smoother than the horse-pulled carriage, and people enjoyed riding them and it really looked like it might take off. San Francisco gave birth to it, and other cities, including New York, experimented with it.But as cities quickly learned, the cable car had a big problem. Those cables could twist and snap and fixing them was slow and expensive. And when a cable snapped, the entire system ground to a halt. Plus, cables were only effective in cities with lots of long straight roads like New York. But in smaller cities, like Boston, with twists and turns and narrow streets, cable cars just didn’t make sense. I love the story of how the cable car was almost our future, and then suddenly, it was gone!​

Now speaking of that pneumatic tube, here’s a what if? – say Beach faced no opposition from Boss Tweed and the elevated railroads. Could New York have actually built a viable transportation system using this method? After all, people are looking into pneumatic systems for possible high-speed travel today!

DM:  No. Chapter One in my book, the story of Alfred Beach and Boss Tweed, is really my favorite chapter for so many reasons. And the great fan he used, the Western Tornado, to blow his subway car down the tracks. But was a fan really going to blow subway cars all over the island of Manhattan? No it wasn’t. The technology being talked about today is so sophisticated, involving electromagnetic charges and other methods far beyond basic pneumatic tubes. ​But Beach was a dreamer, a lot like Elon Musk of Tesla, and we need dreamers like that to push us forward as a society. So that’s why I love his story so much.

What features of the modern New York City subway system are you the most impressed by today? And what could use some serious improvement?DM:  The speed is impressive and so is the reach of it — how you truly can reach almost every corner of the five boroughs on the subway. That’s so different than other cities, especially Boston and Washington, for starters, where the transit systems are much smaller and harder to survive on without a car. I am not sure I have any great suggestion for New York’s subway. I’m a big fan of it, and loved riding it when I lived at 80th and Broadway, and love taking my kids on it today when we come back to visit. It’s a treat and it’s a part of history I hope people appreciate.​

Below: New York’s distinctive subway entrances, inspired by the subway system in Budapest, 1905 (New York Public Library)

Back in 2010, the Bowery Boys did an entire series on the history of New York City transportation.  In honor of this great day in New York City history, why not check out one of these shows which traces the history of getting around the city — from the first ferries in the 18th century to the struggles of maintaining a modern subway system into the 21st.  You can find these episodes on iTunes or download them directly from the links below:

Part One: Staten Island Ferry
A look at the earliest forms of transportation in New York harbor, with a focus on the early ferry services from Staten Island
Blog: Staten Island Ferry, its story, from sail to steam
Download here

Part Two: New York’s Elevated Railroads
Starting with the introduction of horse-drawn streetcars and omnibuses to the innovation of elevated trains running along four avenues in Manhattan and in various parts of Brooklyn
Blog: New York’s Elevated Railroads; Journey to a spectacular world of steam trains along the avenues
Download here

Part Three: Cable Cars, Trolleys and Monorails
Electrified trolley cars became the most common form of travel in New York starting in the 1890s and into the new century. Find out why they succeeded and why two other forms — cable cars and monorails — did not.
Blog: Cable cars, trolleys and monorails; Moving around on New York’s transportation options
Download here

Part Four: New York City Subway, Part 1: Birth of the IRT
The story of the very first subway which went nowhere (Alfred Ely Beach and his pneumatic tube train) and the one that eventually did (August Belmont and the Interborough Rapid Transit).
Blog: The New York City Subway and the Creation of the IRT
Download here

Part Five: New York City Subway, Part 2: By The Numbers (And Letters)
The surprisingly difficult attempt to expand the subway system and the curious public/private partnership which got it done. Plus: the history of the future of the Second Avenue subway line
Blog: Modern history of the New York Subway: Expansion from the 1-2-3, A-B-C, Second Avenue and beyond
Download here

Post-Script: Subway Graffiti 1970-1989
Art. Vandalism. Freedom. Blight. Creativity. Crime. Graffiti has divided New Yorkers since it first appeared on walls, signs and lampposts in the late 1960s. This is a history of the battle between graffiti and City Hall. And a look at the aftermath which spawned today’s tough city laws and a former warehouse space in Queens.
Blog:  The wild times of the subway graffiti era 1970-1989: At the city’s worst, an art form flourishes along transit lines
Download here

New York City’s “stripped and abandoned” car crisis

The fate of an automobile at Breezy Point, 1973 (Courtesy US National Archives)

The abandoned car, that most dramatic symbol of urban blight, is a sight that has pretty much vanished from most New York City streets. (Most, not all.)  In a city refitted for the automobile by the mid 20th century, people just began leaving their cars everywhere, either vandalized beyond repair or too expensive to tow when their vehicles became unusable. These husks of metal were scavenged for parts, then left to rust, the city’s sanitation crews unable to keep pace of the growing problem.

I recently found an intriguing article in New York Magazine from 45 years ago, titled “Stripped and Abandoned,” outlining the causes of the city’s sudden population of vehicular remains:

“Last year, by Department of Sanitation records, 31,578 cars were abandoned in New York City.  Some were wrecks; some were stolen, then stripped; some were involved … in minor highway mishaps which caused their owners to leave them — to expert instant strippers, who evidently abound.”

By 1969, the problem had grown so unwieldy that the city hired third-party contractors to take care of most of it, but its budget for such removal would only shrink as the city entered the hard-knock 1970s.  Within a few years, the city would not even bother to remove such blight from certain neighborhoods.

“At any one time,” wrote author Fred Ferretti in 1969, “there are about 2,000 cars strewn about the highways and local streets.”

Below: From the New York Magazine article, the fate of a vehicle in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side (photos by Robert D’Alessandro):

In 1970, standing in stark contrast to a city of polluted, automotive remains, one artist at the very first Earth Day celebration in Union Square attempted to address the problem.  A crushed sedan sat alongside the environmental merriment with a sign: “57,742 Cars Removed in 1969; 21,635 Removed in 1970, as of April 21.”  The New York Times would later note a total of 72,961 abandoned cars in 1970. [source] [source]

They weren’t just eye sores.  What wasn’t pilfered or siphoned out was left to rot in the elements, leaking oil, attracting vermin.

New York City was only one problem spot within a new American crisis, with millions and millions of cars across the country already overfilling scrap yards.  Here, however, it was a harbinger of hard times on the way.

“Everywhere you look, there are abandoned cars, stripped and junked,” said one resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn, returning to his deteriorating neighborhood in 1970.

A car almost completed ingested by Jamaica Bay, 1973  (Courtesy US National Archives)

Abandoned vehicles became the New York Sanitation Department’s biggest issue in the 1970s, although by the new decade, there was some improvement.  According to a New York Times article from 1981:

“Total abandoned-car collections declined from more than 79,000 in 1978 to 33,112 last year and to 14,900 in the first half of this year, officials said. Robert Hennelly, chief of cleaning operations, said he thought the drop was ”perhaps because the cost of cars has gotten so high that people are holding on to them longer.”

Some cynically still considered the abandoned vehicle to be a recognizable mark of New York City, even in the 1980s, a sort of native animal.

Not that an abandoned car couldn’t have some useful purpose, as this picture by Camily Jose Vergara illustrates. (Click here for more of his terrific photography)

With the general infrastructural improvement of the city during the 1990s, the beast had receded somewhat from view in most neighborhoods.  There are still abandoned cars galore — here’s the city’s current policy for reporting derelict vehicles — but few are so unscrupulously picked clean or left to decay into a rusty shell.

Below: As with the others above, Jamaica Bay 1973, near JFK Airport (US National Archives)

History in the making 2/18: Pennsylvania Station edition

Aging beauty: The entrance of Penn Station, photographed by James Burke in 1957 for Life Magazine.

— Tonight on PBS’s American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, the story of McKim, Mead and White’s Midtown masterpiece and how its tragic demolition in the 1960s forced New Yorkers to consider the importance of historic preservation.  [American Experience]

Barry Popik brings up an interesting anniversary — John J Fitz Gerald’s newspaper column “Around the Big Apple” began 90 years ago this week.  Fitz Gerald helped popularize New York’s nickname ‘the Big Apple’.  Read more at Popik’s excellent and exhaustive site of urban etymology: [Barry Popik]

— The secret at 58 Joralemon Street:  The Brooklyn Heights tunnel disaster that forever changed how the city handled destructive construction work.  [Brownstoner]

Ghost signage: The remnants of former businesses are all around us, their old signs living long past the establishments themselves.  Photographer Gary Fonville has found some beautiful examples all through the five boroughs, some of which you’ve probably walked by a thousands times without noticing! [Forgotten New York]

East Village monsters: What are those things guarding this home on St. Marks Place? [Ephemeral New York]

The Velvet Caps, the Scalpeens and the Jackson Hollow Gang: A fascinating rundown of the oddly named ruffians that ruled the streets of Brooklyn, most in the years before Consolidation. [artofneed]