Tag Archives: New York City Subway

The International Express: The Personality of the 7 Train

The New York subway system has been a frightening place recently — derailments, stalled trains underground, agonizing delays.

Most of these interruptions are experienced in a unique way, a group of strangers coping with a  situation outside their control. After a few minutes of waiting, people get impatient, pace the train, grumble silently, turn up the volumes on their listening devices. Their spheres of comfort may change, allowing them to speak to a fellow passenger in a sign of solidarity.

Now take those regular mass-transit routines and observe them on the most unusual train in all of New York  City (if not the world) — the 7 train which travels from the Hudson Yards to Flushing, passing through a wide variety of ethnic neighborhoods. It’s affectionately called the International Express.

New Yorkers on the 7 Train
By Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum
Columbia University Press

In International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train, two ethnographers Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum study closely the daily routines of subway riders along this line, representatives from a dozen unique communities, some blissfully lost in their own worlds, others suppressing their own racial prejudices, creating a fascinating space of temporary urban cohabitation.

Flickr/Tarek Awad

As the two authors observe, there really is no experience on earth like riding the subway.

Their observations of human behavior can be read to include all experiences upon the New York subway, but the 7 train provides a very unique mix of languages and cultures, intensifying and sometimes complicating regular daily routines.

Riders in rich ethnic communities of one type may only interact with those of other communities while riding the subway. On the 7, this means sharing a space with people of many ethnic backgrounds at once.  “Riders are fascinated by the diversity they experience and take pride in learning in learning to read cues regarding the identities of strangers on the trains.”

Flickr/Doug Letterman

In a very blunt but incisive way, the authors identify various aspects of New York that often hard to quantify. “[A]fter paying the fare, we all have an equal right to be on the subway, to be in the city dressed however we please, and to be ready to defend ourselves against stereotyping and bigotry.”

And yet, as observed in interviews with countless 7-train riders, the train becomes a sort-of safe space as well, where individuality is not only allowed but even supported, as it allows every rider to express themselves personally within basic norms of decency. Not that riders don’t personally harbor hostile or racist views at times; but mostly, perhaps as preservation of the 7 train’s neutral space, they keep these thoughts to themselves.

The authors also explore the particular power of the 7 train itself in transforming Queens into the most diverse and second-most populous borough, allowing neighborhoods of specific ethnic character to thrive, even at moments in New York City history where the rest of the city stagnated.

The success of neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Flushing ultimately depend on the train. The most illuminating sections of International Express seem almost like dire warnings in light of 2017’s recent mass-transit disasters.

Or, as the authors put it, “Despite overcrowding, construction and mechanical delays, sweltering platforms in the summer, and endlessly broken escalators, the physically and socially competent urbanite chooses the subway. Will that always be the case?”

Those crazy kids! This Friday learn all about the Great Subway Race of 1967

Here’s an event for you this Friday that’s a little bit The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and an iota of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — with a New York City touch, of course. It’s The Great Subway Race of 1967!

Fifty years ago M.I.T. computer whiz kid Peter Samson programmed a mainframe computer about the size of a passenger elevator to calculate the most efficient route to ride the entire NYC subway system in the least amount of time.

This Friday, Samson will recount to Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione his team’s outrageous attempt to break the existing riding record using payphones, runners, and a teletype hook-up between a makeshift “data center” in midtown Manhattan and the mainframe in Cambridge.

Come out to this FREE event this Friday at Hunter College! Advanced registration REQUIRED.  Details are below. Book your tickets here


Fri, April 21, 2017
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM EDT


Hunter College West Building
SW corner 68 St. & Lex. Ave.
Here’s a little video preview of the event:

Great Subway Race of 1967 Video Preview from Michael Miscione on Vimeo.

Election Night 1916: With a world war looming, America goes to the polls

One hundred years ago today, Americans went to the polls to vote for the President of the United States — between the Democrat and incumbent President Woodrow Wilson and the Republican Charles Evans Hughes.

The election was held on November 7, 1916, and it’s interesting to peruse the details of the day itself and the headlines from the following days, looking for parallels to our current election.


Like the current 2016 election, the choice back then sprouted from local political figures, pitting the former governor of New Jersey (Wilson) with the former governor of New York (Hughes).  Imagine Chris Christie running against Andrew Cuomo. (On second thought, don’t!)

Below: Hughes at a rally in New York a few days before Election Day.


Of course, technically there was a third candidate on the ballot and one with the deepest New York roots — Theodore Roosevelt. After great entreaties by supporters, the former president was submitted as the Progressive Party candidate, only to withdraw his name late in the process to endorse Hughes.



Hughes (pictured above) was a hand-picked recommendation of Charles S. Whitman, the popular New York governor who was himself re-elected that November. Hughes, who sat on the New York Supreme Court after his tenure as governor, was a popular candidate for President but he was no match for Wilson’s anti-war message. (Literally anti-war. Wilson’s slogan was “He kept us out of war.” President Wilson would eventually enter the war five months after he was elected.)

Also on voters’ minds — Mexico. Several Americans had been killed in Mexico and on the border,  and the U.S. was in the middle of a punitive attack against Pancho Villa and his militias which had begun that Spring.

Below: A political cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman from 1916


How They Spent The Day

Voting looking quite different than it does today. In New York, there were no designated polling places and no absentee voting for non-military members. Half of today’s electorate was missing as women would not achieve the right to vote on the federal level for another few years. (However they would receive voting rights in New York in 1917.)

Secret ballots and voting machines were relatively new installations to the voting process thanks to the election reforms of the 1890s. It was still a wild and relatively imperfect process but a great improvement over the mid-19th century heyday of voter intimidation and fraud.

An election campaign car, backing incumbent Woodrow Wilson for president in 1916 in New York.
An election campaign car, backing incumbent Woodrow Wilson for president in 1916 in New York.

Of course Hughes was a Republican and at a disadvantage in New York, still considerably controlled by the Democrats and, in particular, the political machine Tammany Hall.  “Tammany leaders did not give out any figures regarding New York City, but it was asserted at Tammany Hall that Charles F. Murphy was confident that the city would roll up a big Democratic plurality, and that New York state would go Democratic.”

Hughes watched the election results from New York City that day. According to the Times, he voted “in a little laundry in Eighth Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets,” and spent the day at the Hotel Astor in Times Square (pictured below).


Despite signs of a contentious election spilling over into altercations at the polls, the day of voting in New York City was relatively free of conflict, with people standing in long lines with “only a negligible number of arrests for disorderly conduct and other causes having been made.”

While influencers supporting specific candidates were not allowed at the polls, suffragists were certainly there, passing out flyers for their cause and in certain cases, providing poll workers with sandwiches and coffee.

How They Watched The Results

As with many celebrations, there were three gathering points of information, all near newspaper offices — Times Square, Herald Square and City Hall Park.  In midtown, people awaited a gigantic searchlight atop of the New York Times building for signs of victory. Late that evening, a red light filled the sky, and New Yorkers who were Hughes supporters began celebrating. At the Hotel Astor, the name HUGHES lit up in electric lights as thousands celebrated below.

It was a confusing time; downtown at the New York World building (pictured below), a white searchlight announced Wilson as the winner. (It would take days for results from all 48 states to come in.)


The streets of Times Square were thick with revelers — it was comparable to New Years Eve crowds and, in fact, probably exceeded them — although this was mostly due to the fine weather and the results coming in at around the same time as the Broadway theaters let out.

Earlier in the week, city officials authorized the shutting down Times Square due subway construction but it seems people still managed to gather around the edges, looking “like the exit of the Polo Grounds after a world’s series game.”  The sounds of horns were deafening. Bonfires were set along side streets.

Below: In 1911, in front of the New York Herald building in Herald Square, crowds watch a sporting event via ‘playograph’, a hand-manipulated board. Election results were posted in a similar fashion.


In Herald Square and in Times Square, information on election tallies was delivered via constantly updated bulletins. “[B]ulletins followed each other every few seconds as reports to The Times were telephoned over to the operators from The Times Annex, and the lofty canvas screen was within the view of probably 100,000 people down Broadway and Seventh Avenue.”


The New York Evening World had a merry go of it, lampooning election enthusiasts on the street. The merry-makers was festively illustrated (see above and below and here for the rest). Yes Election Night used to be fun!



Bulletins were also posted in Columbus Circle. Due to disliked results or perhaps the trauma of the crowd, one man “drop dead there early in the evening.” [source]

Adding to the chaos — a midnight subway fire in Harlem! [SUBWAY FIRE IMPERILS 2,500; SCORES OVERCOME BY SMOKE]

The Results

A map of election results which ran in the New York Times on November 8, 1916, is remarkably similar to one which might run in newspapers today. Of course, given the evolution (or de-evolution, depending on you how you choose to look at it) of American politics, the party affiliations have remarkably changed!


In the end, as with many other elections, New York’s electoral votes went to the Republicans but New York City firmly voted for Wilson. “New York City gave Woodrow Wilson a scant plurality of 40,069 to offset the 186,930 plurality for Charles E. Hughes which the up-State counties sent down to the Bronx line. The city’s vote for Wilson was 351,539, compared with 312,386 which it gave him for President four years ago.”  [source]


The election was not ultimately determined for a few days. The newspaper front page below is from November 10, four days after Election Day:


Hughes supporters instantly leveled charges of fraud at their opponent but the former governor was too dignified to take the bait.  While not yet conceding on November 11, “Mr. Hughes declared that in the absence of absolutely proof of fraud no such cry should be revised to becloud the title of the next President of the United States.” [source]



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)

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.





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 nycsubway.org)

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

The Dual Contracts: The New York City subway system gets a serious upgrade 100 years ago today

A subway map from 1924, illustrating the system created as a result of the Dual Contracts agreement.

After years of negotiations, false starts and lengthy arguments played out in the press, a group of greatly relieved businessmen entered the large hearing room of the New York Tribune Building (at Nassau and Spruce, where Pace University is today) and put their names to a series of documents that have come to be known as the Dual Contracts.

The beleaguered ceremony ran a half hour late, as a great many gentlemen crammed into the third floor meeting room to sign the official documents, stamped with gold lettering and expensively bound in morocco leather and colored ribbons.

With those signatures, the chaotic New York transportation system — with its fledgling subway and its miles of elevated lines — officially came of age that day — March 19, 1913.

“This makes March 19 a red-letter date on the municipal calendar,” declared the New York Tribune, in whose building the agreement was signed.  The Dual Contracts authorized millions of dollars of new tracks, more than doubling the system in size, from 296 miles of track to 618 miles!

Below: The buildings of Newspaper Row. The towered Tribune Building, in the middle, was the site of the Dual Contracts signing in 1913. 

This seminal agreement in American transportation history is ‘dual’ because the city negotiated two separate contracts — one with August Belmont Jr.’s Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) who operated the New York subway, and the Municipal Railway Company on behalf of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), who ran most of Brooklyn’s transit system.

Under the agreement, the city would shoulder some of the cost of building new subway services — many into places where New York expected populations to rise in the coming years — and the two private companies would then lease the new routes from the city and profit from their operation.

At right: the headline from the New York Evening World

Essentially this gave IRT permission to operate into Brooklyn (once the domain of the BRT) and vice versa.  Previously, people arriving from Brooklyn to Manhattan had to immediately change trains once arriving into the new borough.

According to a report by the Public Service Commission later that year: “The Dual System will remove this abnormal condition and give the Brooklyn company a system of subways in Manhattan, by means of which it shall distribute its passengers through the territory south of 59th Street. Thus the present congestion at the Manhattan terminals of the bridges will be ended and the passengers from Brooklyn will be enabled to reach their destinations in lower Manhattan without change of cars or the payment of an additional fare.” [source]

As part of the deal, the two companies agreed to operate two new lines into Queens.  The importance of this particular part of the deal cannot be overstated.  The borough of Queens was just over a dozen years old by this time and still sparsely populated given its size. (Less than 300,000 people in 1910.)  With the arrival of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, paired with new subway and elevated services provided by the Dual Contracts, the population of Queens would explode in the 1920s to well over a million.

And this didn’t just stimulate development there.  The deal brought a subway to the Manhattan’s Upper East Side and to the West Village, to most Bronx neighborhoods and down the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.  New home and apartment developments into those regions soon followed.

Below: City luminaries gather around to watch representatives from government and the two private companies sign the pretentiously bound contracts. (Picture courtesy NYCSubway, an indispensable destination for transit history.)

The Dual Contracts also created express and local trains, facilitating another great development in the history of New York — the arrival of midtown Manhattan as the heart of business and entertainment.

In all, the contract signed one hundred years ago today made the New York City transit system the largest in the world.  In fact, it was larger than all the rapid transit systems of the world at the time — combined (according to Peter Derrick’s excellent book on the subject Tunneling To The Future).

But this also set in motion one of the great flaws of the subway system. Tracks operated by the IRT were a different size from those operated by the BRT.  The track gauge was wider on BRT tracks.  As a result, today the New York subway system still operates two different sizes of cars. (Ed: See notes below for a slight clarification/better explanation.)

On a humorous note, the original contracts, bound as they were in thick leather volumes, were apparently quite heavy to lift.  The president of the IRT remarked, “I am glad that I have enough strength to receive these contracts.”

For more details on the Dual Contracts, please check out the second podcast on the birth of the New York subway system — Subway by the Numbers (and Letters)

J. P. Morgan Jr. rides the subway and is accosted by a hat

Any of you who ride the 4-5-6 train in rush hour will especially relate to this story.  It takes place, in fact, on that very line, one hundred years ago.

Will B. Johnstone, an artist at the New York Evening World, noticed an interesting sight on his subway ride that morning, February 1, 1913, the day before the opening of Grand Central Terminal.  Crammed up against the wall of the train was J. P. Morgan Jr., son of the famous financier.

Such a sight greatly amused Johnstone. “There stood J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. ignominiously caught in the deadly rush hour!”  Even more remarkable, the writer notes, was the fact that Morgan was a principal financier for the Dual Contracts project, which would greatly expand the subway system and double the length of tracks into the other boroughs.

“I wondered why he was using the subway instead of a diamond-studded limousine? What did he mean by travelling with the common herd and of all times during rush hour?”

At one point, Morgan was accosted by a young woman with “a large velvet hat and the hat had two long stiff quills projecting from it like the horns of a billy goat, and as dangerous. Mr. Morgan’s face was impaled between them.”

The woman hat jostled about during the bumpy ride, and “[t]he quills began to bob around his face and he was busy trying to avoid them.” Others noticed the financier’s dilemma and began laughing with him.

“She’s going to get me yet,” he laughed to another passenger.  “And he was right,” Johnstone noted, “for one side of the quill and then the other jabbed him in the face.”

At right: Morgan in 1919

Finally at the Grand Central Station**, he had to push his way through the crowd and barely got of the car before the doors closed.

“This is no way to treat royalty,” Johnstone laments.

Less than two months after this incident, his father Morgan Sr. would die in Rome, leaving him one of the world’s largest business enterprises.  I wonder if he ever rode the subway again after that.

You can read the original article at the Library of Congress.

**The subway station opened in 1904 and rattled away underground throughout the entire construction phase of the terminal above.

Nasty Nor’easter: Horses, balloons suffer in strange storms

The illustration above overemphasizes the appeal of the windblown look. (Courtesy NYPL) 

We really, really don’t need a Nor’easter right now. No, really. But unfortunately it is that time of year, when the northeast United States and eastern Canada are whacked with gale force winds and bitter cold, a wet and chilling blast that can sometimes resemble a hurricane.

Although the phrase Nor’easter seems like a mangled colloquialism or perhaps something a hip weatherman came with, in fact it’s a mariner’s phrase, tracing back possibly several centuries. Many devastating blizzards and hurricanes in New York City’s history can be considered Nor’easters, including the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Their characteristics can vary. One can bring snow, the next, battering sheets of icy rain. A nor’easter from December 17, 1890 (described in the Evening World headline below) actually brought “a regular Southern cyclone” to Brooklyn, taking out a house in the neighborhood of Cypress Hills, while frozen waves ran a boat aground on Hart’s Island.

“A sleet laden forty-knot nor’easter struck New York squarely in the face yesterday,” cried the New York Tribune, regarding a storm that hit on January 3, 1905, fouling up streetcar service and turning streets into skating rinks.

The New York subway system, just months old in early 1905, proved a hearty warrior to the weather, while the poor horses above ground began “slipping and falling on the treacherous asphalt.” Even as the subway system gets back to normal this week after Hurricane Sandy, we should remember how relatively sheltered it is from standard storms and a vast improvement over the ground transportation of old.

A nor’easter from December 1944 disrupted the best-laid plans of movie producers. In promotion of the wartime feature ‘Winged Victory starring Judy Holliday and Karl Malden, a barrage balloon from the invasion of Normandy was placed over the movie theater on Broadway. The storm dislodged the war souvenir and blew it out to sea. [source]