By Jim Mackin, Historian and Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group planning committee member.
How does the NINTH AVENUE EL fit into the history of railroads in New York City?
The first railroad in New York City was the New York & Harlem Railroad. It was operational by 1832 – horse-drawn at first, then with steam locomotives – along its first section from the Bowery at Prince Street up to 14th St. After several locomotives exploded in the streets of New York, in 1850 the city outlawed use of locomotives south of 14th St, in 1859 moved the restriction up to 26 St, later to 42 St.
In 1864, a RR man from Michigan named Hugh B Wilson, sponsored and promoted the Metropolitan Railway Company. He proposed a subway, but the Chief Engineer on the Croton Aqueduct, Alfred Craven, objected because of possible interference with the Croton Water Supply system. State Senator Samuel Ruggles (the developer of Gramercy Park) introduced a bill in 1866 to promote the creation of companies to operate elevated railways.
There were various schemes of elevated RR’s, but only one was realized – in 1867 by Charles T. Harvey. When he requested a charter to build an elevated railroad, the leader of the NYS Senate, William Marcy Tweed – later to become the infamous Boss Tweed – thought the idea so ridiculous that he didn’t block it. The el that Harvey erected was the city’s first rapid transit line. Initially, Roebling ¾” cables powered by steam engines were used to move the cars.
At first there were only 2 stations at Dey St and the terminal at 29th St (and Ninth Ave). There were cable-operating plants at Cortland, Franklin, Bank and Little West 12th Streets. Initially, the els were built over sidewalks, but that approach was later abandoned and then els were built over streets. On September 24th of 1869 the stock market crashed (Black Friday) and took its toll on Harvey and he had to sell out his investment in the El. In late 1870 the operation was discontinued and the entire line was sold at auction for $960.
But in 1872 the railway was revived and new stations were opened. Steam locomotives replaced steam engines that powered the cables. Now it was possible to get on a train in Yonkers at 7:15 am, take it down the West Side to a depot at W 30th St, catch the El and ride to Dey St by 8:40. By 1876, the El reached 61 St (and Ninth Ave).
The Husted Act of 1875, sometimes called the Rapid Transit Act, empowered the Mayor to appoint a Rapid Transit Commission that created the elevated routes on 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 9th Avenues. Cyrus Field, famous for laying the Atlantic Cable, used much of his fortune to buy stock in the elevated railway, promote expansion, and merge with others to be called Manhattan Railway Company.
In 1877, double tracking began (in 1892, a third track was added from 59th to 116th).
By 1878, the El reached 104th St and Ninth Avenue. In 1879, the El reached 155 St and the Harlem River. Also in 1879, investor SJ Tilden sold his shares and it caused the stock to drop 36 points and forced Cyrus Field to have to bring in Russell Sage and Jay Gould as investors. This ruined Cyrus Field financially, but the Manhattan Railway Company with its els on Second, Third, Sixth and Ninth Avenues had 46 million passengers (NYC population in 1880 was 1.2 million) and was very financially successful. The profits per mile for the NYC els were thought to be the highest of all the railroads in the country.
By 1879, Jay Gould became the manager of NYC’s whole system of 81 miles of the elevated RRs. (In 1896 his son, George Gould, in a letter to the NY Times, proposed an el for Amsterdam Avenue). The VP of Operations who effectively ran the El was Frank K Hain. He lived at the Navarro Apartments, known as the “Spanish Flats”, at 165 West 58 St from 1886-1896.
The NINTH AVENUE EL was one of the principal factors in developing the entire Upper West Side, and our BLOOMINGDALE community. To build it in 1878 and 1879, 7 men and a team of horses set up 10 to 40 columns a day. Jackscrews and oakum used to carefully plumb the columns. Then cement was poured, yellow pine was used for ties, but oak was used on curves. Foundations and high sections at 110 St were inspected every morning.
The stations were at 59th St, 66th Street (express stop), 72nd St, 81st St, 86th, 93rd, 99th, 104th, 116th St. The location of stations was decided in part by the topography. You can see this by standing at 104th Street.
See the photos here of “SUICIDE CURVE” AT 110th Street. Ferdinand De Lesseps, engineer of the Suez Canal, called the “SUICIDE CURVE” “an extraordinary audacious bit of civil engineering” It was called “SUICIDE CURVE” supposedly because people committed suicide by jumping off the tracks here.
In the 1880s and the early 1890s, the El was closed from 8 PM to 5:30 am and all day on Sundays. In 1880 the fare was raised to 10 cents, but 5 cents during morning and evening rush hours. In 1886, the fare was cut to 5 cents all the time and it stayed at 5 cents until 1939. In the earliest years, tickets were sold at stations and collected on the trains by conductors. After 1886 the tickets were dropped in collecting boxes. Starting in 1923 there were coin-operated turnstiles. In 1897, the bicycle craze had taken over the city and the el removed seats on select cars and ran bicycle trains.
By the late 1880s, New York was contemplating a subway. But one major problem was steam locomotives that would spew smoke in subway tunnels. London tolerated the smoke in having the first subway in the world in 1863. Werner von Siemans in Germany developed the first electric railroad car in 1870, but there were problems with an electric locomotive. In fact Thomas Edison and Stephen Field, the electrical engineer son of Cyrus Field, (and electrical engineer Leo Daft) developed an electric locomotive that was tested on the el in 1885. But it did not have enough power to pull cars with passengers. Frank J. Sprague devised the solution. His idea, and it is still used today, is in having motors in each of the cars, and they are all operated in one car by the “motorman”. The conversion of the NINTH AVENUE EL to electric in 1903 was very expensive but it reduced fuel costs and it became possible to run longer trains.
Incidentally, Sprague may also be given credit for the dual-track system of New York City, which many other cities do not have. Separate tracks for Local And Express trains allow for more efficiency.
In 1903. the Ninth Avenue El was the last el in NYC to go electric. The electricity facilitated lighting of stations, elevators and even escalators at busy stations such as Herald Square. When the NINTH AVENUE EL was built, there was a station at 104th Street and the next one was at 116th Street. In 1903, the 110 St Station was built because four electric elevators made it practical. At 63 ft above street level it was the highest station. Some say that the tower, which had the elevators, lasted into the early 1970s.
In 1903 the NINTH AVENUE EL line was leased to the IRT. In 1904 the IRT opened.
In 1909 the IRT took over the operations of the El. By 1940, the 6th and 9th Ave Els were taken down, and much of the steel was sold to Japan.
It is quite likely that some of the locomotives that ran on the NINTH AVENUE EL are in different collections around the country. Old wooden cars were sold off and some went to the NYC Department of Sanitation Camp for employees, called “Sanita”, and converted into bungalows.