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The elevated era

The “el” was the city’s first real attempt to reclaim the street

New York’s transit revolution began, inauspiciously, with a delay.

On July 2, 1868, the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway—the city’s first elevated train—was to have its maiden journey from the Battery to Cortlandt Street in the Financial District. However, an unspecified “accident to the machinery” pushed the trial run back a day.

Two days later, the Times reported:

The car ran evenly from the Battery to Cortlandt-street [yesterday], starting at a rate of five miles an hour, and increasing to a speed of ten miles. The Company does not pretend, with its present machinery, to run the cars faster than fifteen miles an hour; but during the next two months will make arrangements for much more rapid motion.

For a city gripped by some of the worst traffic in America, even this humble beginning must have seemed miraculous. A decade earlier, Harper’s magazine had reported that “in New York, we speak within limits when we say that a lady not unfrequently is compelled to wait half an hour” to cross the street, “and even then she makes the crossing at any point below the Park at her peril.”

New York needed a mass transit solution. The new “el,” as the train soon came to be known, was the city’s first real stab at reclaiming the street. For the next 80 years, the elevated railway would shape the city, spurring rival transit developments, pushing the city’s population outward, and changing the architectural fabric of the city.

Today, New Yorkers who remember them are nostalgic for the elevated railways. But as New York struggles with an antiquated and seemingly unfixable subway system, snarled street traffic, and few viable alternatives, the story of the elevated railway seems a cautionary tale about how politics and greed are too often the motivating forces behind decisions that affect millions of New Yorkers.

Before 1800, New York was so compact that mass transit wasn’t necessary. Ferries had plied the waters between Brooklyn and Manhattan since the Dutch era and, starting in 1693, the King’s Bridge spanned Spuyten Duyvil to connect Manhattan to the Bronx, but these forms of transportation were designed for farmers and long-distance travelers, not everyday commuters.

The regular street grid—and lot sizes—of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, laid out by surveyor John Randel Jr., sparked real estate speculators and fashionable New Yorkers to push the borders of the city northward. The first real estate boom centered on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, and it posed a problem for all but the wealthiest: how to get to work. When the city had been basically contained within the mile below Chambers Street, there was no distance too great to commute on foot. Now, having pushed the city limits another mile north, an alternative was needed.

For years, horse-drawn stage coaches had run into the city from Albany, Boston, Philadelphia, and Long Island, and “by 1816, they were running every two hours to various suburban towns.” Soon, intracity stages were running between Wall Street and various Manhattan destinations, and “[b]y the mid-1820s stagecoaches were clogging Broadway and raising concerns in the Common Council about traffic regulations.”

By 1831, city stages (or omnibuses, as they were also known) had become ubiquitous. A painting titled “View of St. Paul’s Church and the Broadway stages, N.Y.,” by Hugh Reinagle, was exhibited at the Bank Coffee House that year, with at least eight different coach and omnibus companies crowded into the frame.

By 1832, the Evening Post was reporting “not much short of a hundred” coaches carrying passengers between Wall Street and other parts of the city. These coaches, run by competing private companies, had haphazard and overlapping routes. The more coaches that plied Broadway, the harder the street became to navigate, and some New Yorkers began plotting alternatives—though they would soon discover that the omnibus companies’ political influence gave them a firm grip on the city’s transportation network.

Horse-drawn rail cars were the first viable alternatives to stage travel. The New York and Harlem Railroad was incorporated in 1831 to build street-level tracks from Lower Manhattan to then-remote Harlem. The first stage of the project opened a year later, on November 26, 1832, with trains running along the Bowery from Prince Street to Union Square. Though the railroad still had to share the street with other traffic, the rails embedded in the road made for a more comfortable ride. The Evening Post praised the new system, highlighting the “efficacy, utility, comfort, and cheapness” of rail travel over the city’s alternatives. By 1839, tracks had been laid all the way to Harlem.

In 1837, the railroad converted from horsepower to steam locomotion, much to the chagrin of those who lived near the tracks. In 1854, the Common Council passed an ordinance forbidding the New York and Harlem Railroad to continue steam operation south of 42nd Street. This was a way to combat the “nuisance of having smoke and cinders from the locomotives blown into [nearby] houses.” The idea was to return to horse-drawn locomotion for any trips south of 42nd Street.

Horses, however, weren’t really a viable solution, either for trains or omnibuses. Not only was it expensive to stable, feed, and care for the many horses that worked on New York’s streets, but horse manure was a common source of tetanus, and in the days before vaccination, any open wound was an invitation for illness or death.

Meanwhile, New York kept growing. The population nearly doubled in the 20 years surrounding the Civil War, from around 515,000 in 1850 to just shy of 1 million people in 1870. As the city continued to push its boundaries farther north, the need for a reliable, cheap form of mass transit became one of its biggest challenges.

Not long after finishing his final survey of Manhattan for the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, John Randel Jr. began toying with the idea of creating an elevated railway to run up Broadway. So did inventor John Stevens—who’d been instrumental both in the building of America’s first steam locomotive and in cross-Hudson steamboat travel—who proposed an elevated scheme in 1832.

While Stevens’ proposal went nowhere except as an amusement ride at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, Randel was dogged in his pursuit of rapid transit. In 1848, he published “a proposal for six miles of elevated track, constructed in cast iron and glass, which would run for three miles over Broadway’s sidewalks.” That proposal, as Robert C. Reed writes in The New York Elevated, was only one instance of “a serious epidemic of elevated fever” that hit New York City in the 1850s.

When the New York Crystal Palace exhibition opened in 1853, Randel was there, promoting his “Model of an elevated railway for Broadway, or other crowded thoroughfares.” That same year, James Swett proposed an elevated scheme similar to Randel’s; however, while Randel’s trains would be run along a cable that was powered from the street, Swett advocated the use of steam-powered locomotives. Around the same time, iron railing manufacturer J.B. Wickersham proposed a horse-drawn elevated railway along with a second-story pedestrian thoroughfare.

Another intriguing idea came from Rufus Gilbert, who presented an “atmospheric” elevated train powered by steam pneumatics. Power plants at ground level would create steam pressure, which, when pumped up to the tracks, would propel the train cars forward to each station.

Entrance to Brooklyn Bridge elevated train station, Park Row, New York, New York, 1895.
Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

The patent office received a total of 125 plans for elevated train systems between 1825 and 1899. But none of these proposals, thorough as they were regarding engineering, addressed the key question about elevated trains: Would a second-story train system running the length of any street, as Richard Dennis writes in Cities in Modernity, “raise property values by improving access or reduce them through the negative externalities of noise, pollution, and strangers”?

Nearly every proposal was for a train running on Broadway. It was the city’s busiest street and its cultural and retail center, but its shopkeepers—led for years by A.T. Stewart, whose Marble Palace at Chambers Street and Iron Palace at East 10th Street bookended the fashionable part of the street—refused to entertain any large-scale transit schemes. They were understandably leery of the downturn in business during construction—just ask merchants along the route of the Second Avenue subway about that—but also concerned that any mass transit on Broadway might bring too many people and ultimately lower property values.

When the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway finally became a reality in 1868, it was in part because its chief engineer and promoter, Charles T. Harvey, always envisioned it running on Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue, far enough away from Broadway that it wouldn’t raise the ire of the street’s merchants, New York politicians, or the rival omnibus companies.

The other reason this scheme succeeded where others had failed is that Harvey was clearly a master politician himself.

New York’s first transit system could have been the subway. In 1864, a year after the world’s first underground railroad debuted in London, the New York State Legislature authorized “articles of incorporation of the Metropolitan Railway Company” and “a bill was introduced in the Senate to give this company the rights to build an underground railway in Broadway from the Battery to Thirty-fourth street and then under Sixth Avenue to Central Park.”

But despite the obvious enthusiasm of the Metropolitan Railway Company’s founder, Hugh B. Willson, the bill was quashed in the legislature, causing the New York Times to complain about this “fresh and alarming illustration of the enormous power over our property and comfort which is now wielded by the omnibus proprietors, railroad corporations and political jobbers.”

Charles T. Harvey, by contrast, had both political clout and salesmanship. He served as the chief engineer of the Soo Locks (aka Sault Locks) project, which linked Lake Huron and Lake Superior, overcoming some serious technical problems to bring the job in ahead of schedule. The success of that venture won him influential financial backers and political friends. His fame, coupled with the fact that Harvey was willing to erect a test track in Lower Manhattan at his own expense—which he also promised to fully demolish if the plan was not approved—convinced the city and state to allow him to move forward on a trial basis.

High-angle view of elevated train lines converging at the Battery, New York, New York, 1895. View looking east, with the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge in the background.
Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Harvey’s initial quarter-mile stretch of track used a continuous cable system, powered by “underground steam engines every 1500 [feet] along the route.” On December 7, 1867, Harvey piloted a single car down a short length of track as a proof of concept. Investors and politicians were impressed enough to allow Harvey to continue to build his track up another few blocks on Greenwich Street to Dey Street to where the Oculus stands today.

After successful previews for the mayor, governor, investors, and visiting dignitaries, the state’s Rapid Transit Commission gave the enterprise a green light on July 1, 1868. Two days later, Harvey took his new train out for a spin, reaching a top speed of 10 (or, according to other reports, 12) miles per hour. The entire half-mile trip was dubbed a success.

But a half-mile of elevated track was a novelty, not a viable transit system. The el didn’t begin accepting paying passengers until February 14, 1870, 19 months after Harvey’s first ride. While tracks had been laid along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue up to 29th Street, the opening (or reopening) had been beset by delays, including an accident at the Houston Street station that injured three people.

By the end of the year, the train was finally in operation—sporadically—but the entire system consisted of three passenger cars and was limited to one car per hour in each direction that carried a total of 35 passengers.

As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle lamented, “This transit experiment is an obstruction which the ‘hundreds of millions’ men would not tolerate for an instant on Broadway.”

In August 1870, the Times announced that the train had “ended its precarious existence. The amusement of running empty cars up and down the road, while it gratified the pride of the investors ... was apparently too expensive.”

The elevated railway was supposed to usher in a new era. Instead, as the Times put it, the railway “died from want of confidence.”

With Harvey’s railway seemingly out of the picture, rival transit systems jockeyed for a place at the table—and revived the idea of moving public transit below the street.

Knowing that legislators and Broadway property owners would be reluctant to back a subway, inventor Alfred Ely Beach—who was also the editor of Scientific American—came up with a radical plan. Beach had latched onto the idea of constructing a pneumatic railway, where steam-powered fans would create a vacuum, pushing and pulling cars through a tunnel.

Inspired by successful pneumatic mail systems in London, in 1868, Beach convinced the state legislature to pass “An Act to provide for the transmission of letters, packages, and merchandise, in the cities of New York and Brooklyn, and across the North and East Rivers, by means of pneumatic tubes, to be constructed beneath the surface of the streets and public places in said cities, and under the waters of said rivers.”

Beach then constructed one giant tube—ostensibly to hold all the smaller tubes—under the building between Warren and Murray streets where he had his offices. Instead of a pneumatic mail system, he built a one-block pneumatic passenger train.

Just like Charles T. Harvey, Beach hoped that this prototype would spur further interest and investment. He began taking passengers on the one-block ride in February 1870—the same month the elevated railway was supposed to finally begin operation. However, despite carrying 400,000 passengers over the next couple of years, Beach’s subway never progressed beyond its novelty beginnings.

Even with consistent support in the legislature, Beach’s proposals were vetoed by Gov. Hoffman. While not an inside member of the so-called Tweed Ring, Hoffman had been elected with William “Boss” Tweed’s assistance, and Beach later complained that it was Tweed who’d killed his idea.

Aerial view of the elevated train tracks running beside a highway in an industrial area of Brooklyn, circa 1925.
Edwin Levick/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The truth is not so clear-cut. While Tweed was, in fact, a backer of a rival railway scheme, he was also the person who introduced Beach’s bills in the legislature. More likely, Hoffman saw the upheaval that building a subway would produce—plus the price tag of $1 million per mile of tunnel—as insurmountable obstacles.

By the time Hoffman’s successor, Gov. Dix, finally approved Beach’s plans in 1873, the subway’s moment had passed. It would be over 30 years before New York saw a viable subway introduced.

There was another factor in Alfred Ely Beach’s failure: the stunning resurgence of the west side elevated train. During the three years his pneumatic tube had been in operation, Harvey’s train system had miraculously become something of a success, though Harvey himself, removed from leadership by his investors in the fall of 1869, wasn’t around to see it.

When the railway closed in August 1870, the investors knew they had sunk too much money into the scheme to simply allow the tracks to rust away or be dismantled. The company was reorganized in early 1871 as the New York Elevated Railway Company, the system’s fleet was expanded, and, most importantly, the cable system was replaced in favor of reliable coal-burning steam locomotives, much like those proposed in James Swett’s plan from the 1850s.

On April 20, 1871—evidently to the surprise of those living and working along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue who heard the train rumble by—the elevated railway was back in business.

It nearly didn’t happen. Two weeks earlier, on April 5, 1871, Boss Tweed’s rival New York Railway Company was given a charter by the state legislature. On paper, at least, the company had been organized to build a separate elevated railway using pneumatic steam, much like Beach’s underground and Rufus Gilbert’s earlier elevated proposal. What’s unclear is whether Tweed ever had any intention of building an elevated system. Many companies he was involved with were simply legal fictions, designed to help him seed away the money he was stealing from the city’s treasury. This elevated railway may simply have been a shell corporation.

However, Tweed at least acted the part of budding railway executive. He went to Albany to introduce a bill that would declare the New York Elevated Railway Company’s venture “a public nuisance” and permit him “as Commissioner of Public Works to tear it down.”

Luckily for the elevated railway, Charles Harvey was not a sore loser. His political connections were still strong, and even though he was no longer a part of the company, Harvey rallied his friends, and Tweed’s bill was defeated.

By 1872, the New York Elevated Railway Company’s trains ran between Dey Street and 29th Street multiple times an hour. The trip took just 15 minutes, less than half the time of a horse-drawn streetcar. Since the New York Central’s depot at 30th Street was the primary point of arrival for commuters from Yonkers and points north, the elevated immediately spurred an influx in suburban commuters. It now took less than an hour for a commuter leaving Yonkers to arrive at the Dey Street station. From there, it was less than 10 minutes on foot to the New York Stock Exchange.

Earlier visions of public transit had always been tied to Broadway—and thus to shopping, theater, restaurants, and amusements. The west side elevated, which would soon come to be known as the Ninth Avenue El, proved that it was daily office workers who needed and valued a good mass transit system.

In 1873, a connection to 30th Street and New York Central’s depot was finally finished; two years later the tracks were laid up to 42nd Street. That same year, the New York Elevated Railway Company was given approval to begin construction on the Third Avenue El, which opened in August 1878 with trains running from a spur at Grand Central Station on 42nd Street all the way down to South Ferry.

While Tweed was squarely out of the picture, a rival elevated company soon entered it: the Gilbert Elevated Railroad, Rufus Gilbert’s company.

On June 5, 1878, the Gilbert Elevated Railway opened along Sixth Avenue. Though an outgrowth of Gilbert’s original “atmospheric” plan, the Sixth Avenue El relied on steam locomotion, and Gilbert himself was no longer involved. Like Harvey, he had been forced out early on. Soon reorganized as the Metropolitan Elevated Railway, the company expanded with the Second Avenue El. At the same time, the King County Elevated Railway was organized to begin building tracks along Fulton Street. Ultimately, these would connect to the trains that took beachgoers to Coney Island.

The quick success of the elevated was staggering. In the space of five years, Manhattan went from one elevated line reaching from 30th Street south to the Financial District to four separate lines, hundreds of blocks of track, and a system that stretched all the way to Harlem.

By 1880, a new Manhattan Railway Company, headed by Jay Gould, had purchased the leases for all four of Manhattan’s lines, consolidating them under the control of one company.

The takeover was a sure sign that mass transit was no longer a curiosity—it was now both a necessity and a sound financial investment.

The success of the elevated system altered the look of New York so greatly that today—with the tracks gone—it’s hard to envision how radically the streetscape of the city changed in such a short time.

One of the objections to Harvey’s original tracks on Greenwich Street had been how precarious the whole system looked. As the elevated expanded, those concerns were addressed by bulkier, more solidly constructed train beds and platforms. However, these railbeds necessitated a larger footprint, and a greater portion of every street was now covered over for the trains. As one visitor noted, the “elevated ruined the perspectives of the streets and gave the pedestrian the impression of constantly walking under a bridge.” Photographs and postcards of the era show the city’s thoroughfares completely taken over by the elevated tracks.

The train also upended the city’s real estate market. Entire areas of Manhattan that had been slow to develop now underwent rapid transformation. For example, in 1868, the Upper West Side had consisted of:

not more than half a dozen modern houses. Standing at ... [Columbus Circle] stretching away to the northwest over the territory which is to-day the great residential section of the well-to-do, there was nothing to be seen but a wilderness of rocks dotted with dilapidated shanties.

Within two decades, the northward extension of the elevated system spurred real estate developers to purchase lots and erect houses, many on speculation. As the Times reported in 1886:

The west side of the city presents just now a scene of building activity such as was never before witnessed in that section, and which gives promise of the speedy disappearance of all the shanties in the neighborhood and the rapid population of this long neglected part of New York. … Streets are being graded, and thousands of carpenters and masons are engaged in rearing substantial buildings where a year ago nothing was to be seen but market gardens or barren rocky fields.

This pattern repeated all over the city. When the Third Avenue line was extended into the Bronx, “the population ... swelled almost fivefold in the two following decades, mostly along the Third Avenue corridor.” The same story was true in Harlem, which was “mostly rural, a country-home favorite because of its cool breezes” until the elevated came along.

The elevated’s obvious advantages for real estate development, however, did not mitigate its drawbacks.

Elevated train, east side, lower Pearl Street, horse carts in foreground, New York, New York, 1906.
Frank M. Ingalls/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

As early as 1870, the Times was noting the “constant stream of soot and ashes, destructive to furniture and clothing, and injurious to temper, if not to health.” In 1878, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewed shopkeepers along the route of the Third Avenue El, one noted: “I have nothing very flattering to say on the subject. Our goods exposed outside are injured by the discharges of coal gas and steam.” Another pointed out that “customers in dressy apparel are afraid … of their clothing being destroyed.”

The tracks plunged the sidewalks into perpetual shadow. Harper’s said the tracks hung so low “rain seldom falls” upon the street; at night, the darkness was a cover for undesirables— “unwashed, badly clad, sullen of aspect, moving in gangs.” The elevated tracks also served as boundaries, cutting off those who lived on one side of the tracks—such as the Jews of the Lower East Side—from the rest of the city and hemming in those who could not afford the 5-cent fare.

Eventually, business owners, architects, and landowners began to respond to the new realities of the elevated tracks. On the Bowery, where the Third Avenue El tracks ran from Chatham Square to Astor Place, the character of the street changed. Some residential buildings, like 268 Bowery, converted into hotels in the wake of the erection of the elevated tracks. New buildings had to be constructed with the tracks in mind; for example, 274-280 Bowery, owned by the Astors, is set back from the street, perhaps to keep the retail shops out of the shadow of the elevated tracks.

Residents of apartment buildings and homes along the route also had complaints. In 1878, the Times interviewed the janitor of an apartment building on Sixth Avenue between 56th and 57th streets, who expressed tenants’ frustrations:

Trains run by their windows from 5 o’clock in the morning until 12 at night. The smoke and steam are driven down and up against their windows, so that for most of the time they are compelled to keep them closed. Three tracks run by the houses. After 10 o’clock at night they are “shunted” upon the middle track, and then begins a slamming of doors, a shaking of mats, and a general scattering of dust, created by the men who are cleaning the cars. This continues until long after midnight. Sleep is next to impossible.

As complaints about the elevated railways mounted, some property values along the lines fell. As the transcript of one court case noted, the “result of the elevated railroad was that … [the value] of four sixteen-foot buildings [at Third Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets] fell from $16,000 in 1873 to $11,000 in 1878 ... and their rental value fell from $1,440 in 1873 to from $840 to $960 in 1878.” In a case against the Manhattan Railway Company, the court found that the “increase in values on Sixth avenue have not kept pace with the increase on Seventh avenue and on the side streets in the vicinity….” While the railway provided “more or less” satisfactory reasons why the trains might not be the reason for lowered values on Sixth Avenue, the court still found for the plaintiff.

The court case hints that property values went up on streets near the elevated tracks that were not directly on the route. Certainly during the building boom from 1880 to 1900, the heyday of the train system, some of the grandest buildings—the Dakota Apartments, Carnegie Hall, and the Park Row Building—were all conspicuously separated from the elevated tracks. And as New York’s wealthiest moved up Fifth Avenue, the street remained protected, like Broadway, from the incursions of mass transit. The elevated was available for tradesmen and servants; grand streets like Fifth Avenue and Broadway remained the exclusive domain of the carriage trade.

For commercial real estate, access to daylight and airflow—in the era before air conditioning and reliable incandescent light—were crucial variables in defining relative values. As this 1903 land value map of the Financial District shows, access to the elevated trains was not. The Broadway corridor, which was still protected from mass transit, remained the most prized (next to Wall Street), with land values decreasing on streets closer to the tracks.

One year after this map was produced, real estate values across the city would face a new upheaval, this time coming from one story below ground: the first line of the IRT subway system.

The narrative of the development of the New York subway system is often told as a contrast between the inefficient, dirty, soot-spewing elevated trains and the electric, modern subways that replaced them. This story has truth to it, but politics had a significant role to play, and had Albany’s factions aligned differently, New York might have had a subway as early as 1870.

View looking north along Third Avenue (at East 58th Street), under the Third Avenue IRT elevated train line, New York, New York, summer 1944.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The story of the subway’s rise and the elevated railway’s fall also leaves out the fact that despite the litany of complaints about the trains, their introduction didn’t suppress development. While developers of grand mansions and apartment buildings may have avoided the elevated routes, the trains proved a boon for some retailers. For example, in 1896, Siegel-Cooper opened its giant retail store, anchoring the “Ladies’ Mile” of Sixth Avenue in the shadow of the elevated tracks.

In 1902, Macy’s moved from 14th Street to Herald Square, with an elevated platform just outside the store’s entrance. The merchants of Broadway had been adamant about keeping the street free from mass transit; now they found themselves missing out on the retail boom brought by the trains.

Yet, when the new subway was proposed in 1894, those same Broadway merchants still fought against any encroachments, and successfully prevented the first line of what would become the Interborough Rapid Transit company (IRT) from running along their street. Instead, the IRT’s initial line ran up the east side from City Hall to Grand Central, across 42nd Street to Times Square, and then up the residential section of Broadway to the Upper West Side and Harlem.

Though the elevated and the subway cost the same amount to ride—5 cents, a rate fixed by law—the subway offered a distinct advantage: speed. Where elevated trains were lucky to reach 12 miles per hour, local trains on the IRT ran at 15 mph and—because engineer William Barclay Parsons had seen the advantage of a four-track system—express trains could run on a dedicated track reaching top speeds of 40 mph. An express train from 96th Street to City Hall made only four intermediate stops—there was no way for the elevated trains to compete.

And unlike the elevated, the subway was an immediate success. Each new expansion of the underground system drew riders away from the elevated, although the Second Avenue El remained the best transit option for many east siders. The elevated trains continued to be slow and, due to the size constraints of the platforms, they couldn’t really expand their ridership. Despite having converted to electricity around the same time that subways opened, the elevated train couldn’t shake the stigma of being “loud, dirty, messy and slow.”

The death knell of the elevated came with the establishment of the IND, the new city-run subway line. The purpose of the IND was not only to compete with the IRT and BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit), but to duplicate service of the Ninth Avenue and Sixth Avenue El. As a result, the Sixth Avenue El closed in 1938 and demolition of the tracks began the next year. After the city completed the purchase of the IRT and BMT in 1940, other elevated tracks began to come down, with much of the Ninth Avenue El demolished that year. The Third Avenue line persisted the longest, with many stations in operation until 1955. The northernmost section of the line, from 149th Street to Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, actually continued to operate until April 1973, when it was replaced by bus service.

An overhead view of transit workers standing atop the Sixth Avenue elevated train tracks, working to dismantle the railway at Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street, Manhattan, New York City, circa 1945.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Today, the elevated is a distant memory for many, in part because it was so totally dismantled. While elevated tracks carry subways in the outer boroughs—evoking a sense of what the era of the elevated was like—true examples of that original system are extremely rare.

On Allen Street, an electrical substation of the Second Avenue El still exists behind the grocery store at No. 1 Allen; a similar electrical substation remains at East 99th Street and Third Avenue, as does one on 57th Street between Lexington and Third avenues. One of the most famous—and photographed—sections of track was the “suicide curve” of the Ninth Avenue El as it took a sharp bend at West 110th Street and Columbus and then curved again a block east to head north on Eighth Avenue. Though the tracks are gone, an imprint of them remains: the setback of the building at the corner of 110th and Columbus, designed to accommodate the curve of the tracks.

The greatest legacy of the elevated is not these few architectural remains, and not even the fact that it spurred the city’s development after the Civil War. Instead, the rise and fall of the elevated trains most clearly demonstrates that, from the beginning, mass transit in New York has been a mess, tied up in petty political feuds and lacking any cohesive plan. The subway system inherited that legacy of dysfunction: IND trains, for example, use different-sized cars than those on the IRT, making it impossible to swap the rolling stock. The system runs better than it should for its age, but maintenance is costly and the effects of huge shocks to the system—like Hurricane Sandy—take years to subside.

Few people lament the end of the elevated, but if it still existed, it would alleviate current transit issues. When the Second Avenue El shut down, the plan was to replace it with a subway running along the same route, as had happened on Sixth Avenue. After decades of delay, the first phase of that project was finally completed last year—more than 75 years later—with a price tag exceeding $2.2 billion for each mile of track built. Questions remain as to whether the MTA can afford to finish an east side subway line.

In 1868—the same year Charles T. Harvey would unveil his elevated railroad—Julius Henri Browne published The Great Metropolis, a Mirror of New York, in which he complained about New York’s terrible street railways: “The discomforts and perils of car-journeying can hardly be overestimated. That our people will under take it merely proves the national recklessness.” Browne, arguing for change, opined that the “wonderful creature who renders street-railways impossible shall have a monument in Union Square higher than Washington’s, and be represented on two horses. What is the father of his country compared to the mother of reform?”

Today, transit reform is once again on everyone’s mind, from gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon to the average riders who find themselves stuck in the endless morass of underground delays.

In 1868, elevated trains seemed like they would be the answer to New York’s transit ills, but ultimately, they were only a stepping stone to the construction of the subways. Now, can a new Charles T. Harvey come forward to point the way toward a better, more reliable, and faster way to move New Yorkers around the city?

James Nevius is an urban historian and author of a number of books about New York, including Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City and Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers. He is currently researching a book about American utopianism. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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