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Detail of a map of New York City that shows the subway lines in different colors.
Map of the New York city subway system. Union Dime Savings Bank, 1954. Geography and Map Division.

What Goes Up Must Come Down: A brief history of New York City’s elevated rail and subway lines

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On a recent trip to New York City, I frequently found myself in the underbelly of the city, submerged below the hustle and bustle as I was transported up and down Manhattan. I couldn’t help but notice while I was visiting how the now antique mosaics depicting station names give the subway system character. It’s a massive difference from the drab uniformity of the concrete stations here in our nation’s capital, a system which is much more modern but lacks the vintage charm of New York. This led me to wonder just how old these catacombs of conveyance were that whisk people every which way, at all times of day, just below the surface.

The story of New York’s modern subway system actually doesn’t begin underground at all. In fact, quite the opposite. Public transportation had existed in the city in the form of horse-drawn coaches since the 1820s, and the latter half of the century brought with it elevated trains. In 1878 the first truly reliable elevated train line known as the “El” opened, carrying passengers along Greenwich St and 9th Avenue from lower Manhattan up to Harlem.

Newspaper clipping with train timetables on top and mp
The top-most route shown in this 1881 map depicts the Ninth Avenue Line, the first regular elevated train line in New York City. Map and guide of the elevated railroads of New York City. Map by H.I. Latimer, 1881. Geography and Map Division.

Elevated railways quickly became the dominant form of public transportation, but they were not perfect. A major blizzard in 1888, which paralyzed above ground transportation in New York, helped build support for an underground transit system. Several years later in 1900, construction began on a subterranean train line, and in just four years New York’s first official subway line had been completed.

In October 1904 the first portion of what would go on to become one of the world’s most extensive subway systems opened for business. The initial subway route consisted of 28 stops over a roughly 9 mile distance under Manhattan. Interesting to some might be the fact that the subway system was originally privately operated, with the first line run by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). Success from the initial underground line encouraged the IRT to further expand the subway system. By 1915 the IRT was servicing every New York City borough aside from Staten Island.

This 1908 map shows a somewhat expanded IRT line which had started servicing Brooklyn by that time. The original 9 mile stretch of track ran from City Hall, just the west of the Brooklyn Bridge in lower Manhattan, up to 145th St. Rapid transit map of Manhattan and adjacent districts of New York City. Rand McNally Company, 1908. Geography and Map Division.

Seeing as public transport was a purely commercial endeavor in the first half of the 20th century, other companies sought to capitalize on the subway concept. Founded in 1896 to consolidate and run railway lines in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) entered the picture in 1915 when it began operating its own subway line. The BRT’s new line crossed the Manhattan Bridge to connect Brooklyn with Manhattan. A few short years later the BRT had constructed its Broadway Line which traversed the island of Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company originated in the late 19th century operating railways in Brooklyn and Queens. By the time of the publication of this 1920 map, the company was running several subway lines across the boroughs as well as elevated railway routes. You might also notice the competing IRT subway lines are marked in black on this map. New York City transportation map (title collection). A.R. Ohman Map Co, 1920. Geography and Map Division.

The success of both the IRT and BRT lines resulted in further rapid development of the New York subway system. In 1913 both companies signed dual contracts with the City of New York to restore and modify existing stations while also entering into new construction projects. By 1924, just twenty years after the initial opening of the IRT line, the subway had more than quadrupled its number of stations.

The original route of the IRT which opened in 1904 with just 28 stations in Manhattan. This 1924 map shows the extent of development the IRT had seen a mere twenty years later. Routes of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. Interborough Rapid Transit Company, 1924. Geography and Map Division.

In 1932 the City of New York opened the first city-run subway line known as the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad (IND).This quality which made the IND distinctive from its privately–run counterparts was short lived however, as in 1940 the City of New York purchased both the IRT and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, the successor to the BRT, and consolidated all three subway systems into a single network. The predecessor of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which today operates all city-owned subway and bus routes, was created in 1953. By the mid-twentieth century, the New York subway system as we recognize it today was truly starting to take shape.

For nearly 120 years the New York City subway system has been helping riders reach their destinations. Since its inception and that original 9 miles of track run by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the transportation system has seen many changes including the transition from fare tickets, to tokens, to MetroCards, and now the adoption of a new digital tap-and-go pay system known as OMNY which stands for One Metro New York. Only time will tell what direction the subway system might take in the twenty-first century, but without a doubt New York City’s trains will keep chugging along, ever-present just beneath your feet.

Riders on the New York City subway, September 2020. 125th St. at St. Nicholas Ave., IND Line, Harlem. Photo by Camilo J. Vergara, Sept 2020. Prints and Photographs Division.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! My great-great-grandfather, John Coyne, served as a conductor on the elevated train for the Interboro Rapid Transit company from the early 1900s until his death in 1938. With that steady income, he and his wife, Katie Geraghty, were able to raise six children, all of whom survived to adulthood, a stunning accomplishment for this immigrant couple. Seeing these gorgeous maps and reading the text gives me better insight to their lives. Thank you!

  2. I’ve become obsessed with trying to find photographs of Brooklyn Elevated Railroad, Old Main Line. There are lots of photographs and video of the Lexington Avenue El portions of the line but only one photo of the Park Avenue section and one photo of the Washington Street Station. I think this is bazar because it was the first elevated railroad in the City of Brooklyn, it passed the New York (Brooklyn) Navy Yard, it went past (right through actually) Pratt Institue which had an engineering school etc. i don’t understand how no one bothered to take a picture of it anywhere along it’s route!!

  3. My great-grandfather, Aaron Harry Levison, made history on the El in 1907 by dying while reading the newspaper. Apparently, he continued to look as if he were readin, but a passenger noticed that he hadn’t moved for quite some time. The coroner’s report specifies the stops between which he died. The Transit Museum in New York has an El car from 1907, perhaps the very one on which he rode.

  4. A correction to my post: Aaron Harry Levison was my great-great-grandfather.

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