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When Four “Els” Ran Overhead On Our Streets

From the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, four elevated rail lines ran above the streets of our neighborhoods. The Library of Congress archival collections holds a c. 1881 map and guide of these different “Els”: the “Eastern Division, which included the Second Avenue and Third Avenue lines; and the “Western Division,” which included the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue Lines. For each one, it describes the route, the hours of operation, and the different stations where passengers could get on or off. Underneath a simple diagram of the railway lines, the document includes an alphabetically-organized list of “Points of Interest and How to Reach Them,” which is a treasure trove of current and former landmarks of our neighborhoods. Reading through the catalogue of sites, I wonder which routes residents or tourists of our neighborhoods might have taken, and begin to put together an image of the elevated Village.

Map of Elevated Rail Lines, c. 1881. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Taking the Sixth Avenue line north up West Broadway from Lower Manhattan, one would snake through the narrow streets of the South Village and along West 3rd Street before finally emerging onto Sixth Avenue. From there one might get off at the 8th Street stop to explore Washington Square Park, or go to the next stop at 14th Street and head east to visit the St. Denis Hotel. Some passengers emerging from the Christopher Street station of the Ninth Avenue El may have headed west to the Christopher Street Ferry, while others may have turned east for St. Vincent’s Hospital. The Third Avenue line must have been particularly busy at times, bringing people to a long list of sites: the Germania Theatre, the Children’s Aid Society, the Academy of Music, and Cooper Union.

“1906 Interborough Rapid Transit Company Subway and Elevated Lines (Official Guide of the Railways), Manhattan South.” Photo courtesy of nycsubway.org

Greenwich Village has a particularly strong relationship to these transportation innovations, as it was the birthplace of the Ninth Avenue Elevated Railway, the first truly elevated rail line. The “El” was conceived by Charles T. Harvey (June 26, 1829 – March 11, 1912) and started operation in 1868. It originally had a charter to run from Battery Place to 30th Street, and was more or less an early prototype for what we would today call a monorail. At the time it was known as “the One-Legged Railroad,” running in a loop on a single track above a single row of columns, and pulled along by a cable. After experiencing ongoing problems, the line closed until April 20, 1871, when it was opened anew with steam locomotives. In 1872, the El was bought at auction by the newly organized New York Elevated Railroad Company.

A few years later, Dr. Rufus Gilbert (January 26, 1832 – July 10, 1885), a New York City surgeon, decided to leave his medical practice and participate in the effort to develop urban mass transit. He understood transit as a public health tool, envisioning that new rail lines would allow poor communities living in crowded downtown Manhattan to move to underdeveloped areas nearby. The franchise he started became known as Gilbert Elevated, and was soon consolidated with the New York Elevated into the Manhattan Elevated Railway Company. The newly merged company began construction on the Second, Third, and Sixth Avenue routes, and by August 1880, the Ninth, Second, and Third Avenue Els had reached the Harlem River.

“1939 Subway and Elevated Combined System Route Map.” Photo courtesy of nycsubway.org. By the time this map was made, the Sixth Avenue El was no longer in operation.

At this point, the four elevated rail lines had transformed the character of our neighborhoods. They allowed New York City (then just the island of Manhattan) to expand rapidly northward during those booming years of the industrial revolution and mass immigration which followed the Civil War. They also allowed quicker transit above the increasingly congested Lower Manhattan streets, filled with horses, carts, streetcars, and people.

As I continue to imagine what it would have been like to live in or pass through our neighborhoods with Els overhead, I dig into historic maps and our Historic Image Archive, looking for evidence of each line:

Second Avenue El

Second Avenue El stop at First Avenue and East Houston Street, 1934. Photo courtesy of the NYPL Digital Collections.

In our neighborhoods, the Second Avenue El did not run on Second Avenue at all. Instead, it traversed the East Village along First Avenue after it emerged from Lower Manhattan south of Houston Street, not swinging west to Second Avenue until 23rd Street, and then following its namesake thoroughfare up the length of the island. In the East Village, the El stopped at East First Street, St. Mark’s Place, and East 14th Street.

The line ran until June 13, 1942, when all service was discontinued and it was dismantled.

Third Avenue El

Jack Dowling at the Third Avenue El near Cooper Union while a student there, 1953. Village Preservation Historic Image Archive: Jack Dowling Collection.

The Third Avenue El entered our neighborhoods from the south along the the Bowery, then merged onto Third Avenue at Cooper Square. It had stops at the intersection of East Houston and Bowery, then at East 9th Street, and again on East 14th Street.

After coming under criticism from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and his successors as “blighted” and “obsolete,” the line was closed in sections from 1950 to 1973. On May 12, 1955, the main portion of the line closed from Chatham Square to East 149th Street in the Bronx, ending the operation of elevated service in Manhattan. The removal was a catalyst for a wave of new construction, increasing property values on the East Side and spurring the birth of the “East Village.”

Sixth Avenue El

Sixth Avenue El station at West 8th Street, 1939. Photo courtesy of the NYPL Digital Collections.

The Sixth Avenue El came up to our neighborhoods along West Broadway, then turned west on West 3rd Street and moved north along Sixth Avenue (until it was extended southward in the late 1920s, Sixth Avenue began at West 3rd Street). It stopped at the Bleecker Street and West Broadway (now LaGuardia Place) intersection, then at West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue, and finally at West 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. The Sixth Avenue El attracted a number of local artists, and was the subject of several paintings by John French Sloan, Francis Criss and others.

John Sloan’s ‘Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street,’ 1928. Photo courtesy of Ephemeral New York.

As with the other elevated railways in the city, the line made life difficult for those nearby or underneath. It was noisy, it made buildings shake, and in its early years, it dropped ash, oil, and cinders on pedestrians below. Eventually, a coalition of commercial establishments and building owners along Sixth Avenue campaigned to have the El removed on the grounds that it was depressing business and property values. In 1936, work started on the underground Sixth Avenue Line. The El was officially closed on December 4, 1938, and razed during 1939.

Ninth Avenue El

Ninth Avenue El stop at 14th Street, c. 1940. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.

The Ninth Avenue El came up into Greenwich Village along Greenwich Street, then turned onto Ninth Avenue where the two met near Gansevoort Street. It stopped at the West Houston and Greenwich Streets, at Christopher and Greenwich Streets, and finally at West 14th Street and Ninth Avenue.

There is evidence of the line at 128 Charles Street, a tenement built in 1881 at the corner of Greenwich Street. Between the third and fourth floors is a stone marker with “Charles Street” and “Greenwich Street” carved into it abutting the intersection. The sign is difficult to see and read at street level, but for the passenger on the Ninth Avenue El, it was an indicator of the train’s location and progress.

128 Charles Street.

By the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century, City Hall was seeking to take over privately-run transit systems across the city, and eliminate dark and noisy elevated rail lines, at least in Manhattan. In the early 1930s, the IND line was built along Eighth Avenue, providing a modern and efficient alternative to the El. The Ninth Avenue El, city’s very first elevated rail line, was dismantled in 1940, and its final section extending into the Bronx was removed in 1958.

Removal of the Sixth Avenue El at Jefferson Market, 1939. Village Preservation Historic Image Archive: NY Bound Bookshop Collection.

Though these four elevated lines are no longer physically present, their influence is undeniable. They shaped the development of mass transit nationwide; they advanced the development of New York City at a critical historic moment; and they dramatically reconfigured residential, economic, and artistic life in our neighborhoods.


722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood

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