Southern Brooklyn

A Brief History Of The Subway System: Part 3 Of 6

Artist John Sloan’s “Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street,” circa 1928.

THE COMMUTE: Last week (Part 1, Part 2) we started discussing the Dual Contracts. We continue with the rest of the discussion and also discuss the IND line, the decline of the elevated system (“The El”) and the rise of the subways.

The Dual Contracts, Continued…

After completion of the Fourth Avenue subway in Brooklyn, the former railroad lines that connected to the Fifth Avenue and Third Avenue Els in Brooklyn were reconnected to the Fourth Avenue subway instead. Also, as part of the Dual Contracts, the IRT and BMT were both extended in a six-track tunnel beneath Flatbush Avenue. The IRT was further extended eastward along Eastern Parkway to Utica Avenue (and via el to New Lots Avenue) and to Flatbush Avenue and Nostrand Avenue with plans for further extensions. The BMT continued further south along Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Park. There it connected to the Brighton line where the line had to be expanded to four tracks between Prospect Park and Church Avenue.

South of Church Avenue, the line previously had been expanded to four tracks and was placed in an open cut north of around Avenue H and on an embankment south of Avenue H. Since there was little development, it was not necessary to build a subway or place the line on an El above the street as was done in other areas. Express trains were routed through the new tunnel under Flatbush Avenue while the locals continued to operate parallel to Franklin Avenue and continue along the Fulton Street El and over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Park Row Terminal near the Municipal Building in Manhattan.

At Sheepshead Bay, the line descended back to the surface to Brighton Beach where it terminated. There, the Marine Railway, or the Coney Island Elevated Railway, operated from Brighton Beach to Coney Island. The existing El was demolished and replaced with today’s elevated structure. The Dual contracts also provided for adding a third track on the Third Avenue El (in Manhattan) to provide express service (some express platforms were bi-level) as well as other subway extensions.

One can only imagine how differently the subway system would have evolved if the first subway line was built as originally conceived, straight along Broadway, and how much simpler the system would have been. There would have been a single Broadway line — not the 1, 2 and 3 along upper Broadway and the N, Q, and R along southern Broadway, as we have today. Or, what if some of the many provisions for extensions were actually built, such as extending the Fourth Avenue subway to Staten Island via a new tunnel around 59th Street? How different the city would be today.


In the early 1930s, the city-owned and -operated subway, known as the Independent System, opened along Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and charged 10 cents, as opposed to its competitors who charged five cents also charged five cents, like its competitors. However, 10 cents was charged to use a temporary extension from the Queens Boulevard line to the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fair (Fares on elevated and subway lines were originally collected using tickets rather than nickels). The nickel fare, however, was somewhat misleading since there were no interdivisional free transfers, although underground connections were sometimes provided. If you also required a trolley or bus, your actual fare could have been as high as 15 or 20 cents. The IND also built the only subway — now called the G line — that would not enter Manhattan. It was known as the GG Crosstown line, first connecting Downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg. It was named after the Crosstown trolley it paralleled, which later became the B61 bus. Also built by the IND was the Sixth Avenue subway designed to replace the Sixth Avenue El. In Brooklyn, a Fulton Street subway replaced the Fulton Street El. Lines were also built along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, primarily along Broadway and Queens Boulevard in Queens, and primarily along Smith Street and Ninth Street in Brooklyn, all of which were extensions to the Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue lines in Manhattan. (Corrected 9/12/2012.)

The IND also was constructed with a color-coded plan for tile work. explains the plan.

Decline Of The Elevated System

The demolition of the Sixth Avenue El in 1940 began the acceleration of the decline of the elevated system after faithfully serving the city for more than 60 years. The same year also marked the creation of the Board of Transportation and city takeover of both the IRT and BMT elevated and subway lines, after both fell into bankruptcy. The decline of the Els as their own mode of transportation began with the connection of the various Els to the subway system. The final connection was made in 1954 when the IND Sixth Avenue line was extended from Church Avenue and McDonald Avenue to connect with the Culver Elevated line, relegating the elevated portion constructed south of 38th Street above the surface railroad to a shuttle, operating between Ninth Avenue and Ditmas Avenue only.

By 1944, all elevated lines were removed from the Brooklyn Bridge and, in 1950, trolley lines were removed as well. All mass transit service over the bridge was cutback in Brooklyn to Sands Street. Free transfers were offered to the IND subway, good for rides until the Broadway-Nassau Street station in Manhattan. Of course there was no way of checking to make sure if riders really exited the subway at that point. Passengers boarding at that station would receive a free transfer to the trolley — and later to bus lines — that formerly used the Brooklyn Bridge for use near Sands Street.

Demolition of the Second Avenue and Ninth Avenue lines followed the demolition of the Sixth Avenue El in the 1940s, with no replacement service offered — just more crowded trains, although the promise of a Second Avenue Subway was renewed at that time. A short Ninth Avenue shuttle remained to serve the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. In fact, none of today’s shuttle lines were built as shuttles. All are remnants of more extensive services, the first shuttle being created along 42nd Street by the Dual Contracts extending the east and west side portions of the first subway into an “H” pattern.

The demolition of the Fulton Street El in Brooklyn shortly before World War II led to Franklin Avenue and Fulton Street becoming the new terminal for the Brighton local on weekends. Weekday local service had already been rerouted to the subway beneath Flatbush Avenue years earlier. When the decline in beach patronage made it no longer feasible to operate Brighton Expresses seven days a week, by the late 1950s, the Franklin Avenue line was also relegated to a full time shuttle, first on Sundays and finally on Saturdays also.

By 1955, all remaining elevated lines had all either been demolished or appended to the subway system. The only Els not using portions of the subways were the Third Avenue El in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the Myrtle Avenue El in Brooklyn. However, before the year was over, the Third Avenue El ended service in Manhattan. (There is a great book you can purchase on about the Third Avenue El by Lawrence Stelter with amazing color pictures called “By the El.”) Since the Lexington Avenue subway could not handle more crowding comfortably, with the Third Avenue El already taking over much of the patronage from the Second Avenue El, which was demolished more than a decade earlier, another promise for a Second Avenue subway was made. We all know the rest of that story.

The final two solely elevated lines to be demolished were the western portion of the Myrtle Avenue line in 1969, after being cutback earlier from Sands Street to Jay Street, and the Bronx portion of the Third Avenue El in 1973. As before, free transfers to replacement bus service were provided from the subways.

Although some elevated lines were still built after subway construction started, Els became in disfavor because of the amount of street light they blocked out. The revitalization of Myrtle Avenue with the building of MetroTech is probably the most dramatic contrast you will find, as to how a street can look before and after the demolition of an elevated line. The portion of the Myrtle Avenue line east of Broadway, which was connected to the Broadway Brooklyn El, was retained.

The Rise Of The Subways

Prior to World War II, the subway was the mode of choice for most New Yorkers, especially for trips to or near Manhattan. They were faster than the Els and much faster than buses or trolleys. In fact, the subways were so popular that there were plans to make them even more useful by extending them into southeast Brooklyn and to the City Line in Queens, as well as east along Allerton Avenue in the Bronx to what is now Co-Op City, for example. There were plans to replace virtually every El with a new subway. Many of these objectives were to be realized with the construction of the IND Second System. Other than subway buffs, few today realize that only half of the conceived IND subway was ever completed. Additionally, the IRT and BMT also included provisions for additional extensions by building bellmouths or turnouts at strategic junctions. Sadly these plans were never realized because of the Great Depression, World War II and the increasing popularity of the automobile.

This week, in Part 4, we will discuss the decline of the subways, and also its renaissance.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  1. sad that the subway system actually got smaller in size from pre WWII. The planned expansions of the 1930s would have been very great, especially for eastern Queens beyond Jamaica and Flushing and southeast Brooklyn (Marine Park, Bergen Beach, etc). KCC would have a subway line going there today

  2. There were plans for a cut off of the IND to run down Utica Ave South to end with the Nostrand Line.  also a extension of the Houston St with a Tunnel under the East River to I am not sure South 8 St to connect with the Carnarsie Line or the GG Line in Brooklyn, also another one in either Forest Hills or Kew Gardens to Eastern Queens

  3. Methinks not a single subway extension in any of the outer boroughs will materialize until the country’s other economic problems are rectified -_-

    Realistically, and unless we (the country) stumble upon a shipload of money tomorrow, I will give it at least another 30 years before the outer boroughs see new subway lines or el lines. Sending the SAS up Melrose/Webster or Third (probably Webster) to relieve the (4) should be the #1 priority, followed by a southward SAS extension via Utica Ave. If the IRT Nostrand line is extended, it should run via Flatbush Ave south of JCT. I do not believe it should use Nost south of JCT unless they can run a subway under Nost south of JCT, which I do not believe is possible

  4. In 1974, I had a copy of the entire Flatbush an Utica proposals with preliminary plans prepared by a consultant which were being thrown out at the Department of City Planning. Each were several hundred pages long. Sadly, I only saved the one for the Utica Avenue one complete with station entrances and exits and diagrams. I didn’t even look at the Nostrand one. I know they weren’t proposing an el at that time. If they couldn’t build a subway, they would have realized it before designing station entrances and exits which most likely were in that plan made in 1969.

  5. It was said on NYCTF a while back that there could be no subway under Nost south of JCT because of water table issues. Supposedly this is why there is a mezzanine at Sterling St, but then fare control is ten steps above the platform at Winthrop, and the four stops south of Winthrop have fare control at platform level, as the gradual ascent of the tunnel was a provision for elevating the line south of JCT. I think. Also if they wanted to keep it underground they would have had to run it under the LIRR tracks between “H” and “I”; based on the construction of the line it does not look like they had any intention of doing that.

    I would not want to see an el on Nost because it is narrow and residential, plus I think it will be in good shape (not as good as a subway, but still) with the advent of the 44 SBS. I think Flatbush would be better suited for the el than Nost because FB has worse traffic and is more commercial and wider; fewer residents would have to deal with the noise and trains running in front of their windows.

    Opinions subject to change depending on how the 44 SBS ends up performing

  6. I could be wrong but I thought the original plans called for an el south of Kings Highway. The original Utica Avenue plans called for an el south of Carroll Street which is why the street widens at that point. However, in 1969, all plans called for subway all the way.

  7. I would love to see the resturation of the 3rd Avenue line.  It is a disgrace that the MTA’s plan for the Second Avenue “T” line runs through Second Avenue and is a Manhattan-only line that turns at 125th Street.  The line should extend to the Bronx after 125th Street instead connecting to either Third Avenue or Webster Avenue to recreated the elevated “8” train that was eliminated in 1973 and replaced with the Bx. 55.  More so I would love to see the line extended to Gun Hill Road underneath the (2) and (5) lines at Gun Hill Road and White Plains Road.  I would love to see extended to Co-Op City like it should have always.  NExt create a “U” train that would also run along Second Avenue, but in the Bronx deviate to go from the Bronx to Queens to connect at Main Street-Flushing to the (7) line.  It’s time to have a Bronx to Queens train. 

  8. The Rockaway Beach Branch south of Ozone Park was closed in 1950 due to frequent fires on the Jamaica Bay trestle. The city bought it and converted it to the subway in 1956. The section of the branch north of Ozone Park continued operation, though with very limited service, until 1962.


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