A Brief History Of The Subway System: Part 1 Of 6

An eight-car train gets ready for a trial run on the Sea Beach line. Source: NYCSubwayChat

THE COMMUTE: Three weeks ago I mentioned how the bus transfer system confused me as a youngster. I also had difficulty understanding the original porcelain IRT subway signs stating “Subway To All Trains,” which were still in use in the 1970s. As I grew up, I realized that the original meaning of the word “subway” referred to the underground passageway, not to the trains themselves and that “all trains” meant you could travel in both directions since that is not possible at some station entrances.

In October 2004, what we call the subway system celebrated its 100th birthday, but portions that are not underground are actually much older. In Sheepshead Bay we do not even have a subway — only outdoor segments, which connect to the subway within the inner neighborhoods of Brooklyn. There is a wealth of information on the internet regarding the history of the system and plans for expansion that were never realized. The premier subway site is nycsubway.org, which can answer most questions about the subway system. If not, you can always post your question on a transit forum such as subchat.com and a knowledgeable person will probably respond to you within minutes.

What I intend to do in this series is to concentrate on the history of the parts of the system directly affecting our area, give a general overview of the rest of the system, and point you to sites where you can find more detailed information.

The Brighton Line

Unlike the rest of the subway system, which was designed to get people from their homes to their place of employment in Manhattan, the Brighton Line (originally the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railroad), Sea Beach (New York and Sea Beach Railroad), Culver (Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad) and West End (Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island Railroad) lines were actually built for the opposite reason — to bring Manhattanites to the shores of Brooklyn, and they predated the first subway by decades.

These lines all started as two-track steam railroads operating on the surface with grade crossings. Mainly the resort hotels along the Coney Island shore built the railroads to enable access to their hotels. As surface traffic increased, these lines were either placed in open cuts, on embankments, or on elevated lines above existing streets to eliminate grade crossings before and after the building of the first subway. In my previous bus articles, I stated that no one actually sat down and planned the bus system, and that the system just evolved over time. The same is true about the subway system. It is a hodgepodge of former railroad open cut and elevated segments joined to a subway system that was built later. Additional elevated segments were added in outlying areas where it made little sense to dig underground.

The original two-track Brighton Line branched off from the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), originating at Atlantic Avenue and the East River at a point called South Ferry. The LIRR trains operated along the surface of Atlantic Avenue to Jamaica and points east and south. At Franklin Avenue, Brighton trains turned south toward Prospect Park along what is now the Franklin Avenue Shuttle and continued south, terminating near what is now Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, near the Brighton Beach Hotel. A detailed history of the Brighton line can be found here.

At South Ferry in Brooklyn, at the foot of Atlantic Avenue, a ferry transported riders to South Ferry in Manhattan where an assortment of horsecar lines and steam railroads, either on the ground or elevated, transported riders to and from other parts of Manhattan and points north.

Other Brooklyn Railroads

Similarly, the Sea Beach railroad transported passengers from Manhattan to the Sea Beach Palace Hotel, located near Surf Avenue and West Eighth Street. One boarded a ferry at South Ferry in Manhattan to a pier at 69th Street in Brooklyn where the Sea Beach railroad began.

Ferries also operated from South Ferry in Manhattan to a pier at 39th Street in Brooklyn, where the Culver Line began. Named after Andrew Culver, it operated along a right-of-way just south 38th Street to Gravesend Avenue (now McDonald Avenue), also operating to Coney Island. The West End railroad took a different path from the 39th Street Ferry, along what is now New Utrecht Avenue. It operated similarly to the current West End Line, but instead of turning onto 86th Street, it continued south at grade until a point between Bath Avenue and Cropsey Avenue, where it also continued to Coney Island.

In the 1800s, amusement parks, beaches, and resort areas were not only located in Coney Island, but also in Bath Beach and Ulmer Park along Gravesend Bay, Brighton Beach, Bergen Beach, and Canarsie. Sheepshead Bay Road (then called Shore Road) and Emmons Avenue were lined with dozens of smaller hotels. The Canarsie Railroad, or the Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach Line, began operation in 1906 in East New York, connecting with the Long Island Railroad and operated also along the surface all the way to the Canarsie shore between East 95th Street and East 96th Street.

In 1942, it was cut back to its present terminus at Glenwood Road and replacement service was offered via a trolley along Rockaway Parkway, and a free bus/subway transfer was instituted — the only bus subway/transfer in the city where you can transfer to a second bus for free. At the shore, you could also board a steamboat to the Rockaways. That cost extra.

Congestion Ahead

As early as the mid-1800s, Manhattan was being strangled in surface traffic congestion worse than it is today. Steam railroads could no longer operate on the surface and they had to be elevated. The “El” trains, or “Els” (short for “Elevated”), as they were more popularly called, were built first above Ninth Avenue, then on Sixth Avenue. They were soon followed by Els along Third Avenue and Second Avenue, in that order, which later were extended into the Bronx and Queens. The Q and N Astoria line is actually a remnant of the Queens branch of the Second Avenue El in Manhattan, originally operating via the Queensboro Bridge (now the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge/59th Street Bridge) before the building of the 60th Street tunnel. Thirty-first Street in Astoria, where the El operates, was also called Second Avenue at the time, so the El went from Second Avenue in Manhattan to Second Avenue in Queens.

As with the railroads, ownership frequently changed hands, sometimes through complicated leasing agreements. Wikipedia has more detailed information and describes the actual routes these railroads took. Eventually all the Manhattan Els were operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), the same company that built the first subway.

In Brooklyn, Els were built along Lexington Avenue, Myrtle Avenue, Broadway and Fulton Street in Northern Brooklyn. The Brighton line was rerouted from Atlantic Avenue to the Fulton Street El 13 years after the LIRR terminated its agreement with the operators of the Brighton Beach railroad. In western Brooklyn, there was the Fifth Avenue El, which shifted from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue at 38th Street and ended at 65th Street. Trains left the El at 38th Street to connect to the Culver Line and West End Lines, and at 65th Street to connect with the Sea Beach Line. Much more about early Brooklyn rapid transit and the multitude of companies responsible for their operation can be found here. Brooklyn Els were eventually operated by the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit (BMT) Company.

In the next segment: How the invention of electricity changed the system, how the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge affected transit and the first subway.

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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