Southern Brooklyn

A Brief History Of The Subway System: Part 2 Of 6

IRT East Side Line at City Hall. (Source: John-Paul Palescandolo via

THE COMMUTE:  On Tuesday, we discussed the railroads and elevated lines that preceded the building of the first subway that still are in use today, and are now part of the subway system. Today we continue with the invention of electricity.

The Invention of Electricity

Electricity changed the face of transportation forever. Steam railroads were all converted to electricity within a few short years. Horsecars gave way to electric trolleys after a brief experimentation with a few cable car lines. (Two operated along Montague Street and on the Manhattan Bridge.) The electric light bulb helped turn Coney Island into a world destination for amusements. Hotels flourished, helped along by the many horseracing tracks in Southern Brooklyn, most of which closed in 1911 following a law banning racetrack betting in New York State, which contributed to the demise of the resort hotels.

Motion pictures slowly replaced amusement parks, circuses and live theater as the chief source for entertainment. The railroad lines, which primarily brought Manhattanites to the Brooklyn shore, would in time chiefly become commuter lines like the subways and els bringing riders to “The City.”

Those of you who are old enough may remember the directional signs on the BMT in Brooklyn that would light up when a train was approaching, still in use into the 1970s, “To City” and “From City.” Those also confused me as a child, just like the “Subway to All Trains” sign. I thought Brooklyn was part of “The City.”

The signs were a carryover from the time when Brooklyn was a separate city and “the city” referred to Manhattan. As with the institution of free bus transfers that took about 60 years to fully implement, it took about the same period of time to update signage to reflect that Brooklyn was indeed part of New York City, which some still refuse to accept.

Elevated lines turned out to be only a temporary solution to relieving traffic congestion on Manhattan streets. As the island developed further northward, quicker transportation was needed. In the mid- to late-1800s, New York City flirted with the idea of building an underground subway. The Long Island Railroad put its Atlantic Avenue line underground west of Flatbush Avenue. The tunnel was soon abandoned (with a new terminus built at Flatbush Avenue) and was not discovered until several decades ago.

Another attempt was a secret subway adjacent to City Hall, built by Alfred Beach in the 1870s. Additional information can be found here. Also an underground trolley terminal was built beneath Delancey and Essex Street on the Lower East Side.

The Brooklyn Bridge

The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 also marked a milestone in the development of the transportation system. All Brooklyn elevated lines with the exception of the Broadway line were extended over the Brooklyn Bridge, along with many trolley lines to a terminal at Park Row, where connections could be made with Manhattan els.

The Broadway el was rerouted slightly and extended over the Williamsburg Bridge. Ferry transportation, the previous means of connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn, slowly began to die until none were left. Only in recent years has it made a slight comeback.

The First Subway

However, it was not until subways were already operating in Boston and in London did New York get one of its own. (Boston’s first subway line was actually a tunnel for trolley cars operating underground.)

In 1900, the IRT constructed the first subway in Manhattan. It opened in October 1904 and operated from the City Hall Station (not to be confused with the station on the R line) following the current route of the 4 and 5 trains on 42nd Street, on what is now the Times Square to Grand Central Shuttle and along the current 1 line to Broadway and 145th Street.

The City Hall Station, now closed to the public, was a grandiose affair resembling no other subway station. The first subway also featured kiosks at most station entrances to protect passengers from the rain and snow. One by one, they were removed in the 1960s. The current one at Astor Place is a reproduction.

The subway was soon extended to South Ferry and then to Brooklyn to meet the LIRR at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue in 1908, and also to the Bronx by elevated lines along Jerome Avenue and to Bronx Park. Those lines were shared with the Ninth and Second Avenue Els, respectively. The subway portion between Bowling Green and South Ferry became a shuttle, now discontinued. Original plans called for the IRT to be further extended along Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Later, that route was awarded to the BMT instead.

Absorption of the Railroads

As Manhattan developed, so did Brooklyn. Surface railroads with grade crossings were no longer feasible and were either placed on embankments or in open cuts before and after the building of the first subway.

The West End and Culver Railroads were placed on elevated lines in the 1910s, and were connected to the existing elevated system.

In 1940, the city purchased the segment of the short-lived New York, Westchester and Boston Railway between East 180th Street and Dyre Avenue, and connected it to the elevated and subway system. It became the Dyre Avenue branch.

The most recent railroad to be taken over by the subways was the Rockaway Line in 1962 1956, which charged a double fare (that was later eliminated), which was unique to the subway system.

Not all railroads successfully made the conversion to part of the elevated or subway system. A three-mile segment of the Rockaway line north of Liberty Avenue and south of Rego Park was abandoned in 1962. Currently, there are efforts to reactivate this line.

Also abandoned was the entire Bay Ridge LIRR division, operating in the same open cut as the western portion of the Sea Beach Line continuing just south of Avenue H and extending north to East New York junction. The LIRR Manhattan Beach Branch, operating alongside the Brighton line, ceased passenger operation in 1922 1924, and most of the rights-of-way were built over with housing. Little remains of the right-of-way today.

The Dual Contracts

The next major development to the subways was what is known as the dual contracts in the late 1910s.

It had that name because it enabled major expansions to both the IRT subway and existing BMT subway lines along Nassau Street in Manhattan and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Deciding which company would get to operate which route and where those routes would go was a long and complicated process, far too complex to cover here.

Suffice it to say that the first subway was originally conceived to operate the length of Broadway in Manhattan, and was diverted to the East Side as a compromise because the East Side wanted a piece of it. However, before it was actually built, some debated whether the idea of riding in a hole in the ground would even catch on. A success after the first day of operation, plans were quickly made to extend the first subway.

The Dual Contracts extended the original subway to the Upper East Side to promote development and to relieve congestion on the 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue Els. It was also extended south along 7th Avenue to supplement the 6th Avenue and 9th Avenue Els.

The BMT was awarded a subway along Broadway, south of Central Park, with plans to extend it further northward along 8th Avenue, and a crosstown line across 14th Street extending to East New York to meet the existing Canarsie line, which had already been joined to the Broadway el in Brooklyn.

Next Week in Part 3: More about the Dual Contracts, the IND System, the decline of the elevated system, and the rise and decline of the subways.

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.

Comment policy


  1. “Also an underground trolley terminal was built beneath Delancey and Essex Street on the Lower East Side.” I saw some plans for that area to go through a similar “renovation” process as the high-line, except – underground, like an underground city. I think it would be very cool to see that actually happen. Soon. 

  2. It would be nice to see that space reused again. I think it could be a commercial success. Because of the tight trolley turns, I do not believe there would be enough space to convert it to a bus terminal. Also, it would not make sense since with the return of the B39, only one bus will operate on the Williamsburg bridge as compared to approximately a half dozen trolleys that formerly used it.

  3. i do wish that we had a trolley system in some parts of the city. I think it would add to the attraction as well as make it more accessible (ie – red hook anyone? – i think that at some point you have written about that on  How feasible that is… I have no idea. It does seem easier to convert that space into something else than to make it into a transportation hub again.

    It always saddened me to a point that NYC had (has) this tendency to build over its history (Penn Station). I understand that there is limited space, high demand, etc…. but i just can’t help but mourn over the fact that the Beach Pneumatic rail was just discarded the way it was. It just seems so innovative, even today. 
    In other cases such as when the city took over the railroad lines into Brooklyn and built over them or incorporated them – yeah i would say that it makes sense. 

    I’m also mourning the kiosks. Were they removed because the city wanted to save money on the upkeep? To prevent crime? It just seems that whenever the city saw a chance to strip something beautiful away from its self, it didnt hesitate to do so. 

  4. The problem with a trolley system here is that they work best on an exclusive right of way, not in shared traffic. The thing I do remember when we had trolleys is that no one ever dared to double park because that would have meant locking he tracks. Too bad we don’t have more abandoned railroad right of ways. Perhaps some could be converted to light rail.

    As far as the kiosks, I do not remember an official reason for discarding them. My guess is that with age they started to require higher levels of maintenance. The sixties was the time we started on the deferred maintenance

  5. program to save the 15 cent fare. They just slowly started to disappear without any announcements being made. When there were about four left New York Magazine noticed and did a cover story on it. At the time they were the Sunday magazine of the NY Herald Tribune.

  6. Looking at the circumstances now, it was probably a good thing the IRT lost 4th Avenue. I really don’t see how connecting it to the rest of the IRT would have been truly feasible. Some curves are just too tight for even the IRT to deal with. It may have also worsened conditions today in the A Division, which is well beyond capacity.

    With the “H” system in place as well as the incorporation of NYW&B’s tracks into the subway system, we were at least able to get today’s Broadway-Seventh Avenue and Lexington Avenue services. I have relied on the 2 and 5 for years now. I’m also glad that the MTA woke up on 6/29/09 and expanded 5 service in Brooklyn. Now we need to see what we can do about other existing services (like the C, N, and R).

  7. I’m not sure I understand. How could some curves be too tight for the IRT but not for the BMT?

    Also if the IRT did get 4th Avenue, that would have precluded it from being extended down Eastern Parkway. The BMT would have received Brighton, Nostrand and New Lots. Sea Beach, West End and Culver would have been IRT which would have meant that the IND would have terminated at Church Avenue unless if it would have been extended down Fort Hamiton Parkway per the Second System.

  8. I actually meant that I wouldn’t see how trains could stop at Atlantic Avenue and then curve over to 4th Avenue unless they went through some switching system that may have been even more elaborate than the current BMT system.

    Then again, I’m not too sure about the exact position for the IRT’s original Atlantic Avenue station. I’m probably just thinking too much about this.

  9. I’m not too sure about this, but I believe the plan for Fourth Avenue service had something to do with using the Nevins Street lower level.

  10. That urban explorer Robert Diamond has been trying to build a trolley line in Red Hook for the past 20 years. At one point, he had laid track (volunteer labor) and power lines but then the city made his rip up everything. Someone in Bloombergia does not like trolleys. Maybe the next Mayor and the next DoT commish will be more enlightened. Visit his web site I think it can be found Brooklyn Historic Rail Roadoad or something like that.  He used to run tours of the ancient LIRR tunnel under Atlantic Avenue too. closed by Bloomberger and his minions.

  11. ROW, true but perfect is always the enemy of the good. Let’s have trolleys even without perfect exclusive Right of Way.

  12. I tried checking his website when writing the article so I could provide a link, but I got the message that it doesn’t exist anymore.

  13. The DOT study rejected a trolley route from Red Hook to Atlantic Terminal. One route studied would have involved removing a traffic lane from Atlantic Avenue which would have been ridiculous. A much better route woud have been to continue the trolley to Brooklyn Bridge Park, through Dumbo and Washington Street through Borough Hall Park to the Fulton Mall to Atlantic Terminal where a bus terminal could have been built with only trolleys running along Fulton Street. That however, was never studied.


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