Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Broadway-Lafayette Transfer and the Evolution of the City’s Subway

By the time you read this, there will have been a major improvement in the subways of New York City. If you don’t  ride the B, D, F, or M subway lines daily you might not be aware of an amazing addition to the Broadway-Lafayette subway station that’s opening today. For the first time since the station opened it will now be possible to transfer from the B, D, F, or M train to the uptown 6 at Bleecker Street without having to leave the station and pay for another ride on your Metrocard.

While transferring to the downtown 6 was a breeze, transferring uptown meant going above ground, where one could often find commuters wandering aimlessly in the triangle between Bleecker, Lafayette, and Houston, desperately looking for the entrance to the uptown 6.  According to the New York Times, the Broadway-Lafayette station is the sole example of a one-way transfer, making it unique amongst the 468 stations in MTA’s system. For examples of other transfer oddities and issues in the NYC subway system go  here.

MTA New York City Subway Map via

In this map, you can see the small hump between Spring and Bleecker, indicating that the subway tracks did not connect. The exact reason for this is unknown, but there were many contributing factors including the fact that the Broadway-Lafayette and Bleecker Street stations were under control of the competing Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and the Independent Subway (IND). The city consolidated the IRT, IND, and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) subway companies  in 1940 and constructed the downtown transfer shortly thereafter in 1947. The uptown transfer was further delayed because the platforms for the 6 train did not face each other. (The New York Times has a lovely graphic of the construction here.)  The project to ameliorate this problem began in 2005; after seven years and  a lot of money the humps and oddities have been smoothed over to make a more streamlined system…at least at this station. For the approximately 11,000 people who transfer here daily, it’s a long time coming.

In celebration of the opening we  put together a collection of images that show the construction and evolution of the  New York City subways.

The groundbreaking ceremony near the Broadway-Lafayette station:

First actual work at Bleecker and Greene Streets. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York.

Workers in the tunnels:

Engineers in tunnel during construction of present IRT at City Hall Station. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. 46.245.2.

Mayor George B. McClellan taking the first ceremonial trip (the New York Times gives a very detailed account here):

Edward Levick. Mayor McClellan on first subway trip. 1904. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.13549.

The first PATH trains to New Jersey opened in 1908:

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Subway, Hudson Tubes. ca. 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

The underground construction process has remained haunting  and intriguing through the years:

Pierre P. Pullis | G. W. Pullis. Subway tunnel construction at Lexington Avenue and 97th Street. 1913. Museum of the City of New York. 2000.52.51.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Subways, Fourteenth Street Cut for Subway, #1. 1921. Museum of the City of New York.

A worker doing above-ground work on the B, D, F, and M line. Even though the clothes, equipment and backdrop have radically changed from the earlier images of the first subway workers , the work remains much the same:

Andrew Herman. Federal Arts Project. 6th Avenue Subway Construction, 26th Street. ca. 1937. Museum of the City of New York.

From the elegance of the very first, and now abandoned, City Hall station to the comfort of the El station and finally to the utilitarian designs of the present Canal Street station the evolution of subways stations is a topic in and of itself:

Ed Spiro. Change booth area, City Hall Station. 1972. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.13576.

Arnold Eagle. Interior of an unidentified station of the Third Avenue El. 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.9042.

Subway station. ca. 1980. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.13587.

We’re intrigued to see what happens next to our subways.

Child between two subway cars. ca. 1965. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.14313.

Click on this links to view more images of subway scenes and tunnels from the Museum’s collections. These images are all available in various sizes as museum quality archival prints. If you see something you want to hang on your wall, email us at

The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company – just a bunch of hot air?

My alarm didn’t go off this morning, meaning I overslept and I did not have enough time to ride my bicycle into work as I often do, and instead would have to take the subway.  While the weather has recently been quite pleasant, people often ask me how I can bear to ride my bike on those summer days when temperatures climb into the 90’s, and my response is always to ask how they can stand to wait on subway platforms as immense waves of hot air roll down the tracks in the wake of the trains.   As I was reading on the way in, I came across a review for Taras Grescoe’s Straphangers, a new book about public transportation.  The review mentions the inclusion of “a subway prototype, from 1870, constructed inside a huge pneumatic tube” in New York.  In other words, an underground train whose motion was controlled entirely by forcing air through the tunnel.

“General Plan, showing the arrangement of the machinery, air-flute, tunnel, and the mode of operating the pneumatic passenger-car,” illustration from The Broadway Pneumatic Underground Railway, 1871, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 42.314.142.

Secret, forgotten, and out of commission subway tunnels and stations have always been intriguing to me, and I assume, (though perhaps incorrectly), for most New Yorkers.  Therefore, many of you may already know this is a reference to the pneumatic underground railway conceived by Alfred Ely Beach, in 1869, in response to the ever growing traffic and congestion on New York City streets, especially Broadway.  Beach’s underground railway ran just the length of one block under Broadway, between Warren to Murray Streets.

The rail line was built primarily as a demonstration of how such a system could work, and employed a 48-ton fan to “blow” the train down the tracks.  When the train reached the end of the line at Murray Street, the baffles on the fan were reversed, drawing the train car back toward Warren Street.

“Under Broadway – Interior of Passenger-Car,” illustration from The Broadway Pneumatic Underground Railway, 1871, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 42.314.142.

The entrance to the station was through the Devlin Stores, in what was later known as the Rogers, Peet & Co building.   The station and passenger car were both very elegant, with mirrors, fountains, and saloons for ladies and gentlemen in the station; and the car featured comfortable, upholstered seats for 22 people.  When the number of riders exceeded 22 people, a large platform car with a wooden sail at one end was used instead, where passengers sat upon comfortable settees, which accommodated up to 30 passengers.

Alfred C. Loonam. Beach Pneumatic Tunnel Under Broadway, ca. 1870. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.26.126.

Despite the popularity of Beach’s railway, selling 25-cent rides to over 400,000 people during its first year of operation, it remained little more than a novelty.  Beach fought Tammany Hall for over two years as he tried to pass a bill introduced to the New York State Legislature to extend the line all the way to Central Park.  The bill finally passed in 1873, only to face funding problems both from waning public interest, and the stock market crash that led to the Panic of 1873.  Eventually, Beach abandoned the project.  This blank stock certificate below is probably one of many that sat unused as financiers drifted away.

Stock Certificate for the Beach Pneumatic Transit Co, ca. 1873, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 42.314.114.

The tunnel was sealed, and after the Rogers, Peet, and Co. building was lost to fire in 1898, the Beach Pneumatic Railway was all but forgotten.  In 1912, workers excavating for a line of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Subway encountered the sealed tunnel; inside, Beach’s rail car sat on the tracks, nearly intact.

Unknown photographer. Excavation at Duane and Reade Streets off Broadway, 1978. Museum of the City of New York. 84.227.

This photo in the Museum’s collection showing an excavation site off Broadway between Duane and Reade streets claims to reveal a portion of the Beach Pneumatic tunnel.  Based on the location of the tunnel a full two blocks south of this site, and the upright walls, rather than the round walls necessary for constructing a tube shaped tunnel, I’m not convinced that this is part of the Beach tunnel.  This leads us to the question, of course – what is it then?  Just another piece of the secret, lost, or forgotten infrastructure of New York City.

Click on this links to view more images of subway scenes and tunnels from the Museum’s collections. These images are all available in various sizes as museum quality archival prints. If you see something you want to hang on your wall, email us at

The Curse of the Roeblings? The Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). Lower New York from foot of Manhattan Bridge. ca. 1930. museum of the City of New York.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic symbols of New York. Try imagining the skyline without the looming Gothic towers. Now try to imagine no bridges over the East River to connect the separate cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan and having to rely on overcrowded, unreliable, and generally unsafe ferries. This was the reality of 1850s New York.  Yet the Brooklyn Bridge almost didn’t happen. Amid rumors of curses on the designer’s family, corruption, and death came amazing technological innovations and people doing incredible things.

The idea of putting a bridge across the East River wasn’t a new idea even in 1850. Plans were discussed, made, and scrapped regularly with strident opposition on basically every element, including the very big question of whether it was even possible to traverse the East River.  And, if it was, then at 1,600 feet across, it’d be the longest span of bridge in the world at that time.

To say that German immigrant John A. Roebling was born to meet this challenge would be a gross overstatement and cliche, but in this case it seems to work. He had created new forms of steel cables that aided his designs of technically brilliant bridges in Cincinnati and Niagara Falls.  In 1867, his plans for the “East River and Brooklyn Bridge” (its previous official name) were accepted by the Tammany Hall-controlled New York Bridge Company and he was named Chief Engineer.

John M. August Will (1834-1910). Sketch of View of Bridge from Sand St. Brooklyn. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1986.

But, on June 28, 1869, as John A. Roebling was measuring possible locations for the towers of the bridge near the Fulton Ferry, a boat hit his foot and crushed his toes. Within a month, he died of tetanus.  His son and partner, 32 year-old Washington Roebling, overcame his grief and took over his father’s position as the Chief Engineer, determined to finish what they had started. This would not be the last tragedy or death that would befall the Roebling family, or the construction of the bridge.

Under Washington Roebling’s supervision the construction began in earnest on January 2, 1870. The first step was building caissons, which are watertight structures with a series of airlocks to provide dry underwater space for workers to dig the foundation into solid rock.  Roebling and his men worked in conditions described by Master Mechanic E.F. Farrington: ” The temperature in the caissons was about 80 [degrees], and the workmen, with half-naked bodies, seen in dim, uncertain light brought vividly to life Dante’s ‘Inferno’.”  But beyond bringing to life poetic masterpieces, there were far more real problems to contend with – fires and explosions plagued the caissons as did the deadly “caisson disease” now known as “the bends” or more technically, decompression sickness.  During the construction of the bridge, over one hundred men contracted and were killed or severely debilitated by caisson disease, including Washington Roebling.

S. A. (Silas A.) Holmes (1819 or 20-1886). New York Caisson nearly down. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. 57.15.4.

In early 1872,  after working 12 straight hours in the caisson, Roebling rose to the surface from the compressed air too quickly and according to some reports, promptly passed out. This began his lifelong battle with the disease that would cause him pain, partial paralysis, temporary loss of his voice and sight, and all sorts of other terrible symptoms that led him to be an invalid for rest of the construction of the bridge and most of his life, forcing him to become bedridden, threatening his position as Chief Engineer.

However, all was not lost.  Using a telescope from the bedroom window of his house on 106 Columbia Street in Brooklyn, Washington would give notes and directions to his wife Emily to take to the engineers on the bridge. Emily had taught herself the math and science to help her husband throughout the project, and now she was using her knowledge to oversee construction while also speaking to distributors, politicians, and all levels of workers, making so many important decisions that it was not long before some begin to think of her as the de facto Chief Engineer, going so far as to believe she was the true intelligence behind the bridge’s design and completion. Indeed, even the New York Times gave her credit right after the bridge opened (and keep in mind, this was at the height of the Gilded Age, when it was still debated if women could even actually learn).

But another 11 years passed as the bridge inched  slowly toward completion. There was fraud with sub par material, political and public outcry about the bridge being constantly delayed, and constant newspaper columns complaining about it going over budget. (For an 1878 article titled “Are We Wasting Money?”  that suggests that destroying the towers of the bridge would really be, in fact, the best way to proceed, click here.).  Adding to the drama was a last minute move by Mayor Seth Low to dismiss Washington Roebling from his position as Chief Engineer, due to his inability to personally oversee the construction. The motion came to down to narrow vote, 10-7, keeping Roebling as Chief Engineer.  The construction continued, under supervision of Roebling and his wife.

Unknown. Brooklyn Bridge under Construction. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8424.

C.W. Pach. 1878. Showing Foot Bridge [of East River Bridge] and Anchor Bars (in part). Museum of the City of the New York. 57.15.16.

Unknown. Brooklyn Bridge under construction. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8384

S. A. (Silas A.) Holmes (1819 or 20-1886). New York and Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.14280.

J. A. LeRoy. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8439.

Unknown. 1881. Men walking on cables during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8463.

Unknown. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8412

16 years after the first plans were drawn, 15 million dollars ($340,000,000 in today’s money) spent, and 27 lives lost, the Brooklyn Bridge finally and officially opened on May 24th, 1883. On the first day alone, over 50,000 people crossed the bridge on foot. Emily Roebling was the first person to cross the bridge in a carriage, carrying a rooster, symbolizing victory,  in her lap. Washington Roebling reportedly never set foot on the bridge he created.

View more images of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Museum’s collections by clicking here. These images are all available in various sizes as museum quality archival prints. If you see something you want to hang on your wall, email us at

Bird’s-Eye View of the Great New York and Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Display of Fireworks on the Opening Night. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1752.

WAY Back to School

It’s that time of the year again.   As Labor Day rolls around, students of all ages and in all phases of their education start anticipating – and in some cases dreading – the first day of school.    In honor of “Back to School” sales, new notebooks and pencils, and  fresh haircuts around the world, I decided to share some objects from our “Schools” ephemera collection.

Public and private school systems have co-existed in New York City for centuries, and the Museum of the City of New York holds material culture objects from both.

A Good Girl, ca. 1875 – ca. 1890, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 46.302.7

A Good Boy, 1888, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 26.103A

Much of the material in the “Schools” collection consists of report cards, certificates of merit, and the type of material children happily bring home to their parents and the parent happily keeps for ages.  The awards at the right simply state that the student was “Good,” while some of the others get into specifics, such as stating the pupil has been “regular, punctual, and obedient” or has “correct deportment and diligent attention to his studies,” others were awareded for general “faithfulness and proficiency.”

Report Card of Alexander Hatos, 1913, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.32.5.

Report Card of Alexander Hatos, 1913, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.32.5.

While the collection lacks any sort of “Parent-Teacher letters” regarding students’ poor behavior, many of the report cards don’t tell quite the same story of good performance, such as that of Alexander Hatos, to the left.

Graduating Exercises of the De Witt Clinton High School, 1903. In the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 39.196.13

Other materials in the collection relate to specific events, such as the invitation to the Graduating Exercises of De Witt Clinton High School in 1903.  As mentioned in the invitation, the graduation ceremony was held at another school, as this was before the school moved to its new location on Tenth Avenue in 1906.

Eleventh Reunion of the the Ninth Class Association of Old Public School No. 14, 1874, In the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.18.238.

The collection also includes invitations to alumni events and dinners, such as that for the Ninth Class Association for Old Public School No. 14, to the left.

As I looked through the Private School materials, I came across an object I had not encountered with the Public School materials:  a receipt for education expenses.  This 1859 receipt from the Grammar School of Columbia College is for a charge of $10 for a 5-week course in Classics – the equivalent of $275 today.

Grammar School of Columbia College, 1857, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 33.134.6.

Admission card to Mechanics' Institute School, 1846, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.18.239

Admission card to Mechanics’ Institute School, 1846, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.18.239

In contrast, the collection holds an admission card to a seminar at the Tabernacle offered by the Mechanics’ Institute, the oldest privately owned endowed technical school in the country, offering free evening courses in trade-related vocations since 1820.

I also found materials for schools that provided instruction in more specialized pursuits, such as “Miss McCabe’s Academy of Dancing,” “The Dagmar Perkins Institute of Vocal Expression,” and “Disbrow’s W. H. Riding School.”   There are also various “Schools for Boys,” and “Academies for Young Ladies.”

No matter what the fall holds for you students (and teachers) out there, I hope it brings some consolation that New Yorkers for centuries before – and we hope for centuries to come – have faced the first day of school.  You might even be able to find an image of your school on the Collections Portal.