The Ninth Avenue El Stretched from South Ferry to Southwest Bronx
BY RAANAN GEBERER
Ninth Avenue in Chelsea is a pleasant street, with restaurants, bakeries, several important housing developments, a supermarket, the Church of the Holy Apostles, two diners directly across from each other. Further up the avenue, north of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the avenue is filled with young people going to bars and restaurants.
Now, picture the same avenue with a noisy elevated train line overhead. Hard to do? That was the reality of Ninth Avenue for seven decades, when the Ninth Avenue El was as much a part of people’s day-to-day reality as Penn South, Gristedes and the Rail Line Diner are today.
In the mid-19th century, horse-drawn street traffic in Manhattan was becoming unbearable. Charles T. Harvey, in 1866, formed a “West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company” and in 1868 finished construction on an overhead line from Dey Street to 29th Street along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue. The line was powered by a cable-car mechanism.
According to “The New York Elevated” by Robert C. Reed (A.S Barnes & Co., 1978), Harvey planned to connect his el to the Hudson River Railroad’s (the ancestor of today’s MetroNorth Hudson Line) old terminal at West 30th Street. But malfunctions of the cable mechanism and lawsuits doomed the scheme. In 1870, the el was bought by new investors, who soon replaced the cable mechanism with steam engines pulling wooden cars.
By 1880, the el stretched from South Ferry to 155th Street. Other els sprung up along Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. Indeed, the Sixth Avenue line eventually swung west on 53rd Street and linked up with the Ninth Avenue El. By 1903, all four Manhattan els were absorbed into the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which was then building the city’s first subway. In 1918, the Ninth Avenue line was extended into the southwest Bronx, where it joined with the IRT’s Lexington-Jerome Avenue line at 167th Street.
From the very beginning, the els were highly criticized, especially by newspapers. Critics said they blocked sunlight from the street, created noise, frightened horses and made buildings shake. Cinders from their steam engines, they said, fell on pedestrians and blackened the façade of nearby buildings. When the steam engines were replaced by electric power after the turn of the century, things improved — a little.
The worst disaster in the history of the Manhattan els involved the 9th Avenue line on Sept. 11, 1905. According to Wikipedia, a downtown Ninth Avenue train mistakenly switched onto the curve for the Sixth Avenue line. The train was going 30 mph, nearly 20 mph faster than recommended for that portion of the track. The motorman realized his error and slammed on the brakes, throwing the second car down to the street. The third car came to rest against the front of a nearby apartment building, and some of the passengers were able to escape through the windows. Thirteen people were killed, with 48 seriously injured.
What was it like to ride on the Ninth Avenue El? The “classic” el cars were 19th century century wooden “gate cars.” They had open platforms at both ends, protected by gates. At each station, a conductor had to open and close the gates for the passengers. In the early 1920s, some of these cars were retrofitted with enclosed vestibules and sliding doors. The stations were built in Victorian, “gingerbread” style. And in the winter, they were heated by pot-bellied stoves.
For years, civic reformers had sought the removal of the Manhattan els – both to give nearby residents a break and to raise property values along the avenues, according to the “Encyclopedia of New York City.” When the city’s own Eighth Avenue subway opened a block away from the Ninth Avenue El in 1932, the writing was on the wall. The City of New York purchased the IRT in June 1940 and ended service on the el. A small section from 155th Street to the Bronx was preserved as the ‘Polo Grounds Shuttle,” but that, too, was discontinued after the baseball Giants left the Polo Grounds for San Francisco.
A masterful depiction of the Ninth Avenue El can be found in Henry Roth’s novel “A Diving Rock on the Hudson” (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), based on his experiences as a high school student and college freshman in the ‘20s. Taking the el uptown to his friend’s house near Yankee Stadium, Roth and his friend daringly stood on the outside platform at the rear of the last car, which was “windier than windy.” The two chums had “their fedoras jammed down on their heads, topcoats buttoned up to the collar” as they strained to talk to each other above the howling wind and as the train clattered up the West Side. Rest in peace, Ninth Avenue El.