The High Line is certainly the most popular attraction in west Chelsea today, attracting 5 million visitors annually. Most local residents know that the High Line itself was originally a freight railroad. But its history goes back well before the elevated structure was even constructed. Where tourists now walk, cowboys once rode on horseback.
In the 1840s, the Hudson River Railroad, the ancestor of today’s MetroNorth Hudson Line, built a street-level railroad with tracks on 10th and 11th avenues. After the line was merged into the New York Central in 1869, most passenger trains were re-routed into Grand Central. A local train known as the “Dolly Varden” provided passenger service to the West Side until around 1930, but in the main, the route became a freight line.
But even in horse-and-carriage days, operating a street-level railroad was dangerous. In 1852, a law was passed stating that a mounted “cowboy” had to ride in front of the trains to alert pedestrians and vehicles. That still wasn’t enough. According to the rail fan website www.kinglyheirs.com, in 1908, the city’s Bureau of Municipal Research reported that since 1852, the trains had killed 436 people. Both 10th and 11th avenues became known as “Death Avenue.”
Protests were mounted, plans were made, but it wasn’t until 1929 that the city agreed to build the High Line to replace the street-level freight tracks below 34th Street (the northern portion of the former freight line is now used by Amtrak trains heading to Albany and Buffalo). A brochure from 1934, celebrating the New York Central’s opening of the High Line, describes the original terminal on Spring Street, which had eight tracks and 14 elevators, and gives the names of the freight customers (such as Nabisco, whose building is now the Chelsea Market).
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the High Line was the fact that it went right through many of the buildings that it served, off-loading goods inside these openings. One of these openings can still be seen at the former Bell Laboratories building between Bank and Bethune streets, now the Westbeth residential complex. Some street-level rail traffic persisted for years, possibly to serve customers that the High Line couldn’t access. The last street train ran in 1941, according to the New York Times, and that trip’s “cowboy,” George Hayden, wore a 10-gallon hat to celebrate.
The High Line prospered for many years, serving the Meatpacking and Printing districts. But beginning in the 1950s, truck traffic began to eat into its volume. The freight terminal and the line south of Bank Street in Greenwich Village were abandoned in the 1960s. When the line was taken over by Conrail, which was created by the government to run bankrupt freight lines, the writing was on the wall. The last train, which carried three cars of frozen turkeys, ran in 1982.
In 1984, rail fan Peter Obltetz, described by the Times as an “eccentric neighborhood visionary,” bought the line for $10, but after owners of businesses underneath the structure, who favored demolition, mobilized against him, the federal government reversed the sale. In 1991, the Times reported, another section of the line, between Bank and Gansevoort streets, was sold for real estate development. Meanwhile, the line continued to deteriorate, attracting vandals, prostitutes and arsonists.
In 1999, two Chelsea residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, had the idea of making the unused structure into an elevated park and formed Friends of the High Line. Around 2001, this writer attended a debate at a local political club between the Friends, who displayed their plans for the park, and the Chelsea Property Owners Group, who complained of debris falling from the line and a lack of drainage that meant that “when it rained, it poured.”
Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, like the property owners, wanted the line demolished, but the Friends had the advantage of celebrity. A 2004 fundraiser covered by the Times was headlined by Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Edward Albee, among others. In 2005, the Bloomberg administration assumed control of the former rail line, and ground was broken in 2006. The High Line Park opened in sections, in 2009, 2011 and 2014.
Today, on the High Line, visitors can experience t’ai chi, walking tours, meditation, comedy, music, gardening and even boxing. But there’s two things they won’t see. The first is a freight locomotive—and the second is a cowboy.