Thursday, January 25, 2007
Was It Always So Difficult Commuting Crosstown?
Recently at a dinner I attended in Manhattan, one of the most common complaints in the city was pronounced. "It was so difficult travelling all the way across town. There is no direct subway line." So I started to wonder if it was always such a tiresome journey from the West side to the East side and vice-versa.
When I returned home, I pulled out my 1897 Merchants' Association street map of New York City (the last year that Brooklyn and Queens were omitted, by the way!). Subways didn't yet exist, but there were cable cars on Broadway (see first post), surface railroads, elevated railroads, and steam railroads criss-crossing the streets like Christmas lights. The area below 14th Street was completely covered by railroads running in every which direction! At least half the streets had some sort of rail line connecting it in a sort of wiry mesh covering the distance down to the Battery. In fact, a special elevated railroad ran from the Battery along the Bowery, and all the way up to 14th Street via Fourth Avenue (now Park Ave.). Above 14th Street, one of each of the above-mentioned railroads ran South to North along every Avenue except Fifth! One could travel crosstown by surface railroad at 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd Streets and Central Park South. Or, one could take a steam train crosstown at 14th, 26th and 40th Streets, if one had easy access to a bath! There was even a steam train running across 86th Street, from slip to slip, omitting Central Park. The park itself had a surface railroad traversing it at 86th Street, connecting other surface railroads running on Madison Avenue on the East side to Central Park West, then called Eighth Avenue. Granted, there are now buses covering most of this area, but we all know that traffic can be horrific, and that the only way to beat the congestion is to take a train. So the answer is a resounding "It used to be so much better crossing town a century ago!" Eat your hearts out, modern city-dwellers!
Photo: Looking north on the Bowery from Canal to Grand Streets. Note the elevated railroad and Third Avenue cable cars. From King's New York Views, presented by Tefft, Weller & Co., 1897.