Starting in the second half of the 19th century, and spilling well into the beginning of the 20th, Manhattan was criss-crossed by an extensive network of elevated commuter trains, not unlike the system on which Chicago operates so famously today. These elevated lines predated even the earliest subway tunnels, as they were so much cheaper and easier to build while still offering the convenience and protection afforded by separating train traffic from horse, carriage, and pedestrian traffic below. It was a happy medium of cost and utility.
But the cost of building elevated train systems was still quite expensive. The price was only attractive when laying tracks through the city’s dense, crowded core residential and commercial areas. It made no sense to rail companies to spend so much money on the heavy, noisy freight trains which ran along Manhattan’s impoverished and unattractive riverfronts. So these freight lines were built at ground level, right on the streets, with trains chugging directly through traffic, sometimes literally.
The Hudson River Railroad had negotiated with the city in 1846 to build an at-grade freight line down 10th and 11th Avenues, snaking their way to their rail yard near St. John’s Park (which would be replaced by a rail depot in 1867). Almost immediately, as New York’s immigrant population swelled, the neighborhood built up around the freight tracks. And where people and trains mix, accidents will happen. Regular and numerous horrifying deaths occurred along the tracks, with the New York Times referencing the victims’ bodies as being “shockingly mangled.”
In an attempt to protect pedestrians and prevent collisions, the Hudson River Railroad began employing men on horseback to ride just ahead of the freight trains, waving a red flag to warn people to get out of the way. These men, who would come to be known as the West Side Cowboys, did what they could. But despite their efforts, deaths and manglings persisted. Before long, 10th Avenue became widely known as “Death Avenue.”
4th Avenue north of Grand Central Terminal had been the original Death Avenue, with the moniker being first coined in 1872. The at-grade tracks of the New York Central Railroad killed and mangled just as many, if not more, people in the mid-19th century as the Hudson River Railroad did on the west side.
But the neighborhoods surrounding the original eastern Death Avenue were comprised largely of older, wealthier families living in brownstones and mansions. In short order, they lobbied the railroad to submerge their tracks beneath 4th Avenue, protecting their well-pedigreed bodies from becoming “shockingly mangled.” Eventually, the submerged tracks would be covered over. The trains running below are now the 4/5/6 subway line, and the planters and gardens above would give 4th Avenue its new name: Park Avenue.
The neighborhoods surrounding the Hudson River Railroad’s tracks were far from the wealthy agitators found on the Upper East Side. Instead, these streets were lined with shabby tenements filled with immigrants and their many children. With their lack of political or economic pull, these west side residents were left to cope with the deadly freight traffic for decades, and by 1892, 10th had its reputation solidified as the new Death Avenue.
The dawn of the 20th century, however, saw the residents of the west side begin to reach their limits: the noise, the smoke, the deaths, and the fact that the Railroad Company was so regularly exonerated of guilt in those deaths pushed people into the streets and to their political representatives, demanding that something be done. In a 1908 report filed by the Bureau of Municipal Research stated that, in the freight line’s 56 years, 436 people had been killed by its trains.
The Railroad fought back, arguing not only that their trains brought millions of pounds of food into central Manhattan annually, but also that these deaths were being unfairly inflated, considering the thousands killed elsewhere in the city by streetcars and falling buildings. Finally, in 1929, after decades of bitter arguing, government money was coughed up, and plans were developed to replace Death Avenue with an elevated freight line.
The 1930s were, in many ways, the heyday of the New York City Subway. All over Manhattan, aging elevated train lines were being dismantled in favor of these new subterranean locomotives. In fact, elevated lines on 2nd, 3rd, and 9th Avenues were taken down hastily, with promises from the city to build replacement subways which still have yet to materialize more than seven decades later. So with all this elevated train shunning, efforts were made to minimize the impact this new elevated freight line would have on its surrounding neighborhood.
The tracks were laced mid-block between 10th and 11th Avenues, not only leaving those streets open to the sun, but also allowing trains to roll directly into factories and warehouses for easy loading and unloading. The High Line opened to train traffic in 1934 and in 1941, the last ground-level train rolled down Death Avenue, led by cowboy George Hayden atop his horse Cyclone. Death Avenue was no more.
Time was not on the side of the High Line, however. The years following World War II saw a tremendous spike in car ownership and highway construction, which led to the slow-but-steady abandonment of a large percentage of rail transportation. Trucks were the way of the future, and the High Line found itself antiquated before it even turned 20 years old.
It usefulness dwindling, the High Line was dismantled in sections, starting in the 1960s at its southern terminus near St. John’s Park. The last elevated freight train departed Manhattan’s west side in 1980, carrying 3 car loads of frozen turkeys. After that, the remaining tracks simply sat there, rusting and turning feral. Native grasses, shrubs, and trees sprouted between its ties, and graffiti artists used it as a massive steel canvas. Sections of it continued to be disassembled well into the 1990s until nothing below Gansevoort Street remained.
As New York’s fortunes turned around, its charming west side neighborhoods were among the first areas to feel the effects. Young, monied people poured into the run-down century-old townhouses and warehouses of Chelsea, turning it into the city’s newest hip enclave. As glossy condo towers rose ever more rapidly, eyes began to turn toward the rusty industrial garden snaking through the blocks from the Meatpacking District to Penn Station’s railyard.
Despite some residents’ desire to see the tracks demolished in the name of further redevelopment, a group of High Line neighbors formed in 1999 with the intention of finding an alternate use for the neglected landmark. By 2003, these “Friends of the High Line” had begun gaining support from city leaders, especially after a study revealed that tax revenues from a rejuvenated High Line would outweigh any costs involved in its renovation. A global design contest was held, garnering hundreds of proposals, which were displayed in Grand Central Terminal.
In 2006, rehabilitation of the High Line’s superstructure began: the tracks were numbered and removed (some would ultimately be reinstalled as part of the landscaping), the steel supports were sandblasted and reinforced, the drainage system was modernized, and pigeon deterrents were installed on the tracks’ underside.
By 2008, the crumbling tracks had been replaced by a fresh concrete slab and were ready for extensive landscaping, benches, lighting, and pedestrian access points. Finally, in June 2009, the first phase of the High Line Park opened to the public. Phase 2, from 20th Street to 30th Street, opened two years later, and work was recently begun on the final section, which wraps around Penn Station’s railyards.
Meanwhile, below ground, Death Avenue is finally getting a taste of subway life: the 7 Train is being extended from Times Square to 11th Avenue and down to 34th Street. At long last, trains will again rumble through Manhattan’s far west side. But this time, hopefully, no one will end up “shockingly mangled” as a result.