Building the NYC Subway: Construction Photos from 1901-04

The first subway line to stretch across Manhattan started at City Hall and crawled uptown to Grand Central via what is now the 4/5/6 line. At Grand Central, all trains turned west and followed what is now the Shuttle to Times Square where they then turned north to follow Broadway up to 145th Street. It opened on October 27, 1904, connecting the island’s neighborhoods in a way that no trolley or carriages had previously been able to do. These new underground trains were impervious to weather or auto traffic mishaps. They were multiple times faster than traditional wheeled travel, and they allowed or the rapid development of the city’s more far-flung neighborhoods such as Manhattanville and Harlem. This facilitated the emptying and decongestion of lower Manhattan’s intensely crowded slums.

A map and elevation diagram for the city's original subway line, circa 1904. Its original stretch, from City Hall to 145th Street, opened in 1904, with more stations opening in subsequent years as construction pressed on.

A map and elevation diagram for the city’s original subway line, circa 1904. Its original stretch, from City Hall to 145th Street, opened in 1904, with more stations opening in subsequent years as construction pressed on.

Unlike the high-tech tunnel-boring techniques currently being employed by the MTA to construct the new 2nd Avenue Line on the Upper East Side, the engineers of turn-of-the-century New York constructed the original subway line using a cut-and-cover method: dig a pit in the street, lay tracks, platforms, walls, and a ceiling, then pave back over it. The process was incredibly destructive and disruptive. Wooden planks were laid over the pits so traffic could continue to flow during the construction, which lasted from 1900-04 and beyond. Water, gas, and electric infrastructure beneath the streets needed to be uncovered, raised, and reburied alongside the new subway tunnels, all without disrupting their use. The project was among the largest transit undertakings in America up to that time. And with few exceptions, the entire line remains in use to this day, more than a century later.

Looking north along 4th Avenue during the construction of the subway's 33rd Street Station (today's 6 Train stop). The wall on the right is that of the 71st Regiment Armory, which would burn down in 1902 and be rebuilt in 1904. It was completely razed in the 1970s and replaced by an office tower. On the left, in the distance, is the 1867 Church of the Messiah on 34th Street. It was demolished in 1930.

Looking north along 4th Avenue during the construction of the subway’s 33rd Street Station (today’s 6 Train stop). The wall on the right is that of the 71st Regiment Armory, which would burn down in 1902 and be rebuilt in 1904. It was completely razed in the 1970s and replaced by an office tower. On the left, in the distance, is the 1867 Church of the Messiah on 34th Street. It was demolished in 1930.

Looking east along 42nd Street where he subway line cut between Grand Central and Times Square. At left stands West Presbyterian Church, constructed 1860-65. At the height of the guilded age, it counted many of the city's wealthiest citizens among its congregants, earning it the nickname "The Millionaire's Gateway to Heaven." The church was sold in 1911 and demolished to make way for the 16-story Aeolian Building, which remains there today. Bryant Park is on the right side of this photo.

Looking east along 42nd Street where he subway line cut between Grand Central and Times Square. At left stands West Presbyterian Church, constructed 1860-65. At the height of the guilded age, it counted many of the city’s wealthiest citizens among its congregants, earning it the nickname “The Millionaire’s Gateway to Heaven.” The church was sold in 1911 and demolished to make way for the 16-story Aeolian Building, which remains there today. Bryant Park is on the right side of this photo.

Looking north on Broadway at roughly 58th Street. The 1892 statue of Christopher Columbus can be seen in the distance. Tunneling beneath the 80-foot monument proved particularly challenging. In this photo can be seen the tangle of pipes with which engineers had to contend when digging to build the subway. Perhaps you can better imagine and appreciate how difficult the construction of the 2nd Avenue Subway must be for today's engineers.

Looking north on Broadway at roughly 58th Street. The 1892 statue of Christopher Columbus can be seen in the distance. Tunneling beneath the 80-foot monument proved particularly challenging. In this photo can be seen the tangle of pipes with which engineers had to contend when digging to build the subway. Perhaps you can better imagine and appreciate how difficult the construction of the 2nd Avenue Subway must be for today’s engineers.

Digging beneath the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle.

Digging beneath the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle.

Steel beams being inserted into the pit at 89th Street and Broadway.

Steel beams being inserted into the pit at 89th Street and Broadway.

A cable car designed to remove dirt from the subway pit is pictured here at roughly 116th Street. Columbia University's Low Memorial Library can be seen here int he background. It was then only 6 years old, having been constructed in 1895 along with the rest of Columbia's Morningside Heights campus.

A cable car designed to remove dirt from the subway pit is pictured here at roughly 116th Street. Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library can be seen here int he background. It was then only 6 years old, having been constructed in 1895 along with the rest of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus.

At Manhattan Valley in Harlem, the land drops off dramatically, forcing the subway to temporarily become an elevated train. Here, construction of the Viaduct is shown.

At Manhattan Valley in Harlem, the land drops off dramatically, forcing the subway to temporarily become an elevated train. Here, construction of the Viaduct is shown.

Workers are pictured here standing in the tunnel at 135th Street and Broadway.

Workers are pictured here standing in the tunnel at 135th Street and Broadway.

Subway construction at 142nd Street and Broadway. The area was obviously still quite rural in 1901, but the opening of the new transit system would lead to its rapid development in the coming decades.

Subway construction at 142nd Street and Broadway. The area was obviously still quite rural in 1901, but the opening of the new transit system would lead to its rapid development in the coming decades.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Orchard Street, 1908

Manhattan’s Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century was an incredibly crowded melting pot of cultures, at times reportedly holding the title of most-densely-populated region in the world. This particular scene, shot in 1908 by Lewis Hine, shows Orchard Street roughly from Stanton Street looking north toward Houston Street. Trash fills the gutters, children wander unattended, and display stands of a wide variety of goods and wares crowd the sidewalks beneath a multitude of awnings and advertisements. Several of the buildings pictured have survived the tumultuous century since this was taken, most notably a few of the tenement structures on the east side of Orchard. But most buildings were razed over the ensuing decades, including all of those shown on Houston Street in the distance, which met the wrecking ball in the 1930s┬áto make way for the IND subway lines.

Orchard Street 1908 Lewis Hine NYPL 416563

Photo by Lewis Hine (1874-1940), courtesy of the NY Public Library Digital Archive.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A Garment Worker, ca 1910

I’m fortunate enough to work in New York’s fashion industry. But with my background in history, I’m accutely aware of the important place in the city’s past held by garment manufacturing. By 1910, Manhattan’s Garment District (encompassing roughly the area between 34th and 42nd Streets west of Fifth Avenue) provided 70% of the clothing worn by America’s female population. But as technology improved and overseas labor prices dropped, garment production has increasingly become an outsourced industry. Though many fashion houses continue to maintain their headquarters and affiliated white-collar administrative and executive staffs in New York, the “Garment District” as a functioning industrial area has dramatically declined. Rising foreign labor costs and a growing “Buy American” movement are beginning to breathe new life into the neighborhood, but long gone, perhaps forever, are the days when thousands of men, women, and children labored over sewing machines to clothe the nation. The below photo, captured circa 1910 by Lewis Hine, is a splendid representation of what once was.

Garment Worker ca 1910 NYPL 416559

Photo by Lewis Hine (1874-1940), courtesy of the NY Public Library Digital Archive.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The 1848 High Bridge Over the Harlem River

High Bridge Construction 1862

The water tunnel of the aqueduct being laid across the High Bridge, ca 1862.
Photo from the NYPL Digital Archive.

What is now known as New York City had a water problem in the 19th century. Its burgeoning population required copious amounts of it for industry, cleaning, drinking, and bathing. But that same population was rapidly polluting the freshwater rivers which ran through the city and its harbor was an undrinkable mix of fresh and ocean saltwater. So it was that, between 1837 and 1841, New York assembled some of the nation’s foremost engineering minds to construct the Croton Aqueduct to carry clean, fresh water 41 miles south from the Croton River in Westchester County. The last geographic hurdle over which they had to leap was the question of crossing the Harlem River to get the aqueduct directly onto Manhattan Island. Tunneling technology at the time was dangerously unrefined, leading to the decision to construct a bridge – a “high” bridge – across a narrow portion of the Harlem River between Manhattan and The Bronx that would be tall enough to allow boat traffic to flow unimpeded.

High Bridge 1872 NYPL

The High Bridge with its reservoir and water tower in Washington Heights. Pedestrians can be seen strolling the path along the bridge’s top.
Photo from the NYPL Digital Archive.

Spanning more than 2,000 feet and standing more than 100 feet above the river’s surface, the bridge was completed in 1848. At its Manhattan end, a reservoir was constructed to supply fresh water to the then-small population of upper Manhattan, which consisted mainly of stately country homes and ramshackle farming villages. In 1872, a rather ornate water tower was constructed next to the reservoir to provide the pressure necessary to pump water from the reservoir throughout Washington Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods.

High Bridge 68102 NYPL

A postcard depicting the High Bridge and its water tower circa 1900. View is to the west from the Bronx toward Manhattan.
Photo from the NYPL Digital Archive.

This postcard, printed by the Detroit Printing Company some time just after 1900, shows the High Bridge at about 60 years old, still with its original design intact. The 1872 water tower stands proudly on the Manhattan side of the span. In 1928, citing navigational difficulties along the Harlem River, the central portion of the bridge was demolished and replaced by a single steel arch. By 1934, the reservoir and water tower had fallen into antiquation and disuse, and they were absorbed by the Parks Department. The reservoir was renovated and converted into a public swimming pool, and the surrounding open land became Highbridge Park.

High Bridge, Washington Heights

An excellent overheard view from the High Bridge as it looked in 2009. Abandoned for decades, rust and graffiti had corrupted its steel central span, and weeds grew freely among the cobblestones on its top.
Photo by Barry Yanowitz, hosted on his Flickr page. Link in photo.

But by the 1970s and 80s, the park and its surrounding neighborhood had fallen onto hard times. The High Bridge, once a serene promenade for Uptown’s refined society, had become a dangerous breeding ground for crime. In 1984, arsonists set the wooden cupola of the water tower ablaze, causing it to collapse in on itself. It wasn’t repaired until a fundraising drive was successfully completed in 1990. But the bridge continued to sit, virtually untouched, with huge steel doors and barbed wire deterring anyone from crossing its dramatic span. Luckily, fortunes are beginning to turn around for Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and their shared bridge. At long last, scaffolding surrounds the central span as it is rehabilitated to once again welcome pedestrian and bicycle traffic. 165 years after its completion, the High Bridge remains a proud and impressive landmark.

High Bridge Rendering

An architectural rendering of what the High Bridge will look like upon its reopening.
Photo courtesy the NYC Parks Dept via an article by Tatum Taylor in The Architects Newspaper. Link in photo.

Posted in Places | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Pawn Shop and a Fat Men’s Store in 1937

This photo was taken on February 4, 1937 by widely-admired photographer Berenice Abbott. She spent much of the 1930s documenting the rapidly-changing face of New York City. Ordinarily a photo of a seemingly generic storefront wouldn’t have caught my eye. But I absolutely love the fact that the “Stuyvesant Curiosity Shop” at 48 Third Avenue has its selection of “shotguns and rifles” on proud display outside on the sidewalk.

And my other favorite little days-gone-by detail? “Sig Klein Fat Men’s Shop” – so much for political correctness. Some light digging reveals Klein’s to be somewhat of a legend among plus-sized clothing stores, with its portly mascot in a form-fitting bodysuit and the slogan “If everyone was fat, there would be no war.” Klein’s opened in the 1880s when this area of the East Village was filled with German men who, through their love of beer, were growing larger and larger. It managed to stay in business at least until the late 1960s, and today it is little more than a memory. A comical memory at that.

Pawn Shop 1936 Berenice Abbott NYPL

Further details on the history of Klein’s Fat Men’s Shop can be found at the wonderful blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. (He also has a great piece discussing the Stuyvesant Curiosity Shop.)

Photo credit goes to Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) whose photo collection is available in the NY Public Library’s Digital Archive. Photo ID 482686.

Posted in Before & After, Now & Then, Places | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment