Sunday, November 21, 2010

Riding the El - 3 - Sixth Avenue

Last time around.

91-7 (detail). West Broadway, looking north from Bleecker St, 1939.

The Sixth Avenue El closed on December 4, 1938. The timing was odd. The replacement Sixth Avenue Subway was not ready to open for another two years. What was the rush? But Mayor La Guardia (in office 1934-1945) had been pushing for the elimination of the els, and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company had been waiting since 1922 for an opportunity to drop the biggest money-loser route in the system— the Sixth Avenue El. So the Authorities were prepared to leave Sixth Avenue with no rapid transit for two years.

(Urban legend is that the scrap metal was sold to Japan and came back as bullets. Japanese industry really was an important market for American scrap metal in the 1930s. But the el was built in 1876-1878, and like other bridges of its day, it was made of iron, not steel. Nobody makes iron bullets. I'll admit the rails were steel, but there was a domestic market for rails, and the IRT may have even kept them for reuse. I just don't know.)

Let's take a walk around downtown.

82-3. Cortlandt St looking east to Trinity Place.

On the left is Hudson Terminal, with the marquee entrance to the "Hudson Tunnels", that is the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, now known as PATH. This whole location is now within the World Trade Center site. Ahead is the el with a "SIXTH AVE LINE" sign.

82-5. Church St looking north from Barclay St.

A block ahead is the Park Place station, and a block beyond that is the Murray St curve where the el ran one block west to West Broadway.

The el ended up way over on one side because Church St was originally much narrower. The buildings along the left side were demolished around 1928 to provide enough width to build the Independent Subway. The el was not relocated since the subway was going to replace it.

86-5. Closed entrance.

I will be amazed if someone tells me where this is. This is a typical Sixth Ave stairway like those at many stations. But I can tell you that the play The American Way starring Frederic March ran from January to June 1939.

86-6. El column.

Just one column.

I will not be amazed if someone tells me where this is. I mean, just look at that huge building. But I've spent about an hour looking at new and old photos of Manhattan and I have not able to identify it. I feel so dumb.

Nice bus.

88-8. Eighth Ave looking north from 52nd St.

"Let's serve Piels" says the happy woman on the phone. That brings back childhood memories. No, not being served the Piels Brothers' best! I mean the radio spots and the animated television commercials with Bert and Harry Piels, voiced by Bob and Ray, telling us about their beer. You don't see cartoons promoting alcohol any more.

90-1. Trinity Place.

This type of structure with three tracks was found only in Trinity Place between Cortlandt St and Morris St, so I figure that's where this is.

Demolition of the el was done in sections, presenting, temporarily, scenes like this where intact structure meets open air.

The cables over the sidewalk on the right connect to an electrical substation that fed 600 volts DC power to the el from 1902 to the end. (Before that, the el was operated with small steam locomotives.)

90-2. Sixth Avenue.

You can see how different the Sixth Ave side truss structure was. The columns supported the trusses that ran the length of the structure, and they in turn supported cross beams.

A few businesses still used horse-drawn wagons in 1939.

90-7. Sixth Ave looking north at 34th St.

Minus the el, this is still a familiar scene today to many New Yorkers. Macy's is at the left edge of the image.

The temporary structure in the center of the image was part of the construction works for the Sixth Ave Subway, which had been complicated by the need to support the el while building directly under it.

91-4. Possibly West Broadway looking toward Grand St.

The structure on both sides of this station is already gone.

I'm not sure of the location. It's two tracks and not on Sixth Ave. Only Grand St and Chambers St fit the bill, and Chambers St was not a simple four-points like this seems to be.


Interborough Rapid Transit adopted the slogan "Ride on the Open Air Elevated" in 1923 to improve declining ridership on the elevated lines. It helped only temporarily.

91-6. West Broadway looking north at Bleecker St.

All that's left are some cut columns. See also the detail of 91-7 at the top of this page.

There are so many wonderful things on view. I love the elaborate support for that little streetlight, and the cut-out "one-way" arrow. And, "Read The Sun".

This part of West Broadway is now called La Guardia Place, and all the buildings on the right were removed years ago to make way for modern apartment towers called Washington Square Village. But the corner building on the left with the Trio Lunch Bar is still there.

91-8. West Broadway looking south at Bleecker St.

This is the same corner, looking the other way. Down the block there are a few cross beams over the street. The news vendor (formerly) under the stairs has not yet given up.

93-1. Sixth Ave looking north at 32nd St.

I would have thought the way to do this is to remove the station houses and platforms first, and then the main structure, but at least in this one case, they did the opposite. It's the downtown side of the 33rd St station.  Gimbel's is on the left.

That's the end of the Sixth Ave El, and the last of the '116' size film negatives I was given.

But there are still a whole pile of '120' negatives.


  1. Image 86-5, Closed entrance, at the 50th St Station, SW corner, See ""
    Image 86-6, El column, on West Broadway at White St. That is the NY Telephone Blgd in the backgroun, bounded by 6th, Lispenard, Walker and Church. See"".

    1. The building on the El Column picture is not the NY Telephone Blg but the Warwick Hotel...
      Joe, I sent you an email about that, did you get it ?
      Marie Fotini.

  2. I figured you would get 86-6, but you even got 86-5! The awful thing about this is that I did spend some time looking at Mellow One's photo collection, and I still failed.

    If you like these images you should look at his photos too. One place to start:

  3. "" confirms that image 91-4 is the Grand St station on West Broadway.

  4. Photo 140-1 shows a 2 car set of composite cars on the stub track, just north of the 155 Street station. This photo must have been taken after the PM rush hour on Monday, June 10th, 1940. There was still service on the 9th Ave el, but it was the last day. No composites ever ran on the west side els, except on the date above. Two 3 car sets of composites were brought up from the 2nd Ave el for Polo Grounds shuttle service. The el car, which I do not believe is hooked up to the 2 car set, maybe gate car 122, as seen in photo 136-6. Whatever the case may be, all of these photos are AWSOME!!! Thank you!!!

  5. Photo 91-7. Your commentary said the 6th Ave el was the biggest money loser. I thought that the ridership was heaviest on the 3rd Ave el, with the 6th Ave behind it, in second place. The 2nd Ave el, north of 60th Street, was closed midnights and the 9th Ave el, had the lowest ridership- especially after the 8th Ave subway opened in 1932.

  6. Sam G in Portland Ore.May 31, 2011 at 12:21 AM

    The worst performer on the Manhattan Railway El system was the 9th Ave. El. The 6th Ave el was a target by Mayor LaGuardia because he wanted to promote a "modern" image of NYC during the 1939 World's Fair. The 6th Ave El would have been demolished long before 1938/9 if it weren't for the squabbles about who would pay for the demolition.

  7. I agree, I was wrong about the Sixth Ave El's ridership. It did have structural problems that that would have been prohibitively expensive to correct. But La Guardia's anti-rail policy was the primary reason it was closed when it was.

  8. Every time I look at this Feb 18, 1939

    demolition photo of the 6th Ave El
    structure at Church St where it curved onto Murray St, it appears that the structure was just ripped out by the big hand of King Kong. The Park Place station is visible in the back of the gasoline bus, which replaced the fine efficient elevated electric railway above it.

  9. I'm curious as to why the Sixth Ave El, at least in the midtown section of it, had a completely different type of truss structure from the other els. Could it have possibly had something to do with that type of structure being "quieter" than the usual type? One wonders......... I also read elsewhere that the Sixth Ave El suffered from metal fatigue, and that the Second and Ninth Ave Els had lower riderships, due to their locations on the far east & west sides, respectively.