Sunday, December 5, 2010

Riding the El - 4 - 155th St


I said back in Riding the El part 1 that I had been sent a packet of negatives in two sizes. The three parts documenting the Sixth Avenue El in 1938 and 1939 completed the '117' size film. The photographer— I assume it is the same photographer— then acquired a better camera that used '120' film, and he set off to document other Manhattan elevated railways that were scheduled to close in 1940.

The first subject he covered, very thoroughly, is the 155th St station of the Ninth Avenue El. The Sixth and Ninth Avenue Els had a joint line from 53rd St up Columbus Ave, 110th St, and Eighth Ave to the Harlem River. The Sixth Avenue El closed in December 1938 ; the Ninth Avenue El in June 1940. Sometime in that year and a half our photographer went up to 155th St.

He might not have realized that a stub el service, from 155th St to the Bronx, would continue to run past 1940. The 155th St station was not closed until 1958.

130-8. Looking north (east) from 155th St station toward Putnam Bridge.

Putnam Bridge was opened in 1881 for mainline railroad service. The New York and Northern Rail-road, later the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad, originally ran from 155th St elevated station to Brewster NY, using separate tracks added to the east side of the elevated structure. In 1918, elevated railroad service was extended over the bridge, and the Putnam Division began using a new terminal at Sedgwick Ave on the Bronx side of the bridge.

The tracks continuing straight, to the left edge of the image, go to a large storage yard.

130-8 detail. Putnam Bridge.

Although it's a little washed out in the sunlight, this is a great view of the bridge. In the right-hand distance is the Sedgwick Ave elevated station, beyond which the el runs into a short tunnel. The mainline terminal is obscured by the bridge. Notice that there was a public footpath on the bridge. This was a swing bridge that could rotate 90 degrees to allow tall ships to pass— a feature required on navigable waterways but not much used on the Harlem River.

The large building in the center is the H W Wilson Company, publishers of library reference books.

130-8 detail. Stairway.

By overexposing the image I was able to lighten up the shadows in the stairway on the right-hand side. They're all the same: Sunshine Krispy Crackers, 1st in Flavor.

131-1. Looking south at 155th St station.

The structure running left to right and over the el is the 155th St Viaduct, opened in 1893, connecting Macombs Dam Bridge to the heights west of Eighth Ave. Pedestrians on the viaduct could walk down to the elevated station.

The big ad under the platform was for Watkins's "Mulsified" Coconut Oil Shampoo, a much advertised product for many years.

131-1 detail. Uptown platform.

I like the pipe-railing construction holding the weatherbeaten enamelled metal sign for 155th St, and the evenly spaced reverse-threaded lightbulbs along the roof edge.

131-1 detail. Downtown platform.

I didn't notice at first that the advertising woman with a HEADACHE had the outline of a circular saw around her head. Yow!

The train on the right, pulled partly past the platform and with its end door open, is not in service. The open door and the white-shirted man down the platform make it seem like it was a warm day, but other photos show people with jackets.

One track in the distance seems to go up a grade worthy of a roller-coaster. More on that in a moment.

131-2. 155th St station looking north from the 155th St Viaduct.

We're looking down from the viaduct, and we can see the whole station and Putnam Bridge. On the left is the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants baseball and football teams at this time.

131-2 detail. Subway entrance.

You could almost miss the simple stairway down to the INDEPENDENT SYSTEM subway, for the station called 155th St / Eighth Ave. There must have been quite a crowd squeezing into that stairway after a game.

I can see a pitcher, left, and a squatting catcher, near the subway entrance, but otherwise I am not sure what the people in the empty lot are doing. Maybe they have arrived early for a game and they're waiting outside.

131-2 detail. Putnam Bridge.

On the far side of the bridge you can see New York Central Railroad cars at the Sedgwick Ave terminal. One reason the el was kept open north of 155th St was that it was the only transit connection for passengers arriving on the Putnam Division. Imagine, from June 1940 on, they would change to the el for one stop, change at 155th St with a stair climb and few steps outdoors to subway local trains, and change once more at 145th St or 125th St to subway express trains. It's amazing passenger service on the "old Put" hung on till 1958.

131-3. 155th St station looking east from the 155th St Viaduct.

What a crazy mess of stairways! The people at the upper right are on a side wing of the viaduct, which is otherwise just out of frame on the right. They could go down to the upper mezzanine of the elevated station, and from there they could go into the station or continue down to the street.

The elevated railway staff quarters has striped awnings and an amazingly tall exhaust pipe.

The bridge at the upper right corner is Macombs Dam Bridge, 1895, a road bridge that is still there. The empty lot at the bottom is the same one seen in 131-2.

131-3 detail. Eighth Avenue Coach bus.

I bet some of my readers want a good look at that bus. The Eighth Ave bus is still the number 10 (or M-10). It replaced the Eighth Ave streetcar line in 1936.

131-3 detail. Viaduct entrance to the 155th St station.

Three well-dressed people pass the time of day as if they were on solid ground. There's a traffic sign to the right, because cars could drive onto this little side extension of the viaduct.

All of these stairs and platforms are gone now. The viaduct is just a straight shot for motor traffic, and there are no access stairs at all between the viaduct and Eighth Ave.

132-3. Eighth Ave looking north to 155th St.

This shows the other side wing of the viaduct, on the south side. The tower controls the tracks on the south side of the station. The towerman doesn't look too busy.

132-3 detail. Eighth Ave at 154th St, looking north.

Street life circa 1940, and some old brand names.

131-4. Eighth Ave, looking south from the 155th St Viaduct.

This is the opposite of the previous view. That's the same control tower.

So there's that ramp. It lines up with the center one-way express track in the distance. The track that goes under connects the uptown local track with the additional fourth track in the foreground. They went to some expense (company money too) to make sure those two paths did not cross on the level. I don't get it.

131-4 detail. Eighth Ave, looking south from the 155th St Viaduct.

You could get a good look at the ramp from the 151st St local station. Just wait.

It's a little hard to see, but the center track ramps up again at the next station, 145th St, an express stop where the center track has its own upper-level platforms. A good view of that kind of station will be coming up in a future installment.

131-4 detail. Eighth Ave at 154th St, looking south.

Some street life, and a very nice example of a bishop's crook streetlamp. Everyone is wearing nice clothes. Maybe it was Sunday. Mr Cool with the light-colored suit is leaning on a newspaper rack near the little girl. I think he has some white on his shoes and his hat.

The downtown train has BURNSIDE AVE in its passenger-side front window, indicating that it is returning from a trip to the Bronx that ended on the center track of the Burnside Ave (Jerome Ave) station.

139-8. Eight Ave at 152nd St, looking north.

We're on the uptown platform of 151st St station looking back uptown. Trains ending their run at 155th St switched left and ran to the west side island platform, and the equipment then either ran back downtown or was taken into the yard. Trains continuing to the Bronx switched right, ran to the east side island platform at 155th St, and continued over Putnam Bridge.

139-8 detail.

Right behind the signal is a train to the Bronx. Above it is the 155th St viaduct.

139-8 detail.

More nicely dressed people enjoying a walk. This is from a different roll of film than the other pictures we're looking at, so I don't know whether it is the same day.

131-6. Looking south (west) from Putnam Bridge.

The Polo Grounds did not have a big sign anywhere that said POLO GROUNDS, which is just as well since polo was never played here. The big sign they had said N Y GIANTS.

There's a subway-style interlocking signal with two colored-light heads, and beyond is a semaphore signal. It was a little confused. Two oil lamps hang on a pole. Judging by the point of view there may have been a public footpath on both sides of the bridge.

Car 122 was still a gate car, a car with open platforms and gates at the ends. The trains in the station were among the many that had been modified with closed ends and automatic doors.

The control box is supported on Phoenix columns, a patented design for a cylinder made from four curved pieces of iron bolted together. Putnam Bridge was built by the Phoenix Iron company, so the box is probably an original 1881 structure that controlled the mainline terminal track at 155th St.

131-5. Looking west from Putnam Bridge.

The point of view is a little farther out on the bridge, maybe even over the water. At left is the uptown end of the Polo Grounds, and there's a glimpse of Coogan's Bluff, the cliff wall of Washington Heights.

The size of the elevated railway storage yard is matched by that of the two switch towers that control access to the dozens of storage tracks. Beyond the trains is a large shop building where trains were kept in repair. The multiple slanted roof sections were intended to bring daylight into the work areas. The slants all face south.

I don't know the purpose of the horizontal structure on the right that runs out to the edge of the water.

131-5 detail. Under the el.

There's always something funny going on in isolated areas under elevated railways. I wonder what's in some of those trunks, know what I mean? The man on the right with a white hat is doing some car repair right on the public street. The engine is under two hood flaps that open from each side. Does he know about the kids watching, behind him?

But wait a second... holy cow... what is the deal with that support column? It's indescribable. The columns in the street are Phoenix cylinders, and the ones at the far curb are boringly ordinary square-section beams, but this thing... uh. Let me get a grip. The lower part might be an early 1870s column from Greenwich St with a spreading top. But then what? Did they mount another one upside down on top of it? I think we were not meant to notice this. Maybe they had to do an emergency repair one day and this was all the good iron they had handy. I am speechless. I must stop here.

More next time.


  1. That is an interesting find, a couple of the original cable railway pillars used as a yard structure pillar.
    See "" for a view and description of the fly-over at 152nd St.
    That long structure is part of the former water and coal station from the Steam Era. A similar structure existed at Rector St.
    See "".

  2. Excellent. Thank you for sharing these gems.

  3. I love these pictures!

  4. Wow - great images.

  5. Amazing photographs and excellent commentary. I happened upon your blog in the course of doing a google search for information on the Putnam Bridge of the New York Central. I am presently putting together a movie about the Put which will incorporate archival footage of trains running on the Put, as well as footage shot of the current rails-to-trails which exists today.

    I'll be sure to send you a message and link once it's online.

  6. my father grew up on 155th and eigth in the 30s. I have some interesting pics from that era.