Sunday, January 2, 2011

Riding the El - 6 - Upper West Side


It's TWENTY ELEVEN !  But still no jet backpacks or vacations on the moon. Also: no worldwide evil empire trying to crush the spirit of the human race.


I can now date these '120' format photographs much more closely. In a comment to the last group 'Martha' pointed out that the lights shown at the Polo Grounds were installed in 1940, and from other evidence including one detail seen below, I'll narrow it down to May.

The group I've got for this time are from a few locations just south of 155th St, on the Upper West Side El. This section of elevated railway from 53rd St to 155th St was built in 1877-1879 jointly by the two elevated railway companies, because both of them had somehow been awarded franchises for (partially) the same route. In its early decades most of the train service was from the Sixth Avenue El, but from the 1920s the Ninth Avenue El became the main service. Running south from 155th St, the structure ran over Eighth Ave, 110th St, and Columbus Ave.

131-7. Eighth Ave looking south at 136th St.

What atmosphere. Probably the point here was to document the buildings on the el and 135th St station in the distance, but our photographer captured the street very well too. I can almost imagine walking into this scene.

131-7 detail. Structures on the el.

First let's honor the photographer's intent and look at the buildings. I missed this at first glance because of the way they happen to line up, but we've got two buildings here, a one-story shed in front of a two-story tower. The Manhattan Railway's nineteenth-century carpenters took care even for utilitarian structures like these.

131-7 detail. One of the boys has turned to see who's taking a picture.

The first sign up on the lamppost says: THE LAW / KEEP YOUR / SIDEWALK / CLEAN / NEVER SWEEP / REFUSE / INTO STREET. Whew. And look how clean the sidewalks were. The next sign up notes: 8TH AVE SUBY STA / 1 BLOCK W, with an arrow pointing to the right. Then there's a fantastic cut-out one-way arrow sign, and then a pair of street name signs with the name of the intersecting street large and the other street in a small oval above it— totally unnecessary since you could just look at the other sign of the pair, but still somehow a polite touch.

Most of the el columns are four-part tubular Phoenix iron columns.

131-7 detail. The other side of the street.

On the far left is a poster for the Apollo, where you could enjoy the Erskine Hawkins Big Band on Friday, May 31. That's 1940. "Tuxedo Junction" would have been on the set list.

I mentioned before that it looks like Sunday, the way people are dressed.

132-2. Eighth Ave looking north from 135th St station.

That's the same tower and shed as in 131-7. We are at the north end of the uptown platform, watching a downtown train come in from 140th St station. Stations were closer together on the el than on the subways.

132-4. 130th St station.

The vintage ads! I'm sure passengers had seen the under-platform ads for Old Drum Whisky and Mulsified Shampoo so many times that they just wanted them to go away, but I haven't, and neither have you.

On the right-hand side, to the left of the 130TH ST sign and the round-headed pay scale, there is a two-panel Interborough Rapid Transit system map, oriented as usual with west on top. I want one.

Dead center in the lowest image above is a fantastic piece of poster art. The woman with the big hat. Something AS A BREEZE, I think it says. She doesn't seem to be wincing in pain or chewing gum, so I don't know what the ad is for. I really like the way she looks. She can look at the map with me, if she brings the hat.

The station originally had separate exit gates that bypassed the station house, the ones seen here blocked by benches and with 'THAT WAY OUT' signs. Probably they were used before turnstiles were installed, when station staff collected tickets from incoming passengers at the doors and maintained order.

The next photos are all at 125th St station. This station had an odd configuration. I should explain that third tracks for express service were fitted onto the existing el structures in 1915-1916, so a simple arrangement with a cross section of track, platform, track, platform, track was often not possible. At 125th St and 116th St the original stations from 1879 had an island platform between the original two tracks. At both stations the track level of the structure was widened just enough for one more track, and two island platforms were installed north and south of the original one. Both platforms had a face along the center track. This will get clearer once you look at the photographs.

132-5. Looking south toward 125th St station from the front of a train.

In the distance, you can see the tracks spread. The left-side island platform comes first.

132-6. 125th St station.

Now we're almost past the left-side island platform, and the center track swings to the left, and we'll come in and stop at the right-side island platform.

The stairs from both platforms go down toward each other to the mezzanine under the tracks.

83-1. 125th St station, looking north.

This is an extra shot from a damaged '117' negative that I held back so you could see it in context. This is looking the opposite direction from 132-5 and 132-6, as seen in 1938.

Guess what? We can take a look into that little building. It's not literally a tower, but that's what they call a place that controls switches and signals.

131-8 and 132-1. Tower at 125th St station.

The model board at the top will clarify the odd station layout. It shows 125th St and 130th St stations, including, on the right, the approach switches we saw in 132-5.

The control panel for switches and signals is a smaller version of the one we saw at 155th St (140-2).

That's it for this time. Next, we'll go much farther south on the Ninth Ave El.


  1. Great Photos- keep it up-

    as for "Also: no worldwide evil empire trying to crush the spirit of the human race."- unless you count Dick Chaney and the Bush administration.

  2. I have an image of the tower at 136th St also. However, I was not sure where it was because there is no reason for a switch tower to be where it was because there were no x-overs at that location. I checked the Electric Railway Assn map, and sure enough, a refuel and water facility was here in the Steam Era before the 158th yard facility replaced it and the 145th St Yard. Image 132-2 also shows a remnant of the refuel bridge, the right tower. see the track maps at "".

  3. Did we ever discuss that thing that looks like a dwarf signal at the 130th St Station?

  4. Note on 132-5: assuming the els used the same signalling system as the old IRT with the lights stacked green-red-yellow, the signal is showing red over green with the switch set for straight running. This implies two things: first, that the main route was the diverging track, and second, that the photographer was using panchromatic film, which was uncommon in the '30s. The standard "amateur" film of the day was Kodak Verichrome, which (unlike the later Verichrome-Pan) was an orthochromatic film, insensitive to red light. This meant that it could be developed in a home darkroom under a ruby safelight, unlike the more expensive panchromatic film which had to be done in total darkness, but on such a film the red signal would appear dark.

    (Also, you mention "117" film; I think you meant 116. 117 is square, 2¼" by 2¼". It was used in very few cameras, mainly #1 Brownies and the earliest Rolleiflexes. 120 film was originally marked only for 2¼" by 3¼"; once they added the frame numbers for 2¼" square, 120 film became usable for 117 as well, although the wider spool was a tight fit and sometimes had to be filed down to fit in the cameras.)

  5. Hi, I have a question:
    I'm currently gathering photos from old new york for a non-commercial project,
    and would like to use one of the images from this post. What is a source for these?

    Thank you,

    1. The source is a person who wanted to stay anonymous (I don't know why). They were never published before anywhere. I think using one, for a noncommercial use, would be OK.

  6. Thanks for the wonderful time machine photos!