Sunday, February 20, 2011

Riding the El - 12 - Second Avenue


We're going to the Bronx on the Second Avenue El, about May 1940.

137-3. Second Avenue El sign.

The Second Avenue El ran to the Bronx only in rush hours. There were two services: express to Bronx Park via the Third Avenue (Bronx) El, and express to Freeman St via the elevated subway line in Westchester Ave and Southern Blvd. The former supplemented Third Avenue El service and the latter supplemented subway service.

The routing in the south Bronx was peculiar in that it did not run over streets. The reason was that the Bronx system was begun in the early 1880s by a company that planned to build entirely on private right of way. Suburban Rapid Transit bought land and began construction as far as 143rd St. However even while doing so, the directors formed and merged another company that obtained permission to build a more conventional elevated railway over Third Ave. The result in the end was that the Third Ave El left Third Ave at 129th St only to return to it about fifteen blocks farther north in the Bronx.

In hopes of clarifying this, I'm inserting below part a Hagstrom street map of the Bronx dated 1943. The elevated lines are shown as solid black lines.

From the bottom, the Second Avenue Bridge is noted as ELEV R R BR. Notice from there how the line swings over the New Haven freight yard and then turns north running halfway between Alexander Ave and Willis Ave. At 143rd St was a planned junction in the original Suburban Rapid Transit route. The west branch was used in 1887 to bring the line into Third Ave, and the east branch was finally used in 1917 for a new link partly over Bergen Ave to connect with the elevated subway line. If you follow the red subway line from there you will get to the Freeman St station where Second Ave trains terminated.

135-5. Second Ave north from 125th St station.

This a repeat from Riding the El - 11. This time we will ride up the ramp to the upper level of the bridge on an express to Freeman St.

136-1. Second Ave El approaching Second Ave Bridge.

Photo 137-5 in Riding the El - 11 was a similar view from the lower level. It showed the same little train yard on the east side of the structure. Here we can see that the derricks are not for the elevated railway but for The Clark and Wilkins Company's wood yard.

On the left are the tops of buildings in the 129th St elevated railway property.

136-1 detail.

Clark and Wilkins had a very short railway line from the edge of the water, with four-wheeled carts, possibly pushed by hand. You can see a couple of carts there with very evenly cut logs like the ones stacked behind their fence.

136-1 detail.

Beyond the derricks we can see a seven-car express train on the upper level of the elevated railway in the Bronx. Below that is the New Haven Railroad freight yard, and some barges (not car floats) in the Harlem River.

136-2. Second Ave El approaching Second Ave Bridge.

The Third Ave El express track joins from the left.

Ruppert Beer was once a major New York brand. Its second owner, Jacob Ruppert, is best known for owning the New York Yankees from 1924 to 1939. Also promoting themselves in the Bronx by large signs are the Arctic Hygeia Ice Manufacturing Company and Mathushek Pianos.

137-1. Second Ave Bridge looking south.

If we now ran quickly through the crowded rush hour train, we might be able to get this view out the back. On the left is the ramp down to the Second Ave line, and 125th St station is just about in view. The track curving to the right leads to the Third Ave El express track over 129th St station.

137-2. Station on private right of way, 133rd St or 138th St or 143rd St.

The sign directs passengers downstairs for the street and local trains. The Third Ave El ran a full-time service to the Bronx on the lower level, and Second Ave express trains to the Bronx Third Ave El also took the lower level.

The upper level on the private right of way was used only for rush hour trains. The Second Avenue El's Freeman St express trains were stored along this stretch the rest of the time, as seen here. These are Composite cars, the original equipment of the subway when it opened in 1904. They had wooden bodies with copper sheathing that was indented to look like wood slats.

The Composites weighed more than the other el cars, and were allowed to run in passenger service only on portions that had been built or rebuilt in the 20th century. That ruled out almost anything besides express trains. For example the Second Ave express to Freeman St ran on: the completely rebuilt City Hall branch of 1915, Second Ave third track installed in 1915 on new girders, the replacement Second Ave Bridge of 1917, the rebuilt portion on private right of way of 1917, the new Bergen St link of 1917, and the elevated subway line of 1905. The cars were allowed to run empty in the opposite direction on the Second Ave local tracks from 1880.

136-3. Willis Ave looking north at 147th St.

The Hagstrom map (above) is slightly incorrect about the route of the so-called Bergen St Cut. The line left private property at 145th St and ran north over Willis Ave for two blocks. The view above shows where the el then turns into Bergen Ave. Straight ahead is the Third Ave El station at 149th St.

136-3 detail.

There are a lot of people waiting for uptown trains at 149th St station, in the evening rush hour. The six points of Third Ave, Willis Ave, and 149th St was long called "The Hub", and some of the people may be leaving work in the area. Others have probably used the transfer from the subway and want to continue on the el.

Two Third Avenue Railway System trolleys are in the inky shadows under the station. And you might be able to spot the subway stairs with a globe on a pole on each side.

136-4. Westchester Ave looking northeast from Brook Ave.

You can see almost this same scene today. The two tracks coming up on the far left and right are still in use for subway routes 2 and 5. This is right after the subway comes up from underground, where it turns into the elevated line running over Westchester Ave. You can still see support girders for the elevated connection between the subway tracks.

The Bergen St elevated link ran directly over the subway where it comes out, and eagle eyed riders may notice the cut-off elevated columns embedded in the concrete side walls of the cut.

At the bottom of this view are switches for the original elevated connection that ran from Third Ave at Westchester Ave. It was no longer in passenger service in 1940 but still in place (the Hagstrom map does not show it). The Bergen St connection was built solely to avoid congestion at the level junction and the 149th St station.

136-7. Second Ave Bridge looking south.

We're returning to Manhattan on the lower level. The position of the switch shows that we will turn right into the 129th St station rather than run straight into the Second Ave line (which only morning Second Ave express trains would do). The other switch on the left is set for a Second Ave train to run north, meaning one just passed or is just about to come into view.

Near the bottom of the image is the end of the draw. The portion we are on could swing 90 degrees to allow a tall ship to pass up the Harlem River.

136-8. 129th St station looking west.

Same train. We have come around the curve and see 129th St station. The single express track for Third Ave Through Express trains passes overhead with no station platform.

136-8 detail.

The platform on the right was not used in passenger service. The far right track ends at a bumper.

The platform on the left was used for Third Ave trains running to and from the Bronx. The full-time service was by local trains, with rush hour express service by Local Express, a nomenclature that meant they ran express in Manhattan up to 125th St and then local in the Bronx. Through Express trains continued to skip local stations for some distance in the Bronx.

To the left of that was the Third Ave terminal platform, for some rush hour trains that ended here, and finally to the left of that was the Second Ave terminal platform.

And we'll stop here.


  1. Thanks for your articles. I rode he El from 143rd south going to school in the 40's and up to 1053. I remember it well.

  2. Walt Oliver - walt.oliver@me.comJune 18, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    Thanks for clarifying some things for me. I grew up in nearby Patterson Projects and was actually able to catch the 3rd ave el at 143rd and Alexander before that section was taken out of service. I had noticed the Bergen St. columns but was always trying to figure how the line got from 148th back down to the junction between 144 and 145th streets.

    BTW, it was a sad day when I saw the crane's cutting the structures between 144 and 147 streets. The 143rd St. although abandoned remained standing till around 1964 when it was torn down to make way for the Mott Haven Projects.

  3. Is there a picture of the old 143rd street station?

    1. Thanks for posting these pictures of the Bronx connections of 2nd and 3rd Ave. Els.
      I was born in 1953 so never did ride the 2nd Ave. trains, but my dad grew up on 2nd Ave.
      near 106th St. and my mom took the 3rd Ave. trains from/to Freeman St.
      I remember well the 3rd Ave. El in the Bronx from 149th St. to Gun Hill Rd. until
      it was demolished in 1973.
      In my opinion this is more than just nostalgia. These els were perfectly viable and efficient
      urban transportation, and with some upgrading of stations and rolling stock could be carrying
      many more people than the bus lines over crowded streets. Tearing down both els on the east side was a foolish blunder. The Lexington Ave. subway has been overcrowded for decades and doesn't go far enough east as 2nd Ave. Now they are building a 2nd Ave. subway at great cost and with only 2 track local service and no service to the Bronx it will still not replace the cheap, efficient els--where as a kid you could go to the front train and get great views of the line and the city!

      Pathetically poor urban planning that has taken NY from a pioneer in urban transportation and innovation to the mediocre slacker it is today.