Sunday, May 15, 2011

Greenwich St El Cars


If you have any special interest or hobby, you probably know how you can get drawn into a discussion of some little detail, especially when you can't find any specific documentation and all you can do is argue your case.

This one is about early days on the Greenwich St and Ninth Ave elevated railway.

There's a lot of back story. Briefly, a very lightweight structure went up in 1869 along the east curb line of Greenwich St and west curb line of Ninth Ave, to be operated by cable power. The system, which pre-dated the grip system used on the San Francisco cable cars, had repeated mechanical failures when the company attempted to operate it for a few months in 1870. The property was foreclosed, and a new company was formed to operate the same line with steam engines. The catch was that the structure was so weak that the engine and cars would have to weigh as little as possible.

Many New York transit buffs know about the elevated railways, but this first one in its early state was different from the others. The old road in Greenwich St and Ninth Ave (south of 53rd St) had to be rebuilt in 1880 to bring it up to the same standard as the other three elevated railways that had opened from 1878 to 1880. Only after the rebuild was it possible to operate standard elevated engines and cars over the old road. At that time too all of the lightweight engines and cars were sold or scrapped, even though some were only a few years old. It's quite clear that the old road was incompatible with the others, so much so that its lightweight equipment could not even be run on heavyweight structures.

The little question I got into recently is how wide the car bodies were.

From 1878, elevated cars were about 8 feet 9 inches wide, and that width survives today on the former IRT subway lines (numbered routes) and the PATH trains. The width gets set in stone because the car bodies have to meet the station platforms with about an inch to spare.

The Greenwich St el equipment looks a lot narrower than that in photographs. Gene Sansone, in his book Evolution of New York City Subways, writes that the car bodies were about 6 feet wide. That would make them much too narrow to board passengers safely at platforms built for standard equipment, and therefore would explain why the cars could not be used after the rebuild of 1880.

But I haven't found a contemporary source that simply states the width, and since the cars were gone by the end of 1880, the more voluminous later data sources are silent on the subject.

Here's the first elevated engine, Pioneer, designed by New York Elevated Railroad's engineer David Wyman and constructed by the Albany Street Iron Works in lower Manhattan.

The metal shell somehow contained an upright boiler, rods, a coal bunker, and room for an engineer and fireman to work it! This very small engine weighed less than 4 tons, and on opening day, Thursday, April 6, 1871, it managed to pull two passenger cars that weighed only 3500 pounds each. And it ran successfully day after day. By July this engine pulled three cars.

I want to stress that 3500 pounds is an extremely lightweight car. Horsecars on the busier street railways in the city, pulled by two horses, weighed 5000 to 6000 pounds. Only a small one-horse car was as light as 3000 pounds. What on earth did they have on the el in 1871?

Some people say they were using the former cable cars. You'll see this stated in some histories. I have been unable to find a source that specifically states whether the cars were or were not the former cable cars. For several reasons I don't think they were.

I think the closest car in the photo below is what Pioneer pulled.

It looks like a horsecar body, and it might even be a used horsecar. The track is the original cable track, strips of metal laid directly on the beams of the structure at an odd gauge of 4 feet 10 inches, so the photo pre-dates the standard gauge track laid in April 1875. The car trucks were custom-made for that gauge. Access to the car is from a platform at only one end, with no steps.

Beyond it, and of exactly the same body width, are two of the "shadbelly" cars acquired starting in 1872. They were much heavier cars, described as under 5 tons. New York Elevated Railroad management evidently had decided to chance larger engines and cars, although over the next few years they would keep adding braces to the old structure just to make sure. The shadbelly cars were numbered starting at 1, as if they were the permanent equipment and whatever had been used earlier was just a temporary expedient.

The location is Greenwich St just north of Battery Place, the end of track past the last stop where cars could be stored out of the way. This section was built in 1867 and as shown it has been just slightly strengthened with thin braces outside the original gracefully curved column tops. It's scary.

Now if the track is no more than 5 feet wide, how wide are those cars?

Here's another photo of two shadbelly cars at the same location. Battery Place crosses in the foreground. Compare the height of the end door to the width of the car.

The next one shows the engine Yonkers, built in 1876, coupled to a shadbelly car, and in the background is another shadbelly car in the trainyard in mid block between Battery Place and Morris St. The standard gauge track (4 foot 8½ inches) rested on wooden cross ties. Some of the posters on the wall below are for candidates in the November 1876 local election.

Again, compare the height of the end door compared to the width. The shell around the engine seems just large enough to clear the side rods, and the dropped center of the car seems no wider than the cross ties.

One more. A photograph taken from the West 11th St station in Greenwich Village, opened in 1875, shows the engine Kingsbridge pulling an uptown train. The truss rods were added in 1875 to the 1869 structure keep the beams from bowing down between columns. The track uses a very thin rail, but with very tall wooden guides inside the rails to keep a derailed train on the structure.

In this case, we have a man standing on the end platform to help establish the width.

It's hard to find truly equivalent photographs, but here's a wider view of the Yonkers photo together with part of an image from my Riding the El series part 7. The car at upper left in the old photo is at about the same three-quarter angle as the car in 1940.

What do you think? Shall we say the bodies were about six feet wide?

Or shall we have another round?




  1. I had hoped you would get back to your Beach Pneumatic roots. The West Side El was re-tracked to standard gauge rails with cross-ties in 1875. So, when we look at the stereo or other views of the original El, we may be able to determine weather the view is before the re-tracking or after. So far, as I can determine, the equipment is the same width for each period. The width of the original and succeeding equipment was determined by the station platforms, which were inline with the car end platform floors. You have a few illustrations of the original structure in chapter 10 of your Beach Pneumatic series.

    I had another interesting find, a stereo-view of the Broadway side of the Terminal at number 7 Broadway. See "".

  2. CORRECTION. I found an article in the Tribune from 1872 that says the car body "projects 10 inches on either side of the rails". The distance between the rails was 4 feet 10 inches, to which we add 20 inches (10 inches on each side), and also allow for the width of two rails, which I'd guess as at least 3 inches (1.5 inches each). That makes the cars about 6 feet 9 inches wide. So I was wrong about the width being only 6 feet.