Sunday, July 10, 2011

South Ferry II


From the time I first learned about the elevated railways, and for many years afterward, I assumed that the large four-track South Ferry terminal was part of the original construction. Although the Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue line pre-dates the others by eight to ten years, it was not extended to South Ferry until 1877, one year before the Third Avenue line opened, and I could rationalize that the company knew by that time that they would need a double terminal for the two services.

Not even research in New York Times microfilm— the only way you could do it in the 1970s— brought me to the true story.

I did find, back then, a series of articles throughout December 1878 about New York Elevated Railroad's "encroachment" on Battery Park. An additional track or tracks were being installed. Members of the city's Common Council gave speeches calling the Battery "the most beautiful park in all creation" and the like. They passed a resolution directing the Corporation Counsel to take action directing the Park Commissioners to revoke the privilege. By the end of the month the Mayor had to inform them that the Parks Department had sole power over parks and that they could do nothing about it. None of the Times stories describes the purpose of the encroachment. I concluded that the viaduct through Battery Park was being widened in some way. What else could it mean? Right?

I'm pretty sure that I only finally got it around about 2004 after staring at photographs like the two I put up last time. Where is this? And my wondering eyes finally realized that it was another, smaller, different South Ferry station that pre-dated the more familiar one.

So now I needed to find out how long the old terminal lasted and when the larger one was constructed.

Above: Aerial photography from 1924. Observe how the 1877 station blocks the Third Avenue El at Whitehall Street. Also, (looking ahead in our story) you can see that the curve from the West Side into the new station necessarily begins over the park, causing the encroachment complaints in 1878. (The ferry terminals were being reconstructed in 1924, creating temporarily the white open space to the right of the elevated terminal.)

The Third Avenue El opened on August 26, 1878, from South Ferry to Grand Central. Trains ran every 15 minutes, and 10 minutes in rush hours, and there were no Sunday trains.

Where did they end at South Ferry? One of the photographs I put up last time shows that the 1877 station spanned the width of Whitehall Street, to the end of Front Street. It was still there in June 1878, judging by the two Scientific American illustrations I posted last time. The Third Avenue El came down Front Street, so there was nowhere else it could have gone.

But the East Side trains were a foot and a half wider than those on the West Side. Did they really run trains of both lines from this one small station, with its single stairway to the street? Yes, it looks to me like they did.

The company must have cut back one side of the island platform by about nine inches for East Side trains. The images from 1877 show that the iron structure provided a level open deck on top. The station was probably all woodwork resting on the iron deck.

The first evening of Third Avenue service, there was a collision in which a West Side train, going around the curve in Battery Park, rear-ended another West Side train waiting to enter the station at South Ferry. This may have had something to do with new arrangements at the terminal, but the company as usual made no comment to the press.

The tremendous disadvantage to sharing South Ferry was that each line had only a one-track terminal. That limited the frequency of trains to how quickly they could get in and out of one track. It wasn't so bad on the West Side line, but business on the East Side grew fast.

The Tribune reported on September 3 that some of the East Side stations were too small to accommodate the crowds— and this was just one week after the opening. The following sentences are all I have found to explain the arrangement at South Ferry at the time the Third Avenue El opened.

The company intends building a triangular switch extension to the South Ferry to accommodate the trains from the East and West Sides. This will be built at an early date, and when completed the Board of Directors will take into consideration the question of running trains continuously from one side of the city to the other on one fare, or perhaps issue a coupon ticket. Under the present arrangement, if a passenger desires to go from one side of the city to the other, double fare has to be paid.

At this time, New York Elevated still collected tickets on the trains.

By the time the Third Avenue El opened to 67th Street on September 16, the company had taken delivery of more engines and cars, and began to run trains every five minutes to each branch, Grand Central and 67th Street. This was the practical limit with a single-track terminal at South Ferry, as stated by a member of the board:

It is physically impossible to make up trains there faster than one in two and a half minutes. We are now sending trains out of the South Ferry Depot at that rate, but it doesn't meet the exigencies of travel during the evening hours ; nothing less than double this service will. Trains must be dispatched on a minute headway, and to do this we are preparing to build a spur at Franklin-square, from which point trains will be dispatched just as rapidly as those from South Ferry.

The spur was a third track between the two main tracks, with a stub at the north end to hold an escaped locomotive. A southbound trainset would run into the third track, the locomotive in the stub would move down and couple to the north end while the incoming locomotive was detached, and the the trainset could move back out northbound as its former locomotive escaped up into the stub, where it would wait to take the next northbound train.

The Franklin Square track effectively provided a second terminal track to reverse some trains in rush hours. The rationalization was that trains were "well filled" in rush hours by the time they got to Franklin Square, the third stop from South Ferry. Nothing was said, or at least nothing was quoted at this time, about a new South Ferry terminal. But plans were already being made.

Above: Conjectural track plan for the transitional period, adapted from a track map showing tracks of the 1893-1903 period. This is the first mile of the Third Avenue El.

I'd love to drop in a photograph here of a Third Avenue train at old South Ferry, but as far as I know, no such image exists. That would be a find!

Next time, the new terminal is built, the one that lasted until 1950.



  1. I wonder if the information from the NY City Bureau of Franchises or the sucessor agency may be available to help identify the building of the four track South Ferry Terminal.

  2. The permissions were New York Elevated's franchise with validation from the Rapid Transit Commission of 1875, and the Parks Department permission to build in the park. No other permission was needed.