Sunday, July 3, 2011
A couple of weeks back I wrote about the southern terminal of the first elevated railway in New York at Number 7 Broadway. As I mentioned there, that terminal was in use for about four years ending in April 1877.
The next terminal was at South Ferry, one stop farther south. New York Elevated Railroad was permitted by law to build extensions to connect with railroad terminals and ferries, and in February 1876 the company obtained permission from the Parks Department to build an extension through Battery Park near its edge along State Street to connect to the ferries at the foot of Whitehall Street. Construction was halted by a lawsuit after a few foundations had been dug, and did not resume until February 1877. City officials and property owners on State Street were against the extension, fearing a loss of property values. In the suit, lawyers argued that when the city was granted the land in 1790 by the United States, the city was required to use it only for "public purposes". In this case and in others, the appeals court eventually ruled that railways are a public purpose, since the public are accommodated on them.
The deal with the Parks Department called for ornamental iron columns, with plantings of ivy that would grow on them. Calvert Vaux, who designed Central Park along with Frederick Law Olmsted, created the design below (as printed in the Daily Graphic newspaper in May 1876):
Is it any surprise that the structure as built had just the structural parts of those columns, without the planned embellishments?
The point of interest here is that the original terminal was not the four-track terminal that old New Yorkers remember. It was a much more modest station, in keeping with the minimalist nature of the old New York Elevated Railroad. This was the company that took seven years to complete a second track ; the company that had people walk across one track to avoid building stairs from the street on both sides of the structure ; the company that ran trains with the engine pushing in one direction rather than construct a second track at terminals.
By New York Elevated standards, South Ferry was a pretty big station. It was an island platform between two tracks. Two! Not only that, the new structure through the park was built for three tracks, as you can see in the Vaux cross section above. What extravagance! As I mentioned last time, this and the second track running almost to the other terminal at 59th St meant that finally the engines could escape and run at the front of trains in both directions, a distinct improvement in safety.
The original terminal is very little known today, so I want to present the details I've been able to find. First, here's a diagram I made based on several illustrations. I've drawn in green the tracks and the station platform over Whitehall Street as they were in 1877. The base map is from 1880 and therefore shows (roughly) the location of the later station too.
The best reference image I have found for the track arrangement is the drawing below, published in Harper's Weekly on February 9, 1878. We are on the roof of a building on Whitehall Street, looking west toward the park.
This image shows a single crossover track, instead of the double crossover I would expect to see. A center track seems to be drawn, but there are obstacles on each side of the switch that I cannot identify. They seem to consist of two posts with a little peaked roof between them. I drew this part of the middle track space as a dashed line.
Both trains shown have the engine at the uptown end.
Another drawing (like the one above, it is based on photography) appeared in Scientific American for June 15, 1878, showing the same section of line seen from street level.
In this image, there is a little signal box in the distance up on the structure. I think the necessary other crossover track is out there, so I drew it there in the map above. The middle track probably began at that point.
We can see here from underneath that the stringers (lengthwise girders) for a middle track continue all the way to the station, and we'll see in a photograph below that they continue all the way to the end of the structure. The station platform was built over the stringers for the middle track.
The train in the distance has its engine at the downtown end.
Now let's consider the station.
There was just one narrow stairway to the platform, which splits into two for the lowest flight. It was of wooden construction. You can see the homely wooden posts in the second image above. The Harper's image shows a small octagonal booth near the head of the stairs, which I suppose is the ticket office. The width of that platform is less than eight feet, and yet the stairway comes up between sections of platform where people are standing. The booth might be four feet across. The minimalism of New York Elevated!
Let's make this more real. I have a couple of photographs from 1877.
We're looking down Whitehall Street to the ferries. A steam dummy and two shadbelly cars are in the station. Ahead of the engine, a well-dressed signalman is reading a newspaper (?). At the extreme right is the beginning of the crossover track, and, as in the Harper's drawing, there is no sign of a crossover on the other track. There is possibly one rail where the center track would be.
In the background are entrances to two Staten Island ferries. The one on the left is the ferry to points on the north shore of the island, and on the right the Staten Island Railway ferry to points on the east shore. The Brooklyn services that were actually called South Ferry, as you can see from the map up above, are off frame to the left. Out in the harbor is Governor's Island with the stone fort.
Now we're looking across Whitehall Street, the ferries off frame to the right. A different train has come in, with the type of cars acquired after the shadbelly cars, all one level and with a center door that opens with a knob.
Were these photographs taken the same day? The horse cart with barrels is the same place, and so is the ladder leaning against the staircase. But the tree on the right is not there in the first image.
I think everyone enjoys the women and children posing for the photographer. Two men pose behind them too, and so do most of the people in the train. Ghosts on the left and on the stairs were not patient enough. They all probably checked the photography stores weeks later to see whether their photo was published. The prints above were on cabinet cards. Stereo views of the same two scenes were also sold.
The woodwork of the stairs is decorative although simple for the day. You can see why the stairway to the platform was so narrow: it had to fit between the stringers for a possible center track, which are spaced to support rails 4 feet 8½ inches apart.
There is no engine trapped at the end of the train, where it would be if the train had come in engine first. So I was wrong in the Number 7 Broadway piece: they did not immediately change the practice of running downtown with the engine pushing. But they did change by June 1878— more than a year after opening— the date of the Scientific American illustrations.
On the left, you can see the end of the structure. It runs to the east side of Whitehall Street and stops, pointing itself to continue in Front Street. The very last pair of columns support a cross girder, a different type of construction that would be used for the continuation as the Third Avenue El, which was not yet built when this image was taken. The continuation was built for two tracks spaced farther apart, because the newer lines had coaches about a foot and a half wider than the old west side road.
Here's an enlarged detail of another image from the same issue of Scientific American as the previous one, June 1878.
We're looking out the arched entrance of the South Ferry terminal toward the elevated station. Up on the el, on the right, are a couple of sheds, one of which is apparent also in the first photograph above. The train has the engine at the downtown end, and there is another engine, partly obscured, on the far track at the extreme right. That engine is past the station platform, at the end of track.
This drawing is as usual based on photography, but it is looser in detail than some, to some extent an artist's impression. It captures the busy scene in a way that slow-shutter photographs could not. Horse cars and horse omnibus lines started here, and cabs waited for passengers. The buildings in the background are on State Street. On the right Whitehall Street runs back into the distance.
This little station did not last. It was probably inadequate the day it opened, and once the Third Avenue El opened it was hopeless. Within two years a much larger terminal went up. We'll get to that next time.