The Rise and Decline of New York City's Third Avenue Elevated Train Line

By Lawrence Stelter


Since the beginning of European colonization, the trade of goods and ideas created prosperity throughout the area around New York Bay. Industrialization further fueled growth and expansion, sometimes at exponential levels. As the population spread out, people worked, worshipped and took their recreation in places far from where they lived. Thus public transportation developed and inexorably grew. In 1832 the horse-drawn coach appeared, and soon thereafter came the horse car, which ran on rails. After the Civil War the horse-car network became inadequate to serve a population that was approaching one million. City leaders sought a means of transportation that would be separate from and unimpeded by the congested streets.

New York’s rapid transit system was not the world’s first; an underground railway had opened in 1863 in London. Beginning with an experimental line in 1867, an elevated railway system developed. By 1876 one route ran along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue from Battery Park to 59th Street. The steam-powered, cable-drawn trains made the run in 30 minutes, and in the year that ended on October 1, 1876, more than two million passengers rode the line.

The New York Elevated Railroad Company built a line on Third Avenue to 129th Street at the Harlem River in 1878; a year later the company upgraded the Ninth Avenue line and extended it to 155th Street in northern Manhattan. The Gilbert (after 1878, Metropolitan) Elevated Company built and opened a line on Sixth Avenue to 58th Street in 1878, built a connection to the Ninth Avenue line on 53rd Street, and by 1880 completed a line on Second Avenue. In 1879 the companies merged to form the Manhattan Railway Company. By 1880 all four elevated lines had reached the Harlem River.

The system became especially popular when the flat five-cent fare was instituted on all routes at all times on October 1, 1886 : the four main lines and shuttle routes on 34th and 42nd Streets carried 3,134,806 passengers in the first week of November 1886 (The fare remained a nickel until 1948).

The Third Avenue line was extended in 1886 north across the Harlem River into the Annexed District, later known as The Bronx. Peter Derrick, a historian with the Bronx County Historical Society, notes that this development opened the then-remote area to settlement by people who worked in Manhattan; the population of the Bronx swelled almost fivefold in the two following decades, mostly along the Third Avenue corridor.

By 1900 the Rapid Transit Construction Company began work on an electrically powered subway line. In 1903, a year before its first subway line opened, the company, now called Interborough Rapid Transit, leased Manhattan Railway’s assets for 999 years, securing for itself a monopoly over the city’s rapid transit.

Meanwhile, immigration peaked and population growth continued unabated. During the early years of the 1900s, New York truly became a world class city. The elevated system accommodated this growth with longer trains, new express services on the Second, Third and Ninth Avenue Elevated lines and expansion in 1917 into Queens over the 59th Street Bridge. By 1920 ridership on the Manhattan Elevated lines reached its highest levels ever.

Yet it was exactly then that the elevated system began to contract, with short spurs closing in the 1920s. Partly because of the politically untouchable nickel fare, the competing transit systems struggled financially even in the best of times. Changing economics and evolving public needs motivated policymakers to remove elevated lines and replace them with subways, which continued to burgeon.

In the 1930s those forces, in combination with the Great Depression and upheaval in New York city and state politics, doomed the Manhattan Elevated system. In December 1938, the Sixth Avenue line closed; by April 1939 it had been completely demolished. Its replacement subway opened in December 1940.

Meanwhile, the city was consolidating ownership of the transit system, which by now, in addition to the IRT, included two other subway operating companies, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company (BMT) and the Independent Subway System (IND). The IND, which despite its name was built and owned by the city, had opened a subway under Eighth Avenue in 1932, and in June 1940 the city acquired the IRT and closed the Ninth Avenue Elevated line south of 155th Street and the Second Avenue line north of 59th Street. Both stretches were demolished in 1941. The remainder of the Second Avenue line was scrapped in 1942. By the end of World War II only the Third Avenue line survived.

After 1949, ridership on public transit slumped nationwide, as people increasingly used automobiles as their means of transportation. Ridership fell even in street-clogged, transit-friendly New York City, although not as dramatically as elsewhere. In 1951 New York voters approved a $500-million bond issue to build a four-track subway under Second Avenue. The authorities, however, diverted the money to other transit projects, and the Second Avenue line went unbuilt.

Nevertheless, the city curtailed East Side rapid transit service. In April 1952, the city’s Board of Transportation eliminated service on the Third Avenue El south of 149th Street in the Bronx between 6 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., and on weekends altogether.

Early in 1954 the New York City Transit Authority, NYCTA, which succeeded the Board of Transportation, concluded that the Third Avenue line was no longer needed south of 149th Street. Supposedly, the Lexington Avenue subway and East Side buses had adequate capacity to carry former Third Avenue riders in Manhattan. In the best interests of the city, the El would be closed and demolished. Operating and maintenance expenses would be saved and property values would increase. Skeptics questioned the wisdom of summarily displacing the 25,000,000 riders the Third Avenue El had carried in 1954. Some lawmakers tried to ensure that El service would not be eliminated until construction of the promised new subway began.

None of the efforts availed. On Thursday, May 12, 1955, shortly after 6 p.m., the last uptown train departed Chatham Square terminal, just north of City Hall. Lothar Stelter, who took these photographs, his wife, Josephine, and about 600 others were on that train. As the photographer recalled, “A policeman came through the six-car train and cut the [emergency brake] rip-cords so as to prevent someone from stopping the train en route. As the train headed northward, people, whole families, came out of bars and shops and, drinks in hand, toasted and waved the El good-bye.”

The El stood abandoned until August 1955 when demolition began. First the stations were dismantled, then the girders and diagonal supports. Finally the pillars were yanked from their foundations – and the El was gone. Some of the scrap was recycled for the third tube of the Lincoln Tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey, then under construction. By February 1956, the demolition project was completed.

During the summer of 1955, the NYCTA began scrapping the rolling stock. In an open area near the Bronx River and 174th Street, the cars were doused with fuel and burned. The cars had been so well fireproofed that the contractor had to fill the doomed cars with debris to make flames hot enough to do the job.

With one exception, the Third Avenue El fleet was destroyed. Nor was the 1878 ironwork, stained glass or other ornamentation conserved in any comprehensive manner. The few relics lie in the collections of the odd souvenir hunter. After all, who in the 1950s cared for, as The New York Times said at the time, such “outdated” old stuff?

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New York lost a well-functioning, if timeworn, transit resource that was in need of rehabilitation but not demolition when it took down the Third Avenue El. To this day, people who live or work on the East Side are forced onto the perennially overcrowded Lexington Avenue Subway, the only rapid transit line running the length of the east side of Manhattan, or crowded, often late buses. As for the four-track Second Avenue subway, promised nearly six decades ago, ground was broken for a two-track line in 1972, but construction abruptly halted in 1975 with the city’s fiscal crisis. The Transit Authority has since had to pay to maintain the three separate completed tunnel segments. The scaled-down project was revived 20 years later, with a two-track line planned from the Financial District to 125th Street. Construction commenced on the first short segment on the Upper East Side in April 2007.

The old Third Avenue is gone. The pawn brokers, antique shops, the bars, cigar stores, newsstands . . . and the El. Generations have passed and the mostly fond memories of that special place and its atmosphere persist. They are irreplaceable, all by the El.

This article is adapted from the author’s newly published book By the El: Third Avenue and Its El at Mid-Century (2007 Stelterfoto LLC),