Streetcars in New York

Another dive triggered by a tweet thread, in this case, discussion of trams (in the UK sense of the word) that was part of the month-long #transportAZ community project started by the Institution of Civil Engineers. Mike Ashworth kicked off the topic here and I responded with a picture of Boston trolley-bus. That got me thinking: I know that New York had streetcars, but what types?

A little terminology clarification is required. In the US, a streetcar is (usually) a wheeled vehicle riding on rails set in a public street. This is called a tram in the UK. A trolley is a streetcar with electric motors powered from overhead wires, since the thing that connects the car to the wires is a trolley pole. Horsecars are streetcars pulled by horses; cable cars are streetcars powered by a moving cable set in a trough between the wheel rails. Trolley buses are electric vehicles powered from overhead wires but with rubber-tire wheels and no rails.

Part of the NYC history is easy. We started with omnibuses, which were horse drawn stagecoaches, and then got our first horse cars in 1832, starting first in (the then-separate city of) Brooklyn and then spreading to Manhattan. Horsecars were reasonably fast for local transportation and had a far greater capacity than the omnibuses because it’s a lot easier for a horse to pull a car on rails than one riding over cobbles. Omnibuses hung on until 1884, but with steadily decreasing traffic. The downsides of horsecars were the rather incredible amounts of droppings deposited on the streets, and mistreatment of the horses, with the deaths and occasional runaway that implies. Cable cars were first introduced to New York for the shuttle that ran back-and-forth across the Brooklyn Bridge when it opened in 1883, and quickly spread in Manhattan. The 1892 photo above shows a horsecar on the left and the tracks for a cable car on the right. You can clearly see the covered trough for the powering cable midway between the rails. Electrification of streetcars began here in 1892 in Brooklyn. The last NY streetcars were removed in the late 1950s in favor of diesel buses. At its peak, the system had 500 miles of track and carried about a billion fares per year.

Here’s an Underhill photo from 1912, looking east through the intersection of Park Row and Broadway (that’s the post office on the left and 15 Park Row in the center):

Big picture, but we’re only looking at the bottom. Those two streetcars are at the end of their run (having come down from the north) and are about to head back uptown. Note that the tracks of the nearer car end at the loop tracks rather than cross them. You can see a third line between the rails of the loop and you can see that the cars do not have trolley poles mounted on their roofs, so they are surely cable cars, right? Maybe not: there’s a form of electric streetcar that uses a third rail with a slotted cover (to prevent people from accidentally touching the electrified surfaces), and from a distance it’s hard to distinguish from a cablecar. So which is that above?

Another 1912 Underhill shot: looking south across Times Square, with the same trolley-less streetcars:

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, in 1945, we have trolleys:

This made sense: most of the Brooklyn and Queens portion of the system was in low-rise neighborhoods that were far less dense than Manhattan (not this shot, obviously, but in general) where the wires wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

An experiment: a “one-step” car in the late 1910s, where the passenger compartment is slung low between the wheel trucks. We can’t see the rails, but there’s no trolley pole up top:

That wasn’t the only experiment. The New York State Archives have this 1913 photo of a battery-powered streetcar. Note that there is no third rail or trough and no overhead wires:

The 1894 cablecar company office and powerhouse at 611 Broadway (the corner of Houston Street) not only still stands, it’s landmarked as part of the NoHo historic district. But the company itself ran into trouble from electric competition in the early 1900s (I’ve seen both 1905 and 1909 as the date of the last cablecar run) leaving only electric streetcars. So, in theory, the Underhill photos are showing electric streetcars with third-rail power. Proof is in this photo:

That’s 125th Street in Harlem in 1943, and the same third rail is visible long after the cable cars were definitely gone.

Whether we can now replace the diesel buses with new streetcars is a whole different topic.

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