In 1846, the Hudson River Railroad received a charter to lay down tracks from New York City to Albany. Notably, it was allowed to put its tracks right through the middle of 10th Avenue (south of 34th St.) and 11th Avenue (north of 34th St.).

The new tracks spurred rapid industrial development up and down the line. It also caused a lot of trouble. Unfortunate incidents of collisions between the freight trains and people were shockingly frequent. Though trains were limited to 5 mph, accidents were unavoidable. The set up was similar on Fourth Avenue, where a street railway once ran in the center of the road. However, there was one key difference. Along Fourth Avenue, which was later renamed Park Avenue, lived wealthy families who wielded their power to force Vanderbilt’s railroad and the city to build a grade-separated open cut. The Fourth Avenue Improvement ensured no brownstone owner would ever have to worry about their kids slipping on the tracks. This open-cut was later covered up to create the pleasant tree-lined median that exists among the beautiful apartment buildings of Park Avenue.

Looking down Park Ave. from 94th Street in 1882. The holes in the median allowed for steam from the steam locomotives to be released.

On the other hand, 10th Avenue was home to the working-class immigrants, laboring in the various area factories while residing in the surrounding tenement buildings. No amount of protesting would do them any good. Bonfires were lit on the tracks in 1894, 500 schoolchildren protested after a classmate’s death in 1908. Policemen chasing after thieves were taunted by the criminals who effortlessly threaded around the trains, using them as obstacles.

The railroads deflected blame, pointing towards the numerous streetcars which for the most part avoided scrutiny. Anyways, after push back in the initial years of operation, the railroad had come up with an ingenious solution. Coming from the wild, wild west were cowboys, recruited by the railways. They rode ahead of the incoming trains, waving their red flag and lantern to warn all passerbys.

The wild, wild, west side of Manhattan. Note the man ignoring the cowboy, walking right in front of the train, as well as the Uneeda Biscuit Factory in the background.

As you can see from the above picture, it didn’t work too well. The warning from the cowboys often went unheeded. It also was not a good look when the press called the trains the “monster[s] that menaced them by day and night” and nicknamed the street “Death Avenue.” The city tried to shut the line down, but the train deliveries of meat to the Meatpacking District, snacks from the National Biscuit Company Factory (today’s Chelsea Markets), and fresh produce to the West Washington Market were far too important.

For unknown reasons, the number of deaths did decrease after 1900. Nonetheless, with capacity inhibited by the street-level tracks, the railroad finally agreed to a deal in 1929 to build an elevated line downtown, and cover the tracks uptown. The deal was known as “The West Side Improvement,” which also created the Riverside Park we know today. Meanwhile, the elevated line did not remain in use for long, and in 2009, became High Line Park. As for the street-level train tracks and cowboys? They lasted until 1941, when George Hayden and his horse Cyclone led one last train filled with oranges on a safe journey, before riding off into the sunset.

Below is a great video of the street railway going through 1930s Chelsea. Skip to around :40 to see a cowboy in action.

For more, read my article, Catalysts of Change: Chelsea Markets + High Line, on the history of the National Biscuit Company, The West Side Elevated Line, and one of the fastest-changing neighborhoods in New York.

Kai Oishi

Evolution of NYC

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