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Chapter 06: Elevated Railroads

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Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities ยท Chamber of Commerce, 1906

Rapid Transit Schemes. The present generation can have but a vague conception of the many and varied schemes that have been brought forward to solve the rapid transit problem. Thirty years ago, in 1875, the city took official cognizance of the question, and the first Rapid Transit Commission came into being. Before and after that time private enterprises were advocated, plans innumerable were drawn, legislation was obtained, capital was subscribed; yet only one undertaking became an accomplished fact. Some of the more prominent of these schemes are mentioned in the following chapters; but in a cursory way, since they are interesting only as incidents having an influence, but not a permanent place, in the final solution of the problem.

Dealing with the subject in January, 1874, the Railroad Gazette said: "The number of people in New York who think they know how to build a rapid transit railroad is, we believe quite as large as those who are sure they could edit a newspaper or keep a hotel. It is amusing to hear some of these assert, in the most dogmatic way, principles about which the most experienced engineer would hesitate to give an opinion. The whole subject has been up for discussion twenty years or more, and makes its appearance annually in the State Legislature. No systematic effort, so far as we know, has thus far been made to collect accurate information, and the public mind is in a state of chaos regarding the whole subject."

Gravity of Situation. That the gravity of the situation was appreciated is shown by the following further quotation from the same paper: "It is not necessary to say anything here of the importance, in many different ways, of rapid transit to New York. It would widen her borders immensely; and population that belongs to her. instead of being driven across two rivers, would find convenient and in every way desirable homes to the northward in Westchester County. It is the one possible remedy for the overcrowding which has imposed so many social, moral and political evils upon the city. This overcrowding is likely to grow worse in degree and in consequences, unless some means shall be provided for supplying frequent, rapid, and cheap means of traveling between those parts of the city where business is done and districts nearby, now thinly peopled."

Elevated Lines. The undertaking that formed the exception referred to was the inception of elevated railroads. The four lines, constructed prior to 1880, constituted the only method of rapid communication between the northern and southern sections of the city, until the opening of the subway last year.

New York Elevated Road. The first line to be put in practical operation was popularly known as the Greenwich street elevated, although its corporate name was the New York Elevated Railroad. The plan of this road originated with C. T. Harvey. A company was organized, and in April, 1867, a charter was granted by the Legislature, empowering the company to construct an experimental line. Section 2 of the act was as follows:

General Design. "The railway hereby authorized shall be operated exclusively by means of propelling cables attached to stationary engines placed beneath or beyond the surface of any street through which such railway may pass, and shall be concealed from view so far as the same may be detrimental to the ordinary uses of such streets. The structure shall consist of a single track, upon which the cars are to be moved in contrary directions upon opposite sides of the street, which track shall not exceed 5 feet in width between center of rails, and shall be supported by a series of iron columns, not exceeding 18 inches in diameter at the surface of the pavement, or equivalent space if in an elliptical form, which columns shall be placed at intervals of not less than 20 feet, except at street crossings or sidings, along the curbstone line between the sidewalk and carriageway, and attached at their upper extremities to the track aforesaid, so that the center of the track shall be perpendicular to the center of the columns, and at a distance of not less than 14 feet above the surface of the pavement. Wherever deemed necessary to prevent oscillation of the track aforesaid, a second series of columns may be extended on the building side of the sidewalk, at intervals of not less than 20 feet, which shall not be more than 9 inches in diameter at surface of pavement, and shall be so placed as not to obstruct any existing door or window without consent of the owner; and from the upper extremity of which braces or girders may be extended to the first series of columns mentioned for the purposes aforesaid."

Experimental Section. In July, I868, an experimental section was built from the Battery to Dey street, along Greenwich, a distance of about one-half mile.

In the editorial correspondence to the Journal of the Franklin Institute, dated New York, December, 1867, we find the following, under the caption, "West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway," which describes how this road should be constructed and operated:

Description of Road. "The experimental half mile authorized by act of legislature last winter is nearly completed. The line starts corner of Greenwich street and the Battery, and is now finished up to Rector street, a distance of some 1,500 feet. If the present experiment proves a success, the line will be continued this winter up Ninth avenue to the Hudson River Railroad depot, corner of Thirtieth street, with the eventual idea of extension to the village of Yonkers, on the Hudson, via King's Bridge. Should results warrant the further introduction of this system, a middle route up Broadway, as also an east side one as far as New Rochelle, on the Sound, are embodied in the schemes of the projectors."

Construction. "The mode of construction is simple and elegant, being unobstructive and open. The supporting principle, following the line of the curbstone, consists of single, wrought-iron columns, as made under the patent of the Phoenix Iron Company of Philadelphia, about 14 feet high, with the segments spread out in a graceful curve, to which the cross-heads for supporting the rail girders are attached. These are four-segment, 8-inch columns, with a thickness of metal of 3/8 of an inch. They will be spaced 25 feet apart from center to center, as near as may be, thus necessitating simple girders to span the interval. These girders are composed of 8-inch deck beams in pairs, packed with a timber scantling, to which the rails are spiked, thus acting as an absorbent and cushion for the shocks of the traveling load. Beyond their fastening on the cross-heads of the columns, nothing more is required but simple stay-rods to prevent the spreading of the rails and girders."

"The foundations are made stable by spreading out the segments at the base of the columns in a similar manner as noted above. A heavy casting, with the necessary lugs and ribs upon it, is made to fit the under surface of the segments thus swelled out, to which they are securely bolted. This casting, by means of its broad, flat base, is in turn bolted to a very heavy undercasting, secured to a well-bedded masonry pier Io feet deep, by means of long bolt's running the whole length of the masonry and firmly anchored therein. Between the rail girders a small covered square trough, with a slot on its upper side, is placed, returning under the street in the axis of the roadway, and of course through the masonry piers, into which it is carefully built."

Method of Operating. A more interesting part of this description is the following:

"The motive power will consist of stationary engines at every half mile, under the sidewalk; each one operating a large single drum 6 feet in diameter, ingeniously contrived to accommodate two ropes of contiguous sections. The sections being so short, steel-wire ropes of but 1/2 inch in diameter will be used, thus obviating what has always been considered an insurmountable difficulty. The cars pass from one section to another by means of their own momentum. The gap thus caused is not over 20 feet, so that at a speed of 10 miles an hour the resistance to progression must be inappreciably small. At proper intervals, the rope will be attached to what you may call "universal trucks," about 2 feet long. They are universal in the sense that no matter what position they may assume, friction rollers will always be presented to roll upon. Upside down or sideways, they will roll; in addition to which the attachment of the rope is by means of swivel joints, so that no kink or twist can arise. A strong finger, as it were, projects above the slot mentioned in connection with the middle box in which it runs. To this the car is attached."

"The construction of the cars becomes, perhaps, the vital point in this scheme; but so far as competent engineering judgment can discern, no mechanical device has been neglected that promised to insure success. Experimenting alone will tell the tale."

"The difficulty is just here-- a rope is running, say at a speed of 10 miles an hour, with nothing visible but the little fingers of the trucks. To these fingers the cars must be attached and detached, without slackening the rope and without producing a shock on the car or its passengers; it must slow up in stopping and gradually get headway in starting. It would hardly do to jump at once to full speed; it would rack everything to pieces. The slowing up after detachment will be a matter easily regulated by the brakes; but how to store up sufficient momentum to get under headway before making fast is the crucial point beyond which all other difficulties are but trifles."

This was to be accomplished in the following way:

"The first experimental car will be about 30 feet long, with a barrel placed immediately below the floor, running the full length of the car, surrounded by a stiff spiral spring. Secondary springs of India rubber are attached to the spiral spring and the body of the car, running in an oblique direction. The shock of contact will be taken up on the springs, which force is stored up by another set of springs, to be used in starting the car for the next station. Attached to the spiral, and sliding on the barrel, the immediate attachment is effected by means of a lever operated by the attendant in charge of the car."

N.Y. Elevated Railroad Co. Mistakes of a serious nature had been made both in the design of the structure and the method of propelling the trains. The columns were much too light for the service, and considerable experimenting was done before a satisfactory support was obtained. Moving the cars by a system of endless cables, as prescribed by law, proved to be a total failure. The result was that those who had contributed financially to the undertaking lost all confidence; the road was placed in the hands of trustees, and finally sold under foreclosure of mortgages held by various parties. The property and franchise were taken over by the New York Elevated Railroad Company, a corporation organized with a capital of $10,000,000.

Steam as Propelling Power. In the meantime, legislation had been obtained permitting the use of steam as the propelling power. The new owners immediately removed the cables, and introduced light four-wheeled locomotives. Tests with the new engines were so successful that the company began the regular carriage of passengers April 20, 187I. After the installation of the engines the road became genuinely successful. At the beginning of 1874 the equipment comprised 4 engines and 10 cars; each of the latter seating 48 passengers and weighing 11,000 pounds. The quickest running time for the four miles of road then in operation was 18 minutes. From April 20, 1871, to January 2, 1872, 54,968 passengers were carried; in 1872 there were 242,190 passengers; and in 1873, 723,253 passengers. Up to the first of 1874 not a passenger had been injured. In those days the company refused to take more passengers than it could seat.

Gilbert Elevated Railroad. In 1871 a new road was chartered by the Legislature. The Gilbert Elevated Railroad proposed to erect a pneumatic tube, supported from heavy arches above the street. It was claimed that this road would be practically noiseless and the trains out of sight. As this plan was found to be impracticable and entirely too expensive, it was decided to build the tube without a top, and operate a steam road in the trough thus formed. Finally the trough was also abandoned, and the plan resolved itself into a simple elevated steam road. These alterations caused much opposition and extended litigation.

According to Wilson's History of New York, the Rapid Transit Commission of 1875* [*A more extended account of the work of this commission is presented in another chapter.] reported, in December of that year, "that their work was at an end, and that the task of building the roads upon the assigned streets-- Ninth, Sixth, Third and Second avenues-- had been awarded to the Gilbert road and to the New York road, the corporation then operating the little elevated road on Greenwich street."

In 1876 the New York road had extended its line to Fifty-ninth street, and was running "40 through trains each day."

In the spring of 1877 a controlling interest in this road was obtained by Cyrus W. Field, who exhibited the same zeal in pushing it to final completion that had marked his connection with the Atlantic cable.

Legal Trouble. In those days the companies were almost constantly obstructed by suits brought by abutting property owners. In 1877 a single track and several sidings had been built from the Battery to Central Park, but it was impossible to complete the system because of legal proceedings. The same cause stopped work on the east side. In September of that year the Court of Appeals, by unanimous decision, declared that both companies were legal organizations, having proper authority to build the structures they had undertaken when stopped; and all injunctions were dissolved.

After this, work was rushed on both lines, and on June 5, 1878, the Sixth avenue road was opened from Rector street to the Park. In the intervening time it had passed into the control of the Metropolitan Elevated Company. In 1879 the two companies were consolidated under the control of the Manhattan Railway Company.

In August, 1878, the Third avenue line was opened to Forty-second street, and two years later the Second avenue line to Sixty-seventh street. In 1880 the roads on both sides of the city had reached the Harlem. Later the Third avenue line crossed the river and was carried to Bronx Park.

Interborough Rapid Transit Co. On January 1, 1903, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company leased the Manhattan Railway Company for 999 years, beginning April 1, I903; the lessee guaranteeing dividends of 6 per cent. per annum, and an additional amount, if earned, of 1 per cent. until January 1, 1906; and after that date dividends of 7 per cent. upon the par value of stock outstanding. At the present time, therefore, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company controls the entire elevated system, as well as the underground roads now finished.

The elevated roads certainly provided rapid transit facilities between the congested southern portion of New York and the districts to the north for many years. In sparsely inhabited regions such roads will undoubtedly be found useful in the future, but their field is limited.

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