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Commemorative Tokens and Medals

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Proposals for an underground railroad in New York City were made as early as the 1850s, and an experimental pneumatic tube line was built by Alfred Beach in 1870. This operation was 312 feet long and extended under Broadway from Murray to Warren Streets near City Hall. The fare was twenty-five cents round-trip, as there was only one station on the line. The operation was closed down within a year or so as many of the local merchants feared their buildings would collapse from the hole under the foundations. After the line closed, it was generally forgotten about only to be discovered over 30 years later during excavations for the current subway.

Unable to go underground, public transportation in the city went above ground. Elevated lines radiated from Battery Park in the south to the Harlem River and the Bronx in the north, and over the Brooklyn Bridge into Brooklyn in the east. Streetcar and cable car routes went on nearly every feasible street. It took a while for the city leaders to again think of a subway, but by the 1890s the time was ready.

After some instigation by former mayor Samuel P. Avery, the state of New York approved the Rapid Transit Act in 1894. This act enabled the city to sub-contract the subway construction work and issue bonds. In successive years the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company was formed with August Belmont as President and Financier, and John B. McDonald as executor of the contract, and William Barclay Parsons as Chief Engineer. The bid price was thirty-five million dollars. March 24th 1900 was the date set for the groundbreaking ceremonies near the front steps of City Hall, just a block away from the 1870 operation of Mr. Beach. A silver shovel made by Tiffany & Co. was commissioned for the event, used by Mayor Van Wyck. The wood of the handle was taken from the timber of the "Lawrence", Commodore Perry's flagship at the Battle of Lake Erie, 1813. The shovel is now in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Invited guests received a plated miniature shovel tied with a ribbon onto their engraved invitations. In April of 1900 the Chamber of Commerce presented Abram S. Hewitt a gold medal in tribute for getting the project going. This bronze copy features the bust of Mr. Hewitt on the obverse and the View of the Brooklyn Bridge railroad terminal elevated station, as well as the underground station, which is still in use.

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Medal Presented by the Chamber of Commerce to Abram S. Hewitt.


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Collection of: George Cuhaj

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The first section of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (there would be four in total by 1907) was opened with great fanfare on October 27th 1904. City Hall was the site again, and after a morning filled with over three hours of speeches and a benediction given by Archbishop Farley, August Belmont presented Mayor George B. McClellan a silver controller handle with the words "I give you this controller, Mr. Mayor, with the request that you put in operation this great road, and start it on its course of success and, I hope, safety." With controller in hand, the Mayor proceeded to close the indoor ceremony, walk across what is now a driveway in front of City Hall and lead the invited guests down through a kiosk and into the City Hall Station. Starting that first train, the Mayor did not relinquish the controls until seven of the nine miles of the route were covered. This silver controller handle is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The afternoon on that first day was a free-ride day for the public, and it was a mob scene as reported in the contemporary press. That evening, seventy-five men were invited by August Belmont to a dinner at Sherry's Restaurant, a model subway car ran up and down the main table. At the serving of a sherbet dessert, a silver medal was presented each of the guests. The obverse of the 45mm medal features the portraits of George B. McClellan, Mayor, Alexander Orr, Chairman of the Rapid Transit Commission, and August Belmont. This was a very nice dessert! Mr. Belmont did not go away empty handed, he received for his efforts a very large silver loving cup with large gold initials, and a silver-serving tray, with the IRT's route map engraved onto it. These are both in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.


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About this time also, the members of the State of New York's Rapid Transit Commission received a medal designed by artists at Tiffany & Company. It is Bronze, 72mm in diameter. The obverse has in the center a tunnel view with two trains, above is the arms of the City of New York, and below is the seal of the State Chamber of Commerce, with a ribbon with the dates of 1894 and 1904. On the longer ribbon circling the scene is the inscription: "Suggested by the Chamber of Commerce -- Authorized by the State -- Constructed by the City." The reverse is the legend: "Presented by the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York to (name) in recognition of his services as a member of the Rapid Transit Commission." The Commission served until 1907 at which time it was called ineffective, as it acted too slowly in granting new franchise routes in the outlying Boroughs, especially to competitor companies. There were eleven members over the thirteen years of the commission, and a few of the medals are known un-engraved.

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Medal Presented by the Chamber of Commerce to the Rapid Transit Commissioners.


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Collection of: George Cuhaj

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The IRT opens service to Brooklyn with an East River Tunnel in 1908. But soon thereafter the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was granted a franchise for a Fourth Avenue Subway extending from downtown Brooklyn to a southern terminus at 89th Street. For that groundbreaking ceremony day, a grandstand was erected at 68th street, and a massive parade proceeded the turning of the earth. For company officials and members of the Public Service Commission, the firm of Dieges and Clust struck a three-part badge.


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With this addition underway, and the Public Service Commission being continually bombarded with new routes to approve, some sort of master plan for the future of the City had to be drawn up and implemented. During 1912, five companies involved in transport and the Commission members argued over which firms were to get what right to build extensions. This work culminated in April of 1913 with what have become to be known as the Dual Contracts.

The Dual Contracts formulated over 200 miles of elevated and subway routes in addition to streetcar lines. Representatives of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company signed these contracts with the City of New York at a large ceremonial banquet. A silver letter-folding blade was presented to executives of the companies, one is in the collection of the Museum of the city of New York. Bronze medals were presented to the common banquet attendees. The Whitehead and Hoag Company of Newark, NJ made these medals.


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Our second issue from the Dual Contract era is a bronze medal commemorating the June 7th 1913 groundbreaking of the extension of the subway into Queens. The obverse depicts a rendering of the viaduct on which the 7-train runs on, as well as the two-track subway portal in Long Island City, where the ceremony was held. It was at this occasion that the new flag for the Borough of Queens was unveiled for the first time.


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Collection of: George Cuhaj

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The last attributable numismatic item for the Dual Contracts comes to us in the shape of a large 4 by 5-inch plaque. Made by Digest and Clust, this white-metal plated bronze item is divided into three horizontal regions. The top gives a rendering of the skyline of lower Manhattan from the Battery to the Brooklyn Bridge, as seen from Brooklyn Heights, the center section has the arms of the City of New York flanked by a partially completed tunnel, and a train in a completed tunnel, the lower section has an extensive listing of names, and a central plaque noting: "To commemorate the occasion of commencing work on the East River Tunnels, October 13th 1914." (Also, a medal reading: "Fourth Avenue Subway Celebration, Brooklyn, NY, Nov. 13, 1909." must refer to the groundbreaking of the subway line then part of the Triborough system.)


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Collection of: George Cuhaj

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Of a more general nature and from the 1920s is a long service medal for employees of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company. This three-piece medal has Retired on the top bar, and suspended from a maroon ribbon is a pendant inscribed Faithful Service and a cross with the BMT initials at the center. The reverse has a simple legend and space for engraving. This was the last known medal type object made for the Subway companies until 1979, but now is when tokens come into the limelight.


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Collection of: George Cuhaj

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The Interborough Rapid Transit Company and the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company were operating under the Dual Contracts for about ten years before trouble entered the picture. This was in two areas: they could not raise the fare above 5-cents, and that construction costs were rising much faster than those projected in 1913. The BRT went into receivership in the early 1920 after the disastrous Malbone Street accident (the street was later renamed Empire Boulevard). It was re-organized as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company. The IRT forecasting bad things, in 1927 petitioned to the Public Service Commission for a hike to a 7-cent fare. The PSC denied it, but in appeal to the State Supreme Court, it was overturned. After oral arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1928 things looked good for a hike in the fare, so the IRT ordered two million tokens from each of three companies: Johnson Fare Box, Scoville Manufacturing, and Meyer & Wenth. These six million tokens were in the vaults of the IRT by December of 1928. However, after re-hearing the case, the Supreme Court ruled that the 5-cent fare must stay, the tokens went into storage, and in time the companies went into receivership. The tokens remained in the vaults of the Board of Transportation until 1943 when a large sum were sold to the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company for the metal use in their own token of the era, and the remaining stock was sold in 1948 for scrap. In an oft-repeated oral folklore story that when the twenty year old bags were being moved out of storage, one broke spilling the contents on the floor, and needless to say, not all of the tokens found their way back into the replacement bag.


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The IRT was not far off in the projection of receivership, and this came in 1932. The BMT followed soon thereafter. However in the intervening time the City of New York finally did build a subway under their ownership, the Independent System, which opened in 1932. Now, with three systems in operation, two in receivership, talks of unification began.

This unification, however, did not come to pass until 1940 when the three subway companies became the New York City Transit System, under the control of the Board of Transportation.

For collectors, the unification brought about the Transfer Token series. As early as 1928, the buses of the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company had Perry Superstyles installed, but as Nickels were accepted, that worked just fine. Using the turnstiles in place on the buses, upon unification in 1940 over 75,000 white metal and many fewer brass transfer tokens were minted. Two different designs in brass and design in steel and white metal were minted. The legend reads "New York City Transit System -- B.M.T. Div. Transfer Token." The reverse legend reads: "Issued in Exchange for Transfer." The Brass token is a post war issue and the word Division is not abbreviated. An error of the brass token exists, with the company name as Transfer System rather than Transit System. They were used none-the-less.


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The transfer tokens were used when the two-cent surcharge was paid on the first streetcar or bus to the operator, who presented the passenger with a paper transfer. When the passenger made the transfer and boarded the new streetcar, they surrendered the paper transfer and the operator gave the transfer token to the passenger to use to pass through the turnstile. Other transfers were free, and then the token was used to just pass through the turnstile.

During this time a three-cent child's fare was introduced, so some vehicles were outfitted with a two-slot turnstile. A 24mm holed brass token filled this use. Only a very limited number of buses or streetcars had two slot turnstiles, so these tokens saw very limited use. Normally the patron would pay the three cents to the operator and pass through on a regular transfer token if the vehicle was equipped with just a one-slot turnstile. The tokens remained in use until 1948 when the surface fare rose to 7 cents and fare boxes replaced turnstiles on all surface vehicles.


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The Manhattan Bus Division had turnstiles placed on the vehicles in late 1949. In that year the Chicago firm of Meyer and Wenth struck 5,000 of those tokens.


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Collection of: George Cuhaj

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The Subway fare rose in 1948 to ten cents. Free transfers were instituted between bus and streetcar, or elevated and subway line, but not between bus and subway. In a few cases movie-ticket type transfers were available for a joint fare of twelve cents, until 1953.

The Board of Transportation wanted to remove control of the operation of the unified system from the City, so by 1953 the plans were formulated for the formation of the New York City Transit Authority, a semi-autonomous public agency, which took over operations in June 1953. With this organizational transfer, a fare increase, and a token came about. Prior to this though, a few samples were struck using the name of the New York City Transit System, and NYCS in the center of a diamond. These are very scarce. There are varieties with the central NYC letters smooth or with a dimpled effect.

However, with the name change to Authority, new designs for a token were needed, and that job fell to Louis A. Schineller, an employee in the Maintenance of Way Department who had a background in designing type specimens. The end result, after being given a selection of tokens then current in other cities and following a set of NYCTA specifications was the now famous 16mm brass token. Due to time constraints, a solid token was used from June through September. The Osborne Coinage Company and Scoville Manufacturing Co made these solid tokens. By September the originally desired 16mm specimens with the Y-cut out were being delivered and phased into use. There are several varieties of these, including some very passable counterfeits. The 16mm token remained in use at the 15-cent fare until 1966 and then at a 20-cent fare until 1970. There are three distinct varieties noticeable in the letter G in the word Good.


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Starting in 1966, a 28mm token was made for the Aqueduct Race Track special which ran during the race season from Midtown Manhattan to the Brooklyn race track, during the November through April race season. The customer would pay the regular fare to enter the system in three locations in Manhattan and the Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop in Brooklyn, But the token was used for the return trip from the race track. Once the Racetrack special received a new token in 1981, these 28mm tokens saw use in the 1980s and early 1990s as Express bus fare tokens, when they were sold in sealed ten-packs.


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With the new employee contract of 1970 a 23mm token was introduced for the 30-cent fare, which in September 1973 became 35-cents, and in 1975 50-cents. Osborne Coinage Company and the Roger Williams Mint made these tokens. There are two distinct die varieties, again noticeable in the letter G of Good.


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In the anticipation of the 1975 fare increase, the NYCTA had the Roger Williams Mint strike up copper-tone solid 22mm tokens, which were distributed to the press and news media to spread that new tokens were on the way and don't bother hoarding. That must have worked very well, as when the fare increase went into effect, the old 23mm token remained. (See below for illustration.)

In 1979, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the IRT, the New York City Transit Authority, now under the jurisdiction of the state controlled Metropolitan Transportation Administration, jointly planned the celebrations. The MTA had a graphic designer from the J.C. Penney Company, William Bonell, present a draft of the Diamond Jubilee token. Osborne Coinage struck ten million in brass for general circulation concurrent with the Y-Cutout issue. 5,000 were struck in proof brass, from polished dies and made available to the public from the revenue office at 370 Jay Street. 10,000 pieces were struck in copper-nickel, but were never released, and are presumed destroyed. The Fifth Avenue Jewlery firm of H. Stern had a numbered edition of 250 made in 14-karat gold. The design includes a subway kiosk entrance on one side, and the 1904 subway car on the other, with a large diamond above. It is interesting to note that nowhere on the token does it say "Good for One Fare!" Due to the speed of manufacture, many were struck with off-center diamonds, and some are known as un-punched solids. An error also exists with the token made of two subway car designs, and no kiosk design!


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As a result of the New York City Transit Authority's employee suggestion program a series of four service medals were developed in 1979. Designed by Michael Bosnick then a graphics department employee at 370 Jay Street, it is an updated modification on the NYCTA's 1953 logo of a subway and bus superimposed on a skyline of Manhattan and map of the boroughs. The ribbon is the two tone blue of the MTA colors. The award comes in four grades and three metals: Extraordinary Heroism, gold plated bronze, mintage of 103; Heroism, silver plated bronze, mintage of 253; Extraordinary Performance, silver plated bronze, mintage of 253; Superior Performance, Bronze, 503.


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The 22mm copper pattern would make its appearance in the news media once again for the 1980-fare increase, at which time the 23mm Y-cut out was replaced with a solid brass token at a 60-cent fare. These remained in use for the 75-cent and 90-cent and one-dollar fares until 1986. An interesting error exists with a token made of two Good for one Fare sided dies.


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Collection of: George Cuhaj

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The 1980 race season saw the introduction of the white metal Special Fare token. Used only at the race track station, sold at the Aqueduct station token both and used only at that turnstile. Sources report only four-thousand were minted in the late 1970s. The racetrack special was incorporated as an extra stop on the ill-fated "JFK Airport Express." The Special Fare tokens remained in storage until the spring of 2004 when the TA began to sell them in quantities of 100 to collectors.


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For the 1984 introduction of the Bombardier R62A the Bombardier company struck a 25mm commemorative inscribed "New York City Transit Authority - Bombardier" (and their logo). The reverse has "R62A - Good For One Ride - Inaugural Service Run." The inaugural ride ceremony did not occur and the tokens were later given to a New York City rail club. I've never seen it.

In 1986 50 million new steel centered brass tokens were minted by the Roger Williams Mint at a cost of $5,750,000. Under GOOD FOR on the reverse are small initials, SJD, they are for Silvester J. Dubosz, then Assistant Controller of the New York City Transit Authority. He was responsible for ordering the tokens, and was fired once it was discovered that he had hid initials placed on the token order. Later strikes of the design do not carry the initials, eventually over 90 million of these bi-metallic tokens were minted. These were the first tokens to be sold in ten packs with a free ride at time of purchase.

For the first major construction project in recent times, the Archer Avenue Extension that opened in December 1988 received a commemorative token. 65,000 tokens were sold in restricted quantities at the three stations added along the Queens addition. Many of these special tokens were held in storage and are only now becoming available from the TA in quantities of 100.


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An interesting side note: In 1988 the NYCTA entertained bids for 436,000 pounds of brass tokens, these included 1,500,000 16mm, 40,000,000 23mm and 50,000,000 plus of the 22mm solid tokens. They received bids of 30 cents a pounds for the 218 tons of brass scrap.

The 1994-fare increase to 1.50 saw the introduction of the pentagon cut out. The Roger William Mint struck sixty million examples. Easier to produce than the Y-cut out as there is no concern for proper registration, just centering. The electronic Metrocard was introduced but it received sluggish acceptance as it forced bulk purchases but did not offer a discount, it was only after all stations had Metrocard turnstiles available was the TA able to offer discounts. Finally in May 2003 just a month shy of its fiftieth anniversary the token is removed from use on the subway and buses. Only uses of the Roosevelt Island tramway where the token was used as a convenience got a reprieve, until finally they too now use Metrocards.


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After the introduction of the pentagon center token a 1995 NY Times article reported that 7 million of the 23mm Y-cut out were never redeemed, 9 million of 22mm solid and 20 million of bull's-eye token were never redeemed.

I'd like to make just a closing word about the Metrocard. Fares can be collected two ways, buy distance of ride, or by one fee per ride. In Washington DC, or in the San Francisco Bay Area it is collected by distance traveled, and time of day. The NYC system philosophy has been one flat rate no matter the distance. The metrocard's acceptance from 1994 through 2002 had been less than stellar, as it did not offer major discounts. The discounts could not go into effect until all the stations were equipped to handle the cards. So what amounted to an eight-year delay in opportunity was a result of the size, the success, the need of the Transit System of this city.


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