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History of the New York City Subway System: The First Trains

A research guide for individuals wanting to learn about the world's first subway system

In the Beginning

The earliest forms of public transportation in New York City emerged in 1821 and it involved stage coaches and street railways that were drawn by horses. By the 1850s, established lines along Broadway and some of the avenues were prime locations to catch a public stage coach to get to your destination along the route. Trolley cars, run by electric, replaced many of the stage coaches during the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. Listed here are some of the major types of locomotion and trains introduced during the subway’s history.

1827 - The Omnibus

An omnibus along 5th Avenue approximately 1890. Sourced from Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. (1890). 5th Avenue horse drawn omnibus Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/21b1f430-36ac-0132-2952-58d385a7b928

Designed to carry about 12 people at a time, the omnibus navigated nearly 30 routes around Manhattan. The coaches were pulled by horsepower and since it can accommodate more people at once, the price was generally cheaper than hailing your own horse-drawn carriage for private traveling. The routes the omnibus followed were predetermined, so patrons that wish to go to specific locations had to keep that in mind. Traveling in an omnibus was a bumpy endeavor since horses were being driven over cobblestone streets and garbage-laden streets.

1880’s-1890’s - Cable Cars

Cable car exiting off the Brooklyn bridge towards the Brooklyn Terminal in 1905. Sourced from:Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. (1905). Brooklyn Terminal at Brooklyn Bridge Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/83bbfb21-d4fa-f5a1-e040-e00a18064f06

The first cable car ran over the Brooklyn Bridge and were powered by steam engine. Eventually, a cable line was installed in 1891 in Manhattan and it ran through Union Square. During this time the large number of people, locomotives, and horses caused congestion problems. The Union Square cable car line was notorious for causing road accidents.

Trains by Electricity - Early 20th Century

Construction of rail in subway tunnel (IRT line) in 1904; uncovered third rail. Sourced from: Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. (1904). Standard steel construction in tunnel - third rail protection not shown  Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-9b44-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 

Use of electricity to replace steam, pneumatic, and horsepower has revolutionized the way the New York City subway systems function. Direct current (unidirectional flow of an electrical charge) was adopted by the early rail companies to best power their trains. The use of third rails allow for the live electric currents to be transferred to the train cars so that they can be moved along the rails. All the three early rail companies built their own power stations to offer enough energy along their cables and third rails. Today, third rails are still in use to power the modern trains owned by the MTA. Underground trains modeled after streetcars were installed for mass transit commute. Elevated trains were also introduced (through BMT) and allowed people from Brooklyn to travel to Manhattan. Subway fees started out as being only 5 cents, but then later raised to 10 cents in the first decade of the 20th century.

Information Compiled by Tiffany Chan

1830’s 1950’s - Streetcar (trolley)

Customers getting onto streetcar on Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 1951. Sourced from: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. (1951 - 1970). Streetcar on Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/1f1f2240-a73c-0133-c831-00505686d14e

A handful of years after the introduction of the first Omnibus, iron tracks were laid down by private-owned companies (New York and Harlem Railroad) to increase the speed of transport by horsepower and the ridership. The early streetcars ran exclusively on smooth tracks that were were still pulled by horses on either side of the cars, but the introduction of the rails allowed for quicker transport. As ridership increased fees decreased, which opened up routes to the northern part of Manhattan. During the 19th century, much of New York City’s industry and businesses centered towards the southern end of the borough. Eventually rail expansions allowed for people who lived in Harlem to commute down towards the Lower East Side for work. Within 50 years of the introduction of the streetcar, steam and electric power replaced cars that were drawn by horsepower. 

The Very First Underground Train - Beach Pneumatic Transit

Left Image: Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. (1872). View looking from within the tunnel into the station. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-9ab2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Right Image: 

Pneumatic2 - Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. (1872). Interior of the pneumatic passenger-car. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-9aad-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/15/nyregion/when-the-new-york-city-subway-ran-without-rails.html?_r=0

 

In 1870, Alfred Ely Beach developed a quasi train system that ran on pneumatic power, a form of power that incorporates pressurized air, under Broadway between Warren Street to Murray Street. This small train line ran for 3 years at a cost of 25 cents a ride. Patrons enjoyed a padded train car that was illuminated by zirconia light while being moved along at 10 miles per hour. Beach’s one-route system was not popular enough to take hold and he had to shut down his operation within 3 years of unveiling it. Eventually, New York City would develop their first elevated train routes within the next 30 years, but would then go back to having underground train routes that riders today would be familiar with.

 

Changes That Affected the Trains

The IRT and BMT lines were incorporated into the IND line in 1940, which was owned by the city. This began the MTA’s early history as the sole transit system in New York City. With the cost of riding the subway still teetering around 10 cents, and then eventually to 15 cents, it was still considered a costly method of commuting. Trains in this era still maintained a fashionable aesthetic - wicker basket seating and for the first time lights powered by energy from the third rail. Eventually, as ridership went up, additional problems arise. Trains were maintained and cleaned regularly, but the stations were not. Crime and death were regular occurrences along train routes.

Today’s trains

The current fleet of trains owned by the MTA are split into two divisions - A and B. The A Division trains are the number trains, or historically owned by IRT (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7) and the 42nd street shuttle train. The B Division trains are the letter trains, historically owned by BMT and IND  (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, J, L, M, N, Q, R, S, W, and Z). The difference between these two divisions is the overall width of the cars. The A Division trains are just under 9 feet wide, which fit into the original IRT tunnels perfectly. The B divisions trains are 10 feet wide, and can fit into the original BMT and IND lines. The current NYC trains are made by Alstom and Kawasaki and were introduced in 2003.