Beyond the Village and Back: Chicago’s “L” and the New York City “El”

John Sloan’s Six O’Clock, Winter, a scene under the Third Avenue El in 1912.

On June 6th in 1892, the Chicago “L” (elevated train line) began running.  But did you know that elevated trains (or “Els” as they were known) were once a not uncommon sight throughout the Village and East Village? The IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 9th Avenue lines all ran through our neighborhoods in the mid-19th to early-20th Centuries, each helping to define and shape the areas they traversed. 

IRT 2nd Avenue El

The Second Avenue El, looking south on First Avenue from 13th Street during its demolition in September 1942. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1875, the Rapid Transit Commission granted the Gilbert Elevated Railway Company the right to construct the railway from Battery Park to the Harlem River along Second Avenue.  Its southern terminus was City Hall, and it continued to Chatham Square, where it had a junction with the Third Avenue El and ran east along Division Street and then north to Allen Street. The Second Avenue El did not run entirely on Second Avenue; in fact, in the area now known as the East Village it ran along First Avenue from Houston Street until it turned on 23rd Street and switched to Second Avenue.  The Second Avenue Elevated was closed north of 59th Street on June 12, 1940, though evening and Sunday Queens trains were extended to City Hall or South Ferry. However, on May 19, 1941 evening and Sunday service was discontinued, and finally, on June 13, 1942, all service was discontinued.  While the El may be gone, the current Second Avenue Subway follows much of the same route; though it has been under consideration since 1919, 23 years before the 1942 demolition of the IRT Second Avenue Line, the first phase of this subway line opened for service in 2017.

IRT 3rd Avenue El

The Third Avenue El over the Bowery in the 1890s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1875, the Rapid Transit Commission granted the New York Elevated Railway Company the right to construct the railway from Battery Park to the Harlem River along the Bowery and Third Avenue.  The Third Avenue El opened in 1878, running from South Ferry to 129th Street.  In the 1930s and 1940s, as part of the integration of the different subway companies in New York City—the IRT,  Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit (BMT), and Independent Subway System (IND)—the Third Avenue elevated and its counterparts came under criticism from New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his successors. The elevated lines were regarded as blights on their communities and obsolete, since the subways were being built or were planned to replace them.  The system was closed in sections from 1950 to 1973; on May 12, 1955, the main portion of the line closed from Chatham Square to East 149th Street in the Bronx, ending the operation of elevated service in Manhattan.  The removal was a catalyst to a wave of new construction, adding property values on the East Side (and spurring the birth of the “East Village”).

IRT 6th Avenue El

The Sixth Avenue El in Greenwich Village, 1935. Photo courtesy of Berenice Abbott.

The Sixth Avenue El was constructed during the 1870s by the Gilbert Elevated Railway, subsequently reorganized as the Metropolitan Elevated Railway. By June 1878, its route ran north from the corner of Rector Street and Trinity Place up Trinity Place/Church Street, then west for a block at Murray Street, then north again on West Broadway, west again across West 3rd Street to the foot of Sixth Avenue, and then north to 59th Street. In 1881, the line was connected to the largely rebuilt Ninth Avenue Elevated.  Due to its central location in Manhattan and the inversion of the usual relationship between street noise and height, the Sixth Avenue El attracted artists, in addition to being the subject of several paintings by John French Sloan, Francis Criss and others.

As with many elevated railways in the city, the Sixth Avenue El made life difficult for those nearby. It was noisy, it made buildings shake, and in the line’s early years, it dropped ash, oil, and cinders on pedestrians below.  Eventually, a coalition of commercial establishments and building owners along Sixth Avenue campaigned to have the El removed on the grounds that it was depressing business and property values.  In 1936, work started on the underground Sixth Avenue Line.   The El was officially closed on December 4, 1938 and razed during 1939; in the early 1990s, the footings for the elevated were rediscovered during a Sixth Avenue renovation project.

IRT 9th Avenue El

The “Chalet” style El station of the Ninth Avenue Line at Greenwich and Christopher Streets. Photo courtesy of MCNY.

The Ninth Avenue El began operation in 1868, with a charter to run from Battery Place to 30th Street.  In Greenwich Village, the Ninth Avenue Elevated ran along Greenwich Street and ran on just a steel track and supports. In fact, the initial version was more or less an early prototype for what we would today call a monorail – it ran in a loop on a single track above a single row of columns, pulled along by a cable. The engineering marvel became known as “the One-Legged Railroad,” and allowed New York City (then just the island of Manhattan) to expand rapidly northward during those booming years of the industrial revolution and mass immigration which followed the Civil War. It also allowed quicker transit above the increasingly congested Lower Manhattan streets.

The line had ongoing problems and in 1870 finally shut down altogether and sat idle for a few months.  On February 9, 1871, the transit commissioners granted permission for the elevated railway company to proceed with their plan to discard all previous equipment and replace it with steam locomotives. Repairs were made to strengthen the existing structure and steam operation began on April 20, 1871. In 1872, the property was bought at auction by the newly organized New York Elevated Railroad Company, which thus commenced the world’s first successful elevated railway.  Steam power was to be used on all subsequent lines until the advent of electrical operation in 1902.  The line ran through the Village up until 1940, when it was closed and dismantled in the neighborhood, as the IND subway line running along 8th began to make the El obsolete.  Today, the 9th Avenue El is still remembered as NYC’s first elevated train line.

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