Many people don’t realize that our subway system was once a conglomeration of privately owned subway lines. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) were the two first lines. The City of New York built the subway tracks, platforms and tunnels for these subway trains and leased them to these privately held companies which ran the trains. Both the IRT and BRT trains were the children of the old elevated trains that ran over both Manhattan and Brooklyn. The first underground train began running in Manhattan in 1904.
The idea of a subway was not new, it had been kicking around for years, and probably got its first real wake-up call from the infamous Great Blizzard of 1888, which paralyzed the city under as much as fifty inches of drifted snow. When planners were figuring out where the subway would run, it was a no-brainer that there would be a subway line that traveled under the East River, joining Brooklyn and Manhattan.
As we’ve seen in the last two chapters of our story, the excavation of the first IRT tunnel underneath the river caused all kinds of problems to those above Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. Buildings shifted on their foundations, sheered-off stoops, cracked walls and downed plaster ceilings told homeowners that they were literally living on shifting sands.
Thousands of dollars of damage was done on Joralemon Street in the years between 1903 and 1905, and initially, the city denied responsibility, refusing to pay homeowners for the damage. But lawsuits were filed with rapidity worthy of today, and eventually, the city and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company were forced to compensate the people of Joralemon Street to the tune of several million dollars.
Nothing teaches a lesson better than losing money, and the city fathers and the subway companies were paying attention. One subway tunnel under the East River was only the beginning. There would be more lines joining Manhattan and the other boroughs, excepting Staten Island. How would those tunnels be built, and would another Joralemon Street be in the offing? Not if they could help it. And because this was, after all, New York, the solutions found themselves mired in political mud. But first, there’s a bit of back story that needs to be told here:
The residents of Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights woke to read some of the most horrific news a home owner can ever read, emblazoned in the Brooklyn Eagle on June 17, 1904; “Property Owners Must Make Their Own Repairs. City not liable for damage done by Joralemon Street Tunnel, so says Transit Board.” They couldn’t believe it. It was like being knocked down, beaten up, and then charged for vagrancy. These were well-to-do, important people. They had never been so abused and outraged in their lives. And all for a subway tunnel.
Our story began last time with the building of the Joralemon Street tunnel, a state of the art twin tube of steel and concrete that would connect Manhattan’s new subway to Brooklyn. The tunnel would run from underneath the Battery in Lower Manhattan, under the East River to Brooklyn Heights. This modern feat of engineering would travel underneath Joralemon Street, and then continue on to a newly constructed subway station at Borough Hall. This was part of the Interborough Rapid Transit Line, running today’s 4 and 5 trains.
The Joralemon Tunnel presented all kinds of challenges for the engineers. They had to dig underneath the East River, a fantastic undertaking in of itself, and then aim upwards into the bedrock of Brooklyn. They also had to pressurize the tunnel to keep water out. But the pressure needed to be released, so a tunnel was dug on Joralemon, enabling workers to approach the dig from both sides. That tunnel access point is still able to be accessed at 58 Joralemon Street.
The Mynderse mansion was a grand brick Greek Revival home on the corner of Joralemon Street and Garden Place, built in 1854. It was the largest house on the block, rivaled in size only by the Daniel Chauncey mansion, which was built much later, in 1890. Wilhelmus Mynderse, a wealthy lawyer, bought the house for his family in 1890. He put an extension on the back, and settled in with his family and his art and book collections.
When the Joralemon Tunnel began to be constructed underneath his street, Mynderse was one of the first to notice cracks in his plaster. Over the summer of 1903, the cracks got worse, and finally, one night, the house shifted on its foundation an entire two inches, cracking every wall in the building, and bringing decorative ceiling plaster crashing to the floor. Something was happening underneath Joralemon Street.
At one point, in the mid-18th century, Philip Livingston owned most of Brooklyn Heights. His forty-acre farm once spread across the width of the cliffs overlooking the East River. While the town of Brooklyn was growing quickly below and to the north of him, the Heights were still pasture and farmland, and Livingston’s estate sat on the best part of it. By the time the American Revolution rolled around, Livingston was one of the wealthiest and most influential of Brooklyn’s elite. He was a friend of the patriot cause, and the only signer of the Declaration of Independence from Brooklyn. The Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 was the first major test of that new independence, and was almost the end of everything.
As the British were moving in on a retreating George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army met at Livingston’s manor to plan the retreat across the river to safety in New Jersey. Washington stood on the cliffs of the Heights, looking over at Manhattan wondering if he’d ever see that sight again. Fortunately, he escaped, and after a long and difficult war, American independence was won. But it came with a price. Hard on Washington’s heels, Livingston and his family left Brooklyn, and fled to Kingston and then Poughkeepsie, where family members still live. During the occupation of Brooklyn, the British turned the estate into a brewery and hospital.
After the war, Livingston began selling off parcels of the estate. One of the many familiar names to buy a sizable piece of it was a harness and saddlemaker named Teunis Joralemon, who hailed from New Jersey, by way of Flatbush. In 1803, he purchased a good sized plot, and proceeded to become one of Brooklyn’s most powerful landowners and important citizens.
Image source: OpenTripPlanner Analyst project – the grey areas are places where public transit accessibility was most dramatically affected by Hurricane Sandy
The Atlantic Cities published a short series of maps created by developers at OpenTripPlanner, an “open source platform for multimodal trip itinerary planning and network analysis.” These maps illustrate NYC transit access before and after Hurricane Sandy hit, and they look like beautiful watercolors, despite how frustrating that time was for so many. The contrasts are striking, too.
As you probably remember, the majority of the trains were out for a little while – the R below 34th Street was out for some time, and the 1 train at South Ferry still will be closed for quite a while – and the ailing A train near Broad Channel in Jamaica Bay was totally trashed. The East River Ferry was a huge help, as was the ferry to and from the Rockaways.
Anyway, about those maps. You can interpret them like this, as described by The Atlantic Cities:
The yellow areas are the parts of the city that 7.5 million New Yorkers can reach from home in less than an hour by public transit and walking. The red areas are within an hour’s commute of 6 million people in the metropolitan area. The blue areas are accessible by 4 million people, and the gray areas by 2 million.
Damage on the New York City Subway’s Rockaway Line (A train), shortly after Hurricane Sandy came through. Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Leonard Wiggins
The folks who run the Rockaway Emergency Plan posted an update on the A train track work scheduled for this winter. Work that was originally planned for later this year has been bumped up to and earlier timeframe, which is good news for the area.
Image source: Youngking11 on Wikimedia Commons
NY 1 reported on another step toward normalcy in southwestern Queens, which got hit hard during Hurricane Sandy – the return of the A train to Howard Beach, which allows for easier transit access for those on the Rockaway peninsula. Trains started back up at 7:42am on Sunday, ahead of schedule (8am was the scheduled start time).
Image source: Seastreak
Gothamist reports that temporary ferries are going to be available in the Rockaways as residents continue to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Ferries will start running on Monday, November 12, and are the result of a partnership between the Mayor’s office, New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and Seastreak, the ferry company. Mayor Bloomberg announced the news on Friday:
“Ferries will depart from Beach 108th Street and Beach Channel Drive (GMAP), where the Economic Development Corporation has been working to install a temporary landing, and stop at Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan with free transfers between Pier 11 and East 34th Street in Midtown. The service will start at 5:45 AM in the Rockaways with ferries departing for Manhattan regularly until 9:20 AM, with regular service resuming during the evening rush. One-way fares will be $2.”
Resources for your post-Sandy recovery
We’ve put together a collection of resources for you to consider in your recovery from the wrath of Hurricane Sandy – everything from how to contact FEMA, to the Red Cross, to the Transit Tracker, so you can keep tabs on the continually changing public transit landscape. We hope you fared well during the hurricane and that you and yours are safe.
LIC got seriously flooded during the hurricane and here’s a recap
We saw some surreal visions of Gantry Plaza State Park on Monday night – it totally flooded. Some of the high rises did, too. Check out our LIC overview, with input by City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and the LIC Partnership.
Belle Harbor also suffered hurricane-related fires
Belle Harbor, the location of the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in November 2001, had to deal with its own fires this week. Heartbreaking. NBC and Matt Lauer went to this neighborhood and produced this video for TODAY. “Whatever wasn’t flooded was on fire.”
The East River Ferry is a good transit alternative right now, especially for LIC/Hunters Point folks
We’ve heard rumblings that the 7 train won’t be up and running until next week – so why not consider the East River Ferry as a transit option? It’s a great way to get across to Manhattan – about 5 minutes from LIC/Hunters Point. Plus it’s nice to be on the water. A very different way to travel than the subway. At QueensNYC we love the ferry and take it when we can.
All those humorous hurricane memes
We need some levity while things seem doomed in parts of Queens, so we put together some of our favorite funny images related to Sandy. You gotta love the ways humans cope.
In the aftermath of great disasters, there is always the need for assigning blame, and seeking justice. In the case of the Malbone Street Wreck, which killed at least 93 people, and seriously injured over 200 more, that need was great. The people demanded answers, and a newly elected and ambitious mayor had his own agenda.
In Parts One and Two of our story, we learned how Edward Luciano, a young train dispatcher with the Brooklyn Rapid Transit line, was pressed into service as a train motorman, when the motormen’s union called a strike, on November 1, 1918. With hurried training, and only a few hours practice, he was given a double shift driving the train, and by the time he started his second shift, here on the Brighton Line, it was dark, late in the day, and he was still inexperienced.
As any experienced train motorman will tell you, it’s not driving the train that’s hard, it’s making the stops. Brake too early, and the train stops before reaching the platform, and you have to lurch into the station. Brake too late, and you overshoot the platform and have to back up. Go too fast, and brake too late, and you are in the perfect position for disaster. This was exactly what happened to an inexperienced motorman named Edward Luciano, as he approached the Malbone Street tunnel on the Brooklyn Rapid Transit line, at 6:42 pm, on November 1, 1918. What followed was the worst transit disaster in the history of the New York City subway system, a disaster so horrific that the name “Malbone Street” became too painful a reminder of the tragedy, and the street itself was re-named Empire Boulevard. We began the story in the last Walkabout. Here’s what happened that fateful day: