Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Last Streetcar in New York

New York's transit system is a marvel, especially compared with San Francisco's Muni. But there is one area where the Big Apple can't match the City by the Bay: streetcars. I love the New York subway and the tram, but I still miss the rattle of streetcars on Market Street and the rumble of cable cars climbing California Street.

Well, it turns out that the very last streetcar in New York City rolled over the Queensboro Bridge more than 57 years ago. I learned that from this fascinating video posted on the Roosevelt Islander blog.

Before 1954 — when a bridge was built from Queens — this trolley was the sole way to reach Roosevelt Island, then known as Welfare Island.

From Roosevelt Islander, which cites NYC Roads:
When the trolley would get to the Roosevelt Island stop, "riders descended a small staircase to a catwalk underneath the roadway, where they entered an 'upside down building' (the entrance was on the roof) in which they took elevators to street level. Trolley service ended with the completion of the Roosevelt Island Bridge in 1955. The old elevator buildings were demolished in 1970."
Can you imagine this bizarre portal being the only way on or off the island?

Of course, there was much less reason to visit this place back then. The plan for apartment buildings on the island wasn't adopted until 1969, and that was followed by years of construction.

The trolley-free Queensboro Bridge today.

For any local readers who want to see more of the Queensboro Bridge Trolley, there's a new exhibition on the streetcar featuring photography by Sid Kaplan. It runs until July 24 at the the Octagon Gallery (888 Main Street).

The trolley video also solved a personal mystery for me. When I wrote my paean to the Queensboro Bridge last month, I griped about how confusing it can be to cross it: "Depending on what onramp you use, you may be forced to drive in what appears to be a breakdown lane and stay in it the whole way across."

This was one of the abandoned streetcar lanes!

If I had known I was traversing an august stretch of transit history, I would have appreciated it more.