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Keeping New York in Motion

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on May 7, 2020

Flatbush car barn, circa 1885; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (v1972.1830), Brooklyn Historical Society
Flatbush car barn, circa 1885; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (v1972.1830), Brooklyn Historical Society

This week we honor the transportation workers who are keeping New York City connected in this time of global crisis. To the bus and subway operators and drivers, engineers, mechanics, and tradesmen, along with cleaning staff, thank you for what you are doing to keep our essential workers and others still commuting daily safe. We are devastated by reports, including this recent opinion piece from the New York Times, of transit workers getting sick and passing away due to Covid-19 and stand with you in mourning.

Many early photographs of New York City public transportation highlight infrastructure: tunnels under construction, pristine subway platforms, or elevated rail tracks. It is rarer to see the faces of the men (and women!) who built and kept these services in motion. Their efforts date back over 180 years, before the subway and before Brooklyn became part of New York City.

Proudly lined up, the men in this photograph are likely the crew who worked out of the Vernon Avenue car barn in Flatbush. In the early 1800s, New York and Brooklyn’s original public transportation options were, literally, horse powered. Horse drawn stagecoaches or larger omnibuses were the first to bounce along unpaved roads. In the late 1850s, they were replaced in Brooklyn by horsecars like the one in this image. Still pulled by horse, the wheels of these cars slide along metal rails built into roadways, creating a smoother rider experience and lessening the burden on the animals. At their peak, there were over 2,500 horsecars throughout Brooklyn, operated and maintained by workers like those in this photograph: drivers, conductors, car barn attendants, and maintenance staff who worked long hours to get Brooklyn’s growing population where they needed to go.

As the populations of Brooklyn and New York City grew and technology improved, the public transportation system evolved. By the 1890s, horsecars were becoming obsolete, replaced in turn by cable cars, trolleys, elevated railroad systems (the “el” lines), buses, and by the early 1900s, the expanding subway system. Originally owned and operated by independent corporations, in the twentieth century transportation companies consolidated and in 1968, came together under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Today the MTA is one of the most extensive, heavily used, and complex public transit networks in the world, employing over 50,000 people.

In an effort to launch more aggressive disinfection procedures and slow the spread of Covid-19, on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, the New York City subway suspended overnight service between 1 am and 5 am for the first time in MTA history. Words cannot express our gratitude to the workers who – on the roads, rails, tunnels, waterways and behind the scenes – are keeping New York moving.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward inviting you back to BHS in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, you can use our Remote Research Guide to get started. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected]

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