historic photo of a monorail derailment
City Island Line Wreck of Monorail 1910 COURTESY NEW YORK TRANSIT MUSEUM

The Bronx Was Built by Transit

Building the Bronx, an exhibition by the New York Transit Museum shows how horsecars, subways, and even a monorail knit the Bronx to New York City, creating the borough we know today.

In recent decades, when New York City seems incapable of expanding transit into even its most densely settled areas, the idea of expanding transit into the city’s fringes seems downright surreal. And yet every reminder that that’s what we once did, is welcome. Building the Bronx, an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum’s Grand Central Annex documents the processes of that borough’s growth, overwhelmingly on the back of transit. It deserves a visit the next time you’ve missed a train–or just want to look at some.

The exhibition points out that even before the arrival of the IRT in the Bronx  in the early 20th century there was a wealth  of transit: horse cars, steam railroads, and electric street cars were some of the prior multi-modal options for the southbound Bronxite.

Photos and other elements detail the defunct railroads of the Bronx, from the New York, New Haven, and Hartford (which ran until around 1968), the New York, Westchester and Boston (until 1937), and the Harlem River and Port Chester Railroad (until 1927). Handsome railroad stock certificates on display might tempt you to invest today.

black and white historic photo of a bus

The landmarked former administrative building of the New York, Westchester, and Boston Railroad, an Italianate villa designed by Fellheimer and Long and completed in 1912, remains in the Bronx and now serves as MTA office space.

There are greater curiosities, such as the City Island monorail, technically the Pelham Park & City Island Railroad, a 3.2-mile railroad. What happened to our monorail? Well, in a slapstick-style sequence, the track sank into soft ground and the inaugural train car collapsed. It was repaired but shuttered about a year later. Horsecar routes offer additional humor. A photo appears of the Harlem Bridge, Morrisania and Fordham Railway, known as the “Huckleberry Road.” The caption, drawn from a 1913 book, explains that the car would jump the track so often that “the passengers found ample time to pick huckleberries along the road.”

The Bronx was a great large slab of nourishment for a growing New York City, a theme evidenced in a variety of ads demonstrating ways it might be carved and plated. An 1873 map from The New York Tribune “What Annexation Would Accomplish” displays plenty of land for settlement. Promotions depict the housing-destined former Lorillard Spencer Estate, Morrisania Village and, more recently, Paul Rudolph’s Tracey Towers atop the Jerome Yards.

historic photograph of streetcar routes in the Bronx
historic photograph of train trestles and subway entrances

The boom in housing along new IRT lines is amply demonstrated, a process that played an immense role in undergirding the Bronx’s growth from 200,000 residents in 1900 to 1.4 million by 2020. Prominent demographics that filled the Bronx are detailed, from Irish to Puerto Rican to Italian. There’s sheet music for a 1922 Yiddish “satirical play about a working-class man who falls asleep on the subway and has dreams inspired by the ads he sees above his head.”

Other alluring fragments of subway boosterism are featured: there’s concept art for “The Subway Sun” and “The Elevated Express” with A1 stories such as “Hippo! Hippo! Hip-Hooray!! Visit Our Bronx Zoo Today!!” and “Take I.R.T. Lines to Public Golf Courses.”

Of course, not every scheme for the Bronx was actually realized, no one is taking the 2nd Avenue subway to the Bronx today or possibly ever, however rational the 1919 plan displayed to extend it that far is. Unrealized expansions will come as no surprise to any straphanger or transit-watcher, but there is at least one talisman of progress: a feature on the four Penn Station Access infill stations on the Metro North Railroad’s New Haven Line. 61 percent of borough residents didn’t own a car as of the 2000 census. Revive a few of these dusty old plans and that percentage could surely climb higher.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]