Before L-pocalypse: A History of Transit in North BK

B.R.C.C. Crosstown Trolley, Via the Transit Museum
B.C.R.R. Crosstown Trolley, Via the New York Transit Museum

As the MTA’s planned 15-month suspension of L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan draws near, all 200,000 daily riders of the L-pocalypse have been asking the same question: how will we get across the river? Brooklynites have been asking that question for generations, and personal ingenuity, along with municipal planning, has yielded several answers. All we can say for sure is that this is not the first time aggrieved Greenpointers have been up in arms over inadequate inter-borough transit. I’m just glad we don’t have to take a rowboat.

The rowboat commute was the first in a line increasingly efficient methods of getting from Greenpoint to Manhattan that includes horsecars, trollies, ferry services, elevated trains, and the dawn and growth of the subway. Step in, stand clear and read on for a history of transit in North Brooklyn.  

Alpheus D. Rollins was first to operate a commercial rowboat between Greenpoint and Manhattan. A carpenter by trade, he built the boat himself, and started the service around 1840, rowing passengers across the river to East 10th Street in Manhattan at 3 cents a trip. Soon, traffic increased, and rowboat service proved inadequate, so Rollins built a fleet of 4 or 5 sailboats to meet demand. Just as quickly, demand was so hot, the whole line turned to steam — Rollins chartered a steam ferry, and in 1853, the modern Greenpoint Ferry was born.

Ferry Routes between Manhattan and Brooklyn circa 1847

By the time steam-powered ferry service came to Greenpoint, the technology was nothing new. Three ferry routes connected Williamsburg to the Lower East Side and the Financial District in the first half of the 19th century: The Grand Street Ferry connected Grand Street in Brooklyn to Grand Street in Manhattan, The Houston Street Ferry operated between Houston and Grand, and Broadway Ferry linked Williamsburg with Peck Slip.

But, at that time, Greenpoint was still a verdant oasis hardly in need of regular commuter service. With the growth of industry in Greenpoint in the 1840’s and 50s, and the build up of Brooklyn’s “Walled City” of industrial behemoths following the Civil War, the area became an manufacturing center that required rapid and reliable transit options.

That same industrial growth and population explosion had lasting effects on transportation throughout Brooklyn. For example, 1853 not only saw the debut of steam ferry service in Greenpoint, but also the opening of the Brooklyn City Railroad, a horsecar line that began operating on Myrtle Avenue from Fulton Street to Marcy Avenue.

Cable Car Service Across the Brooklyn Bridge. Via the New York Transit Museum

And there your options stood for 30 years. Then the world changed: the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883.  The occasion was so momentous that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, an elderly woman on Long Island pronounced the feat “interesting, but nothing compared to the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.” The Great Bridge was not only the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built but also it connected the cities of Brooklyn and New York more deftly than they had ever been before, and public transit followed apace. The newly opened bridge offered cable car service across the span from Sands Street in Brooklyn to Park Row in Manhattan.

Service over the Williamsburg Bridge ca. 1941 via the New York Transit Museum

Five years later, the Kings County Elevated Railway opened a Fulton Street Elevated Line which also served Bed Stuy, Brownsville and East New York, taking passengers across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. Some of Elevated Railway survives today, as part of the J train. The tracks serving the J train between Gates Avenue and Van Siclen Avenue are the oldest continuously running elevated tracks in the world, and north Brooklynites have been using them to reach Manhattan since the 19th century: In 1888, the tracks were extended past Marcy Avenue to connect passengers to Broadway Ferry.

Meanwhile, at street level, in 1890, trolley service transformed transit in Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s trolleys chugged through the borough until they were retired in 1956. In 1893, the trolleys abandoned the folksy purity of their early years and went electric, with several lines serving North Brooklyn. By the 1920s, street-level trolley service fanned out like spidery tendrils all across the borough.

1912 BMT Map

But, as the century turned, a whole new system really put the “rapid” in Interborough Rapid Transit. The IRT subway opened its very first stations in 1904, and the first tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan opened in 1908. The same year, what we now know as the J Train was rerouted across the Williamsburg Bridge. Additionally, a shuttle train continued to connect passengers to Broadway Ferry until 1916.

In 1912, Greenpoint looked upon the elevated tracks of the J train, and scoffed. It was “subways or nothing,” they demanded. Greenpoint residents filled the Eckford Club on Eckford and Calyer to protest construction of an elevated line in the neighborhood, and to demand subterranean connection to the forthcoming Canarsie Tunnel.

And this, friends, brings us to the very first inklings of the modern L train. Indeed, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported in 1912, “In the Eastern District and Greenpoint sections of Brooklyn, for the route known as the Fourteenth Street and Union Square section of the subway, which will run from Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, Manhattan, under the river to Bushwick Junction, has been allowed the sum of $15,000,000.”

The cost of building the tunnel, the paper continued, would eat up so much of that budget, there would only be enough money left over to build one mile of subway in North Brooklyn. The rest would have to be “an elevated road” to Greenpoint. At $2,000,000 per mile to construct the subway, versus $200,000 per mile to build elevated tracks, it seemed that Greenpoint was bound for above ground service.

An Ad for the Subway in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 22, 1925

But Greenpoint stood firm. On March 19, 1915, transit-conscious Greenpointers gathered for the inaugural meeting of the Greenpoint Subway League. At that meeting, the group threw its support behind a crosstown route starting at Queensboro Plaza, running elevated to Box Street, then as a subway to North 7th, and through the Canarsie Tunnel.

In January 1916, construction on that tunnel, and what was then called the 14th Street-Eastern District Line, got underway, and Greenpoint heartily advocated for a Crosstown Line to match. By 1918, proponents of the Crosstown Subway had garnered support from not only Greenpoint but also Ridgewood, Bushwick and Long Island City. The latest plan, conceived to benefit workers who commuted in either direction across Newtown Creek, proposed a route “from the Williamsburg Bridge to Driggs Avenue to Manhattan Avenue to Greenpoint Avenue to Vandam Street to and across the Blissville Bridge and thence to the Queensboro Bridge.”

1939 System-Wide Subway Map

In keeping with the spirit of the 1920s, the subway began to roar into Williamsburg in 1924. That year, the 14th Street- Eastern Line (now the L train) opened between 6th Avenue and Montrose Avenue. The service was extended further east in 1928, and in 1931, it was extended west to 8th Avenue to connect with the newly built A/C/E service.

And the 1930s brought subterranean glory to Greenpoint. On 12:01 am, August 19, 1933, the Crosstown IND, the G Train you know and love, began service between Nassau Avenue and Queens Plaza. It was the first subway to run from any point in Brooklyn directly to Queens, and its opening called for a celebration. Then as now, Greenpointers knew how to party. The festivities began at 10:30pm, with a parade, and continued “with music, shouts and speeches” until a minute after midnight. The route grew throughout the decade, so that by 1939, the G train didn’t terminate at Court Square. In fact, you could ride it all the way to 169th Street in Queens, and down to Church Avenue.

The Opening of the G Train, August 19, 1933, via the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

But, as the Crosstown subway opened, the Greenpoint Ferry, which had spent nearly a century at the foot of Greenpoint Avenue bid its fond farewell. The service closed February 12, 1933. Funnily enough, today, as we face the L-pocalypse, ferry service across the East River is booming, and a direct ferry between Williamsburg and the Lower East Side is a major part of the MTA’s alternate service plan. The situation makes Whitman’s words as true as ever:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd

If history tells us anything, it’s that we will survive L-pocalypse, because we, the great living crowd, will cross the river, one way or another.

About Lucie Levine

Lucie Levine is the founder of Archive on Parade, a local tour and event company that aims to take New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She’s a Native New Yorker, licensed New York City tour guide, and freelance writer with a passion for the city’s social, political and cultural history.

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