Thursday, July 8, 2010

Broadway to go: the horrible commute that never was



Imagine seeing this monstrosity coast up and down Broadway -- an elevated railway with cars carried both above and below the track.

By the early 1850s, steam engines had revolutionized how people traveled. However, in the heart of densely populated New York, it would have been unfeasible for trains to just pull into town down cluttered streets. The city had in fact drawn the line at 42nd Street as the terminus for steam-operated trains -- still an extremely northern destination in the era well before Central Park and Times Square.

But efficient public transit was still on people's minds, and innovators of the day first decided to look above ground, not below. A few rather strange ideas were actually embarked upon (we'll tell you about some of those in tomorrow's podcast.)

One idea that was thankfully discarded was the oddity above, a steam train hoisted above the sky on what appear to be pitchfork or wishbone shaped girders. Designed by James Swett (a Pittburgh inventor of whom very little is known) and published in Scientific American in 1853, this appears to be a standard elevated engine with a lower compartment dangling below the rails.

Meant as a conveyance along Broadway, this curious train would be boarded from staircases on the sidewalk -- not a traditional train station -- and, as this was mid 19th century New York, might have featured first-class accommodation.

More imaginatively, according to Swett, the engine "would be fired by coke, emitting neither smoke nor sparks".

Pic, from from NYPL Digital Gallery

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