A relic of a naming convention lost to time. (Photo by flickr user wallyg)
Today, we celebrate a birthday. The venerable A train, made famous by Billy Strayhorn in 1939, is 77 years old for it was at midnight on September 10, 1932 that the A and its local sister the AA started operating along the 8th Ave. IND lines.
The Independent Subway line has, unsurprisingly, a long and tortured history. It took 12 years from the point of conception to open just the 8th Ave. line and parts of the original IND system did not open until 1988, 56 years after the first A train rolled up the tracks. Meanwhile, the Second System, which I explored in depth last year, has never materialized, and we’re still waiting for the Second Ave. Subway to arrive.
While you can read a complete history of the IND at NYCSubway.org, I want to put aside historical skepticism and look instead at the reports of the new subway’s opening. The Times covered the event in great detail, and the article is a gem of 1930s New York City reporting.
The opening itself was not marked by any ceremony. The line took seven years to build, and it cost $191.2 million. By mid-1932, the city was looking for someone else to operate the trains, but amidst a Great Depression, no one stepped forward. Paul Crowell reported on the first passengers to reach the platform:
There was no official “first train,” no official opening ceremony, no laudatory speech-making program. The chains which have blocked access to the turnstiles were removed just before midnight last night, and those who dropped their nickels in the turnstile slots were free to board a train at any station along the line. The full operating schedule has been in effect since Wednesday afternoon, and at every station on the line, uptown or downtown, a local or express was available within a few minutes after the prospective rider reached the station platform.
At Times Square, New Yorkers gathered en masse to await the opening of this new subway line with its brand new R1 rolling stock, wide platforms and mezzanine express stops. Crowell writes of the maddening crowds all waiting to drop their nickels into the turnstiles:
The largest crowd to board trains immediately after the official opening was at the Forty-second Street station. At that point Mr. Delaney gave the signal to throw the turnstiles open to the public. The first person to drop his coin into the slot was Billy Reilly, 7 years old, of 406 West Forty-sixth Street, who had been waiting several hours for his first ride on the new line. He got a preferred place on line when, Mr. Delaney learned that he was born March 14, 1925, the day ground was first broken for the new subway.
At this station, as well as at Columbus Circle and Thirty-fourth Street, a carnival spirit was manifested by those who waited to board the first trains. They rushed through the turnstiles, cheering and shouting and rushed down the stairways to the platforms. The first train to pull in was a southbound express. It was filled to capacity and carried the first load of straphangers to ride on the new line. Fifteen minutes after this train pulled out there was still a line in front of the main change booth at the Forty-second Street entrance of the station.
Of course, not everything was smooth sailing for the A train. One passenger alleged that the turnstile had eaten his nickel, called the new line a “rotten subway” and ran off to catch his train. Other rowdy teenagers stuck gum into the turnstile slots as lines grew long. That’s the 1930s equivalent of “Swipe Again at This Turnstile.”
Meanwhile, New Yorkers celebrated the night away, and many came out just for the spectacle of it. According to Crowell’s reporting, 2808 passed through the Times Square turnstiles between midnight and 1 a.m. on a Saturday, and at 2 a.m., the trains were still packed. “Of this number not all were riders, however, for many were satisfied to pay their nickel, make a complete inspection of the new station and return to the street,” Cowell wrote.
As the MTA and city and state officials have proclaimed the Second Ave. Subway an eventual boon for the Upper East Side, so too did New York officials proclaim the IND for the West Side. “The opening of the Eighth Avenue subway, will, in my opinion, do more constructively to bring about the rejuvenation of the west side than any other single known factor,” one-time Governor and then-head of the West Association of Commerce Alfred E. Smith said.
The technical details of the new subway, meanwhile, were impressive. The city, in fact, learned from the previous mistakes of the Interborough Rapid Transit planners. While the IRT served as the city’s first subway, many of its stations are far too close together, and some key stops are built on curved sections of the tracks. Trains can’t maintain or achieve top speeds as they navigate the Union Square curve or run from Bowling Green to Wall St. to Fulton St. Crowell noted the changes:
Subway stations have been located with respect to the density of population in connection with running distances between stops. The stations are at least 600 feet long, with provisions for extension to 660 feet if necessary. They will accommodate ten-car trains with ease. They are lighted under a new system designed to eliminate shadows. All platforms are straight-edged, locations on curves having been avoided.
The cars are designed in accordance with the view of a committee of experts which gave its services without charge. Tests conducted by the board’s engineers indicate that the trains can be loaded and unloaded in 33.3 percent faster time than those on the B.M.T. and Interborough. Each car will seat 60 persons and provide standing room for 220.
And thus a subway line was born. Today, we take the IND for granted and wait for the Second Ave. Subway. Will we witness “gay midnight crowds” when the 33-block, four-stop extension of the Q train opens up in 2017 or 2018? Will we witness a spectacle and a ceremony or will just shrug its collective shoulders? If history is our guide, it will be a momentous night indeed.