Home Subway History On a map, the history of the subway

On a map, the history of the subway

by Benjamin Kabak

A few months ago, this map landed in my inbox. For New York City subway history enthusiasts, it’s a fascinating document. As the excerpt above shows, it is a map of the system with historical annotations. Think of it as a visual timeline of New York City subway history. You’ll get lost in it for hours.

I’ll include the full map below for your perusal, and it comes with some accompanying text I’ll type out below. Basically, the excerpt offers up a simplified look at the political goings-on that led to the MTA and provides some insight into the now-defunct IRT/BMT/IND distinctions that I still use on Second Ave. Sagas.

Historical Map of the New York Subway

At the beginning of the 20th century, Manhattan had a large elevated system dating from 1870 run by the Manhattan Elevated RR Co., one branch of which reached inot the Bronx. Brooklyn had a large surface and elevated system operated by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co (BRT). Construction of the first subway began in 1900, and the Interborough Rapid Transit Co (IRT) commenced operation in 1904. The original route ran from City Hall to 145 St. via Grand Central and Times Square. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Elevated Co. The IRT system was extended into the Bronx and Brooklyn through 1908. Around this time, the question of municipal ownership became an issue. In 1909 a master plan for a separate city built system – the Triborough System – was proposed. This plan specified a larger load gauge than used on the IRT to allow interchange with main line railroad equipment. Although not adopted, the Triboro plan produced the two different size specifications which to this day prevents total interchangeability between lines.

Instead, the so called Dual Contracts system was employed to draw together the IRT and BRT. Construction of the dual system lines began in 1931- more than half the mileage being of elevated structure, embankment or open cut. Some elevated lines were reconstructions of older pre-dual contract els. The BRT went into receivership in 1918 which ended in 192 when it was renamed and reorganized as the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Corp (BMT).

In 1924 control over sorely needed new routes was returned to the city with the establishment of a Board of Transportation. The City of New York became a subway operator in 1932 when the municipally built Independent system (IND) was opened.

Unification took place in 1940 when the BOT aquired the BMT and bankrupt IRT systems. Elimination of original el routes was commenced.

BOT control ended in 1953 with the creation of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA). The BMT and IND systems were merged in 1967 with the opening of the Chrystie St. connection in Manhattan. Control of the NYCTA passed to the new Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1968. Ex IRT lines were now known as the A Division and ex BMT/IND lines as B Dvision. The last pre-subway ‘el’ closed in 1973 with the end of the 3rd Avenue el Bronx service.

To view the entire map, click the image below. Be forewarned: The file is approximately 6 MB.

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11 comments

Free Refills April 1, 2010 - 3:24 am

Do you have any idea what the “portals” on the map are. You can find them several places, but one is on the IRT line up by Columbia University.

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Vanshnookenraggen April 1, 2010 - 3:59 am

Portals are where the subway enters/exits the underground. The two up near Columbia are where the subway comes above ground to bridge the large valley at 125th St.

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Joe from SI April 1, 2010 - 9:32 am

Haha sweet, the top map is fixated right on my college.

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Jonathan April 1, 2010 - 10:22 am

The map doesn’t include the 63rd St line or the Archer Ave extension; when was it drawn?

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Benjamin Kabak April 1, 2010 - 10:23 am

The date in the corner says April 1983. So pre-63rd St. and pre-Archer Ave.

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Edward April 1, 2010 - 12:08 pm

Fascinating piece of work, all the more because it was done by hand! I’ve trief for years to draw something like this to no avail. Kudos to the artist.

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Subutay Musluoglu April 1, 2010 - 1:06 pm

The map was produced by the Quail Map Co., based in the United Kingdom. It is indeed a great map – I own a copy and I’ve checked it against other historical sources. It has never been revised.

Quail specializes in track maps and diagrams of subways and commuter railroad systems from around the world. They’ve done London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and San Francisco, to name just a few. At around the same time as this map, they produced a New York/New Jersey Railroad Map, which featured every railroad line in the region with indications of ownership, operator, and where applicable, the extent of electrification.

Subutay Musluoglu
Queens, NY

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Alon Levy April 1, 2010 - 6:19 pm

If you’re interested in track maps indicating ownership and electrification, you should visit Rich E. Green’s site for Northeastern US railroads, and Carto.Metro for some Continental European subways, especially in Greater Paris.

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Nabe News: April 1 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle April 1, 2010 - 1:37 pm

[…] of the city subway in maps [Second Avenue […]

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Building 11 April 1, 2010 - 10:14 pm

Great as this map is, there’s a bit of an innaccuracy. It shows the stations between Lefferts Boulevard and 80th Street on the Fulton Street line as opening in 1956. Techically, that’s correct — that’s when those stations became part of the IND. But that line segment was built by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (later the BMT) for the late and lamented Fulton Street Elevated, and it opened for service on September 25, 1915.

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Danny April 2, 2010 - 11:05 am

I also own a copy of that map, and it’s fascinating. I think I purchased it (many years ago of course) at the Transit Museum shop in downtown Brooklyn.

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