Home Abandoned Stations Ghost subway stations and a system that never was

Ghost subway stations and a system that never was

by Benjamin Kabak

WNYC's interactive map provides a glimpse into the lost ambitions of New York subway planners. (Click for the interactive version)

Long-time SAS readers know that I have a bit of a love affair with the New York City subway system’s abandoned nooks and crannies. I’m fascinated by the shuttered stations and the never-used shells. I’m impressed with the foresight of planners who built provisions for unfunded future expansion. I’m enthralled by the maps of the Second System, a dream unfulfilled that would have changed the city forever.

Every day, millions of New Yorkers commute through a subway system that has largely been static for decades. Although the Queens Boulevard connection opened a little over a decade ago and the Archer Ave. stations debuted back in 1988, the system has been largely as it is today since the mid-1930s. Yet, behind the facade of the subway map lies a handful of secrets. An abandoned station at 91st St. and Broadway flits past riders on the 1 train, and a redundant and closed platform at 18th St. and Park Ave. South can be seen from the downtown 6 train. Atop Broadway in South Williamsburg, a shell of a station never finished is host to both lost dreams and the Underbelly Art project. Near the Manhattan Bridge, a shuttered station plays host to the Masstransiscope.

We ride largely oblivious to these relics of another era and other plans. Maybe we know that the Second Ave. Subway has been a long time coming, but most don’t know that it was once designed to connect into the Bronx and Brooklyn. Yesterday, Jim O’Grady went inside the city’s lost subway stations and expansion plans. The team at WNYC produced an interactive map, and I’ve embedded the audio below. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the history of almosts under the streets of New York.

What strikes me most about O’Grady’s story are the way he and those he spoke with characterize the unrealized plans. “We built the subway into farmland on the assumption that people would live there and use them to get to work,” Moses Gates, an urban explorer who brought O’Grady into the tunnel underneath Nevins St., said. “We built a humongous shell station on the G line, or right off the G line, because there was going to be two other lines and two new tunnels under the East River that were going to converge there.”

Today, we can’t even gather the political will or money to build anything more than the barest of provisioning for a future station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. We can’t realize more than a few stations along Second Ave. We can’t envision a subway system stretching further out into or better connecting Queens and Brooklyn or one that better crosses the Bronx. Instead of living in the minds of planners, these dreams live only in fantasy maps found on various message boards throughout the Internet.

Costs, of course, are an issue. The increased construction costs coupled with the Great Depression and then later World War II and the rise of the automobile torpedoed the Second System plans before they could get off the ground. Today, we hear tell of inefficient capital building brought about by arduous work rules and NIMBY opposition. We are content with what we have when all around us are reminders of a past that could have been. Dream big, I say, because that’s how New York and its subway system became great in the first place. It’s fascinating to hear of South Fourth Street, but it would be even better to see a city with a line that passes through that station on its way east.

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Alex C January 4, 2012 - 12:27 am

Really nice, though the map is missing some big second system parts. And no 76 St!

Stu Sutcliffe January 4, 2012 - 9:41 am

That’s because 76th Street is an urban myth.

Alex C January 4, 2012 - 3:08 pm

I was half-joking, but more seriously meant the extension down Pitkin that was planned but never done.

Stu Sutcliffe January 4, 2012 - 4:04 pm

Ah! Open mouth, insert foot, so t speak.

Stu Sutcliffe January 4, 2012 - 11:27 am

The tunnel and station, that is. The street is there.

BrooklynBus January 4, 2012 - 1:09 pm

The street better be there. I have a friend who lives on it. I would hate to inform him that his existence isn’t real.

Steven Guardino January 4, 2012 - 6:40 am

This is great! I read a lot about this but did find it difficult to visualize on a map, so I’m happy they drew it out. I was wondering what it would look like. It would be awesome if someday this could really happen. Transportation would be so much better.

Alargule January 4, 2012 - 7:12 am

A larger system also means higher operating and maintenance costs. It would have required more trains to be run to provide the same service frequencies as we have today, more station attendants etc.
Given the dire state the system was in in the 1980’s, I doubt whether the city would have been able to maintain the system if the Second System plans would have materialized.

SEAN January 4, 2012 - 10:46 am

I don’t understand what you mean by downsized by 40%.

If the will was there to expand the subwayin massive fashon, someone would get it done.

Christopher January 4, 2012 - 11:36 am

Building the system out is predicated on the idea that we didn’t go into a massive suburbanization and road-building frenzy in the post-war years … thus draining our city (and others) of thousands of middle class taxpayers. So it’s feasible to believe that the 1970s wouldn’t have looked the way it did — with massive disinvestment of our central cities and the build up of the car-dependent sunbelt.

Bolwerk January 4, 2012 - 3:00 pm

I don’t think this works as a hard, fast judgment. Higher operating and maintenance costs can be offset by higher ridership. And redundancy can lower maintenance costs.

And, of course, it’s hard to make the case we need station attendants in 2012. If we do, we certainly don’t need them in every station, and IMHO we probably don’t need them outside major transfer points and tourist centers.

AG May 3, 2012 - 8:18 pm

Alargule – you are correct. The 1970’s decimate the city in a myriad of ways (persons forget that up until the mid 80’s the city was contemplating stopping trains in the South Bronx). While the private sector has recovered and excelled… the public sector never really recovered. Everything is too expensive now… partly because of the almost outlandish benefit packages…. Also though – the city and it’s suburbs become a “victim” of their own success…. real estate values have skyrocketed so even the cost of a “right of way” is off the charts. Look at the Tappan Zee project. First of all it was ridiculous to build that bridge for only a 50 life span… and then on top of it they are not planning to add rail to it because they say it can be built later… Yeah right! The GWB was originally supposed to have rail too.. and that still hasn’t been done.

Larry Littlefield January 4, 2012 - 9:32 am

While this is a fun look at the past, we need to look to the future. With a subway system that is 40 percent downsized from today with higher fares and the same ridership.

Jerrold January 4, 2012 - 10:24 am

18th St. and Lexington?
You mean Park Ave. South, right?

John January 4, 2012 - 10:59 am

At least in the case of the Worth Street line, curtailing expansion plans probably wasn’t the worst thing in the world, given how business development shifted from downtown when the line was conceived to the midtown area. The least efficient lines in terms of being equally useful in both directions are the ones that simply enter Manhattan and terminate, which includes the J/Z in Lower Manhattan (which is why the M/V combo made sense, since it meant both ends of the line entering and leaving Manhattan were now useful in both rush hours).

Like most of the other IND lines, the Worth Street option would have mainly been designed to take passengers off an already-existing BMT route, as opposed to actually creating a line in a new area, like Queens Blvd. did. So while I wish the Utica and Ft. Hamilton Pkwy/SI lines, the Nostrand extension and of course Second Avenue had been built as scheduled, there are a few spots where, long term, the plans were best left unbuilt.

therealguyfaux July 1, 2012 - 11:27 am

One possibility is a re-connection of the Chambers St. J station to the Manhattan Bridge, which would involve merely laying track to connect the relay track north of the station to the mouth existing at the N/Q tracks over the Manhattan Bridge south roadway. It used to be used in both directions as the Nassau Street Loop till 1960-odd but needed to be curtailed during construction of the Chrystie St line, as the tracks from the south roadway would have to be used for the Broadway service and not Nassau St. once the Chrystie project was finished. I never have understood why, simply as a matter of flexibility in routing or in re-routing for 4th Av or Brighton trains, there wasn’t a re-connection of the track that was used for the loop service that entered Broad St.from the tunnel under the river and returned to Brooklyn via bridge. Of course the service from the inbound track of the south roadway to Nassau St. would stay unconnected under this plan, so as not to complicate matters.In any event, your point about trains entering Manhattan merely to terminate being inefficient is well-taken and the MTA need to think about using what they have and can build at a fraction of the cost of a new system. With the technology that will allow trains to run even closer, the problem with possible congestion on the bridge is addressable. The immediate benefit is to take Brooklyn-bound passengers headed for the Nevins St/Atl-Barc area, entering at Brooklyn Bridge and possibly Fulton St., off the 4 and 5 lines during rush hour. The Brooklyn part of the route can be a peak-direction local on the New Utrecht Av. line allowing the D train to run express. “Worth” considering, I should think.

BrooklynBus January 4, 2012 - 1:19 pm

Perhaps there would have been money for part of the Second System, if the IND didn’t waste so much on expansive mezzanines that for the most part went underutilized. But they were planning on assumptions of a City population of 12 million by 1960. No one forecasted suburban development.

Also, there appears to have been more than one version of the Second System because on the previous map you published, there were other proposed extensions not mentioned here, while the Allerton Avenue line was not on the previous map.

I wonder if there is a comprehensive map with all the proposals, or do some conflict with others?

There also seems to be an error by Moses Gates. He states that the lower level of Nevins Street was supposed to connect to a Lafayette Avenue line (G train). I previously read that it was built so that the IRT could continue down Fourth Avenue which eventually became a BMT line. When the Nevins Street Station was built, I don’t believe anyone foresaw a Lafayette Avenue Line.

Stu Sutcliffe January 4, 2012 - 2:48 pm

There was never an Allerton Avenue line planned. There was a Burke Avenue line, the extension of the concourse line.

Researcher January 4, 2012 - 8:25 pm

I don’t think that Gates understands the routes of all of the different plans or how many there were over the years.

There was a Lafayette Avenue line that was in the Tri-Borough Plan, whichis of the same era as the Nevins Street station, which preceeded the Dual Contracts. It was built that way in anticipation of the IRT getting the 4th Avenue and Manhattan Bridge lines, as well as a possible Lafayette Avenue line.

Moses January 4, 2012 - 8:33 pm

No, I understand the different plans and routing, although I’ll certainly allow I don’t know them as well as some. There is the challenge of trying to work with a reporter to fit all this into a short article geared toward non-subway-enthusiasts. A little more explanation is here – http://walk.allcitynewyork.com.....-wnyc.html

Moses January 4, 2012 - 8:28 pm

There were a few different extensions envisioned during the initial Brooklyn IRT design, including the 4th ave line, the Lafayette line, and a line that would go over the Manhattan bridge. one of these (the Clark Street Tunnel, today’s 2/3 line) even ended up getting built. Brennan’s site has more reading, and is good for visualizing the possible routings through the Nevins street station. http://www.columbia.edu/~brenn.....evins.html

Frank B. January 4, 2012 - 1:38 pm

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? ” -Robert F. Kennedy Quoting George Bernard Shaw.

Why not?

Bolwerk January 4, 2012 - 2:48 pm

Beautiful, but some of these routes almost seem like sheer nonsense in light of unification. An underused line like the Myrtle El could itself be extended to intersect with Queens Boulevard, probably at reasonably low cost if that’s the only goal. And I suppose it’s not very practical to introduce additional services to the IND Queens Boulevard line today anyway.

Moya January 4, 2012 - 9:57 pm

While considering the practicality and difficulties – I still wish it was a reality. Hell, I would love even simple 3-4 station shuttle service between Metropolitan Ave/Jackson Heights using the garbage train ROW.

Bolwerk January 4, 2012 - 10:45 pm

Well, I didn’t have traffic sharing in mind, but apparently the Second System planners did. I think an intersection makes perfect sense, with maybe a track connection for emergency re-routings.

It’s an idea worth exploring. When the J and E intersected, IIRC loads increased on the E and Queens Boulevard in general. But the M might have a different effect since it at least has its own route to Midtown and Queens Boulevard users may not need to head to the fringe of the system to take advantage of it.

Steven Guardino January 4, 2012 - 6:16 pm

I noticed that it appears they placed the Ft Hamilton line at Ditmas. I was under the impression that it would have begun at the current Ft Hamilton Parkway station on the Culver line but on another level. Is this true or was it supposed to begin at Ditmas?

Researcher January 4, 2012 - 8:13 pm

Looking at a map the Board of Transportation put out and reading the newspaper articles, it seems like it would have swung off at Cortelyou Road, gone along Fort Hamilton Parkway and 10th Avenue to 86th Street. the Staten Island line would have run along 65th Street (not taking the big curve that you see on the map).

Steven Guardino January 4, 2012 - 9:10 pm

Oh, ok. Thanks! So I guess it would have been where the old Culver Shuttle was.

Someone December 4, 2012 - 10:38 pm

Supposedly there is an abandoned station shell east of Euclid Av on the Fulton Street Line.

Stu Sutcliffe December 4, 2012 - 10:42 pm

Urban myth. Not there.

Someone December 25, 2012 - 6:02 pm

The SAS was planned in conjunction with the 63rd Street Line, wasn’t it? The MTA just ran out of money for the SAS after completing the 63rd St line.


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