In looking for background on my recent Subway Song post, I was surprised to discover just how many abandoned subway dreams left their mark upon the landscape — and not just New York City’s landscape, either.
A lot of these cases originated in enthusiastic plans for expanding subways after the end of World War I. Then the transit dreams evaporated for varying reasons — changes in political leadership, economic woes during the Depression, the automobile boom of the post-World War II era.
But many remnants of the dreams linger in unfinished lines or never-opened stations. And they’re catnip to a new generation of urban explorers who love chasing “ghost subways” wherever they may be found. Some examples: Cincinnati, or Rochester, or Toronto, or Berlin.
For those of us in the metro-NYC area, here are some additional ghostly subway links:
- A post from WNYC’s blog about New York’s Ghost Subway system.
- Stunning pictures of the abandoned station underneath City Hall. Wow!
- From Mental Floss, 5 Unseen Parts of NYC’s Subway System.
He was also a composer of songs about subways. Having read this and even recited it (to myself, softly, when nobody else is home), I can definitely say that it is … heartfelt. I leave further artistic judgments up to you, dear readers.
Long Island Daily Press, Jamaica, N.Y., April 1940:
“Ex-Beer Champion Pens ‘Van Wyck Subway Song’ ”
A father in Yorkville said on Sunday morn,
“Come Mother and children, get ready for the shore,
“I’ll show you something new that never you did see
“The Eighth Avenue Subway to Rockaway.”
The father smiles, the mother laughs, the children too,
And little Freddy swings his flag, red, white and blue.
But father starts to sighing, the big express was flying
And stopped on Van Wyck Avenue.
Three times in, four times out, we don’t care,
The whole trip to Rockaway is only five cents fare.
And little Freddy with his flag, was first to leave the train,
He cried: “That trip to Rockaway was nothing but a dream.”
And the mother, Fred, and Annie said, “Papa will you say,
“Papa will you say which is the shortest way.”
And the mother, Fred, and Annie said: “Papa will you say,
“There is no Eighth avenue subway down to Rockaway.”
And father said: “I know, myself, there is no such train,
“We’ll have to wait till Jimmy Walker is mayor once again,
“He and President Joe Coyle, they tried, and very hard,
“But when Mayor LaGuardia came, the subway was forgot.”
And little Freddy raised his flag, with colors red white and blue
He looks his father in the eye, “God help your wish come true,
“The best intention of two good men, should never be so spoiled,
“Three cheers for Jimmy Walker and hurrah for Joe Coyle.”
The article: The upcoming debut of George’s song rated two columns at the top of the local news page. Here is the accompanying story:
The Van Wyck Subway Song, with words and music by George Rudroff, former beer tester for a brewery, will have its premiere at a meeting of the Dunton Civic League Thursday night in Masonic Hall. The song was dedicated by the 70-year-old composer to the league and its president, Joseph A. Coyle, fiery veteran of half a hundred South Side civic battles.
Rudroff, who lives in Richmond Hill, became famous in his salad days for his beer-drinking capacity, and recently was the subject of a Believe-It-Or-Not cartoon.
Every day for eight years, Rudroff drank 90 glasses of beer a day. That was before prohibition. It was just about this time, too, that Rudroff composed a war song, “The Pride of Uncle Sam.”
His latest effort is inspired by the civic league’s campaign to win an extension of the 8th Avenue subway from Queens boulevard southward under Van Wyck boulevard to the Rockaways.
Rudroff also courts the Muse on behalf of ex-Mayor Jimmy Walker, who, he believes, could get the new subway built with a minimum of delay if he were back in City Hall.
The subway issue: Uncle George and the Dunton Civic Association were referring to a proposed expansion of the IND Queens Boulevard Line under Van Wyck Boulevard. I’m working my way through accounts of the subway system’s development in this area and era, and it is complicated.
George appears to have been waxing eloquent about an expansion that was under discussion (and a big political football) in one form or another between 1929 and 1940. There is a lot of information here, at the nycsubway.org site. But please feel free to chime in with any additional insights!
George, who died in November 1940, did not live to see many changes to come on the IND line, including an expansion to Rockaway in the 1950s. The song, however, endures.
The clipping: Digital image, Old New York Newspapers (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 17 June 2013). The scan did not include the page number or edition date. Judging from references in other articles on the page, it seems likely this article ran in early April 1940. A calendar of events in the Brooklyn Eagle for 11 April 1940 (page 24, col. 3) mentions a meeting of the Dunton Civic League as taking place that night, and 11 April was on a Thursday.
This NewsClip has nothing to do with my ancestors; it just happened to be at the top of a page that did. But the headline was an eyecatcher:
BELIEVE MICE CAUSED $3,000 WHITESTONE FIRE
[Aside: Don't you love that old-school use of a verb with an implied subject? I used to be a copyeditor. I notice this stuff.]
Anyway: I laughed out loud. Fortunately I had already swallowed my mouthful of coffee.
“What is it?”asked Mr. Archaeologist from behind his smartphone. I read him the headline.
“Oh, they mean the mice chewed through a wire and caused an electrical fire. Happens all the time.” Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary. He makes it his business to know how disasters happen, whether caused by mice or men.
But he was wrong this time!
Fire which gutted the kitchen of John W. Clancy, Twelfth avenue and 150th street, Whitestone, while Mrs. Clancy and her three children were asleep upstairs, was caused by mice igniting matches.
You don’t believe me? Check this out. (And no, it was not even April Fools’ Day.)
Whitestone mice. They’re tough.
Being a person with heavily urban ancestry, I find this kind of story is always close to my heart. Here is an Albany Times-Union article (h/t Don Rittner via Facebook) about a documentary project that is using old photos to reconstruct the neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the massive Empire State Plaza complex. Mary Paley’s team is raising money on Kickstarter for the project. Paley has amazing raw material left by her father, Bob, a former photographer for the (Albany, N.Y.) Knickerbocker News who bore witness to the disappearance of more than 100 acres of a thriving neighborhood:
Derided by some as the city’s “Garlic Core” for its concentration of Italian immigrants and compared by others to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the area bounded roughly by Lincoln Park and State, Eagle and Swan streets was a teeming melting pot of Jews, Germans, Irish, Armenians and French-Canadians.
I’ve thought a lot about what we used to call urban renewal and what a force it was when I was growing up. It put a big hole in the business district of Plainfield, N.J., next door to my hometown. And moving around for newspaper jobs, I heard stories about lost neighborhoods from Stamford, Conn., to Miami, to Chicago. (I also liked the term art critic Robert Hughes used for those massive mid-century plazas: “The International Power Style of the Fifties.”) I actually consider “urban renewal” a bit inadequate as an umbrella term, because it doesn’t cover all the development forces steamrolling the urban world as the 20th century wore on.
For example, the birth of the interstate highway was another knife across the cityscape. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” a character laments the evisceration of a beautiful East Orange, N.J. neighborhood, cut into quarters by the Garden State Parkway and Interstate 280. (See also: Miami’s Overtown, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, et cetera.)
I want to be clear that I don’t think dreaming big and planning big are bad things (see: Burnham, Olmstead, etc.) But dreaming and planning arrogantly … it left a lot of heartbreak behind, for those who still remember the lost zones.
From the Albany Evening Journal, Watervliet news section, Saturday, May 3, 1902:
A meeting will be held this evening by the old members of the Oswald Hose Company. The meeting will be held for the purpose of placing in the company’s quarters the head of “Nell,” who was the first horse ever owned by the company. “Nell” for over twenty years hauled apparatus to fires and became greatly attached to every member of the company, and it was with the greatest sorrow when she was obliged to quit the service.
The members fearing that she would be sold by the commissioner, raised a sufficient sum for her purchase, and placed her upon a farm in Colonie about three years ago. She then became sick, and it was thought best to end her suffering by chloroform, which was done.
The members decided to have the head mounted in a suitable manner, and the members will meet this evening, when the head will be dedicated, after which a spread will be enjoyed.
1. The Oswald Hose Company was, of course, in Watervliet. I was looking at volunteer fire companies in West Troy/Watervliet because my great-grandfather Joseph Haigney served in Watervliet’s Gleason Hook and Ladder company.
2. I’m continually struck by how 19th-century ancestors could be so much more sentimental and, at the same time, so much less squeamish than we are today.
3. First the head, then the spread. I prefer a simple tailgate, myself.
My butt-factory mystery is solved. (“Yay!” cry the readers. “We can all relax now!”)
After posting a cri de coeur about my ancestors in the 1870 census for West Troy, N.Y., I thought some more about their mysterious occupation: “butt factory.”
This called for serious scholarship. Somebody with a solid handle on 19th-century industry in the Albany area. Somebody (hopefully) snicker-proof.
Luckily, there is a terrific organization to contact: The Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Since 1972, the Gateway has been dedicated to preserving and teaching about the Capital District’s industrial legacy. Anybody with working-class ancestry in the Albany-Troy area probably knows what a powerhouse it was back in the day. The first iron mill started cranking in 1807; the United States Arsenal in Watervliet was built in 1812. The Erie and Champlain canals added fuel to the engine. The textile mills, the early ironworks like Burden, the pioneering union activists like Kate Mullany – it’s all pivotal (if underappreciated) history.
Still — what might it have to do with a butt factory? There was only one way to find out. This was not how I pictured introducing myself to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, but what can you do. I sent the email.
In short order came a response from the Gateway’s executive director, P. Thomas Carroll, PhD: “Sure, I think we can help you.” Just like that. Professionalism personified.
Tom explained that the term “butt” has two potential meanings in this context:
(1) a cask, i.e., barrel, with a capacity of about 120 U.S. gallons.
(2) the sort of hinge that looks like this:
Tom wrote: “It’s called [a butt hinge] because, when you mortise the two plates of the hinge into recesses in the door edge and in the door jamb, the door and the jamb can then butt right up against each other when the door is closed, which is of course what you want to properly seal up the door opening.” It’s a basic, basic hinge. You might be looking at one in your house right now.
[The blog will pause for five minutes while everyone goes to inspect the nearest butt-hinge. Reports are due next Wednesday.]
Tom believed my ancestors were working in a place that made hinges, not casks. Why? He enclosed this page from the 1863 city directory for Troy and West Troy. It includes two butt-hinge factories. One was across the river in Troy, but the other, Roy & Co., was right in West Troy:
It was quite likely that my ancestors, 16-year-old James and 10-year-old Timothy Connors, worked at Roy & Co. in 1870.
In a subsequent email, Tom sent an image from the 1899 city directory that included a Watervliet entry for “Connors, James, buttmaker, house 437 Broadway.” Guess what? 437 Broadway is where my James lived at the time of the 1900 census. Apparently the hinge business agreed with him.
Sometimes we have to move beyond the usual genealogical sources to color in the outlines of our ancestors’ lives. Fortunately, there are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who can give us that lost background. Like Mr. Carroll, who saved my poor eyeballs another Googling for “butt factory.” You have no idea how grateful I am for that.
Note: In addition to operating the Burden Ironworks Museum, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway hosts terrific activities. Some past examples: tours of historic factory buildings, architectural walking tours and the “Troy’s Tiffany Treasures” tour celebrating the city’s extensive legacy of Tiffany artistry. The 2013 brochure is due next month. Watch this link for more information.