100 years of riding the El in Woodhaven
by Ed Wendell
May 23, 2017 | 2536 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A view of Jamaica Avenue at 86th Street looking west towards Forest Parkway before the elevated train. Popp's is on the corner at the left.
A view of Jamaica Avenue at 86th Street looking west towards Forest Parkway before the elevated train. Popp's is on the corner at the left.
slideshow
The elevated train being constructed on Jamaica Avenue at Forest Parkway. In the picture is the old Bank of Long Island building visible behind the El. The old Leader-Observer building was just to the right of this picture.
The elevated train being constructed on Jamaica Avenue at Forest Parkway. In the picture is the old Bank of Long Island building visible behind the El. The old Leader-Observer building was just to the right of this picture.
slideshow
It was 100 ago this week that the elevated train (also known as “The El”) first roared through Woodhaven. In the years since, the El has provided millions of rides to the city and back while interrupting many a good conversation on Jamaica Avenue.

The path to building the El was a bitter and divisive one, with residents and merchants favoring an underground subway along Jamaica Avenue and the city pushing for an elevated line.

As reported in the Leader-Observer in 1913, public hearings were held debating the issue but opponents complained that the hearings were held outside the neighborhood and little notice was given to residents.

When locals organized themselves in opposition, they packed the hearing so much that people were relaying updates to those waiting outside to get in.

Henry C. Atwood, then-president of the Homestead Civic Association of Woodhaven, summed up opposition to the plan and disdain for the promises made by the city.

"The people along the proposed el route are almost unanimous in opposition to the elevated structure,” he said at the time. “We've been flooded with Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT) cards and the arguments look so sweet on paper that if any one will lend me a set of false teeth, I’ll eat them!”

Another opponent of the plan, Ira H. LaVeen, predicted “If the elevated road is built with those sharp curves, a premium will be put on injury and death! Neighboring tenants instead of being awakened by an alarm clock will be awakened into future glory by a railroad train crashing through the roof on their heads!”

The city was unimpressed with arguments made by those pushing for a subway instead of an elevated line, promising that the resulting track would be safe and “practically noiseless.” They made it clear, though, that residents had little choice in the matter when a representative from the BRT said at a meeting that “Woodhaven would take the El or walk!”

So you had dire predictions of death and destruction on one side and sweet lies and bullying on the other. Things really haven’t changed that much in the last 100 years, have they?

And so, the El was built along Jamaica Avenue through much of 1916 and early 1917. Residents and business owners took issues with the locations of the pillars and the debris left behind from the construction caused more than a few headaches.

But on Monday, May 28, 1917, at 7:17 a.m., the first train left the Greenwood Avenue (111th Street) station and a few moments later the very first elevated train rumbled through Woodhaven. The first ride took place with no fanfare at all, without even an official from the BRT on hand to mark the occasion.

It cost a nickel to ride the El into the city and trains were running every five minutes during rush hour, and every seven and a half minutes the rest of the day. Total travel time from Woodhaven to Chambers Street in Manhattan was under 30 minutes. By the time it was completed, the total cost for the entire project was a little over $2 million.

Since then, the elevated train has been a constant presence in the lives of the residents of Woodhaven. During the 60s and 70s there were proposals to tear down the El due to declining ridership, but those proposals never came to fruition.

There’s no doubt that the El provides an important mode of transportation from here to the city and back. All one needs to do is stand by one of the entrances to the El in the morning or evening to see how many residents use it daily. It’s hard to imagine life without it.

And as our El enters its second century, we can only hope that in the near future we see the addition of an elevator at one or two of our stations to make it more accessible to the elderly and those with physical disabilities.

One wonders what residents of Woodhaven from 1917 would make of the El on the occasion of its centennial anniversary. It hasn’t crashed through anyone’s roof yet, but it is extremely far from noiseless and a good argument can be made that we’d still be better off with a subway.

Either way, though, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t been an important part of life in Woodhaven for the last 100 years. In fact, you might say it’s been one El of a ride!

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