death avenue

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Clay Grable
West Side Cowboy on Death AvenueThe wardens of Death Avenue, working tirelessly to ensure the safety of the people on the street, were none other than the West Side Cowboys. (Although some clearly didn't heed the warnings.) Photographer unknown

Before the High Line became the park in the sky, before it was abandoned, before trains ran goods along its once thirteen-mile length, before its massive, trunk-like beams sprouted from the cobblestones to suspend its metal canopy above the streets below, the West Side of New York churned with reckless energy. Freight trains ran at grade up and down the middle of 10th Avenue, tracks inserted between cobbles, to ferry goods to and from the factories of the Meatpacking District. This interplay of heavy machinery and humanity proved a dangerous mix; the stretch of road became known as “Death Avenue.”

On December 4, 1850, City Council passed a law that created not only a safer 10th Avenue, but also one of the most storied figures in the history of New York: the West Side Cowboys. These men, as the law dictated, rode on horseback before oncoming trains to warn passers-by of their approach. Waving a red flag by day and a red lantern by night, the West Side Cowboys – also known as 10th Avenue Cowboys – protected pedestrians for over 90 years, until their final ride in 1941. At its height, the corps of Cowboys comprised twelve riders and twice as many horses to provide perpetual protection. By the end, though, there was just a single rider and his steed left.

Madeline Berg
The West Side Cowboy rides up 10th Avenue at 26th StreetNot just an urban legend, West Side Cowboys rode in front of trains to warn pedestrians and traffic of the oncoming rail. Photo courtesy of Kalmbach Publishing Company.

It’s hard to imagine that beneath the calm refuge that is now the High Line there once laid a street so chaotic that it was less-than-fondly known as Death Avenue. For almost one hundred years, the High Line’s predecessor—the New York Central freight line—dangerously plowed up and down 10th and 11th Avenues, leaving people, carriages and cars in its wake.

The need for a freight train to serve the factories and warehouses on the West Side was addressed in 1846 but the street-level tracks were not among the city’s best plans. The block-long trains ran through cross streets and traffic, killing and maiming hundreds of people.

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