History

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Author: 
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.

Author: 
Erika Harvey
EnlargePhoto of the High Line by Iwan Baan

In celebration of our new 18-month High Line Calendar, we’re exploring each month’s featured image to bring you more of the behind-the-scenes details.

Photographer Barry Munger captured this dreamy shot of the High Line at the Rail Yards in the summer of 2007, nearly two years before the first section of the park would open to the public. Barry has been a longtime supporter and friend of the park, often focusing his keen eye and old-school film cameras on a variety of High Line subjects.

In 2007, when this photo was taken, construction was underway on the first two sections of the High Line from Gansevoort to West 30th Streets. Section 1 of the park, running from Gansevoort to West 20th Streets, would open to the public nearly two years later, and Section 2 would open a year after that. Yet, in 2007, there was still uncertainty surrounding the High Line at the Rail Yards. It wasn’t clear whether the full vision of the High Line could be realized and this last half-mile stretch saved and transformed into public space. It would be over five years before the future of this final piece of the High Line would be secured.

Author: 
Erika Harvey
EnlargePhoto of the High Line by Iwan Baan

In celebration of our new 18-month High Line Calendar, we’re exploring each month’s featured image to bring you more of the behind-the-scenes details.

Renowned architectural photographer Iwan Baan captured this iconic High Line aerial photograph around the time of the opening of the second section of the High Line in June 2011. Iwan photographs many of the most prominent architectural projects in the world, often turning his lens to subjects in New York. (You may also recognize him as the photographer behind the shocking New York magazine cover image of a half-dark cityscape following Hurricane Sandy.)

Iwan’s photo on this warm June evening encapsulates not only a moment in the High Line’s history, but a moment in New York City’s history. Below are a few of the “timestamps” visible in this photo:

Author: 
Madeline Berg
At the height of its activity, the High Line was one of the city’s most prominent food distributors, delivering processed meat and baked goods to hungry New Yorkers. Photo courtesy of Kalmbach Publishing Company

As anyone who has had to pull off a Thanksgiving feast in a pinch knows, frozen turkeys can save you from familial shame, complaining guests, and a holiday meal of subpar take-out. Frozen turkeys also hold a special place for us here at the High Line, as they made up the precious cargo of the last train to ever run on the High Line.

In 1980, the railway’s final train made its way up the West Side, ending the more-than-century-long use of trains as a primary transport to and from the factories and warehouses of the Meatpacking District. While the trains began to fall into disuse in the 1950s with the rise in interstate highways and decline in manufacturing, there was a time when the tracks played an essential role in providing New York with food such as produce and meat, raw materials such as bricks and wood, manufactured goods, and other vital items, like Oreos.

Author: 
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.

Author: 
Anonymous
From Shulman's Eat the City: “The High Line, an elevated freight line, had to be constructed from Thirty-Fourth Street down to Spring Street, cutting right inside of warehouses to make second-story meat deliveries.” In this image, the High Line runs through the former Cudahy Meatpacking plant. Photographer unknown.
 

Journalist Robin Shulman, author of  Eat the City, will lead a unique walking tour of the High Line’s fascinating food history on Wednesday, June 5. To whet your appetite for Robin’s tour, we’ve included an excerpt from her book below. Learn more about ‘Eat the City’ High Line Meat Tour and purchase tickets today.

In the 1870s, the Chicago clearinghouses shipping beef and pork to East Coast cities realized it would be cheaper to send dead meat than live steers. They built massive stockyards and slaughterhouses where they could “disassemble” cows and pack the carcasses to travel efficiently. In a leap of technology, they harvested ice from the Great Lakes and stored it in stations along the train routes to cool the meat they sent in rail cars all the way to eastern cities. Prices went down, and Harper’s Weekly heralded a new “era of cheap beef.”

Author: 
Jennette Mullaney
West 16th Street, 1950s. Photo by Ed DoyleTaken in the 1950s, this photograph shows a passenger car at West 16th Street. Around the same time this image was captured, construction was underway on the interstate highway system, which would lead to further decline in freight traffic to and from New York City. Photo by Ed Doyle
 

This special blog post, the second in a two-part series (see part one), was written by Sonya Kharas of the NYU Food Studies Program and Nutshell Projects.

Feeding the Future

A slow, inefficient, and costly transportation system was incongruous with New York City in the 1920s. After all, this was the city that completed two of the world’s tallest skyscrapers — the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings — within the same year, and the city about which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Everything is possible. I am in the land of ambition, and success.”

And so, in 1929, the City of New York and the New York Central Railroad Company embarked on an ambitious project that would elevate the grade-level tracks along Manhattan’s West Side and, more importantly, modernize the handling of the city’s daily supplies of foodstuffs.

Author: 
Jennette Mullaney
As the city's population grew, congestion caused by a mix of pedestrians, motorized traffic, and street-level freight trains slowed food delivery into New York City. Photo courtesy of the Kalmbach Publishing Company
 

This special blog post, the first in a two-part series (see part two), was written by Sonya Kharas of the NYU Food Studies Program and Nutshell Projects.

Last fall, Friends of the High Line announced plans to open a year-round, full-service restaurant directly below the elevated railway’s southern terminus, at Gansevoort and Washington Streets. The restaurant, to be operated by the team behind Torrisi Italian Specialties and Parm, will serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and, as it turns out, provide a perfect starting point to consider the historic role that the High Line has played in feeding New York City.

A Historic Marketplace

Decades ago, the site of the High Line’s forthcoming restaurant was home to one of the city’s most important municipal markets: the open-air Farmers’ Market, later Gansevoort Market, for regional produce. Established in 1879, the market was devoted almost entirely to the sale of fruits and vegetables, the majority of which arrived by horse-drawn wagon from nearby farms in Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Westchester.

Author: 
Erika Harvey
Construction crews work on the steel structure of the High Line on West 30th Street. Photographer Unknown

When this photograph was taken in 1933, construction of the High Line, then called the New York Central Elevated Spur, was nearly complete. The elevated railway would soon be carrying freight trains filled with fresh food and manufactured goods up and down Manhattan’s West Side.

Author: 
Erika Harvey
Photo by Jim Shaughnessy
 

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, we’re reminded of a fun fact from the High Line’s industrial past. As legend has it, in 1980, after years of declining use, the final train chugged down the elevated railway, carrying three carloads of frozen turkeys.

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