The 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.