West Side Cowboy

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Author: 
Clay Grable
Photo by Friends of the High LineMichael Vitiello examines a book of old West Side Line (a.k.a. the High Line) advertisements in the Williamson Library. Photo by Friends of the High Line
 

On the wall of Michael Vitiello’s office, hidden in the upper levels of Grand Central Terminal, hangs a bronzed fedora. It belonged to Paul "Tick Tock" Kugler, the last clock master of Grand Central, who wore it to work there every day of his 47-year career. Michael, Grand Central's supervisor of building maintenance, is the last person Tick Tock trained to service the station’s old self-winding clocks before he retired at age 70. The sole survivor of these “master clocks” also hangs in Michael’s office, a space that feels less like a workplace than a peek into an era that has slipped away.

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: 
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: 
Anonymous
Enlarge
This is one of our favorite historical images. The West Side Cowboys were employed by the City to ride in front of street-level freight trains and wave pedestrians out of the way. This was the City's stopgap measure to stop the carnage on what was known as "Death Avenue." The Cowboys were phased out after the High Line was built, raising train traffic to the third story of industrial buildings. The cowboy above is from the 1930's, when the High Line was being built, and the structure is visible in the background. The cowboy below dates from 1911, before the High Line was a glimmer in its daddy's eye.

Photo from Shorpy.com, the 100-Year-Old Photo Blog. Note the guy with the pegleg.
After the jump, the 1934 London Terrace Tatler waxes eloquent about the Cowboys and their brave ponies.
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