This was the last week I’d be able to ride MTA’s Vintage trains for a whole year (I’d be out of town for the final Sunday) and I found myself drawn back there. From the highway on the way to Queens Plaza to catch the train, the Willis Avenue Bridges again caught my eye, so I tacked on a visit there as well.
I actually worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it in time. I should have left earlier! But thankfully my drive was quick and easy and this time I knew how to navigate Queens Plaza (better at least) and find parking and the subway entrance.
I got to the platform just a few minutes early. What my train driver friend said the other week was right: the cast of characters was stranger than ever. As I stood on the platform and then boarded the train I saw a grown person dressed as a Nutcracker mouse; an older, round gentleman snapping many photos of a young woman in vintage dress (I don’t think they knew each other previously); and a couple who were either dressed retro or just in typical hipster garb, hard to tell. I also recognized some of the railfans/raliens from my previous ride.
Though I rode just as early as before it was definitely more crowded, and maybe a touch more rowdy. On the ride into Manhattan I spent less time slow walking and more stationary, looking at the cars and sights outside that were particularly interesting to me.
After not too long I happily found my train driver friend and we chatted some. The ride and stop at the terminus of the route in Manhattan went way too quickly.
On the ride back to Queens I looked out the front of the train (a rare treat, since almost all modern cars aren’t designed that way). The view going through the tunnels was beautiful but mostly too dark for pictures. I also, thanks to my driver friend, got a peek into the driving room, with its levers, buttons, and gauges. Charmingly retro! There was some competition for the spot up front though: One fan videotaped the entire journey out the front window. Another called out every stop.
Again I could only ride for that one round trip. I was sad when it was over. I’d miss this train over the next year!
I walked up the steps and snapped one picture of a different train line on the elevated tracks at Queens plaza, which I actually think are quite beautiful: the curve of the track and so much open steelwork. I got in the car without much of a plan and headed into Manhattan and then north.
I drove around a bit in East Harlem. The streets are kind of strange there since it’s where Manhattan gets skinnier so the avenues begin to dead-end. There’s also the entrance to the Triboro bridge (which I was familiar with from a previous excursion) and the Willis, and a bunch of construction. I parked on East 127th Street and started to try to find my way. I thought the best place to view the old sections of the Willis floating in the river on barges would be from the current Willis, I just had to find my way to the pedestrian part of that.
First I took a guess and walked around under a bridge, I think part of the FDR/Harlem River drive. I could see both Willises from there through a construction site, but that wasn’t the way on.
I backtracked a bit and found a series of signs pointing to “Bronx Walkway”. It was a strange, roundabout path there but I knew I was in business when the signs led to steps up to the bridge span.
Something I saw at the top that I hadn’t anticipated were the remnants of old Willis’s supports. They were beautiful but looked almost sad. The bridge span appeared to have been just ripped off the top of them.
I began my walk across current Willis. The pedestrian walkway is on the north side of the bridge, whose traffic is one way, West to East (Manhattan to Bronx). A low wall separates pedestrians from traffic. The newness of the bridge stood out. In a city where so much infrastructure is so old – fifty or a hundred years even – the new concrete, paint, and shiny gates (the kind that block entrance when the bridge is open) were striking.
Almost immediately I was able to get a good view (through tall vertical bars) of the two sections of the old bridge just north on two barges. The pieces had been rotated 90 degrees, presumably so boat traffic could pass by on either side. A strange pipe-looking structure also floated (?) in the river. Finally, the swing mechanism for the old bridge still sat in the water, exposed.
The view to the south was also nice, though I couldn’t get as close. I could see the Bronx-Manhattan span of the Triboro bridge, but didn’t have a clear shot at much else.
As I approached the Bronx end of the bridge the walkway got weird again. It jogged to the left onto a bit of the old bridge’s approach that still remained. Looking back towards Manhattan, all of the lonely, old bridge supports were visible.
Continuing on, a metal walkway shot off at an angle to the left. Its design was very much like the pedestrian bridge over the Saw Mill Parkway, though this one appeared to be only for temporary use. One end rested on the bit of remaining old bridge approach. The other rested on a stack of shipping containers. It seemed not altogether such a stable idea, and indeed, the wood planks forming its floor shook, causing the surrounding chain link fence to shake, as I walked over it.
At the shipping-container end of the bridge I looked out over an expanse of pavement. To my left was what looked like a parking lot with some strange markings. I learned later that this may be a motorcycle training area. To my right, around the rest of the old Willis supports, was a construction site. Behind me on the bit of land between where I was and the bridge first reaching land was more construction with train tracks running through it.
Satisfied, I walked back over to Manhattan uneventfully and made my way on the zigzag path back to the car. Another successful excursion and I made it back in time!
Map coming soon!