Mini-scursion: The New York Transit Museum

It was the warmest, nicest day we’d had yet this spring and I set out for the New York Transit Museum. I’d shuffled some things around in my schedule in order to go on a weekday – less crowded, I figured, though I worried there might be big groups of school children. I had been once before and definitely wanted to experience at least the old trains in the lower level in relative solitude. My plans beyond that were relatively open-ended.

Since I figured parking might be a hassle in downtown Brooklyn on a weekday, I took the trains down (how appropriate!) – first the 1 then the A. It took a while but I was confident in my transportation choice.

At the entrance to the museum, a simple set of stairs down to this old subway station, I beamed. The wind blew my hair and I paused for a moment before walking down.

After some uncertainty about who to show my brand new membership card to and where to go, I entered the first exhibitSteel, Stone & Backbone: Building New York’s Subways 1900-1925. I was fascinated to see photos and descriptions of excavations of and building on streets I knew well to facilitate the train tracks.

Digging tunnels under Columbus Circle

Building the 1-train bridge at 125th St.

I was passed by a couple of groups of tourists, one snapping fast, flash photos of every artifact.

This exhibit emptied out into a more open area which detailed the history of the Triborough Bridge. Readers may remember I walked the Manhattan-Randall’s Island span of this bridge on the Willis Avenue Bridge excursion, though I am intrigued by all of the spans (and Randall’s Island). I loved seeing the images of the boroughs pre-bridge, the bridge in process, and even right after opening. I tried to picture each place, some more familiar than others, from driving and walking I had done.

Aerial view of the Triborough Bridge

Suspension span of the Triborough under construction

Farmhouses and Hell Gate Bridge on Randall’s Island, pre-Triborough

125th Street entrance onto the Triborough

Mechanism for raising the lift span of the Triborough (love the captions!)

The next area I came to was one on fare collection, highlighting tokens, Metro Cards, Money Trains, turnstiles, and more. This is perhaps an aspect I don’t think of as often when I think of the transit system, but of course it’s important and interesting that it’s able to be made so transparent through the exhibit.

Turnstiles through the ages

MetroCard history

Collection of “Slugs used to avoid payment of fares”

I took a quick trip through the back part of the museum. Here, all types of surface transit were featured in an extensive timeline, models, maps, and photos. Model train cars sat in a smaller, sectioned-off area. In the very back were folding tables used for lunchtime on field trips, the likes of which I haven’t seen since elementary school.

Retiring trolleys on Staten Island

Satisfied with having seen most of the main floor, I headed downstairs. Everyone knows this is the best part of the museum, and I had been almost holding my breath in anticipation. As I walked down the stairs slowly, the two parallel rows of old train cars came into view, truly a charmed sight. The Court Street station is such a perfect location for the museum as it’s a functional but unused subway stop. The train cars seem at home here, and nowhere else would there be enough room to display them all.

Looking down the platform

Behind and underneath the stairs I came down, there’s a little room you can go in. It contains a big board with lights (“Interlock display”?) that shows the realtime location of all trains in the area. I watched the lights flicker and change for several minutes.

Interlock Display shows location of trains in the area

I then began my slow walk down the platform. I read almost all of the exhibit (Moving the Millions) signs on my way, and set foot in every train car.

In Penn Station

Old map of my line, the 1!

Graffitied cars and angular subway map

Last time I was at the museum, there was a special event so there were people in just about every train car. Then, I craved quiet and solitude in the cars and this day I got just that. I wandered, stood, and sat, pondering the history of these great beasts and those who rode on them. Memories of these times, though I’d not been around for them (not in this city at least) touched me so much I even had tears in my eyes at one point.

Inside a historic car

Inside one of the cars

Inside another car

Inside a slightly more modern car

Looking through an oblong window

I wished so much for the trains to be in motion once again. How many more months until the holiday nostalgia trains run again?

Wreath lies in wait for holiday nostalgia train time

First IND subway car: #100

The end of one of the cars

I noticed details as I walked too – vintage advertisements of the kind I read while riding the nostalgia train, old-style door controls, the blocked-off end of the tunnel.

Aren’t these cameras retro-cool now?

Door controls

The blocked-off end of the tunnel

One of the more interesting types of cars was a triple one – it had circular articulation points that joined what initially seemed to be three cars into one. It seems double and triple cars like this were used for cost savings, the trucks (the cars’ wheel assemblies) could be shared between the cars so not as many were needed.

The articulation point of a triple car

Exterior of the triple car

A truck (the train’s wheels)

I spent quite a while downstairs (a museum security guard even commented on that fact when I returned to the main level). I was so glad I was able take my time and have the place nearly to myself.

After a short walk through the gift shop I pondered what to do next. Initially I thought I’d try to leave the museum in time to hit the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Visitor Center. Though it was 3-something, I thought I’d give it a go, but with a backup plan in case I couldn’t make it there before it closed at 4.

Conveniently, there are many different train lines that stop near the Transit Museum, and I decided to wait for a G in hopes of making it up to Newtown Creek. I munched the bagel I brought with me while waiting – kind of a dirty habit to eat on the platform, but I was hungry! Brooklynites will not be surprised that the train quite a while to get there and the ride was rather slow. The cars were crowded with schoolchildren at that time of the day. As we approached stops leading up to Greenpoint Avenue it became clear I wouldn’t make it to the visitor center in time, but I didn’t regret my choice to take this train. It was all part of the experience.

I proceeded with my alternate plan: to visit the Transit Museum’s annex in Grand Central Station. I was particularly interested in the exhibit currently there, The Once and Future Pennsylvania Station. So I hopped off the G at the last stop and (somewhat confusedly) walked outside and to the brand new and still-under-construction Court House Square elevated 7 train stop for a free transfer.

New Court Square 7 train station

Descending underground for the ride under the East River was thrilling, but too brief to photograph. Before I knew it we were in Grand Central. I emerged in the busy terminal, a place I spent a significant amount of time passing through during college. Now I’m almost never in here, but it’s as beautiful as ever. I wandered around a bit through the crowds and then located the annex in one of the passages amongst retail stores.

It was quite warm inside this small space with dim museum-like lighting. I walked slower than the couple other passers-through and read every plaque about the construction, life, and tragic end of the grand former Penn Station building and plans for transforming the post office across the street from current Penn Station into a grand entrance to the terminal echoing the past splendor of old Penn.

Building Penn Station


Another comment from another security guard about my thoroughness going through this mini-museum, a trip through the gift shop for some small souvenirs, and I was on my way back home on the shuttle and then the 1 train, my head filled with striking images and experiences of old New York transit. I shall definitely return to both of these museum locations!

My souvenirs

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2 Responses to Mini-scursion: The New York Transit Museum

  1. Kathy Anema says:

    Another great trip! Uncle Al would love it!

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