What Makes the Subway Run?

Early Subway Car With Ceiling Fans

Early Subway Car With Ceiling Fans

Have you ever wondered how the subway really works?  I know somedays when you’re stuck in a tunnel or on the platform, you probably wonder if it works at all.  The Transit Museumhoused in a former IND train station in downtown Brooklyn, is a great place to learn all about how our mass transit system developed and how it runs today.  When you enter, you’ll find photographs, videos and descriptions of  the construction of the first subway line, which opened in 1904:  the tunnel excavation (mostly cut and cover), the conditions the “sandhogs” faced (no workers comp or OSHA in those days), the politics of getting a job, as well as tools and other artifacts. My maternal grandfather worked on the subway, so this has always been of interest to me.  Horses were widely employed to transport people and equipment, both above ground and in the tunnels. Quite a contrast with the tunnel boring machine being used today on the Second Avenue Subway!  There are also photographs of the first subway station (City Hall) with chandeliers and Guastavino tiled vaults. 

The Transit Museum is a great place to bring kids, as many of the displays are interactive and educational.  They also run a special program for 2nd to 5th graders on the autism spectrum. 

Electricity: Powering New York’s Rails   is an interactive exhibit about electricity:  how it’s generated, transmitted and powers our transit system.  Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the third rail and switches.  It was a nice refresher course for me in some of the (basic) science principles I haven’t reviewed in a long time. Electricity was designed specifically for the Transit Museum by the Liberty Science Center  

1913 Brooklyn Tram

1913 Brooklyn Tram

In the back of the first floor are models of horse-drawn street cars from the 1800‘s and early busses (some of which you can sit in – a favorite for kids of all ages).  You’ll also find change dispensers and tokens, which have a comforting quaintness in this Metrocard age.  There’s also a small study center which has miniature models of every Brooklyn trolley that was in service between 1890 and 1956. 

Throughout the exhibit you’ll find displays charting the development of the bus system from private franchises to the current public system.

If you like bridges, in celebration of it’s 50th birthday, there are drawings, maps and photographs documenting the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, which transformed both Brooklyn and Staten Island.  The miniature model is not to be missed!

Diorama of the "El" ca 1890

Diorama of the “El” ca 1890

On the lower level you can stroll through subway cars of just about every vintage, as well as the rail cars that ran along the “El” which predated the underground system.  Displays explain the evolution of the subway from competing private systems to the public one we know today.

There’s a small exhibit room, with wonderful large-scale (3ft x 4 ft) photographs by Jack Sanderson of landscapes along the LIRR and Metro North .  I hope the Transit Authority makes more room for the art work it’s commissioned and that our trains, busses and bridges have inspired over the years.  I’m a big fan of the art in the strips above the windows on the subway cars, and I think that the art work incorporated into station renovations has been a major improvement to the system.

The Transit Museum has an Annex and store at Grand Central Station.  In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the New York’s Landmarks Law  it is hosting an exhibit on New York’s Transportation Landmarks.

The Transit Museum stores at both the main Brooklyn location and the Grand Central Annex are great places for unique gifts.