City's First Railroad, the New-York and Harlem Line, Began Downtown

Looking up the Bowery from Canal Street in 1890. The tracks on either side of the street were the Third Avenue El. The horse-drawn open cars of the Harlem Line ran north and south.

May. 19, 2016

All three commuter rail lines that operate out of Grand Central stop in Harlem at 125th Street, but only one is called the Harlem Line. Ironically, the mystery behind the “uptown” name for this venerable rail line begins downtown.  

The Harlem Line is the direct descendent of the New-York and Harlem Rail Road, New York City’s first passenger railroad—and the first in the United States by most counts.  It was chartered by State legislation in 1831 (so long ago that New York was still called “New-York” and a railroad was a “rail road”), but it was privately designed, financed, and operated until 1972, when Metro North took over and it became the Harlem Line we know today.  The line was revolutionary but initially had a modest goal: to bring passengers from the city proper, then located mostly south of 14th Street, to the farms and meadows near the small rural village of Harlem on the river near 128th Street. Of course, like most things in New York, the motivation was real estate: developers saw the potential to open Harlem as New York’s first suburb, but that took decades to become reality.  

The Harlem Line opened in stages beginning in 1832, with track extending from Prince Street on the Bowery up to 14th Street.  The Harlem ran at street-grade in the middle of the Bowery, the main road into town in those days. (Elevated train lines did not appear in the city until after the Civil War.) Railroads were still so new that conventional timber cross ties were not initially used—the rails were supported by ties cut from solid stone.  

When fully built, the Harlem ran all the way downtown.  The tracks crossed town on Broome Street and then turned downtown on Centre Street onto Park Row (then Chatham Street).  Its southern terminus was at the Astor House hotel facing City Hall Park, the city’s leading hostelry in the 1800s, where the trains did a loop and headed back north.  Efforts to extend the line to Bowling Green, via Broadway, were rebuffed due to the narrowness of that actually not-so-broad street.

For the first few years, the Harlem’s trains were powered by teams of horses, but the advent of the steam locomotive engine (invented by Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Union) in the 1830s soon changed that.  For many years, steam engines pulling coaches screamed and smoked their way through the middle of the city’s streets. Finally, in 1854, after years of protest from outraged neighboring property owners, the Board of Aldermen, as the city legislative body was then called, acted and banned all steam locomotives south of 32nd Street. This turned the Harlem Line down to City Hall into a horse-drawn street car line, and it ran on that way until 1897, when the line was electrified.  

Northbound, the line ran up the Bowery to 4th Avenue, where it traveled the length of the island to Harlem.  The line featured the painstakingly blasted Yorkville Tunnel (from 88th to 94th Streets), one of the first tunnels in North America.  The tunnel was required because locomotives then lacked the power to traverse significant elevations.  A second tunnel on the line, on 4th Avenue from 32nd to 40th Streets, continues in active service to this day, but only for motor vehicles.  The line also featured a timber viaduct across the marshy Harlem Creek, which ran (and still flows, underground) down from Morningside Heights to the East River.  

The Harlem line was extended across the Harlem River to the Bronx and onto Westchester in 1840. It reached its final northern terminus in Chatham, Putnam County, in 1852, where there was a connection to Albany.  

As was common in the early railroad era, The New-York and Harlem also built its own luxury resort hotel, to entice its patrons to travel.  Prospect Hall, as it was called, was built on  pastoral rise on today’s Upper East Side. It opened in 1834 and featured an astounding 12 acres of “pleasure grounds.”

The headquarters for the Harlem Line was in a strikingly beautiful Italianate-style complex known as Madison Square Depot, located at 4th Avenue between 26th and 27th Streets.  After the original Grand Central Depot was built at 42nd Street in 1871, the old facility was razed, and the site was re-developed with the first of New York’s four Madison Square Gardens. By 1873, Cornelius Vanderbilt had gained control over the Harlem line, but only north from Grand Central. The Harlem’s venerable street car service operated until 1936, when the service was replaced by buses.

Deep into the automobile era, with our vast system of highways, it is easy to forget how difficult it was— almost impossible, in fact—to travel or move goods across land. The railroad and steam locomotive were incredible innovations that changed the world.  And the “rail road” that began it all in New York City was right here in downtown Manhattan. Just buy a Metro North ticket, and you can still ride it today.  

Bernard D’Orazio is a practicing attorney who has lived and worked in lower Manhattan since 1980 and is a former member of Manhattan Community Board 1.  He can be reached at