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Metropolitan New York's Third Avenue Railway System

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[float=right]imageDB.cgi?isbn=9780738538105[/float]In response to rapidly increasing populations within city centers during the early and mid 1800's, the concept of the urban street railway began to replace inefficient horse powered omnibuses. During this same period, New York's Third Avenue Railroad Company received approval to build a street railway on Chatham Street, the Bowery and Third Avenue from Ann Street to the Harlem River. Cars entered in service in 1853 and, despite later competition from the Third Avenue elevated line, the enterprise became very successful. During the late 1880's, the company initiated its first expansion program in the form of trackage laid west on 125th Street and north on Amsterdam Avenue. The company also terminated horse drawn service during this period as it adopted cable operation.


Vigorous expansion commenced during the mid 1890's. The railroad was given approval to extend trackage up Broadway from 162nd Street all the way to 262nd Street. In addition, Third Avenue added to its rapidly growing empire with the acquisition of smaller independent companies operating in Manhattan, the Bronx and Lower Westchester County, creating a virtual monopoly for the railroad in these areas. Another major accomplishment of the Third Avenue Railroad during this time period was the conversion of its routes to electric traction. Courtesy of electric railway pioneer Frank J. Sprague, the first commercially successful electric street railway was completed in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. Third Avenue Railroad management was eager to install this new form of power on its own physical plant; however, Manhattan law prohibited the erection of overhead trolley wires. The railroad's plan to electrify its operations was therefore completed using a combination of trolley wire in the outlying areas and an underground conduit system which featured a slot in the street between the running rails. A car operating into Manhattan was required to stop upon entering the island, lower its trolley pole and engage its conduit power collection device before proceeding.


In 1911, the company was reorganized as the Third Avenue Railway Company and equipment was lettered for the very familiar Third Avenue Railway System (TARS). Into the 1930's, ridership boomed as the city's population increased. TARS was blessed with highly competent staffing which maintained the railway's physical plant in excellent condition. To further illustrate the expertise of TARS personnel, during the 1930's, several hundred cars were built in the railway's own shop facilities. In fact, TARS became one of the country's leading streetcar builders during this period, much in the same manner Pennsylvania Railroad and Norfolk & Western became famous for erecting their own steam locomotives. By 1940, the tastefully decorated red and cream streetcars of TARS were a staple of life in New York City. Stretching from its southern terminus of Park Row all the way north to Westchester County, the system became an integral part of the city's growth. Approximately one million passengers rode the system on a daily basis!


We've all heard that saying about how good things must come to an end. Unfortunately, TARS was not exempt from this most dire of philosophies. Newly elected Mayor LaGuardia had an open hostility to streetcars and made no secret of his desire to banish them to oblivion. Thanks to a number of questionable alliances and good old fashioned corrupt politics, TARS streetcar operation tragically concluded in 1952, having been totally replaced by motor buses. One of the country's foremost urban public transportation systems had been shortsightedly and selfishly run right into the ground. One former TARS property which operated trolley service on the Queensboro Bridge continued to run until 1957 when, it too, regrettably passed away.


Despite it's very unhappy ending, the Third Avenue Railway Company left New York City and rail hobbyists a wonderful legacy which is celebrated by the book "Metropolitan New York's Third Avenue Railway System." Authored by Charles L. Ballard and published by Arcadia Publishing in 2005, this 128 page softcover book presents a look at TARS operations during its final years beginning in 1940. Mr. Ballard was a regular TARS passenger, making him eminently qualified to author such a volume. The book is profusely illustrated with quality black and white photographs taken at many different points along the system. Since my family has strong Bronx roots, images of streetcars running along Broadway next to Van Cortlandt Park and one picture of Car 503 awating its next assignment at Williamsbridge Road and Morris Park Avenue are particularly satisfying. Chapters are arranged by operating territories which results in a logical and easy to follow presentation of the material. Also included are numerous images of TARS' highly regarded maintenance facilities.


"Metropolitan New York's Third Avenue Railway System " should be mandatory reading for anyone with an interest in public transportation as public transportation was MEANT to be. Given the infrastructure issues and service demands currently being experienced within our fair city, it makes us realize how valuable this magnificent system would be in today's society had it not been driven out of business in such an irresponsible manner. It's too bad Mayor LaGuardia and his cronies are no longer with us so they could be made to suffer through the same vehicle congestion and pollution which is being thrust upon later generations.


The book is priced at $19.99 and is very easy to locate since Arcadia releases are widely distributed. They should be available at most major book stores in the area. If you have an appreciation for transit in its most efficient form, you really owe it to yourself to read this book.


Best regards,



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