Sunday, 12 May 2013

High Line, Wild West

Yesterday I visited the High Line, Manhattan's park on a disused elevated freight line.

A fascinating article by Annik La Farge talks about the history of the High Line and its horseback precursor, the West Side Cowboy. Apparently, the freight service that the elevated High Line was built for once shared the centre of Tenth Avenue with other traffic and pedestrians, caused so many fatalities that the street was locally dubbed "Death Avenue". 

Death Avenue. Photo courtesy of Friends of the High Line, reposted from Bowery Boys.

Because of these risks, a horse and rider were employed to precede the trains waving a red flag - or at night, a red lantern - warning other road users of their approach. Annik has posted a fascinating video of a cowboy at work on Tenth Avenue in the 1930s on her excellent High Line blog.

Cowboy at work. Source: the Bowery Boys.

The cowboys walked Tenth Avenue between December 1850 and March 1941. As the article "Cobblestone Cowboys" from The London Terrace Tatler, January 1934, tells us:

"Every resident of London Terrace knows , and we believe, likes the cowboy riders of the New York Central, who day and night, rain or shine, majestically precede the electric trains along Tenth Avenue. For over eighty years this unique custom has been in existence, but now, even as the riders of the West have faded into glamorous limbo of romance, their own day is drawing to its close. With the early completion of the overhead roadway, they will disappear from the streets of New York, leaving many to change "The Last Round Up" as the brass bands announce the official opening of a modern Manhattan miracle.

The  "Modern Manhattan Miracle" in 1934. Source NYPL (via the  Bowery Boys again).

Law of the Range

"The story of these riders goes back to December 4, 1850 when the City Council passed a law compelling trains on the streets of New York to be preceded by a rider on horseback, on block ahead of the locomotive, waving a red flag by day and a red light by night to warn pedestrians and prevent runaways of horse-drawn vehicles. This quaint law is still in force, and the New York Central must, until it rises above the street, provide its riders or suffer revocation of its franchise.

Two Mile Ride

"The Tenth Avenue freight route extends from 30th Street south to St. John's yards below Canal Street, a distance of about two miles. To cover the operation of the various trains, a staff of twelve riders is maintained. These boys, who must all be over eighteen years old, are almost wholly recruited from Tenth Avenue and West Street, and strange as it may appear, riders are difficult to find, and only those who have, by strange fortune, learned to ride in the county are used, because a country boy knows and understands horses, and is thus prepared for any unexpected excitement that might affect his steed.

"The "Ranch Boss" of these cowboys is the Superintendent of the New York Central Freight Yards, and since the law has been in effect two of the riders have risen from the range to the important position of Yard Masters.

The Ponies

"The horses used in this unusual service are tried and true, and are perfectly aware of their important mission in life. They know traffic and excitement, thick fogs and blinding storms, the deep-throated adieus of departing liners and the tremendous thrill of screaming fire engines, but through it all they move surely and serenely, carrying out the Law of the City Council and giving opportunity for their gallant riders to amuse the passerby with amazing variation of the routine waving of the red lanterns. The effective term of duty of these mounts for this service is over eight years, duet to the special care and the use of rubber padding on their hoofs, and when their usefulness on the city pavements is over they are auctioned off at the Bulls Head Horse Market to continue their lives on softer turf in greener pastures."