THE END OF THE OLD STILLWELL AVENUE STATION
LEFT: Inside the 1925 D-Type Triplex
To celebrate ringing up Number 45 recently [those were he days!–2012] , Your Webmaster purchased a new G4 IMac, some new web software (which hopefully will result in a Forgotten revamp in the near future), an ice cream cake, and a ticket to a Transit Museum Nostalgia Train excursion. It turned into a visit to some classic Coney landmarks and an elegy for the soon-to-be-renovated Stillwell Avenue Terminal, which will soon be a high-tech, 21st Century railhub. But not before Forgotten NY chronicles its past.
The D-Type Triplex subway cars were used exclusively on the BMT, which has characteristics such as car and platform widths that distinguish it from the older Interborough Rapid Transit, or the IRT. The Triplexes were made of steel, the BMT being in need of subway cars that could travel in the tunnels. Wooden cars were made illegal underground after the November 1918 Malbone Street Wreck, which had killed nearly 100 passengers, although they could be found on the Myrtle Avenue El until 1969.
courtesy Peter Sefton
According to subway historian and Forgotten host Paul Matus of rapidtransit.net…
This was Culver Depot, one of Stillwell’s predecessors, located just north of today’s Aquarium. It served the Brighton and Culver Lines until the Big Terminal was opened. It must be prior to Labor Day, since straw boaters are still the requisite headgear. Note the BRTRR Depot sign. The letters stand for Brooklyn Rapid Transit Railroad. In 1919, the BRT, which owned and operated Brooklyn subways and surface lines, was approaching bankruptcy. It was heavily in debt and the horrific Malbone Street Wreck, which had happened at Prospect Park on November 1, 1918, had pretty much pushed it over the edge of insolvency. In 1923, a new company was formed…Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, the BMT, which bought the BRT’s assets and assumed its operations.
As for the Stillwell Avenue Terminal, it was gradually pared down from its grand beginnings until by the 1960s, it was a shell of its former self. Most of the buildings had been torn down, as well as its trolley station, and peeling paint and a dark, dirty and occasionally dangerous arcade was all that was left. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.
Joining Forgotten Fans Clark and Mary (from Hoboken a New Jersey mecca of rail transit) at the 59th Street/Columbus Circle station, we joined about a hundred other railfans and began our journey south along the Eighth Avenue IND line. The Eighth Avenue was the first IND line to be built, in the 1920s, while the Sixth Avenue line was the last, finally compeleted in 1940. IND was built by the City to compete with the then-private BMT and IRT elevated lines, and pretty much succeeded in putting the Manhattan els out of business.
Mary repeatedly attested to the overall comfortability of rattan seating.
Until digital displays arrived in the 1980s, subway signage was pretty much changed the old fashioned way, with hand cranks.
The Bridge/Tunnel signs were important. They also showed on the outside of the train. This was an innovation, since in the days before the BMT Triplexes, passengers had to read two different sets of signs on a BMT car to figure out both the train’s Brooklyn route and whether a train would use the Montague Street tunnel (the long way to Manhattan) or the Manhattan Bridge (the short cut). With the Triplexes, all that information was in one handy place.
The Triplex rolled on, switching over to the Sixth Avenue Line (the current F line) at Jay Street and rolled through the 1954 connection between Church and Ditmas Avenues in Brooklyn, which connected the BMT Culver Line, which had originally connected to the demolished Fifth Avenue El, and the IND Sixth Avenue.
Even though the Triplexes are made of steel, its designers were still able to incorporate a fair amount of detail. Poles used by standees are coated with white porcelain, warm incandescent lighting was used, and the cars were kept pretty cool, except on the hottest days, by overhead fans (but Patrick Ewing would have had to watch out).
Using the Culver, which runs south down McDonald Avenue and then accompanies the Brighton Line west through the Luna Park Houses (named for a late, lamented Coney Island amusement park) the Triplex arrived at Stillwell Avenue, one of the busiest terminals in New York City. Subway trains run east (the Culver and Brighton Lines which have used various letters over the years, currently the F and Q) and north (along the Sea Beach and West End Lines, presently assigned the letters N and W). During the Stillwell reconstruction, only the W, the West End Line, will make it to Stillwell Avenue.
The Brighton and Sea Beach lines are named for long-vanished hotels at their termini.
At the top of the car, note the “1.” While at present, only IRT trains use numbers (which they acquired in 1948), the BMT also used numbers for identification until the mid-1960s. The Brighton Line, which runs to Coney Island, used the numeral 1. At present, it’s the Q, but it has also been known as the D. The D is presently confined to north of 34th Street. (All this has to do with the Manhattan Bridge, but it’s a long story.)
Joe Korman’s JoeKorner has a comprehensive list of BMT number assignments, along with the complicated letter system that followed beginning in 1959. The IND had a letter ID system from the start, the BMT acquired one in 1959, and the whole schmegeggie was pretty much simplified into what we have now, with almost every letter from A to Z in service, by 1980.
Riveting, ain’t it. Subway cars of this era had hundreds–even thousands–of visible rivets along their exteriors. The numbers were painted recently, but they pretty much hew to the style used on the exteriors.
This is an example of the designated signage we were talking about. Before the 1920s, you pretty much didn’t know whether your train was a local or express!
Unlike today’s doors, which slide from each side, Triplex doors opened by sliding from one slide only.
As the train pulls out of Stillwell Avenue, note the old Parachute Jump tower on the right. It can be seen from all over southern Brooklyn. It was built for the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows with a sponsorship from Life Savers and was moved to the old Steeplechase Park after the fair closed.
This postcard view of the Stillwell Avenue station shows it soon after it opened. The BRT sign places it before 1923. Note the trestle at left: it carried the Norton’s Point Trolley above Stillwell Avenue. The trolley soon graded down to street level. It was in operation until the late 1940s and traces of it can still be seen, especially in the private Sea Gate neighborhood at Coney Island’s western tip. Also note the Brighton Line train, and the enormous gas tanks that were a fixture in this area for decades.
By 1999, the Stillwell Avenue Station entrance on Surf Avenue looked like this. Candy and cigar stores, some of decades-old vintage, still lined the dusty, dingy arcade that led to the tracks.
Double-barreled action as the Brighton and Culver Lines meet. The two trains are going in opposite directions. This view was made possible by the demolition of the Surf Avenue entrance to the Stillwell Avenue Station. The green MTA sign in the foreground indicates that this entrance is open 24 hours a day.
These classy BMT subway signs graced the Surf Avenue entrance since sometime after 1923. It’s hoped that they have been preserved and will find a place in the renovated station, which is due for completion in 2004.
And what a golden oldie it is. Apparently, the word ‘Culver’ has been excised though the other three subway trunk lines leading to the Stillwell terminal are still there. Again, we hope this will be somehow preserved.
For a rendering of what the new Stillwell Ave. terminal will look like, check here!
Photo: Paul Matus
This photo was taken shortly before this part of the station was closed for demolition. The old, hand-lettered sign is one of the last in the entire system to still mention the lines’ old names.
Summer 2003: work proceeds apace on the new Stillwell station.
Stillwell actually had working toilets, though lord knows what kind of germs you’d pick up in these.
Photo: David Greenberger
The direct language of mid-20th century signage is missed. You never see the word toilet anywhere any more. Pictographs have replaced such bourgeois nomenclature.
A look toward Nathan’s and the boardwalk at dusk.
For many years, Philips’ Candy Store was run by John Dorman just inside the Stillwell Avenue entrance, a cavernous space that opened up to brillliant sunshine on Surf Avenue. Treats like salt-water taffy (made by a machine that was lost when Dorman was forced to move by the MTA), chocolate-covered bananas, candy apples, chocolate tea could only be found here. Dorman has run Philip’s, and its handmade delicacies, for over 50 years. Philips’ is currently in Staten Island, but will it return when the Stillwell Avenue station reopens? Image from coneyislandusa.com.
And any visit to Coney Island has to include a ride on Deno’s Wonder Wheel.
Since the Parachute Jump closed in 1968, the best views of Coney are available from the top of the Wonder Wheel. You have your choice of swingin’ or non-swingin’.
Now, if you haven’t taken a Wonder Wheel ride before, you might get a little queasy in a swingin’ car. But if it’s real quease you want…there’s only one place to go.
With a diameter of 135 feet, the Wonder Wheel had the title of the largest “Ferris wheel” in the world until a bigger one was built in England for their Millennium celebration in 2000.
Leaving Elvis and Chuck Berry out of it, it was the original rock n’ roller. From the Coney Island History website:
lnvented by Charles Herman and erected by Herman Garms in 1920, its unusual design incorporated sections of curved tracks connecting the 135 feet diameter outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel. When the wheel revolved, the tracks inclined and the 16 suspended cars, each seating four people, rolled back and forth between the two wheels. There were also eight stationary cars. The ride length was two revolutions, and counting the loading and unloading of passengers it took seven minutes. After the elder Herman died in 1935, his son Fred operated it until 1983 when it was sold to Denos Vourderis, who owns it today.
The Cyclone has been here since 1927. It’s the last of dozens of roller coasters that have been in Coney Island since the first, the Thompson Switchback Railway, was built in 1884. The Cyclone was built by Jack and Irving Rosenthal and when it first opened, a spin cost 25 cents. These days, it’s $5. The Cyclone is scary, but quite safe. It hasn’t always been. From the Coney Island History website:
Attendance was down and the structure needed prompt repair when Chris Feucht was induced out of retirement in 1937. Feucht redesigned many of the Cyclone’s feature’s, but was nearly killed during early repairs. While working on the chain lift of the first hill, he was caught from behind by an empty train and dragged up the tracks under the first car. He hung on as best he could while his head kept bumping against the wooden cleats of the catwalk. He was only eight seconds from going over the top and down the 80 foot drop when the man at the brake levers on the ground realized that something was wrong and shut off the power. When Feucht felt the train stop and realized he was saved, he passed out cold.
Where else could you possibly want to go in awesome August?
Home. Our chariot awaits as the Triplex again arrives at the Stillwell Avenue platform. On the left is a trainset of R-46 cars, the usual compliment on the Culver Line (F train).
The Triplexes are so called because they comprise three units, with four “trucks” connected by articulated joints, such as the one this picture was taken from. The articulation ensured a smooth ride (with some side-to-side rocking when the train picked up speed) and enabled passengers to walk safely between the units.
These days, articulation is coming back, not on subway cars, but on buses in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Our Triplex went up the Sea Beach (N) line on the way back and crossed the Manhattan Bridge, which it did not do in the old days when it was used on the Broadway, West End, Sea Beach, and Brighton lines. It last saw regular service in 1965. This was its last run of the season and it will pass in pampered retirement in the Coney Island Yards, most likely, until next summer.
End of the season.