20 Rare Photographs From The Early Days Of The New York City Subway

No Comments

The New York City Subway opened for business in 1904. Over a century later, with 472 stops it has the distinction of having the most stations of any subway system in the world. In 2017 commuters made more than 1.72 billion rides on the subway’s 665 miles of passenger tracks. And some of the riders even found time to take a quick nap, like the one pictured here from 1939. Here are 20 of the rarest shots portraying the history of this venerable institution.


Official opening

It’s 1903 and the mayor of New York City, Seth Low, presides over a ceremony marking the official opening of the subway. Wealthy Republican Low went from being mayor of Brooklyn to mayor of NY City in January 1902, serving just one two-year term before losing at the polls to a Democrat.

Where’s the engine?

George B. McClellan was the man who succeeded Seth Low as NYC mayor. He obviously had the same appetite for subway photo opportunities as had his predecessor. Here we see him and other dignitaries aboard a strange and apparently hand-operated car. Presumably, powered locomotives were introduced soon afterwards. Otherwise the subway would probably never have caught on.

Broadway Local

This photo from the early 1900s shows policemen and railway officials standing on the platform of the Broadway Local subway as a train’s about to depart. Note the elaborate mosaic decoration of the tunnel arch and the overhead windows flooding light into the tunnel. This is one of the earliest pictures we have of the NY subway.

Subway drama

In this rather terrifying photo from the early 1900s we see a subway car that’s apparently made an unsuccessful attempt at flight. We don’t know the details of the obviously serious derailment depicted in this archive photo. But if there were passengers aboard when it happened they probably wouldn’t have felt like riding the subway again anytime soon, or possibly ever.

Women on the subway

This photo appears to show the brief period when women-only cars were introduced on the subway. Although, if you look carefully you’ll spot that there is one man – the uniformed guard. In fact, the women-only carriages – inevitably dubbed suffragette cars – were not judged a success. The idea never really caught on. According to a 1909 New York Times article, women felt safer in mixed carriages as men could step in if there was trouble


These four youngsters, aged from ten to 15, worked all hours selling newspapers to subway travelers. Weekday shifts could be nine hours long, with some boys working all night on Saturdays. For this, they were paid the princely sum of 25 cents a shift in 1910. A Juvenile Protective Association official deplored the newsboys for their “vices and ways and a class degenerating to low criminality.”

Building the subway

This extraordinary shot of workers engaged in the tunneling for the Lexington Avenue subway line comes from 1910. It took eight years from 1904 to complete the excavations for the line, which was constructed in two sections. The first part ran between 42nd Street and City Hall and opened in October 1904.

Subway collapse

This dramatic shot captures the aftermath of a collapse of the Seventh Avenue subway line during its construction in 1915. Timbers supporting the street above the tunnel failed causing a cave-in. Various vehicles including a trolley car fell into the gaping chasm, 30 feet deep. Seven people were killed in this horrific accident, including two passengers in the trolley car.

Subway cleaner

If you look at collections of old NYC subway photos, one thing strikes you immediately. All of the uniformed guards and senior staff are men. But as this 1917 shot shows, women were allowed to work on the subway – as cleaners. At least this woman is given a proper uniform, although her bedraggled feather duster would appear to have seen better days.


We’ve already seen one train that crashed off an elevated subway line and here we see two trains that have crashed into each other on an elevated line. Once again, details of this extremely unpleasant looking accident are scarce but it’s said to portray an incident from around 1920. Thankfully in modern times it seems that traveling on the subway is a lot safer than it was a century ago.

Subway collapse

This shot from the early 1920s illustrates an early move towards automization of the subway ticket system. The man standing at the change booth is obtaining the coins he’ll need – nickels – to get on to the platform. The entrance sports the new coin-operated turnstiles. Previously, an employee – the ticket-chopper – checked and endorsed tickets by hand.

Poetry on the subway

In fact, poetry might be a little highfaluting to describe the lines this woman is reading as she makes her subway journey. The poem is actually a safety message and you can get a flavor of the literary standard from a few lines. “Watch them dodging here and there, taking neither thought nor care. My! You see some tragic sights, when they cross against the lights.” Not exactly Longfellow, is it?

Food on the subway

For generations of New Yorkers, riding the subway has often been about more than getting from A to B. And here we see one favorite pastime of subway commuters – dining. This 1937 photo shows a classic lunch counter of the era in a station with hungry travelers satisfying their appetites. Judging by how uncomfortable the stools look, the proprietors were hardly encouraging diners to linger.

Packing them in

Now we’re in 1948 and although this photo is 70 years old, the scene it depicts will be all too familiar to contemporary commuters. The crowds of rush-hour passengers are squeezing into a carriage at the Times Square subway station. Their train is a Sea Beach line service. At one time, this route ran from Manhattan to Coney Island but the service was scrapped in 1968.

The wonder of the subway

Hardened daily subway commuters scarcely have the time or the inclination to marvel at the wonders of the subway. But for these kids in 1948, it looks like a thoroughly thrilling experience. For us adults it’s hard indeed to feel once again the excitement of a childhood ride on New York’s subway.

On patrol

Grasping his nightstick, this cop cuts a formidable figure as he patrols the subway in August 1965. In the face of public disquiet at subway crime levels, New York City mayor Robert Wagner greatly increased police presence on certain services. What could be more reassuring for a late-night traveler than the presence of a cop in the carriage?

Keeping the peace

Mayor Wagner’s crime initiative saw the number of transit cops jump from 1,219 to 3,100. Officers now patrolled all stations and trains from 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., the times when muggers and other criminals were most active. With this policy of high-visibility law enforcement, crime rates duly fell and New Yorkers were reassured.

Walking, not riding

The anxious-looking passengers in this 1965 shot, led by cautious cops, have been forced to walk through the tunnel because of a power cut. Although they’re brightly lit by the camera’s flashgun, it would have been a frightening experience with just the policemen’s handheld flashlights to illuminate the gloom.

Sleeping, eating and reading

As evidenced by this snap from 1970, New Yorkers sure know how to fill in the time during a subway journey. Here we have one rider eating, another catching up on the day’s news and a third enjoying forty winks. And there you have in a nutshell the advantage of using public transit as compared to driving your car. All three of these activities could result in death, serious injury or imprisonment.


And now we’re into 1972, an era when New York’s subway had become a blank canvas for graffiti artists. In fact, this was the year that NYC mayor John Lindsay declared a “war on graffiti.” It turned out to be an initiative that lasted longer than anyone could have predicted. It was actually 1989 before subway authorities could declare that there were no graffitied trains in service.


Post a comment