Before the G train, buses and frustrating loops through Manhattan, Bushwick residents got to downtown Brooklyn in rickety wooden carts on the Myrtle Avenue El. Originally built in 1888, the completed line connected Metropolitan Avenue to the Brooklyn Bridge, running through Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Ridgewood, and Middle Village. The section west of Broadway was closed in 1969 due to declining ridership and increasing maintenance costs.
As a tribute to the old clunker, the New York Transit Museum unveiled their latest exhibit yesterday, "Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El," a collection of color and black and white photographs by Theresa King along with a variety of archival materials. When King learned the train would be shut down on Oct. 3, 1969 she decided to spend the day documenting stations, passengers and views from the carts with her camera and the result provides a unique view into a Brooklyn newcomers will never know.
“During my childhood, I rode this train daily and loved the look of the station stops and the train itself,” King said. “When I realized the line was due for demolition, I wanted to document a part of Brooklyn’s past that would be no more."
I visited the museum for the first time to see the exhibit and walked away with more urban transportation knowledge than most MTA employees.
Myrtle Avenue became a major roadway between Brooklyn and Queens in the 1850s when the Knickerbocker Stage Coach Line began running along the road. When the Myrtle Avenue El opened in 1888 – twenty years before subways would reach Brooklyn – it only ran between downtown Brooklyn and Grand Avenue Junction, but became so popular that it was quickly expanded. The line was extended to Wyckoff Avenue in 1889 and then to Metropolitan Avenue in 1906, coaxing growth away from Manhattan as New Yorkers enjoyed faster public transportation and Bushwick and Ridgewood’s (comparatively) ample breathing space.
Citywide "el" ridership peaked in 1921, but fell drastically during the Great Depression as the subway system expanded with Independent Subway lines in the 1930s. This, along with a decline in population and employment in Brooklyn and a growing number of people driving cars, made "el" trains seem nothing more than aging, light-blocking noise makers. The city began demolishing them one by one.
By 1966, The Myrtle Avenue El was one of the last two lines that still collected fares by hand, but there were not enough riders to justify the operation. At midnight on Oct. 3, 1969, more than 1,200 people – a mix of railroad enthusiasts, reporters, and Pratt Institute students – packed the last Myrtle Avenue El train to take one last ride. At the end of the run, the passengers were allowed to take souvenirs from the train, including everything from advertisements to seats and light bulbs.
The line was demolished in 1970 and businesses along Myrtle suffered from the resulting reduction in foot traffic. Today, all that remains of the Myrtle Avenue El, or “Old Myrt” as some called it, is the skeletal row of green trusses that stand next to Food Dimensions.
"Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El" runs until Feb. 28, 2010, at the New York Transit Museum at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights. Hours: Tues-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat-Sun 12pm-5pm