Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Transit Museum

Recently I had the pleasure of going back to the The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights. I'd been there a few years ago but since then they've done a massive overhaul of the place and it's now one of the best museums in town.

Located on the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Streets, you descend into the museum like you would a regular subway stop. In fact, the entire museum is a regular subway stop! As you enter, you come up to an old fashioned token booth where the cost for the entire museum is only $5 (or $3 for kids and seniors; a real bargain). You then go into a tunnel where you learn about the history of how the subways were built. You see how they dynamited underneath the streets, how the workers toiled, and also the various tools they used to hack through the rock and earth. This museum doesn't sugarcoat how hard this was. The work was dangerous, treacherous, and lots of workers died. You really appreciate what an amazing undertaking the building of the subways was -- and what a human toll it took.

This is only the beginning of the museum's wonders. There are several special exhibits as well: The Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El (El trains used to populate the cities but today they are no more), The Triborough Bridge: Robert Moses and Automobile Age (a history of how this amazing bridge came to be built and how it changed NYC for better and worse), and Where New York Began (a show of discoveries at what is now the South Ferry stop). This month there is a Black History Month exhibit on how African-Americans contributed to the building of our transportation system as well as a special exhibit about the building of the LIRR.

What's best about the Transit Museum is that it's interactive. There are replicas of city buses where you can sit in the driver's seat and "drive." Most fun are the old turn styles and subways cars. The museum has a subway car from almost each decade of the 20th century with the original seats and
ads. (Did you know that subway seats used to be padded -- with straw?!) Some of the old-time ads are amazing (for Stetson Hats: "84 out of 100 women prefer men in hats"; in a 1960s car, there's an ad that announces "Sean Connery is 007 in 'Thunderball'!). The old cars are really amazing and beautiful and it literally is a walk back in time when you stroll through them.

The turn styles are a lot of fun as well. You can go through turn styles from 1907 to today. There's also a big exhibit about the history of the token -- how the subw
ay was a nickel from 1920-1948, then a dime from 1948-1953, and then the first token was introduced in 1953 when the fair was raised to fifteen cents.

Most interesting, there's a big exhibit on the history of money trains. These were special trains that ran late at night that would stop at each station across the city (there were usually about a dozen or so trains running each night) and collect the money deposited by riders during the day. The workers would take the bags of coins collected at the turn styles or token machines, count it against a ticker, haul it into the money train, do this at several stations, and then all of the money from all of the stations across the city would be counted in a huge secret safe room in Brooklyn. On January 13th, 2006, the money trains ceased to exist. However, at the Transit Museum, you can tour some of the old money trains, a piece of NYC history that is lost but not forgotten.

There's so much to see at the Transit Museum and I've only cracked the surface of it. If you're a subway junkie and a lover of this city and its history like me, I urge you to go there ASAP.

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