Getting around New York—1910 style!
One of the biggest pleasures of writing historical fiction is discovering amazing things I never knew before.
Even though I’ve spent chunks of my life living in New York City, setting a novel there in 1910 has opened my eyes to some pretty incredible facts and insights. There would be too many to put them all here, so I thought I’d start with a relatively simple one: transportation.
New York has always been a walkable city, and people did perambulate in 1910. A huge number of people walked to work every day, not just from where they lived in Manhattan, but also from the outer boroughs—as this photo of rush hour on the Queensboro bridge shows.
But the city was also already in the vanguard of various forms of public transportation by then. In fact, figuring out how people got around is one of the biggest challenges of historical fiction. It’s a delight for me to have found a resource so rich in actual photographs. It’s the blog of a site called Fine Print NYC. They have a series on the evolution of New York through pictures. It’s priceless.
Here are a few treasures I found.
The main way people got to New York in that era was train, of course, but Grand Central Station was only just being built. On the other hand, Penn Station was in all its glory, an architectural masterpiece, now sadly replaced by one of the ugliest train terminals in the U.S.
Steam trains from Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and other points came to the city via Penn Station.
But the era of electric trains and trams was in full swing by now as well.
The city streets were scored with trolly tracks—sometimes on very worn surfaces you can still see vestiges of them today. And even then, trolley accidents, pedestrians getting hit by them, were all too common. Imagine if today’s crowded NYC streets had to accommodate trolleys!
A little safer were the new subways, the initial lines of which were constructed during the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike the sleek, metal tubes passengers ride in today, these had some of the elegance of regular train travel, as the picture of a subway interior shows.
Trolleys also shared the streets with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles. At first typical cab was drawn by a single horse and sat two people in an open carriage that a passenger could easily hop in and out of. But gas-powered cabs painted yellow started in New York as early as 1907.
Automobiles were probably the least common vehicles, but that didn’t stop New York hosting its first Auto Show in 1905! The names on the signs in the photo are mostly remnants of the past.
Then, as now, what form of transportation you chose was a matter of economics. Walking was the cheapest thing.
Trolley and Subway fares were 5 cents, which would be about a dollar in today’s currency values.
Taxi fares are harder to figure out, but in 1912, they were 50 cents a mile. That’s a whopping $10 at today’s values—so only the wealthy would probably take cabs.
And as to privately owned cars and carriages—those involved the typical expenses of maintenance, plus often a driver’s salary, and therefore would only be owned by the very rich.
Want to see some more early New York transportation photos? Check out my Pinterest board!