Nostalgia on the IRT

by John Delach

The second I stepped into one of those four ancient subway cars, the memory of that old, familiar smell ignited my senses. Electric ozone, a not unpleasant odor, filled my senses as it had since I first rode the subways with my mother in the 1940s. All those rides to all those places, movies in Times Square, shopping at Macy’s and Gimbles at Thirty-Fourth Street, adventures in Coney Island, voyages from Whitehall Street on the Staten Island Ferry and sweet sunny days at the Canarsie Pier. Later in my teens, trips to Madison Square Garden for Ranger games, the Polo Grounds for the Mets and Jets and Yankee Stadium for the Bronx Bombers and the New York Football Giants.


The odor always present, was joined by a vague taste of steel in the air. Sounds once common, also returned. As I sat on the waiting train my ears picked up the idling DC electric motors as they thumped and whirred until the motorman put them in gear. As the train began to move these electrical devices gave off a cacophony of bangs and booms as the carriages shook off their inertia and begrudgingly moved off into the waiting tunnel.


This excursion began at the Grand Central subway station that served the Forty-Second Street Shuttle Line. Sponsored by the New York Transit Museum, it was called Centennials & Cemeteries. About 50 ticket holders had gathered at the Museum store inside Grand Central Terminal where we were escorted down to the shuttle station. As soon as a shuttle train departed from Track 1 bound for Times Square, the four IRT (Numbered train lines) Lo-V cars entered the station from the opposite direction. As we boarded we could see that we were greatly outnumbered by subway workers, some on the job running the train, some providing security and crowd management, but mostly, subway buffs like many of us.


Not all were transit buffs, though. Our destination was the Woodlawn Station at the top of the Bronx celebrating it’s 100 anniversary and a tour of Woodlawn Cemetery. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011 by the National Park Service, Woodlawn’s celebrated lot owners include VIPs like Robert Moses, Herman Melville, Joseph Pulitzer, Fiorello LaGuardia, Celia Cruz, Admiral David Farragut, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Charles Evan Hughes and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”


Our little train began the journey by heading downtown on the Lexington Avenue (East Side numbered) Line on the local tracks south to the City Hall loop. The train moved slowly along this route as the train ahead made all stops from Thirty-Third Street to Brooklyn Bridge. South of that stop, we entered the loop that passed the abandoned and museum quality City Hall Station, the stop where the First Subway originated. The chandeliers and wall lights were all illuminated providing an excellent view of this historic station. The loop continued back to the north bound local tracks at Brooklyn Bridge.


From there excitement reigned supreme once the train left Brooklyn Bridge. No regular scheduled trains were operating on the express track making it our exclusive province. The motorman opened the throttle allowing this consist to travel uptown at the generous speed limit. What a feast of sounds, sights and smells as we roared through the tunnels and the local stations. These Low-Vs were built between 1916 and 1925 and they acted accordingly. We bounced and bucked continuously, conversation was impossible there was so much noise while a breeze manufactured by the moving train filled the cars with the same subway scent I remembered from old New York subway tunnels, the London Underground and the Paris Metro.  The motorman only slowed down to a more reasonable speed when we rolled though the express stops at Union Square, Grand Central, Fifty-Nine Street and Eighty-Six Street. What a run, there is nothing like riding a New York City subway express going full out especially one that felt it would fall apart at any moment.


The train became elevated as we approached Yankee Stadium and we continued northward through the Bronx past eleven more stops and such sights as the Kingsbridge Armory (once the largest indoor floor space in the world), Lehman College and Mosholu Parkway to the Woodlawn Terminal.


Coincidentally, Mosholu Parkway, a three-mile car only roadway connecting the Bronx Botanical Gardens and Van Cortland Park was built by Robert Moses in 1937 and remains a Bronx treasure.


This happened on Sunday, April 15, one of those many unpleasant days we were forced to endure this past winter and spring. The air was filled with a biting wind and enough moisture to make it miserable. I decided that the train ride was enough for me and chose to call it a day and ride a southbound Number 4 train back to Grand Central.


Seeing Robert Moses’ resting place would have to wait for another day.