Death Avenue. Two words that strike fear in the souls of mortal men.
Death Avenue was a nickname for both 10th and 11th Avenues from 1846 to 1941. During this time, large freight trains come down 10th Ave; which would back up to numerous loading docks. The down side of this was the fact that these trains would run down the street among carts, horses, cars, pedestrians and children. Unfortunately, gruesome deaths were very common. There was a report issued in 1908 that said in over 56 years, 436 people had been killed on the line. In 1894; a man, who lost his leg to the railroad, lit a bonfire on the tracks as a protest. In that same year, a watchman stationed up on 40th Street, who had saved many lives over his decades of duty, was killed by an engine that proceeded without his signal. The engine had earned a nickname, too: The Butcher!
So many people were killed by these trains, that in the 1850’s, the railroad companies began hiring real life cowboys from back out west to move to New York, so they could ride on horseback in front of the trains while waving red flags or red lanterns at night to warn people that the trains were coming. These Urban Cowboys became known as the West Side Cowboys.
In 1908, the death of a 7-year-old while playing with his friends sparked a protest march by 500 schoolchildren. The city began refusing to accept the annual license fee from the railroad companies to allow the trains to come into the city. The railroad began fighting back, claiming that it brought three million tons of food into New York annually, and that the term Death Avenue was a “Malicious Piece of Sensationalism.” Slowly there was real pressure put on the railroad to eliminate the street-level tracks. In 1929, an agreement was reached to build an elevated rail system that zig-zagged through the old factories themselves so then the trains would be off the street level. The last cowboy rode down 10th Ave on March 29, 1941. His horse named Cyclone led a string of fourteen freight cars loaded with oranges. A team of reporters covered the event.
The Highline was built in the 1930’s after years of public debate about the dangerous railroad conditions in the city.
The City and State of New York, as well as the New York Central Railroad agreed to lift the tracks 30ft (9m) into the air thereby eliminating Death Avenue. The entire project was 13 miles (21k) long and eliminated 105 street level railroad crossings. It cost over $150 Million in 1930 – more than $2 Billion in costs if it was built today.
The elevated railway is now known as the Highline is now a beautiful park, which you can visit! One of TopDogTours highest reviewed walking tours; 2 Markets, A Highline, and a Meatpacking District Tour, includes an in-depth look into how the railway became one of New York’s most sought after tourist sites. Our group and private tours are offered every day and begin at 10am (or whenever you want if you book privately) on the corner of 9th Ave and 15th St. in front of the Chelsea Market. Come out and explore one of the most changed neighborhoods in New York City.