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Guide to the William F. Reeves Elevated Railroads Photograph Collection
(bulk dates 1878-1906)
 PR 154

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Emily Wolff and Jenny Gotwals

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on December 14, 2015
Description is in English.

Historical Note

The implementation of a rapid transit system in New York City became an increasingly important issue during the 1850s and 1860s as the city spread northward and a growing number of people needed to be transported faster and more efficiently than horse-drawn vehicles would allow. New York's densely populated neighborhoods, the existing pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and Manhattan's long, narrow configuration necessitated a system that would run either above or below ground level. Numerous designs for both types of system were proposed to the state legislature during this time and public demand for rapid transit grew fervent.

In 1867 the city legislature approved a proposal for an experimental elevated cable railroad to be constructed on Greenwich Street between Dey and 29th Streets in Manhattan. Despite litigation brought by the omnibus companies, the elevated system evolved rapidly. By 1880, four steam-powered railroad lines ran through Manhattan, stretching from the Battery to the Harlem River, and carrying more than 175,000 passengers each day. Construction continued into the Bronx, linking the boroughs as the population swelled. The El, as the system was known from its earliest days, transformed the city during the second half of the nineteenth century. As the iron tracks dominated the landscape, the trains accelerated the pace of urban life, and in doing so facilitated a range of economic and social changes.

The elevated system reached it peak in 1921, with ridership reaching 374 million. However, the economic depression of the 1930s, changing political tides, and the expansion of the subway system soon brought about its demise. Service was discontinued on the Sixth Avenue Line in 1938 and the other lines followed shortly thereafter. With the demolition of the Third Avenue Line track in 1956, the era of New York's elevated railroads came to an end.


  • Jackson, Kenneth T., ed., Encyclopedia of New York. London and New York: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Reed, Robert C., The New York Elevated. South Brunswick and New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1978.
  • Reeves, William Fullerton, The First Elevated Railroads in Manhattan and the Bronx of the City of New York. New York: New-York Historical Society, 1936.
  • Stelter, Lawrence, By the El: Third Avenue and its El at mid-century. Flushing, New York: H&M Productions, 1995.

Biographical Note

William Fullerton Reeves was born in New York City in 1859. He was raised in the city and attended New York University. In 1880, he went to work as a civil engineer for the Manhattan Railway Company, the company that merged New York's independent elevated railroad lines into a unified system. Reeves continued to serve as an engineer when Manhattan Railway was taken over by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in 1903. He spent the rest of his career with Interborough Rapid Transit, working on both the elevated railroads and the subway system. He specialized in the legal aspects of engineering and became an authority on contracts and easements. Reeves was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Society of Professional Engineers, and the New York State Society of Professional Engineers, as well as a member of the Salmagundi Club in New York and an Associate Member of The New-York Historical Society.

The history of New York's elevated railroads was of great interest to Reeves. The city's earliest elevated structures were erected when he was a child, and he grew up during an era in which rapid transit was at the forefront of public affairs. He collected photographs, maps, and documents relating to the development of the elevated system. In 1935, he published "Elevated Railroads on Manhattan Island," a two-part article in the January and April volumes of the Quarterly Bulletin of the New-York Historical Society. Both parts were illustrated with images from his collection. The following year, the Society published a revised and augmented version of the article as a limited edition book entitled  The First Elevated Railroads in Manhattan and the Bronx of the City of New York.

Williams Reeves died of a heart attack in his apartment at Hotel des Artistes, 1 West 67th Street, on September 18, 1936.