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Secrets of New York

The ultimate insider's guide to the best-kept secrets of NYC's must-see places and buzzed-about people.

If it was the early 1900s, you could

If it was the early 1900s, you could add cutting your pants on the subway to your list of grievances. (Credit: Black Paw Photo )


Secrets of New York Transit Museum’s vintage subway cars

Boerum Place & Schermerhorn Street, New York, 11201

Depending on who you ask, "beautiful" and "subway" won't often fit together in a statement about New York City’s transit system. When it comes to the city’s vintage subway cars, though, any rider can agree they hold both history and allure.

A walk through subway cars of the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s and beyond feels like a trip back in time. The varying colors, interior designs and changing advertisements give a glimpse into the evolving decades the cars represent. Cue the nostalgia.

But if you think commuting was a breeze 112 years ago, you’re somewhat wrong. The city's first underground subway line opened on Oct. 27, 1904, and came with interesting qualms of its own. (Think: breaking seats and poking springs.)

The New York Transit Museum, the largest in the nation devoted to public transportation history, is celebrating 40 years at its vintage Brooklyn subway station in 2016. The museum’s educator, James Giovan, told amNewYork all about the secrets the old cars hold.

A New York City subway car gets in

Credit: Courtesy of New York Transit Museum

Subway cars used to spend retirement in the ocean

A New York City subway car gets in about 50 years of riding the rails before it's retired. There used to be many second-life options for old cars -- one involving the bottom of the ocean.

What happened to worn-out subway cars depended on the shape they were in come retirement, Giovan said. If a subway car was still in impressive shape, it could be repurposed as a work train and transport track repair crews. Or it could end up in the museum, he said.

Cars that had seen better days used to be dumped off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia to live on as man-made reefs at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Their windows and doors would be removed, creating an open space for fish and plants to take refuge. Thousands of subway cars were dumped off barges during what was known as the Subway Reefing program, Giovan said. The program began in 2001 and ended in 2010.

Don't expect the subway car that takes you

Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

What happens to old cars now is quite different

Don't expect the subway car that takes you to work to fill up with fish anytime soon. The Subway Reefing program ended after nine years due to a change in the material quality of the cars.

"We stopped the Subway Reefing program because the newer cars had dangerous materials, like asbestos and dangerous plastics," which could potentially be toxic to aquatic plants and animals, Giovan said.

When today's cars reach the end of their lifespans, they end up getting scrapped and sold for value, he said.

Though they tend to be retired at age

Credit: Craig Ruttle

The museum’s old subway cars still work

Though they tend to be retired at age 50, but vintage subway cars were built to last.

An elevated train car from 1904 is the oldest operating car in the museum. It was used on elevated lines in Brooklyn and Manhattan, which no longer exist. The oldest subway car living out retirement at the museum is a Lo-V from 1917, and it also still operates, Giovan said.

Cars from other decades can also be found at the museum's private subway stop, but they're not just there for show. They roll out and see the city every now and then, too.

The museum breaks out trains from the 1920s and 1930s for special nostalgia rides to Coney Island and the Rockaways, Giovan said. The price of the rides varies, but most won't cost you more than your average MetroCard swipe.

A few old New York City train cars

Credit: David Pirmann

You can drive a vintage subway car yourself (but not in NY)

A few old New York City train cars can be found at the Shore Line Trolley Museum. What makes the trip to East Haven, Connecticut worth it? You can learn to drive a vintage car yourself.

The museum's guest operator program allows you to sign up for a driving lesson and even steer the train. Bonus: Up to three of your friends can come along for the once-in-a-lifetime ride.

Cutting one's pants on the subway probably isn't

Credit: Black Paw Photo

Cutting your pants on the subway used to be a real problem

Cutting one's pants on the subway probably isn't on every New Yorker's list of transit complaints today.

In the early 1900s, however, it was an actual concern for riders. The original subway seats (from 1904 to 1920) were made from rattan. They had a woven feel, like a wicker chair, Giovan said. They were filled with springs and cushioning, a different experience from today's smooth benches.

The cushioned seats broke often, and when they did, the springs would poke through and catch riders' pants, he said. It may have been one of the very first subway grievances.

Pictured: The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co.'s "Standard" car No. 2204, built in 1914.

If you don't pay much attention to the

Credit: Newsday / Ozier Muhammad

There were 'ads' of women in the subway cars (for a pageant)

If you don't pay much attention to the advertisements that hang inside today's subway cars, maybe they would catch your eye if they were posters of beautiful women instead.

Between 1941 and 1976, the MTA ran the Miss Subways beauty pageant, and it took place entirely on subway cars. Photos of eligible contestants hung inside the cars each month. Riders would then mail in their votes for the woman they'd want to be crowned the winner.

"The Miss Subways pageant was a contest the subway ran for years to give guys something to look at on their way home from work," Giovan said. "It sounds silly, but that was one of the reasons they did it."

More than 200 women were crowned Miss Subway over the 35 years the contest took place, he said.

Why are standing subway riders called straphangers if

Credit: Meghan Giannotta

The term 'straphanger' technically isn't about the subway

Why are standing subway riders called straphangers if there aren't even straps in subway cars to hang onto? The term came from one of the oldest trains, the BRT elevated car of 1904 -- which isn't even a subway car.

The elevated train had canvas hand straps for riders to hold; thus, the term "straphanger" was born.

The personal hand straps evolved into variations of the metal bars found in today's subway cars, but the term stuck around.

This stainless steel R11 train, known as the

Credit: Black Paw Photo

One very expensive train of the 1940s was ahead of its time

This stainless steel R11 train, known as the Million Dollar Train (pictured), is one of only 10 ever built. In 1949, the special cars were designed in anticipation of the Second Avenue Subway line (which is still under construction today).

It got its name because of its seriously hefty price tag -- $100,000 per car, adding up to a whopping one million. The expensive cars were the first to feature the now recognizable stainless steel exterior and tested advanced features today's cars don't even have. Its experimental highlights include germ-killing lights and roll down windows.

All of those nickels, dimes and tokens from

Credit: Courtesy of New York Transit Museum

A secret money train used to ride the rails at night

All of those nickels, dimes and tokens from the subway fare had to go somewhere. From 1951 to 2006, a two-car money train rode the rails in the middle of the night, stopping at every single station to empty the token machines.

The train rode to a hidden Jay Street station entrance in Brooklyn, which led to the MTA's former headquarters. There, the money would be counted and sorted, Giovan said.

The money train doesn't exist anymore because the MTA became concerned that the slow-moving train would delay today's hectic rail schedule, he added.

Pictured: IND R-8A class revenue car #66.


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