Railroad Reinvented: Climb Aboard the High Line

(Image by Author)

Historic places are often pulverized by the wrecking ball to make way for modern redevelopment. Not so with New York City’s historic High Line railroad, which runs for 1.5 miles through Manhattan’s West Side. Thanks to a small group of people with a grand vision and some imagination, the railroad that once ferried freight around local businesses now transports visitors on a winding tour through Chelsea’s historic industrial district.

Built in 1933 by the New York Central Railroad in partnership with the City of New York, the High Line became part of the West Side Improvement, which elevated dangerous trains 30 feet above the streets of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Images by Jim Henderson (top) and Google Earth

The railroad originally ran from Penn Yards at 30th Street (above, top) to the massive St. John’s Terminal between Clarkson and Spring Streets.  (The image above shows an abandoned stretch of the High Line near Penn Yards, soon to be integrated within the park.)

The route directly served factories and warehouses, allowing trains to roll inside buildings. As a result, all manner of goods could be moved around without disturbing street-level traffic or endangering pedestrians.  But activity declined over the four decades since the line was built, with the last train rumbling across the viaduct in 1980, pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys.

Even 30 feet above ground level, the views from the repurposed High Line Park are impressive.  Moran’s Irish Pub beckons from the east side of the viaduct, while a glance to the west reveals a number of historic scenes, including Pier 54.  The eyecatching arch is all that remains of the once grand Cunard Line building.  It was here that the RMS Carpathia docked in 1912 carrying the survivors of the Titanic disaster.

The High Line was an innovative concept at the time, eliminating 105 street-level road crossings.  Originally 13 miles long, it cost a staggering $150 million in 1930 – more than $2 billion in today’s money.  It was designed to cut through the centre of Manhattan’s blocks, rather than over avenues, to avoid the negative impact of elevated subways.  (The images above show restoration work being done on phase two of the redevelopment project.)

The southern section of the railroad was demolished in the 1960s, while property owners lobbied in the 1980s for the remainder of the abandoned structure to be torn down.  But plans were thwarted by a local railroad enthusiast and in 1999, Friends of the High Line was founded to advocate for its preservation and reuse as a public park.  A decade later, their conservation efforts have had a dramatic impact on the local environment.  The High Line Park officially opened in June 2009 and celebrated its two millionth visitor – a schoolboy from North Carolina – earlier this month.  Learn more here.

New York’s High Line isn’t the only urban park developed from an abandoned elevated railroad – be sure to check out Paris’ Promenade Plantée.

 

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  • Camille

    I was just there on saturday – when were these photos taken??

  • Tom

    Wow, really? These photos were taken on Saturday too!

  • Vani

    Love the pics!
    Curious what YOU thought of the high line, personally! Do you think it was the best use of the space / best use of plant life / etc.?

  • Tom

    Thanks, Vani! I’m a big fan of the High Line. I think it provides a much needed green space through what is a very built up area, offering a 1.5 mile walk (by the time it’s complete). Secondly, it integrates the city’s industrial heritage into a space that would otherwise have been built on. As far as I know, this is Manhattan’s last elevated railroad (apart from the subway), so definitely well worth saving! You?

 
 
 
 
 
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