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Trains and Ships

Started: 2022-07-24 15:59:48

Submitted: 2022-07-24 18:51:52

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Visiting The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn and the South Street Seaport

We had a bit of a late start on the morning of Saturday, 16th July, after our late night at the theater; we didn't manage to leave the apartment until shortly before noon. We caught a 4 train downtown and got off at the first station in Brooklyn, Borough Hall. From there the transit museum was around the corner. We entered the museum via an unassuming set of stairs on the sidewalk leading into an old disused subway station, formerly known as Court Street, that had been taken over by the museum.

The first part of the museum talked about the workers who dug the subway tunnels and built the subway in a variety of conditions: cut-and-cover tunnels in much of Manhattan, deep bored tunnels through hard rock where the bedrock was too close to the surface, and tunnels bored under the mud under the East River using a variety of Greathead tunneling shields. This was all very interesting (especially the focus on the workers themselves) but I felt like it lacked a bit of context: What was the environment in New York when it built its subways? What parts of the system were built using which tunneling methods? How did the three competing subway systems in New York City work together, and what operating constraints do their legacy place on the operation of the system today? (Many of my questions were answered by the book Subway, which I purchased later and read on the plane back home.)

Julian and Aunt Bethany at the New York Transit Museum
Julian and Aunt Bethany at the New York Transit Museum

The rest of the first basement level (what probably would have been the station concourse, when the station was operating) was filled with was filled with a random collection of artifacts from the subway system: a series of turnstiles, an exhibit about subway tokens featuring a token vending counter (pictured above, in which Julian is selling subway tokens to Aunt Bethany).

Looking back along the platform at the New York Transit Museum
Looking back along the platform at the New York Transit Museum

The centerpiece of the museum was one floor below. Here the station's original island platform (still connected to the rest of the subway system, with a live third rail that the museum kept reminding us about, letting the museum move its rolling stock in and out as it saw fit) were filled with historic train carriages from the subway's operating history. We saw the progression from older carriages with wood-paneled interiors and padded seats to mid-century all-steel carriages, some of which were examples of cars that were still operating. All of the carriages were packed together as if they were in one long trainset composed of a dozen different carriages across a century of underground rail transport. One interesting trainset was composed of three carriages linked together, sharing an axle where the carriages met, with a walk-through articulated section above the axle allowing passengers to move between carriages while the train was in motion.

Electric motor truck
Electric motor truck

There was also a carriage ordered for the Second Ave subway fifty years ago when the subway's operators thought that they would actually be able to complete the subway in the twentieth century; in reality, the Second Ave subway became a megaproject that only recently opened.

Nicholas Pantelides Memorial Signal Tower
Nicholas Pantelides Memorial Signal Tower

At the end of the platform was a signal tower complete with a live signal board showing where we were ("You are here", on the right side of the board, with the two tracks lit up in white to show that the tracks were occupied inside a station) in relation to the nearby subway system in Brooklyn. The signal board was live; as trains moved through the blocks the lights lit up showing where the trains were and where they were going.

Looking inside pump car 56
Looking inside pump car 56

One of the rolling stock parked on the platform was a pump car set up to remove water from the subway system wherever it needed to go, in the event that the existing drainage was not adequate (or a storm surge triggered by a hurricane flooded tunnels that were not designed to handle rising sea levels).

Julian in the New York Transit Museum
Julian in the New York Transit Museum

There was so much rolling stock on display that Julian needed to take a break using the conveniently-placed benches on the middle of the platform.

Looking along the platform at the New York Transit Museum
Looking along the platform at the New York Transit Museum

Back on the concourse level there were more galleries devoted to other forms of transit in the city, tracing the development from horse-driven omnibuses through street-level trams, elevated railways, and city buses running along the surface streets.

Julian drives a New York bus
Julian drives a New York bus

One of the exhibits showed passenger behavior signs from various transit agencies (in addition to New York, Chicago and Tokyo featured prominently in the exhibit) to try to encourage passengers to behave appropriately in transit, for whatever the current version of "appropriate" was. Some of the signs seemed hilariously anachronistic, banning smoking and spitting in the subway; then I stopped to wonder whether masking against infectious diseases was the next frontier, and in twenty years would we all be wearing masks in public by default and it would seem anachronistic to see historic signs from 2020 mandating masks. (In practice the answer seems to be "no", we have not changed our behavior despite two-and-a-half years of the pandemic and a million Americans dead, in the face of a never-ending wave of surges. While we were in New York City the MTA mandated masks on public transit, but only about 75% of people on the trains were wearing masks.)

Subway conduct signs
Subway conduct signs

We exited via the gift shop, where Bethany bought the kids "C" and "J" t-shirts in their current sizes and I got a little serving dish with the logos of all of the subway lines (grouped by color where the trunk lines travel through Manhattan, so the 4/5/6 trains were grouped together) printed on it.

Julian and Calvin eat pizza in Brooklyn
Julian and Calvin eat pizza in Brooklyn

We left the museum and ate a late lunch at a tiny pizza-by-the-slice place around the corner from the museum. (I think we cleaned out their selection of vegetarian pizza slices.) I showed Calvin how to eat the oversized, floppy pizza slices like a proper New Yorker (fold it down the middle for extra strength), and Bethany advised us on the proper selection of toppings from the large selection of shakers including Parmesan cheese and chili flakes and oregano.

This reminded me of an incident from my first trip to New York City more than thirty years ago: we ate at a small pizza place somewhere in downtown (in my memory it was near the World Trade Center, back in 1991 when the twin towers were still standing) and my mother grabbed a shaker from the table and started sprinkling it on her pizza before realizing that it was garlic, not Parmesan as she had expected. My father was away from the table at that moment so she swapped their slices, and when my father returned he remarked that his pizza (with extra garlic) was especially good.

We returned to the subway to head back under the East River into Manhattan on a 2/3 train (which involved waiting on a stifling hot train platform then stepping inside a frigid air-conditioned train car), then walked to the South Street Seaport Museum to see the sailing ship Wavertree.

Wavertree at Pier 16
Wavertree at Pier 16

Wavertree was built at the end of the nineteenth century in a transitional phase for shipbuilding. She was built with an iron hull but because coal was expensive and labor was cheap, was built as a three-masted sailing ship. She served as a tramp freighter for decades, sailing back and forth around the world picking up whatever bulk cargo could be loaded in its tiny cargo hatches and stowed in its massive cargo hold to be delivered elsewhere, until she was dismasted in a storm while sailing around Cape Horn and abandoned for the rest of the twentieth century.

Wavertree's cargo hold
Wavertree's cargo hold

Wavertree was rediscovered and brought to New York to be restored and serve as a museum ship, representing the cargo ships that docked in Manhattan bringing cargo to the city, supported by the financial services that sprung up nearby on Wall Street that eventually turned into the modern banking industry.

Wavertree's main deck
Wavertree's main deck

Julian gave a shot at turning the ship's wheel on the weather deck. I was more interested by looking under the open panels to show the gears that moved the levers that pulled the rudder in the right direction to respond appropriately to the helm inputs.

Julian at Wavertree's wheel
Julian at Wavertree's wheel

We walked around Pier 17 for a commanding view of the Brooklyn Bridge, which clearly ranks in the top five of the world's most beautiful bridges. (I need to be careful with my ranking, because the top five slots are in danger of becoming over-subscribed.) The bridge occupied a sufficiently-large arc in front of me that I couldn't get a complete picture with my DSLR; I had to fall back on the wide-angle lens on my iPhone to capture both of the bridge's towers as it spanned the East River. (One might conclude that this means I need an extreme-wide-angle lens for my DSLR, and I would not disagree.)

Brooklyn Bridge and the East River
Brooklyn Bridge and the East River

We walked to Pier 11 and caught a ferry heading up the East River. We headed up to the top deck and stood, braced awkwardly against the side of seats against the rocking of the boat as it pulled out of the ferry dock and headed up the river.

Ferry cruises past Pier 16
Ferry cruises past Pier 16

The ferry stopped across the river in Brooklyn, right under the Brooklyn Bridge, and enough people left their seats on the top level that we were able to get a place to sit for the rest of the ride.

East Tower of the Brooklyn Bridge
East Tower of the Brooklyn Bridge

The ferry ride up the river wasn't exactly fast, but it was scenic: we got great views of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, especially Williamsburg.

Calvin, Julian, Bethany, and Jaeger on the East River ferry
Calvin, Julian, Bethany, and Jaeger on the East River ferry

We disembarked in Midtown and caught a taxi for the last mile. For supper we ate grilled corn and burgers prepared on Bethany's new deck grill (which she inherited from the previous occupant when she moved into her apartment). Then Bethany got Julian to play the XBox game "Just Dance", which asks players to dance to a variety of songs, including hit pop songs, following on-screen avatars. The game scored players by the movements of the accelerometers in the phone they held in their hand, which made me wonder precisely how accurate it could get; but Julian at least had fun so I guess that's all we ask for.

Julian and Bethany play Just Dance
Julian and Bethany play Just Dance
In ancient times, way back during the Disco era...
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