John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Even around 1918, the public-transit system in New York was fairly robust.
Even around 1918, the public-transit system in New York was fairly robust. That much is evident in this yellowing yet instructive map of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit System, a conglomeration of formerly independent street tracks and elevated lines that brought unified, electrified mass transportation to the borough.
This slice of musty cartography, recently featured at the Brooklyn Historical Society, shows the BRT's impressive sprawl right before tragedy struck: In the winter of 1918, a trains traveling in a tunnel under Flatbush took a curve way too fast and flew off the rails, killing 93 passengers. The so-called "Malbone Street Wreck" severely damaged the city's trust in the corporation that operated the BRT, which already had PO'd commuters with what NYC Subway calls a "public be damned" attitude. The following year, it slid into bankruptcy.
If you can't read the key, green lines are subways, blue are elevated tracks and orange are trolley routes. The lines running over and under the East River represent the BRT's 1913 agreement with the City of New York to jointly advance lines into Manhattan.
A couple non-transit things stand out: The Brooklyn Navy Yard, today an immense industrial park that's sprouting a $120 million mixed-use development, used to be a relatively small spit of land until the ship-building spree of World War II doubled its size. (It was also partially an island surrounded by the Wallabout Channel, to believe these other maps.) The Paerdegat Basin, at the lower right near Bergen Beach, stretches on for much longer than it does in its current state. Back in the day, city planners were hoping to use it as a port much like New York Harbor. In that same general area note the lack of a connector between Manhattan Beach and the Rockaway peninsula. The Marine Parkway Bridge wouldn't open for auto and pedestrian traffic until 1937.
Also, it's kind of hilarious that even nearly a century ago, a public-transit map bore what looks like the ubiquitous service announcements the MTA posts all over today. "IMPORTANT," indeed.
Top image by the Ohman Map Company, via the Brooklyn Historical Society