Saturday, July 6, 2013

A South Ferry Time Warp

...from a photographer's notebook

South Ferry Loops Station Mosaic (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

April 21, 2017 - Thought it was time for a podcast from this story, especially as, come June, this station will recede back into its "time warp" when the new station (severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy) is expected to re-open. Hope you enjoy! 

An immensely enjoyable return to New York City, after far too long an absence, was drawing to a close on a sunny late Friday afternoon.

The weather on this day, as well as the previous two, had been nothing less than superb for photography and just flat out enjoying the city. This particular afternoon had been spent taking in the South Street Seaport on the East River, followed by a late afternoon helicopter circuit over the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan and then up the Hudson, past the Midtown skyline, on to the George Washington Bridge, up to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, then back downtown to the heliport.

After lingering for a while along the East River promenade, watching and photographing the choppers lifting off and arriving minutes apart and the great variety of watercraft, including sailboats, gliding by, my attention shifted to the nearby ferry terminals at the southern tip of Manhattan. The two neighboring terminals are very much of a piece with Lower Manhattan with their contrasting traditional and modern architecture. The ornate Governors Island Ferry Terminal and the soaring glass and steel of the new Staten Island Ferry Terminal, cheek by jowl at the foot of Whitehall Street in this bustling tip of Lower Manhattan.

Peter Minuit Plaza is an inviting spot for viewing the Lower Manhattan skyline, as well as a transportation nexus for ferries, buses, and subway, and that latter mode of transportation is what led to a serendipitous sentimental journey.

One of the very first subway trips I took in my youth was downtown on the (then-) IRT No.1 Broadway-Seventh Avenue local to South Ferry. The 1 train, being a local, made all the stops from Midtown so there was ample opportunity to savor all the sounds and sensations. 

South Ferry was one of those “special” stations one tends to remember, especially if he’s a train enthusiast. While most trains heading downtown continue beyond their last stop in Lower Manhattan into Brooklyn, the No.1 Local goes only as far as South Ferry. But that was where it got interesting, for unlike most modern rapid transit, where the train operator simply gets out at the front of the train and walks down the platform to the back, which then becomes the front for the return trip, South Ferry was actually a “loop” station.

The station, which entered service in 1905, was built on a tight curve, which necessitated “gap fillers,” moving metal grate platforms that rolled out from the concrete platform to service the doors of the arriving train. Announcements warned passengers to wait for the moving platforms to roll out to the arriving train.

Uptown-bound 1 train stops at the old South Ferry Loop Station, met by extended gap fillers (Courtesy Zach Summer)
Also, as South Ferry was a very old station, dating from a period when trains were shorter, its tightly curving platform accommodated only five-car trains. Thus, in more recent times, unknowing passengers in cars behind the first five were, I suppose, in for a bit of an “extended” trip as the train would continue around that reversing loop and head back uptown, assuming they had not heeded the signs up the line to board only the first five cars of a train if disembarking at South Ferry.

I was always fascinated by the unique aspects of this part of subterranean New York… trains slowly crawling into that tightly curved station (as opposed to the usual whoosh of an arriving train)…moving platform grates rolling out when they stopped…trains slowly departing into the inky darkness of the continuing tunnel, wheels screeching at the tight curvature of the tracks.

After its operator ascertains by signal that the gap fillers have retracted, the 1 train eases past the curved platform and continues around the South Ferry Loop for the uptown trip through Manhattan to the Bronx. (Courtesy Zach Summer)

The South Ferry Loops! Yes, it was plural, for the (East Side) Lexington Avenue IRT also reversed some of its trains here. The Lexington Avenue trains actually served the Bowling Green station as their farthest Downtown stop, but they nonetheless used the inner loop at South Ferry to reverse direction. And the East Side IRT did provide a Bowling Green – South Ferry Shuttle train that would service the even tighter curved inner loop platform.

So, the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue train screeched into South Ferry on the outer loop, and the East Side IRT trains used the inner loop (until 1977). Another unique aspect was that there was no interconnection for passengers, even though the IRT operated both services...

Now, the plan on this wrap-up afternoon was to head back uptown to my hotel, pick up my luggage and head up to Penn Station, to be there in plenty of time for the 9:20 PM departure of my train.

Taxis were plentiful, but there I was in the plaza in front of the Staten Island Ferry…and there beside me was the entrance to the South Ferry Subway Station, with its big tomato-red circle with the white 1 inside. Did I mention “Sentimental Journey?”

What I didn’t know at the time was that a new “South Ferry – Whitehall Street” station had opened in 2009, which eliminated the tight curvature of the older station’s platforms, allowing longer trains to service the station with all cars, as well as allowing more frequent service by No.1 trains. The new station also allowed access to the BMT Broadway line trains that served the nearby Whitehall Street station.  And the No.1 trains would reverse in the modern fashion, along the long straight platform between the tracks, running one level below the “loops.”

But that new station was badly flooded by sea water and otherwise extensively damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. And, as restoring that new station will take a couple of years, the MTA re-commissioned and reopened the old Loop station in April 2013.

Zach Summer's photo shows the tight curvature of the platform at the old South Ferry station with gap fillers extended to allow safe boarding of this Uptown No.1 train. Thanks, Zach!

Sad to learn of the damage to New York’s first new subway station since 1989. But serendipity often accounts for some of my most memorable travel experiences, and it occasioned this “time warp” visit back to the old South Ferry Loop on the Broadway-Seventh Avenue Local. It was only a short ride up the West Side to Franklin Street in Tribeca, and from there, a short walk to my hotel, but so nice to wrap up the last day of an enjoyable stay in the Big Apple with such a nostalgic subterranean treat.

Regrets? As I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take for the luggage pick up and taxi uptown to Penn Station, and a No.1 train was arriving just as I got down to the old curving platform, I didn’t take the time to photograph the rich old ambiance. But that simply means a return to the old South Ferry Loop station moves to the top of my photo-shoot list for my very next trip to NYC. Meantime, sincere thanks to Zach Summer for allowing me to use some of his fine images to illustrate this little South Ferry re-visit. And if this narrative has whetted your interest, the encyclopedic is a great destination for those curious about the intriguing under- and above-ground world of the New York City Subway system. You can also find pictures there of the new South Ferry station before the devastation wrought by Sandy last October.

Here’s a view through the doors of my No.1 train across the platform at Chambers Street, the first transfer 
point if one wants to continue uptown on an express on the next track.                   ©2013 Steve Ember

By the way, does “South Ferry Loop” have another resonance for you? If so, I’ll bet it’s because you read the novel “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” or saw the film. If so, you’ll remember Robert Shaw’s icy-suave ex-mercenary character and his group of subway hijackers boarding the Lexington Avenue Local (Pelham 123) train at various stops along the East Side. By the way, that’s not a mistake – the Lex Ave trains are numbered 4, 5, and 6, but the (6) train they commandeered was the one leaving Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx at 1:23 PM, hence the designation “Pelham 123.”

"I'm taking your train." - Robert Shaw hijacks IRT No.6 train at 28th Street station (One doesn't mess with this guy)
At any rate, an interesting plot element was that, after receiving the ransom they’d demanded from the city for release of the train and its passenger hostages, the bad guys - after demanding green signals all the way to, yes, South Ferry - jury-rig the train’s controls to set it on its way, driverless, through the tunnels in Lower Manhattan.

Panic ensues as the passengers realize there is no operator and the door to the driver’s compartment is locked. The train is hurtling at increasing speed through the subterranean maze, with nothing but green signals ahead. An older passenger (who’s been riding the subway for years) tries to assure them that there are “stoppers” that will apply the brakes and stop a train if it runs through a red signal. But all the signals are green. A train dispatcher says, “It’s approaching South Ferry and it must be doing 70 miles an hour!” Fortunately, as the speeding train nears the South Ferry loop, we see, finally, a red signal, and the train screeches to a stop.

Oh, the bad guys? You won’t get any more from me. Rent the movie (the original one) – it’ll keep you on the edge of your longitudinal hard fiberglass subway car seat, all the way from midtown to the South Ferry Loop!

Till next time, mind the moving platform and enjoy the ride. 

©2013 Steve Ember

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