The Sixth Avenue El was constructed in the late 1870s by the Gilbert Elevated Railway, which was soon reorganized as the Metropolitan Elevated Railway. By 1878, it was running from Rector Street to 58th Street. Soon, it, along with the other three Manhattan “els,” was taken over by the Manhattan Railway Company.
The company then built a connection by which it turned west on 53rd Street, then merged with the 9th Avenue El—paralleling the present-day route of the 6th Avenue subway. The 58th Street station was kept as a “stub” terminal, In 1903, the els were acquired by Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT), which was then building the city’s first subway, according to the Encyclopedia of New York City.
During its existence, the Sixth Avenue El served the “Ladies Mile” shops (including the Siegel-Cooper emporium, whose building now houses Bed, Bath and Beyond), the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now a library), the 42nd Street Library a block away on Fifth Avenue, Gimbels and Central Park.
Because the el served high-profile locations, it attracted the attention of artists. The most famous of these was probably John French Sloan, whose 1928 “The Sixth Avenue El at Third Street” is at the Whitney. On its website, the museum says of the painting: “John Sloan encapsulates the excitement and energy of New York City nightlife in the late 1920s. He focuses primary on a group of young women scattering before an on-coming car as the elevated train lumbers over their heads … Their bobbed hair and knee-length skirts—the latest in fashion—convey new-found freedoms for women.”
While the el may have conveyed a sense of excitement, it was sometimes dangerous to ride. It used 19th century wooden cars with open platforms, enclosed by gates, at each end. A look at issues of the New York Times from the first few decades of the 20th century shows a fair number of rear-end collisions, de-railings and fires. The old cars were eventually electrified, and some were retrofitted with sliding doors and enclosed vestibules, but they weren’t replaced. The 1870s-era el structure couldn’t take the weight of the newer steel subway cars.
Fairly early, prominent voices began clamoring for the el’s demolition. George McAneny, a progressive reformer who served at head of the state’s Transit Commission, told the Times in November 1923, “[A group of businessmen] complained that 6th Avenue, situated as it is near an important thoroughfare such as 5th Avenue, is handicapped in business and in traffic, and its realty development held back by the elevated road.”
Among the groups seeking the el’s removal were the 6th Avenue Association, the 34th Street Midtown Association, the 5th Avenue Association and even the 8th Avenue Association. In 1924, opponents succeeded in having the IRT tear down the short spur to 58th Street, and nearby residents and businesses celebrated with a giant block party.
The campaign against the 6th Avenue el reached a crescendo in 1929-31. The IRT fought the movement, contending that the el still turned a profit and that nearby building owners would have to pay part of the cost of removal in the form of higher taxes. The Transit Commission finally decided in 1931 to postpone demolition until the planned 6th Avenue Subway was completed.
Later in the decade, however, experts determined that the el had to be removed to expedite subway construction. In 1938, the city bought the el for $12.5 million (of which the city recovered the majority in back taxes and interest). Demolition began in December of that year.