Preservation & Climate Change: How a Train Grew in Brooklyn

By October 18, 2010blog
View at the intersection of 4th Avenue and 10th Street prior to the construction of the F-Line

The confluence this past week of the Municipal Arts Society’s Conference on Preservation and Climate Change and complaints about construction along the 2nd Avenue Subway line (eighty years in construction and still nowhere near done) naturally led this observer to thoughts of the 4th Avenue Subway line in Brooklyn.

Built in 1909 – 1911 (and documented in a remarkable October 1912 report to The Municipal Engineers of the City of New York by Mr. Henry Oestreich, Senior Assistant Division Engineer, Public Service Commission) the line was run through a dense urban area in a series of open cuts, tunnels, temporary scaffolds to support existing above-grade trains, and other mammoth-scale interventions that are almost inconceivable in today’s litigious (and, lets admit it, safer and more comfortable) world.

This line was also run through former salt marshes, the Gowanus Swamp, and in doing so had to deal with construction techniques, storm sewer relocations and waterproofing issues that will become more common as global warming lifts sea levels.

And look closely at the 1912 map below: the swamp contour is from 1776.

A significant year because it was near this swamp where, on August 27 1776, Stirling’s Maryland Troops stood & fought the British to cover Washington’s retreat at the Battle of Brooklyn , the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. This courageous, desperate action helped the surviving Continental Army to fight another day; it is a battlefield where American patriots lost their lives.

Mr. Oestreich’s enterprise proves insensitive to history, devoting 14 words of recognition (“…where it was hoped to find some relics of The Battle of Long Island”) before getting back to the business of slurry walls, Edison cables and vitrified pipe grade-crossings. Whatever relics were there are lost now, and doubtless some historic buildings were lost too.

But the entire line, a marvel of transportation efficiency that has kept tens of thousands of cars off the road every day for a hundred years, was finished in just 24 months.

1912-era map showing route of 4th Avenue Subway (north is pointing left) superimposed with 1776 contours of the Gowanus Swamp1912-era map showing route of 4th Avenue Subway (north is pointing left) superimposed with 1776 contours of the Gowanus Swamp (which was dredged & bulkheaded into the Gowanus Canal).

Typical cut & cover operation, a loud, disruptive, and an incredibly fast way to build a subwayTypical cut & cover operation, a loud, disruptive, and an incredibly fast way to build a subway.

View at the intersection of 4th Avenue and 10th Street prior to the construction of the F-LineView at the intersection of 4th Avenue and 10th Street prior to the construction of the F-Line. Compare with modern image below.

Modern view of the intersection with the viaduct for the F-Line at the north side of 10th StreetModern view of the intersection with the viaduct for the F-Line at the north side of 10th Street; George Washington didn’t get much sleep here.