Sidewalk in the Sky

16 July 2008

Pictured above is not High Line version 1.0, but a bold solution to a growing congestion problem on Broadway circa 1873. When Alfred Speer, a wine merchant and inventor from Passaic opened a store on Broadway near City Hall, he found pedestrians, delivery carts, and omnibus traffic all chaotically jockeying for position on the crowded thoroughfare. Although streetcar companies were allowed to lay rails north of 14th Street, pressure from local property owners and the omnibus operators, who held a monopoly on mass transit downtown, kept more efficient mass transit methods out.

As the ideas for elevated trains and Alfred Beach’s underground pneumatic subway were just developing and being tested (construction on the current subway system was still thirty years away), Speer devised the concept of an elevated moving sidewalk to help ease congestion. As described in Rebecca Read Shanor’s book The City That Never Was, in 1871 Speer patented the Endless Traveling or Railway Sidewalk (pictured above), which would make a loop up and down Broadway and free up space on the street for local traffic and deliveries. He planned to have the moving sidewalk run from dawn until 1:00 A.M., pulled along by a constantly moving cable at a brisk 12 miles per hour. In order for passengers to reach the large moving inner section, a series of smaller cable cars moving around an outer ring would stop at stations, pick up passengers and their five-cent fares, and accelerate to the inner ring speed and deposit them.

Heated smoking rooms for men and ladies’ drawing rooms for women located on the inner ring would provide shelter during rain and warmth during the winter. The steam powered cable system would provide a quiet and clean alternative to the locomotives in use for elevated rail lines, which spewed smoke, ash, and grease into the air and onto the street below.

Speer got as far as proposing his system to the New York State legislature (1873 price tag: $3,722,400) and even won approval from lawmakers. However, New York Governor John Dix objected to the fact that the elevated line intruded on street-level sidewalks. After Speer altered the plans and again won approval from the legislature, Dix again rejected the plan because the elevated loop system would have to cross Broadway twice. By 1874 it was clear that Speer’s vision would not be accepted by the governor in any form, and the hopes for the project were quashed. Speer would again try to sell his idea for an elevated sidewalk in the developing New Jersey towns along the Hudson River bank, and even formed the American Rapid Transit Company to sell stock, but the plan eventually fizzled. Today, New Yorkers are left with the moving sidewalk’s vertical cousin the escalator, and are also most likely to use the nineteen century sidewalk’s descendant hurrying through an airport to catch that great twentieth century innovation, the jet airliner.

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