New York Transportation In The Early 1900’s
Hamilton Fish Armstrong was the longtime editor of the magazine Foreign Affairs. His charming memoir, Those Days published in 1963 by Harper and Row is a wonderfully evocative description of an upper middle class boyhood spent in New York City, the Hudson Valley and Quebec. The book’s dust jacket description states that it is: “A lively, spontaneous re-creation of the childhood of a famous editor and writer at the turn of the century – an unforgettable picture of a vanished New York.”
It’s one of those out of print, forgotten books that deserve to be read by a new generation. I highly recommend it.
Here is an excerpt from pages 68-69 where Armstrong describes getting uptown to school from his home on 10th street via the Fifth Avenue coach which was pulled by horses.
When I was nine the time came for me to go to a “real” school uptown, and unless it was pouring pouring rain or snowing I went of course, on skates. When the weather ruled this out I used the Fifth Avenue stage or the Sixth Avenue El.
On the stage I rode by choice on the outside, either perched up behind the driver or, if I was lucky, along side him. You mounted to this vantage point by the hub and two widely spaced iron footholds. Thence, as the stage rumbled heavily along, New York unrolled before you. First came the sedate brownstone houses of lower Fifth Avenue; then the Flatiron Building, to some a thing of soaring beauty, to others an architectural monstrosity, but in everyone’s eyes, including those on top of the stage, a continuing wonder (height 307 feet); then Madison Square with the Farragut of Saint-Gaudens, one of his best, conspicuous for all the passing traffic to see (until relegated by Mr. Moses to obscurity among the trees in the middle of the park); and the Worth Monument opposite, marking the burial place of the Mexican War hero, since invaded by a marble comfort station which hopefully does not disturb the general’s bones. Then came the Holland House and the Brunswick Hotel, where in spring there might be a four-in-hand coach drawn up, making ready to tool up to Claremont or Pelham or out to Tuxedo, grooms holding the horses, while on top several feather-bedecked ladies preened themselves before a group of dazzled onlookers. On you went past the Waldorf up Murray Hill and along the old reservoir resembling an Egyptian tomb, afterwards replaced by the Public Library guarded by two lions with Horace Greeley faces.
If you secured the seat beside the driver you took care not to interfere with a leather strap attached to his leg, for it performed an important function. Passing through an aperture under the seat, it led along the ceiling of the stage to the top of the rear door; and by it the driver controlled the door’s opening and closing. When he stopped to take on passengers he moved his leg back, allowing the door to swing open by its own weight; then he would slide his leg forward, banging the door to, and start his horses off again. If you had to get ride inside , where in winter it was stuffy and smelt of the stable, with a touch of kerosene added after dusk from the flickering lamp, the procedure was to wriggle your way forward and deposit your nickel in a box situated under the driver’s seat. He could peer down through a small window and verify that your fare had been paid; if you were slow about it, he would mortify you by angrily thumping. If you needed change you attracted his attention by ringing a bell and passing your money up to him through a small sliding panel; and he would hand the change back to you in an envelope colored according to the amount involved. Often there was much bowing by gentlemen offering to pass along the money for ladies, and sometimes an argument, in which everyone joined, as to whether or not a certain fare had been paid. When you wanted to get off you gave notice via the driver’s leg by jerking the strap on the ceiling.
His various duties kept the driver busy, especially in winter when an extra horse was needed to help scale the slippery slope of Murray Hill. Gradually I became intimate with certain drivers, who let me help with handing down envelopes; and when the stage was full I would wave grandly to groups waiting on the corners to signify that we couldn’t stop.
Hamilton Fish Armstrong died in 1973 at the age of 80. His family home in Greenwich Village at 58 and 58 and 1/2 West 10th Street is now owned by New York University and operates today as The Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House.