A Times Square Subway Entrance Sign – 1955
If you say the single digits four, five and six along with the letters N, R, Q and W to a first time visitor to New York City they probably won’t be able to decode the meaning. But a New Yorker hearing that same combination would instantly recognize you are talking about the subway.
This photograph taken in 1955 shows a subway sign with a lengthy description of destinations. From Times Square the only thing that is clear is that trains go downtown to South Ferry and various places in Brooklyn.
Arriving to live in New York, one of the first things the newcomer does is learn how to get around. As was pointed out in the 1949 classic movie On The Town “the people ride in a hole in the ground.” But the subway system was not designed for out-of-towners. It’s the New Yorker who uses it, mostly on a daily basis to commute.
It’s a confusing system that takes some time to learn. How do you get to Carnegie Hall without practice, practice practice? You would have to know that four subway lines; the F, N, Q and R trains, stop within a two minute walk of the music palace on west 57th Street.
There was a time when most of the subway system had only their original ownership names to tell them apart. An incompetent state agency, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), did not always control the subways. The system was originally built and run by private companies.
The Interborough Rapid Transit better known as the IRT was the original subway line and was completed in 1904. The BRT which stood for Brooklyn Rapid Transit started as an elevated rail company and eventually gained control of subway lines. By 1923 the financially troubled BRT reorganized and became the BMT Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company. This company lasted until 1940, but the name lived on until the 1970s. The City of New York constructed their own subway line and named it the IND for Independent.
For over 60 years this was how New Yorker’s knew their subways. The IRT, BMT and IND, three separate yet connected lines that crisscrossed over one another. The names were the important thing to know. The 1960s saw the introduction of numbers and letters that eventually replaced the old names.
The old signs like the ones in the 1955 photograph were removed in the 1970s and 80s. The IRT, BMT and IND are known only to subway buffs and in the memory of old New Yorkers.