The End of the Line
To some, it was “an adventure in optimism”; to others it was a unique piece of Rochester’s history. But for two filmmakers, Rochester’s abandoned subway, which ran for nearly thirty years, was an opportunity to discover “subway museums” in basements, films, and memories.
by James P. Harte
The motto of the State of New York is Excelsior, meaning “still higher.” Perhaps, then, the motto of the Rochester Subway should be “still below”. Rochester’s Subway continues to exist as a reminder of the city’s plan for itself. Midway between the Erie Canal and a drive to the mall, it is the forgotten chapter of Rochester’s history. For me, that chapter has two parts: the story of the subway’s construction, and the story of how my friend Fred Armstrong and I made it into a film.
By 1900 the Erie Canal was a downtown relic, halting traffic as its lift bridges rose for slow-moving canal boats and a mule named Sal. In 1905, the state approved funds for canal reconstruction and for rerouting it around several upstate cities, including Rochester. The improved canal would carry larger boats and a new name, the New York State Barge Canal.
A 1911 study recommended turning Rochester’s abandoned canal section into an automotive highway, but this was rejected by civic leaders who considered automobiles more of a nuisance than a form of reliable transportation. Instead, they approved $1,800,000 for construction of a subway, making use of the existing Genesee River aqueduct and the downtown section of the canal. Most of the subway’s nine-and-a-half-mile route would run in an open cut crossed by bridges, and a new street would cover the downtown canal section. The subway would continue freight service along the old canal route, divert electric interurban trolleys from Main Street, and establish a rapid transit system for a metropolitan area expected to grow to two million. While some criticized the subway project as “an adventure in optimism,” City Hall defended it as “one of the greatest investments any American city ever made.”
Faster Than a Speeding Trolley
In 1919, the Barge Canal opened, and the City of Rochester purchased the proposed subway’s right-of-way within its own boundaries and adjacent towns. In 1922, Mayor Clarence Van Zandt broke ground using a golden shovel. In 1924, the new downtown street opened, unnamed. After considering “The Towpath” and “Aldridge Concourse,” officials finally settled on “Broad Street.”
As construction progressed, so did Rochester. Prosperity allowed many citizens to purchase their first automobiles, forcing trolleys to compete against the growing love affair between Americans and cars. Debating how to run the subway, Rochester’s new mayor opposed any plan that would tax car owners.
During the subway’s test run on September 2, 1927, some of Rochester’s most prominent citizens (including George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, the giant photography pioneer based in the city) rode the completed east end of the line. It was fast––three times faster than a streetcar. A contract was signed with New York State Railways, and the official opening was set for December 1, 1927, with a fare of nine cents. Rochester, the smallest city in America to build a subway, now had a true rapid transit system. Interurbans had been rerouted away from its busiest streets yet still provided access to an extensive regional transportation network. Freight service along the canal route had been restored, joining several rail lines for the first time.
Demise of the Trolleys
The subway’s success was short-lived. With the Depression, New York State Railways fell into bankruptcy. Other railroads followed. By 1931, all the interurban trolley lines serving Rochester were gone, leaving the subway with no connections. City Hall washed its hands of it. In 1933, the city engineering department recommended that the subway be converted to a highway, twenty-two years after an identical plan for the old Erie Canal had been rejected
But in 1937, Harold MacFarlin became Rochester’s commerce commissioner––and the subway found a new champion. He extended its passenger service to a new General Motors plant, purchased twelve high-speed passenger cars, refurbished and policed the stations, and applied to the Works Progress Administration for funds to build an extension to the suburbs. The bankrupt New York State Railways turned ownership of the subway over to the newly formed Rochester Transit Corporation (RTC).
Then, in March 1941, Rochester preceded most American cities when it completely replaced its streetcars with buses. The trolleys’ overhead wires and tracks were torn away, and the cars were burned for scrap. With the removal of the tracks, the subway lost its rush-hour connecting service to Kodak. Some citizens began describing the now-isolated subway as “starting nowhere and ending nowhere.”
With America’s entry into World War II later that year came emergency rationing of tires, gasoline, and bus service––so Rochester turned once again to its subway to provide mass transit. By the end of the war, ridership had tripled. By its twentieth anniversary in 1947, the subway carried over five million passengers.
However, its high-water mark had been reached. With wartime restrictions gone, Americans purchased both new and second cars. Talk resurfaced of turning the subway into a highway. Even Harold MacFarlin lost hope for preserving it as a rapid transit system and resigned his position as commerce commissioner.
In addition, an interstate highway, envisioned a decade before, was becoming a reality: the New York State Thruway would roughly parallel the old Erie Canal and pass within ten miles of Rochester. The canal had transformed Rochester from a village to a city, and city leaders feared lack of access to the Thruway might reverse the process.
The Subway Becomes Memory
With ridership plummeting, the RTC announced it would discontinue the subway’s passenger service in 1950 unless the city paid for its losses. Rochester came through, but ridership didn’t increase. By 1952, Sunday and holiday service was eliminated. In 1954 the City Council pledged to promote the subway, but others pushed for the Thruway plan, stressing that it was time for Rochester to enter “the gasoline age.” Citizen’s groups and individuals fought for the subway, but it was too late. On September 9, 1954 in a secret caucus, the Rochester City Council’s Republican majority voted to discontinue passenger service on December 31, explaining that using the subway as a feeder highway to the Thruway was the cheapest way to recoup losses.
Because of construction delays, the subway was given a temporary reprieve until April 1956, when Governor Averill Harriman signed a bill designating conversion of its eastern end into a new expressway. City Hall set a final closing date: June 30, 1956. Many Rochesterians who had never ridden the subway before boarded it for a last-chance ride. At 1:36 a.m., Car 68 moved into the car barn for the last time, and the stations of the Rochester subway were locked forever. All but one of the cars were scrapped; Car 60 was donated to the Rochester chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and moved to a rail museum near Watertown, then to storage at the New York State Museum in Albany.
Subway on Film
In 1981 I was a young filmmaker living in Manhattan’s East Vill
age. My roommate, Fred Armstrong, was an animator from Rochester. One day I was riding the New York subway with him when he mentioned that Rochester once had a small subway of its own. I couldn’t imagine then that in the next few years I would marry a woman from Rochester, leave New York and move there, and find myself living in the same neighborhood as Fred––right next to that subway.
In 1993, Fred and I heard about a small grant available from The Reynolds Library Video Project to make films about Rochester. We decided to apply through his animation company, Animatus Studio, figuring that Rochester’s old subway would be a good subject because there might be archival film of it that we could use as part of a documentary. But as we researched the material, we discovered that there were subway “museums” everywhere: in basements throughout the city, with thousands of catalogued photographs and hours of film footage; and in the city and county historian’s offices, which had boxes of photographs and documents that pointed to even more boxes. We found that we had complete documentation on the subway, although we’d expected to find just pieces. What we hadn’t expected to find were the excellent preservation instincts of the City of Rochester itself, home of Eastman Kodak Company and of citizens who, as a result of Kodak’s presence, knew film and photography, had access to it, and remembered and loved the subway. Everyone welcomed us with open arms, as if they’d been waiting for years for someone to resurrect this chapter of Rochester’s history.
“Get a Horse!”
One man had grown up next to the subway as a boy. When he retired, he was determined to preserve everything he could find about it. Another man had found some old nitrate film of the subway as a teenager, which he and his friends had burned, and he’d felt so bad afterwards that he saved everything else he could. Yet another man was blind, but became our “go-to guy” for identifying downtown photos. As a young man, he knew he would lose his sight, so he had been determined to make his mind and memory a camera.
In addition to film, we had the real thing in steel and flesh and blood. The New York Museum of Transportation in Rush had interurbans and streetcars, the State Museum had Car 60––we had Harry Beach, the conductor who drove the subway’s last run, and Henry Clune, who at age 103 remembered the old taunt, “Get a horse!” Our fifteen-minute movie turned into a forty-five-minute epic. It took us a year, but we finished The End of the Line––Rochester’s Subway on the day it was due, and premiered it that same night.
In 2005 we produced a special-edition DVD of The End of the Line, with forty-five minutes of new material. By then, Car 60 was returned to Rochester to the Rochester and Genesee Valley Railroad Museum in Rush, there was an upcoming mayoral election, and what to do with the subway, in terms of historic preservation, became a campaign issue. The city’s still deciding.
It was derided as an “adventure in optimism,” but the builders of the Rochester subway thought big. Due to their own limitations and to changes they could not foresee, the enterprise failed. But they were proud of their city, and the subway was their best expression of it. It was their excelsior moment. Telling about it was mine.
The Archives Connection
Sources for The End of the Line––Rochester’s Subway include the Tom Kirn Collection at New York Museum of Transportation, Rush; the David Lanni Film Collection, Rochester; the Norman Davidson Film Collection, Rochester; the Rochester Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society; the offices of the Monroe County Historian and Rochester City Historian; the City of Rochester Records Center; Gannett Rochester newspapers; New York State Department of Transportation; the New York State Museum; Eastman Kodak Company; and many other public and private entities. Firsthand information also came from countless individuals. The film was produced at Animatus Studio in Rochester, and is available at www.animatusstudio.com or by calling (585) 232-1740.