There is no shortage of museums in New York City. Art. History. Sex. Chances are, if there is something you are interested in, there is a museum for it somewhere in the five boroughs.
Official numbers vary, but there are about 100 museums spread around New York City. I already explored the Museum of Natural History, but my next visit took me underground in a little section of Downtown Brooklyn.
The New York Transit Museum (NYTM) was first established back in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial celebration. Some of the first exhibits were old subway cars, and nostalgia trains would run through the station. Its main museum (there is a smaller Museum Annex in Grand Central Terminal) is actually located in an old subway station (so cool!), the former Court Street station that served as a terminus for local trains on the IND Fulton Street Line (A and C trains).
So, what can you find in the New York Transit Museum? Down the stairs from the street, you’ll find several exhibits on the history of one of the world’s oldest and most used metro systems. Understanding the history of New York is important, and the museum makes it easy to see why a mass transportation system was necessary. Check out the growing population numbers! To compare, today the population of Queens is more than four times what is was in 1920.
The first section of the museum details just how much work went into building the foundation of the subway lines. An underground railway, complete with underground stops, was unheard of for its time, and it took a heavy amount of construction to make it a reality. There is a model of the dynamite used to blow out the Washington Heights Mine, as well as plenty of photos and accounts of just how much thought had to go into demolition.
If you’re like me, and you love hearing about the history of New York City, you’ll love this museum. Creating an underground subway to link the boroughs was huge, and there was no shortage of fanfare when the East River tunnel finally opened.
I like to give the subway hell for all its delays, but the system really is a marvel, and its creation helped grow New York City into the city it is today.
In addition to the exhibits on the subway, the NYTM also features background on the LIRR, Metro-North, Staten Island Railway, tunnels, ferries, and bridges.
Imagine riding the very first LIRR line back in 1832! I’m (not) sure there were zero delays.
As the museum goes through time, it brings up some of the challenges the subway has faced throughout the years, complete with narration by some of the engineers and key MTA players. On display are some of the pieces that were damaged during Sandy, as well as details on just how the MTA clears out floods and other weather-related issues.
Remember the Blackout of 2003? Part of the exhibit shows what went into getting stranded passengers out, plus the long, long commute people faced to get back home that day.
There is also a small section describing the destruction that occurred at the Cortlandt Street Station on September 11th, as well as accounts of how the MTA dealt with the chaos of the day.
It’s cool to see photos and video and all, but the standout part of the NYTM is that visitors can physically see and touch the pieces of yesterday. The museum features many of the old types of turnstiles that were used in subway stations throughout the years, including turnstiles from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. You can even walk through some of them!
A 5 cent ride? Can you imagine?
Over time, a variety of different payment methods have been used. Today, the MetroCard is as synonymous with New York City as pizza and bagels are, but it wasn’t always this way. All I can picture is how irritating it must have been to dig through your pockets for a token.
I remember seeing headlines about the last tokens being phased out when I was younger. The phase out was done for a number of reasons, but the high rate of slugs was probably also a factor in the decision. Buttons, coins, and other fake tokens were often used to get out of paying the transit fare.
Downstairs on the tracks you’ll find many refurbished subway cars that were used from the start of the transit system. The NYTM keeps with tradition, and some of these nostalgia trains are used in regular subway rotation during the holiday season and other special times of the year.
Museum visitors can hop on and experience part of history.
I won’t lie. Some of these trains look nicer than the ones currently used by the MTA.
All of the train cars are refurbished, but part of me would love to see ones that are representative of their specific era. I always see photos of the subway covered in graffiti during the 1980s. It’d be a pretty cool snapshot of yesterday.
Take note of the fans on this subway. The next time your train AC isn’t at full blast, just remember it could be way worse.
This is probably the happiest I’ve ever been on a subway car.
Some trains look really…wonky. Fortunately, this was just a prototype. A car of the future!
Ever hear the term “straphangers” in relation to subway riders? The NYTM has those very straps set up.
One really nice feature you can see in pictures is that the trains are refurbished with advertisements from the time period. This Coney Island advertisement is a nice bit of cross promotion between the parks and the subway.
A subway map from the 1920s. If you notice, it’s missing quite a few lines.
Before you leave the museum, you can check out the gift shop for some subway themed items. They’ve got shirts, jewelry, mugs, and everything else you can think of, so you can rep your favorite subway line everywhere you go.
When I first heard about the New York Transit Museum, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It took me a while to make my way there because I thought it was just a few old cars on display. What I ended up finding was a really awesome piece of history of one of the most famous parts of the city. We all have a love/hate relationship with the subway, but it was cool to take a look back at how things used to be. I definitely recommend adding this museum to your New York bucket list!
Interested in more bucket list adventures in New York City? Follow along on Instagram at @fiveboroughbucketlist!