End of the line: 50th anniversary of elevated train’s demise stirrs memories of Brooklyn’s past

The Myrtle El at the Washington Avenue station in Clinton Hill in 1969.
Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

As 66-year-old Fort Greene resident Saleem Ali strolls down Myrtle Avenue on a warm October day, he notices something missing in the clear blue sky overhead, and recalls a weathered mass of steel, the sun shining through slats of timber, and the distant rumble of an oncoming train.

It was loud and obtrusive, but 50 years following the Oct. 3 1969 final voyage of an elevated train line that once dominated the Myrtle Avenue skyline, Ali remembers a vital part of Brooklyn’s past and an iconic aspect of his own distant youth.

“That was our landmark,” said Ali. “For those of us who grew up with it to see it dismantled and disappear, it was a part of us.”

The Myrtle “El” shuffled straphangers for more than 80 years, during which its quaint, wooden passenger cars drove a wave of development that spread from the borough’s bustling industrial waterfront eastward through burgeoning brownstone neighborhoods and sheer on to the distant frontier of Queens, according to a transit historian.

“This was the beginning of brownstone Brooklyn growing up,” said Rob DelBagno of the New York Transit Museum. “The El extended over time east through what were then fairly rural areas, and Brooklyn developed along there and industrial Bushwick built up afterwards.”

A map from 1925 shows the Myrtle line, along with other old elevated trains on Lexington Avenue and Fulton Street.
Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

The train line opened in April 1888, five years after Emily-Warren Roebling became the first person to cross the Brooklyn Bridge — holding a rooster, no less — and a decade before the great mistake, when the vibrant and independent port city of Brooklyn was folded into New York City as only one of five boroughs, according to the history buff.

The Myrtle Avenue line was powered by a heavy steam engine, which drove the elevated line from Adams Street in America’s Downtown through Fort Greene and forward to Grand Avenue in Clinton Hill, before later expanding further east into Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and finally into Queens.
The transition to electric motors saw the line extended once again around the turn of the century, this time northward over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan, until 1944 when the line was shortened back to Bridge and Jay streets, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

But ridership started declining in the 1930s because of the Depression and because of the opening of the crosstown line which would later become the G train, according to the agency.

Elevated train lines were coming down all over the city during the mid-20th century in favor of subways and due to the increasing popularity of the automobile.

Around the same time, the city’s master builder Robert Moses erected the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which tore through many of the neighborhoods near the Myrtle El.

Straphangers enjoy the Myrtle El’s last ride in 1969.
Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

In 1969, the recently-formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority — which took over the trains and bus lines across the city and state — studied reinforcing the tracks of the Myrtle El, to allow for steel cars to run along the line, which remained the last line in North America to still retain wooden passenger cars, but transit honchos decided against the costly upgrade, according to DelBagno.

“They figured they had better ways to spend the money,” the historian explained.

The agency ran the last train on midnight on Oct. 3 1969 and demolished the lines the next year, with only a short stretch remaining along what is now the M train between Myrtle-Broadway Station and Queens, along with a derelict span of tracks which juts out one block to Lewis Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which Borough President Eric Adams has proposed could be repurposed in a similar fashion to Manhattan’s High Line park.

The transit agency replaced the El with the B54 bus along the corridor, but a lot of the business suffered from the lower foot traffic afterward, according to DelBagno, who said the thoroughfare’s resurgence as a vital commercial strip is a fairly recent occurrence.

“A lot of stores and restaurants closed up because their customers were gone,” he said. “Myrtle Avenue was a pretty vibrant shopping avenue, a lot of that disappeared.”

Demolition of the Myrtle El tracks near Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn in 1970.
Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

That comeback is once again under threat, as the agency plans to cut service along the B54 and B38 routes, which spurred local residents and business owners to rally earlier this month.

But as transit aficionados gear up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of the Myrtle Avenue line and the wealth of Brooklyn history it represents, for Ali, it conjures more personal memories of childhood derring-do, and he recalled scaling the elevated rail’s metal columns in search of fowl fit for the pigeons coups.

“It was high up there, but we took the chance and got some eggs and young pigeons and took them to the coup,” said Ali.

For others, however, the demolition of the garish elevated line was like lifting a veil off of the neighborhood’s stellar brownstone architecture, and came as a welcome relieve to those who lived under its shadow, according to one Clinton Hill resident, who lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time.

Saleem Ali at the remaining derelict track of the old Myrlte El at Lewis Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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