The first rail tracks on the lower west side of Manhattan were laid along 10th and 11th Avenues south from Penn Station. The problem was, this north-south rail line cut across all the east-west streets leading to the Hudson River waterfront, which was very active.
This was so dangerous that cowboys were hired to ride ahead of trains to warn pedestrians. Despite the warnings from the “West Side Cowboys” there were so many accidents that 10th Avenue became known as Death Avenue as trucks and workers from the docks constantly crossed the tracks and there were unfortunate meetings.
Before 1906, over 425 people were killed at these crossings.
NYPL Archives, Public Domain
Pressure grew for a solution to the problem. North of Penn Station, the rail line along the west side of Manhattan was moved underground and is still used today. South, negotiations resulted in the bold West Side Improvement Project to raise the rail line above street level. This became known as the High Line. It ran over the streets and through warehouses and buildings it served.
The High Line opened in 1934.
The Original High Line was almost twice as long as what is left and ran from the train yards at 35th Street to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street, near where the Holland Tunnel enters Manhattan. It was 13 miles long. It eliminated 105 street level rail crossings; required the destruction of 640 buildings, and ran directly through factories and warehouses for loading and unloading. Part of the project was the construction of an adjacent elevated highway, known as the West Side Highway.
One key building was the sprawling Nabisco Factory on Ninth Avenue, between 15th and 16th. There was also a Nabisco building on 10th. Trains would deliver flour and other goods directly to the factory, as the High Line ran through it. The Oreo cookie was invented there in 1912. This is now known as Chelsea Market.
In 1960 the southernmost portion of the High Line was demolished, bit by bit, working north, and the High Line eventually ended at Gansevoort Street.
As trucking overtook rail for transportation of goods, use of the High Line dropped. The last run was a train of turkeys to the meat-packing district in 1980.
New York Minute takes place in July 1977, when the High Line was still partially in operation. The protagonist, William Kane, holds court in Vic’s Diner, caddy corner from the High Line’s stub on the southeast corner of Gansevoort and Washington. This plays a significant role in the book.
After 1980, the High Line was abandoned and mostly forgotten about. Nature began to take over.
A proposal was put forth that instead of demolishing the rail line, it be repurposed into an urban trail for pedestrian use. Construction began in 2006.
As the lower West Side of Manhattan, the former Meatpacking District, became more fashionable, the High Line became one of the largest tourist attractions in New York City.
The Whitney Museum of American Art opened a new building next to the stub of the High Line on Gansevoort.
The abandoned Nabisco Factory became the most expensive property in Manhattan and is now Chelsea Market. bought by Google in 2018 for $2.4 billion. The climactic scene of New York Minute occurs in there.
Excerpted from: New York City Little Black Book 1: Secrets, History, and Trivia of the World’s Greatest City.