The Further Importance of Being First

A distant voice rises in protest: one more tunnel, one last trolley, one final shot at history

There were no openings in 1938, but I was the last paying passenger on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue elevated line at midnight, December 4. I had pleaded with the Public Service Commission earlier that year to spare the railroad until the subway line being built beneath the structure could be completed, thereby providing continuous rapid transit services for the riding public. The money of Rockefeller and the politics of Mayor LaGuardia overcame any and all objections, and the train, like the trolley cars on that thoroughfare, passed into memory.

On to 1939. Waiting at the turnstiles of the World's Fair on April 29, I asked someone to guard my place while I made a short trip to College Point in order to be the last roundtrip passenger on the ferry from there to Clason Point, in the Bronx. This was the last East River ferry line. I then dashed back in line to become, after a 32-hour wait in cold weather, the first visitor to the Fair. Was Omero around to be the first motorist over the Bronx-Whitestone bridge, which replaced the ferry, or did his brother cover for him?

In August 1939, I was the first paying passenger at the Ely Avenue-21st Avenue station of the IND, the Independent subway line. I looked for Omero but he didn't show. Was he discouraged that I had beat him again? At this time the New York Sun wrote a story about my possibly replacing Mr. Catan as "Mr. First," since he was supposedly getting married around that time.

On May 31, 1940, I paid the last fare collected on the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) system from the famous Fulton Ferry on the Fulton Street elevated line; the system was being taken over by the City of New York. At Rockaway Avenue I was issued the first transfer between the old BMT and the new Eighth Avenue subway line. Later years saw me as an elevated train motorman on the remainder of the line to Lefferts Avenue and then as a motorman on the new Independent line to Rockaway and Far Rockaway.

Although I was in the army when the Sixth Avenue subway finally opened, I received a three-day pass to return to New York to be its first passenger on December 15, 1940. Fifteen years later I was running trains under Sixth Avenue from the Bronx to Coney Island, one of the longest runs in the New York City transit system. Twenty-two years later I was a subway dispatcher on this line, with a route just one block from Times Square.

After the war, I was an assistant theater manager and projectionist in a New England theater. Believing that the future of movies was bleak because of the introduction of television, I returned to New York and began work with my first love, as a Brooklyn trolley motorman. Gradually, as many of the lines were converted to buses, I had the distinction of operating most of the final trolleys over various lines in Flatbush, Coney Island, and downtown Brooklyn. As 68 years of railway service over the Brooklyn Bridge came to a close, I operated the last car over the span. The sign I had on the front of my car hangs today in my den.

As the old BMT elevated lines were torn down, I went underground. During my stint as subway motorman, I had the honor of operating the very first nonstop subway train in transit history when I carried several hundred racetrack commissioners from around the country who were in town for the reopening of Aqueduct, in Howard Beach, Queens. All other trains were sidetracked for me; I had orders to make the run from Times Square "as fast as safely possible." It was also the first rapid train to carry passengers to a track since 1907, when the racetracks were closed in New York State by Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, later Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I was then promoted to yardmaster-dispatcher, in which post I remained until my retirement in 1969. When the Great Blackout occurred one night in 1965, I supervised the handling of thousands of people stuck in the Columbus Circle subway station who needed to reach the surface and find their way home. Keeping people calmed down until crews came along with ladders to help them leave the darkened cars was a trying experience. The elderly I took by their hands or arms and walked them along the catwalks, telling them that my wife would be furious if she found out I was holding hands with a woman on the job.

The last time Omero Catan and I passed each other was in the early morning hours of August 19, 1950, on the Vanderbilt Avenue line, when he was riding the first bus ever to run on that route. I spied him through the window while operating the last trolley inbound to the barn. My car was loaded with people of all ages who mourned the end of the trolley era, while the bus carried Catan and a few night workers on the way to their jobs.

After working another fifteen years in the San Francisco transit system, I pursued in earnest my hobby of making historical 16-mm movies, and I now have more than 500,000 feet of film relating the stories of New York's transportation by elevated trains and trolleys. It is the largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind. Hollywood folks and documentary filmmakers have often solicited the use of my films; I have always refused. I will donate my collection to either the Library of Congress or the National Archives as a record of my life and times. I am also now completing an 800-page, two-volume history of the IRT subway in time for its 100th anniversary and, for fourteen years, I have written a column for the newsletter published by retirees of the New York transit system. Unlike Omero and his brother, who both cherished publicity, I aim to repay this nation for the freedom I have enjoyed.

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