Tenth Avenue has always been noted for its commercial traffic which has also been called the life line of New York. From 1850′s to the 1940′s the grade-level locomotive or railroad ran on the west side south from Chelsea and north to Amsterdam Avenue on Harlem’s cobblestone streets. In 1867, when the horse-drawn carriages were replaced by steam engines, both traffic and speed increased. So did the inevitable conflicts arising from a street-level railroad operating in crowded neighborhoods like Harlem. This lethal mix of industry and humanity earned Tenth Avenue the nickname “Death Avenue.“
In 1849 New York state hired the “Tenth Avenue Cowboys” also known as the “West Side Cowboys” to gallop on horseback, at six miles per hour to warn pedestrians of coming railroads. The cowboys “cleared the way” by waving a red flag during the day and a red light at night.
These men, a total of 12 at onetime often recruited from the countryside, rode the two-mile stretch (note: the Harlem Railroad was the first railroad in the United States that opened on November 26, 1832 and today is the Metro North trains).
The story reads that Ben has always dreamed of becoming a cowboy. But when he and his family move from the West to New York City, they have to give up their ranch and their horses.
In the city Ben feels lonely and homesick for the ranch. But then one day he discovers the Tenth Avenue Cowboys, who ride their horses through Harlem to warn of approaching trains. He can hardly believe that there are cowboys in the city!
In the early 1920′s with the introduction of the Elevated train, stop lights and the proposal of the High Line. Taking the trains off the street with the Elevated train and the High Line marked the end of the ”cowboys” (in 1925 there were 75 lights and 7,700 lights by 1934 in NYC). By the end of the mid-194o’s the “cowboys” after over 85 years had their last rides, they were no longer needed and retired.
Apparently, citizens weren’t impressed enough by the service of the cowboys and their horses. They organized under the name The League to End Death Avenue, but nothing was done beyond this before the cowboys retired.
Do you know anything more about the “Tenth Venue Cowboys”?
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