On the northern end of Manhattan, just east of Broadway between 216th and 218th Streets, across from the Twin Donut, in the shadow of the elevated subway rails, sits a rather non-descript beige brick facility owned by the New York City Transit Authority.
Today the complex, known as the Kingsbridge Bus Depot, is used primarily for storage and maintenance of city busses.
But roll time back to the turn of the Twentieth Century and something extraordinary appears.
On this spot once stood a transportation marvel–a trolley barn and massive brick powerhouse—the largest the world had ever seen.
The behemoth power generating station, with it’s roaring engines, once powered a transportation system for a new era—A vast trolley network that ran from City Hall to Westchester.
This Inwood nerve center, a huge castle-like plant, connected a massive web of trolley lines in an age still dominated by horse and buggies.
In 1902, operating under electrical current generated by the colossal Inwood plant, trolleys up and down Manhattan sprung to life. For the first time commuters, and so-called “trolley excursionists,” could go just about anywhere they liked on a nickel.
This advance in transportation and electrical engineering helped shape the world we live in today—and Inwood sat at the terminus.
The Biggest Powerhouse in the World
In January of 1899 the headlines of the New York dailies reported news of a giant power house, “the largest in the world,” to be constructed on 216th and 218th Streets, just east of Broadway.
“Its Engines,” one paper exclaimed, “Will be by Far the Most Powerful Ever Grouped in a Single Station on Land and Over Twice as Powerful as Those of The Largest Ocean Greyhound.” (The Reading Eagle, January 22, 1899)
“The general designs for the new power house for the Third Avenue Railway Company have just been made public,” the news account continued.
“The power house will be the largest structure of its kind in the world and within its walls will be generated a greater amount of power than has ever been produced before at any single station. The enormous engines that man uses for single purposes are those which drive the ocean greyhounds that ply between this port and Europe. Of these the biggest develop about 30,000 horse power.” (The Reading Eagle, January 22, 1899)
The plant was a much anticipated evolution in the history of public transportation in the metropolis.
As early as 1852 the Third Avenue Railway Company laid rails on various streets throughout the city so that omnibuses, coaches pulled by horses, could glide freely above the roadbed with little fear of becoming mired in the mud of New York’s mostly unpaved city streets.
While the initial lines, laid on Bowery, Chatham Street and Third Avenue focused on the needs of downtown commuters, the rail company expanded rapidly, and by 1886 had extended its reach to 125th Street
By 1894 the company, following the example of the San Francisco trolley system, replaced the power of actual horses with an extensive cable system.
At 3:30 pm on October 22, 1899, as plans for the construction of the new power house were underway, the Third Avenue Railway Company briefly discontinued trolley service in much of Manhattan as it made the switch from cable to electric.
During the conversion the cars went off-line for six or seven hours. Then, after the old cables had been piled up along the roadside to be sold for scrap, the various lines were electrified. (New York Times, October 21, 1899)
The new system required a constant source of energy—and plenty of it.
By year’s end the company had converted all of its cable lines to electrified current.
Soon their reach would extend into other boroughs including Brooklyn and Queens.
Engineer Isaac A. Hopper designed the monumental Inwood plant.
A turn of the century Renaissance man, Hopper would become the Democratic leader of the Thirty-first Assembly, the Superintendent of Buildings for the Borough of Manhattan as well as president of the Isaac A. Hopper & Sons Constructing Company.
Hopper’s firm, which was best known for constructing Carnegie Hall, would later construct power houses for New York’s subway system. Other projects included the foundations for the Customs House, the Third Avenue Bridge and the Hotel Marie Antoinette that once stood near Lincoln Center.
While Hopper came with a fine pedigree, the engineer was despised uptown before the plans for the new plant were even been submitted. A previous job, it seems, had upset the local populace to no end.
Inwood and Washington Heights residents knew Hopper as the man who, years earlier, turned the Kingsbridge Road (now called Broadway) into a muddy trench for a proposed “underground trolley road” that had rendered the thoroughfare unusable.
According to an 1897 account, Hopper and his work crew, employed by the Third Avenue Railway Company, had cut a trench from 162nd-185th Streets and then abandoned the work site.
“Entering the road (Broadway) at 162nd Street,” recalled a New York Herald reporter, “I found the trench, with its embankments and levees, untouched. The timbers, sheds, and dikes have assumed a weather worn appearance, as though they had acquired a legal right to be where they are. The rank weeds which fill the thirty-foot cavity are rapidly going to seed.” (New York Herald, August 18, 1897)
The Third Avenue Railway Company would later dispatch “nine men and a horse,” to fill the trench and replace the three layers of graded stones that previously made up the roadbed.
A year later, after inspecting upper Broadway, Commissioner of Highways James P. Keating ordered that the City, at the expense of the Third Avenue Railway Company, complete the work.
“I walked over the road yesterday, and found it in practically the same condition as for many months. No work was being done on it,” Keating would write in his report. “The trench occupies half the driveway, and is fenced in with rails its entire length, though there are bridges across it at nearly all of the cross streets. There is a passage on each side wide enough to accommodate an ordinary wagon, but no two such vehicles could pass.” (New York Herald, January 18, 1898)
While the roadbed was replaced, the ill-fated underground trolley project and its chief engineer would be discussed for years to come.
When Hopper returned to the area construct the powerhouse it is safe to say many in upper Manhattan remembered him well.
Construction on the Powerhouse
The contract on the five million dollar complex was awarded to Westinghouse, Church, Kerr & Company.
According to an 1898 edition of Electrical World the new plant replaced a previous plant that had been built on the same site but for reasons unknown had never been put into operation.
Much thought was given to the design of imposing Romanesque brick building.
Given the weight of the massive machinery the building was to house the framing had to be of substantial strength and size.
“While such a building is essentially an engineering structure, “ wrote the New York Times, “enclosed by protecting walls, its size and prominence make it imperative that its exterior shall be given an architectural character suited to its dimensions and purpose.”
“The design of the building is developed in a plain substantial manner expressive of power. The construction is in general of brick and terra cotta, with the architectural effect gained chiefly through proportions and color.” (New York Times, January 15, 1899)
The plant covered two full city blocks and measured 320 long by 250 feet wide.
Given the enormous scale of the building and the weight of the machinery housed inside, much thought, materials and labor went into designing the foundation.
“Nearly two years were taken to build the foundation,” reported the New York Herald in 1901.
“Four hundred and fifty thousand feet of yellow pine timbers, six inches thick and forty feet long were required to construct a coffer dam for the building. Sixteen thousand oak piles forty feet long were put into the foundation. On the tops of these piles thirty thousand cubic yards of Portland cement concrete was laid.
On top of this is now being erected the building proper. The engine foundations require a quarter of a million brick in their construction.”(New York Herald, May 26, 1901)
The placement of the plant near the Harlem River served two purposes. The river provided a free source of condensing water for the thirsty plant and easy access for the boats that supplied the fuel.
Just outside the plant, across from the boiler house, a slip connected to the Harlem River, which ran to the east of the plant. Each day coal cars, which likely sat on rails along the dock, awaited delivery from an endless stream of coal barges that once plied the waterway.
The scows, which arrived laden with coal, would exchange their load of fossil fuel for tons of ash, a by-product of the operation that had been sprayed with water to keep it from catching flight.
A large elevated bin, on the side of the building, held 10,000 tons of coal, which was constantly being funneled into the fires below.
The coal fueled hulking engines whose roar was heard throughout the neighborhood.
“The equipment consists of eight vertical cross-compound Westinghouse engines, directly connected to 3,500-kw, 6600-volt, three-phase, 25-cycle Westinghouse generators. Steam is supplied by thirty Babcock & Wilcox water-tube boilers set in batteries of 100 hp. The coal-bunkers are on top of the boiler room, fuel being delivered to them by conveyers and fed by gravity to automatic stokers with which the boiler furnaces are equipped. Ashes are handled by gravity from the ash pits to conveyers in the basement, whence they are taken to bunkers on the dock which discharge into barges.” (Electrical World, August 3, 1912)
A Dangerous Business
Each day workers found themselves surrounded by machines that groaned and hissed under unimaginable pressure. The coal dust, which hung constantly over the primitive electrical equipment, left the workers particularly vulnerable to fires and even explosions.
The first, and really only line of defense, lay in a system of water fed hoses and nozzles kept constantly at the ready. Fire-boats stood vigil in the waters around the plant, always prepared to protect the precious supply of coal.
“Special provision against fire is made by a fire pump, which handles a column of water fourteen inches in diameter, which serves a lot of nozzles of the type used on fire boats and which stand ever ready to protect this mass of coal.” (New York Times, January 15, 1899)
Two rows of massive boilers lined the first and second floors of the plant. “Were all the boilers in this station set in one continuous battery,” marveled the Times, “they would make a line of boilers 1,000 feet long.” (New York Times, January 15, 1899)
All told, the plant contained sixty boilers, each rated at 520 horsepower.
Two separate furnaces fired each boiler.
In the old days such an operation would have required 120 firemen, but the new mechanized system of stokers were handled by a crew of just forty men.
Running at full capacity, the plant burned some 1,800 tons of coal daily.
Under the arched roof of the generator room were installed sixteen of the largest generators ever built. Each was rated at 3,000 kilowatts and connected to steam engines rated at 6,000 horsepower.
“In the center of the room, high up, where every machine can be watched, will be the engineer’s room, while straddling over the whole room will be a travelling crane, which can pick up any piece of machinery in the place and carry it to any other spot in the whole compartment.” (Reading Eagle, January 22, 1899)
Turning knobs on a switchboard from his eagle’s perch the engineer on duty could route the power currents from the dynamos to various distribution centers.
The alternating current measured some 10,000 volts.
The power house was split into two distinct divisions: In one coal was burned to make steam, while the other would use the steam to generate electricity.
“These functions are of such dissimilar character,” continued the Times, “that they must be separated, and in this powerhouse the great engine and generator room is under the low arched roof, where light and ventilation meet no interference, while in the higher two-story portion, occupying about the same floor space but nearly double the contents, is placed the steam generating plant.”
- Built by Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing
- Two city blocks in size
- Cost: $5,000,000
- Steel frame with walls of stone, brick and terra cotta
- 10,000 ton coal bin
- 40 men with mechanical stokers fed the boilers
- 16 generators rated at 3,000 kilowatts
- Plant was Romanesque in design.
- Ornate arched windows, decorative towers crowned the corners.
Manhattan on a nickel
On May 30, 1902, after rushing to extend trolley lines from City Hall to Manhattan’s northern reaches, Inwood was finally connected to the rest of the Island. For the first time it was possible “for patrons to ride from the City Hall to the Ship Canal Bridge, a distance of thirteen miles, for a nickel.” (New York Herald, May 31, 1902)
“The new road enables passengers to take the longest ride possible on Manhattan Island without transfers, and opens up a section of the city north of Washington Heights which has been almost an unknown country to the average New Yorker.”
And apparently the new extension was a hit.
“There was a rush of trolley excursionists yesterday to the extension, and refreshment stands at the new terminus did a lively business.” (New York Herald, May 31, 1902)
An Artist’s Workshop
The Kingsbridge plant continued to belch smoke and power an intricate trolley network though at least the mid-1920’s before it was mothballed and abandoned.
Then, in 1933, sculptor George Grey Barnard announced that he planned on turning the cavernous galleries of the power station into a private workshop.
Now best known for his collection of medieval art, which laid the foundation for the Cloisters collection, Barnard was an ambitious artist who planned on constructing a colossal peace memorial inside the deserted powerhouse.
“After a year’s search,” wrote the New York Sun, “George Grey Barnard, sculptor, has found a studio large enough for him to assemble a model of his peace memorial, an arch 100 feet high and 80 feet wide. He has leased the large building at 216th Street and the Harlem River, used until recently by the Edison Company as a power house.
According to Mr. Barnard, he recently completed one of the many figures that will surround the arch and made up his mind to renew his search for a studio. Observing that the two arms of the statue pointed in opposite directions, he selected one at random and proceeded in that direction until he discovered that the former power house could be leased. The finished arch will be carved in stone, and stand on the site of the Cloisters, the Washington Heights branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” (New York Sun, October 25, 1933)
Sadly, Barnard would never finish his peace memorial. On April 24, 1938, after investing twenty years of his life on the project, Barnard was felled by a heart attack.
The sculptor’s executors moved the gigantic plaster model of Barnard’s “Rainbow of Hope” into a warehouse owned by the Piccirilli Brother’s on 142nd Street.
The Old Trolley Barn
While the power house was demolished sometime shortly after trolley service was discontinued in 1948, the adjoining trolley barn, designed by Romeo Tomassek and Isaac Hopper, would remain a neighborhood fixture through the early 1990’s.
The old brick structure, of similar design to the power house, had been built in 1897 and converted into a barn for the service and storage of New York City’s growing bus fleet.
The Kingsbridge Car House served the New York City Transit Authority well for many decades, but it hadn’t been constructed to accommodate the large city busses of the modern era.
Though concerted efforts were made to preserve this striking complex, the building, it seemed, was beyond repair.
According to a Historic American Buildings Survey commissioned by the National Park Service in 1989:
“The roof is peaked and covered with galvanized corrugated iron.
The front façade was located on Tenth Avenue. It was designed and constructed in a broad Roman Renaissance style of deep red brick and terra-cotta.
A large vehicular entrance flanked a raised, central office section and was decorated with egg and dart, dentil, anthemion and other classically designed ornaments.
The 6-foot round dials with elaborate terra-cotta enframements, one for a clock and the other for a barometer were above the vehicular entrances.
The names of the original owners of the car barn, Third Avenue R.R. Co. and the service area, Kingsbridge Division, were indicated in raised terra-cotta letters on the upper portions of the front façade.” (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1989)
Despite its great beauty, the report concluded, the Kingsbridge bus barn was falling apart.
“Physically, the building is in poor condition. Years of deferred maintenance, water infiltration and the extra structural stresses cause by the moving loads and weight of the buses contributed to the general deterioration of the structure and is a factor in the Authority’s decision to demolish it.” (Historic American Buildings Survey, 1989)
The old bus barn was finally torn down in 1991.
Were you a streetcar excursionist? Have a trolley story to tell? Please comment below and share your memories.