Back to Main TOC  SUBWAY UNIVERSITY previous   next
Back to Main TOC
Back to Main TOC



The City College was established in 1847 as the Free Academy of New York. The establishment of a tuition-free, municipal college was a milestone for New York City and for public education in the United States. During the first decades of the college's existence it was often a challenge for the young men who did not live close to the site of the first campus-23rd Street and Lexington Avenue-to travel each day to school.

Photograph of Steers.
James Rich Steers. Courtesy of the CCNY Archives. See larger image.

Accounts remain of some of the early Free Academy men who remembered the trip they made each day. One such young man was James Rich Steers, who was 15 years old when he entered the Free Academy in January of 1849.

In 1907 he reminisced about his student days in "The City College: Memories of Sixty Years":

The means of reaching the College or Academy in those days were very primitive. Some lived in Harlem and could only reach the Academy by means of omnibuses or stages, which ran, I think, every half-hour or hour. My home was in Seventh Street, near the East River, and my only means of getting to the Academy was to walk, a little less than two miles. The walks during the spring and fall were very pleasant. In the winter heavy snows and storms made it rather the reverse, and innumerable days I spent in the college building with more or less cold, wet feet and wet clothes.

New York in the 1840s and 1850s for the most part maintained a rural character. However, south of 14th street the many factories and businesses created unpleasant, crowded living conditions for the population forced to reside in the area. Even above 14th street what became known as "shanty towns" arose to house the city's poor.

Illustration: Shanty Town.
Shanty Town. From "Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York 1859". See larger image.

Surrounding the site of the Free Academy was the affluent Gramercy Park where prominent citizens made their home. The chronicler of New York in the nineteenth century, George Templeton Strong, owned a home not far from the Academy. In addition, the family home of Jacob Tiemann, elected Mayor of New York in 1858, was on 23rd street, just a block west of the Free Academy on a lot which occupied the entire block between 4th and Madison Avenues.

Illustration: Tiemann Family Home.
Caption Reads: "Private Residence of the Late Mayor Tieman's [sic] Father, 23rd. St. betw. 4th & Madison Ave. Lith. of Sarony, Mayor & Knapp, 449 Broadway N.Y. For D.T. Valentine's Manual, 1869."
From "Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York 1863". See larger image.

During these early years steam railways were a popular means of transportation. Horse cars as well as railways operated in Manhattan. The Harlem and New Haven railroad ran level with the street down Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South). On Third Avenue, a "street railway" which was an omnibus which rolled along tracks, but was pulled by horses, served the students of the Free Academy.

Illustration: Train with city in background.
Stream Railway. Caption Reads: "Manhattan College and Manhattan Station, 1855."
From "Valentine's Manual of Old New York 1917-1918". See larger image.

To promote the development of rural areas, such as the Upper West Side, New Yorkers pressed for efficient public transportation. Underground subways were proposed, using as an example the London Underground that opened in 1863. However, the expense of such a project as well as the amount of time needed for its completion, made the underground system unattractive to developers.

Map of New York City, 1860.
Map, New York City, 1860. "Twelve Historical New York City Street and Transit Maps from 1860-1967", (H & M Productions, 1997). See larger image.

The idea of building railways above the street proved the most practical solution. In 1870 the first successful commercial service ran from Dey Street in lower Manhattan to 30th Street and 9th Avenue. These early Els were steam powered consequently spreading ash and cinders onto the street, but they were still regarded as an improvement over railway lines at street level.

Illustration, 3rd Avenue El. with detail.
Third Ave. and 23rd St. Elevated R.R. Station. College of the City of New York. From "Thirty-six Views of New York and Environs, c1890". See larger image.

The 3rd Avenue line opened in 1878 and was operated by the New York Elevated Railroad Company under permission from the Rapid Transit Commissioners. Extensions of 3rd Avenue service carried passengers to and from the upper Bronx and South Ferry. The 2nd Avenue El opened in 1880. Both had stops at 23rd Street, one and two blocks east of City College. In 1879 the Manhattan Railway Company took control of all the elevated lines in Manhattan and completed the 2nd and 6th Avenue elevated routes by 1891.

Photograph of the 23rd St. El. station (1915).
23rd St. Station (1915). Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum (*), Brooklyn.
See larger image.

The 9th Avenue El had extended its route north and opened stations at 130th, 135th, and 145th Streets. In the late 1880s, the Els began to be electrified, making them more "environmentally friendly," and portions of track were rebuilt. By 1885 the Brooklyn Elevated Railroad was running trains over the recently completed Brooklyn Bridge.

College students attending the City College in 1880 were happy when the El operators actually reduced the fare from 10 cents to 5 cents for students. In the 1880 edition of the College Mercury, an anonymous student wrote the poem "Only Five Cents."

O happy student, who can be
In happiness compared to thee,
The only mortal who can dare
To ride the El for a five cent fare!
Long did they noble, suff ring soul
Content ere it could gain its goal;
Long did they pocket-book so barre
Submit to pay a ten cent fare.

But now they troubles are all o'ver,
For ten cent fares thou'lt pay no more.
The "Elevated" company
Has made the fare five cents for thee,
And now, with happy face and bright,
To nearest book-store take they flight,
And buy the finest pony there,
For you only pay a five cent fare.

Chelborg Restaurant. From "The College of the City of New York ... 1907".
See larger image.


(*) Note: This image cannot be reproduced without written permission from the NYTM Archives. Their web site is at
(back up.)


 SUBWAY UNIVERSITY previous   next

Go to Newman Library Digital Collections Main Page