By Raanan Geberer
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn celebrated the 110th birthday of the New York City subway system on Saturday with music, food, kid-friendly workshops, a special cake and a ride on a vintage-1932 subway train.
The museum is located within the former Court Street station of the long-defunct Court Street Shuttle, on Schermerhorn Street between Court Street and Boerum Place. Guests enter through what was once one of that station’s entrances and walk down a flight of stairs past a “token booth” that’s now purely decorative.
The city’s first subway line, from 145th Street to City Hall in Manhattan, opened on Oct. 27, 1904. Parts of that original line have been incorporated into the “lettered-train” system. The subway reached Brooklyn in 1908, and new lines soon followed.
At the museum kids had fun drawing with crayons, putting together train layouts from a wooden kit and more. Meanwhile, musicians Lloyd H. Miller and Chris Johnson, of the children’s band the Deedle Deedle Dees, entertained the crowd. One song, “Brooklyn by Bike,” took a musical trip from Prospect Park to Coney Island. Another, “Nellie Bly,” informed the kids about different modes of transit. It mentioned airplanes, buses and minivans before it told them that the real Nellie Bly made her 1889 trip around the world by boat. A third song, “Battle of Brooklyn,” described the Revolutionary War battle that took place in and around Park Slope.
People attending the party could also go downstairs and walk through some of the vintage trains at track level. But the main attraction was the 1932 train, complete with wicker seats and revolving overhead fans, that took passengers to the long-unused outer platform of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street station and back again. The Court Street Shuttle, inaugurated in 1936, was supposed to connect to Manhattan via a new subway tunnel. But the connection was never built , and the little-used shuttle stopped running 10 years later.
John Uske, a former car equipment supervisor, noted that when these trains, which were used throughout the “lettered-train” system, were in service, they were often pitch black because they were covered with “wheel dust.” Now, however, the train had a shiny, dark-green coat of paint.
The train ride was also true to life because at least once, the lights went out for a few seconds. Uske explained that this happened when a third rail on one side of the tracks ended and another one on the opposite side of the tracks began. Modern trains, he said, don’t have this problem because they contain a “gap detector.”
Upstairs, people had the chance to look at the museum’s long-term exhibits. Among these are the history of turnstiles and the building of the subway system, as well as many models of trains, trolleys and buses. But one of the displays that drew the most interest featured “slugs” that were used by subway fare cheats during the era of the token, which didn’t end until 2003. These slugs ranged from sophisticated counterfeits of the tokens themselves to foreign coins to crude plastic discs that looked like buttons or gambling chips.
Finally, a special chocolate birthday cake was brought out, Assistant Director Regina Asborno cut it, and slices were given to everyone. It was enjoyable day for all concerned.