The Early Days of New York’s Transportation Systems


By Samuel Phineas Upham

During the earliest days of New York, far before skyscrapers and subways, the Lenape people used various waterways and trails to hunt and trade with one another. Loose bands of natives spread out all over New York’s five boroughs, getting around by canoe and on foot. Those trails are some of the main throoughfares that snake through New York City today. Lafayette Street, Park Row and St. Nicholas Avenue were all once Lenape trails that were later used by the Dutch and carried over into the years.

Jamaica Avenue, which connects Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, was also a Lenape trail.

During the 19th century, these trails were fashioned into county roads suitable for horses and wagons, which is around the time that the grid system became fashionable. Almost from the start, New York City was one of the most intelligently planned cities in the United States.

Water transport was also a major part of early 19th century transportation in New York. The Erie and Gowanus canals were handling increased traffic from commerce ships, while tug boats and steamships accompanied the gradual transition from coal to steam.

Streetcars were also popular, beginning with the horse-drawn variety and moving onto electric powered cars. It may seem ironic today, considering the high levels of auto traffic in New York City, but it was traffic flow that ultimately killed the street cars. Soon, the waterways that had just proved a sustainable form of transportation were standing in the way of another important breakthrough: the railroad.

About the Author: Samuel Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Samuel Phineas Upham website or Twitter.

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