Subway Token’s Passing Just the Latest for NYC

by George S. Cuhaj

Historians have noted that the growth and success of any metropolitan city of the 19th and 20th century can often be attributed to a good transportation system. The City of New York “got organized” and switched from the random street pattern of colonial times to a planned grid pattern for future development in 1811. The City also commissioned approved-route franchises for omnibus owners who ran horse-drawn “stage” coaches inland from the numerous Manhattan ferry terminals. Operators collected cash fares, but also developed a ticket system for identification of “paid” passengers. Operators who had more than one route franchise offered brass and pewter tokens to passengers who transferred from one route to another. These larger-sized and bulky “transfer tickets” (as their legend is inscribed) were used in the 1840s through the 1850s.

Third Avenue Railroad, Harlem, WM Pass or Transfer Ticket, for Omnibus (c. 1840-1850s). 1859.30.1 Gift of F.H. Jaudon

Third Avenue Railroad, Harlem, WM Pass or Transfer Ticket, for Cable Car (c. 1859). 1859.30.2 Gift of F.H. Jaudon

Haskins & Wilkins 4th Avenue Line, WM Transfer Ticket, for Omnibus (c. 1840-1850s). 0000.999.10595

The New York Central Railroad, so-named in 1853 upon the consolidation of twelve pioneering firms, laid track northward on 4th Avenue. Although called a “railroad,” originally it was really what we now would call a horse-car system. Horse-car networks laid track on approved routes, and paid the city a franchise fee. Cash fares and discount tickets—sold in strips of three or five, or even booklets of 25 or 50 (for frequent users)—were the standard methods of payment for rail transport.

Steam power, in a stationary engine room turning a large wheel wound by a looped cable, was employed by several cable-car companies (yes, even NYC had a cable-car line). The cable ran in a conduit between the rails, and a “grip” operated by the motorman grabbed the moving cable and propelled the car. These were a lot cleaner than horse cars; however, they proved difficult to maintain due to frequent cable problems. The Third Avenue Company operated a cable system in Harlem.

New York & Harlem Railroad Company, WM Octagonal Transfer Ticket, for Cable Car (c. 1850-1860s). 0000.999.10594

The elevated lines which radiated northward on 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Avenues were at first pulled by small steam locomotives, but as improvements in technology led to the introduction of electrical motive power in the early 1890s, steam was replaced by electricity.

Along the Bowery

It was the lure of open and clean streets in Manhattan which made the City and State of New York approve the plan of August Belmont’s Subway Construction Company to build, and then of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company to operate, an underground transit system. Ground was broken in March 1900, and on October 27, 1904, New York City became the seventh metropolis in the world to open a passenger subway network. (London built the first underground train in 1863). Mayor George B. McClellan operated the ceremonial first train on the route from City Hall to 137th Street. Soon, there was service to the Bronx and, in 1908, under the East River to Brooklyn! In 1912, the Dual Contracts were developed, giving the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (later the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company, BMT), extensive franchises for expansion in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. These contractors knew the construction routes ahead of time, bought land at the proposed station locations, and developed those properties at a handsome return.

Entrance to Manhattan subway station, early 1900s

Subway train, 1908

During this early phase, the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad company was formed. It began service in 1908 from Newark and Hoboken NJ through the “Hudson Tubes” to 33rd street and 6th Avenue, while another branch extended to Cortlandt Street in Lower Manhattan-the future site of the World Trade Center. The Hudson and Manhattan system used tokens extensively, and its successor company, the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) Corporation, also used tokens until 1973. PATH was on the modern fare-card “cutting edge” as the first firm to offer a 10-ride discount ticket in the mid 1980s.

For the IRT system, the five-cent “nickel” and paper tickets were principal forms of fares. Anticipating a proposed increase to 7 cents in 1928, the contractor commissioned a copper-nickel token. This fare hike was not approved by the city and state governments, however, and the IRT lost its case for a higher return on appeal to the US Supreme Court. The tokens languished for many years in the storage vaults of the Board of Transportation, with many only coming to light in the 1940s during a scrap metal drive.

1948 New York City Subway Map (23 x 13 inches)

On June 1, 1940, the private companies of the IRT and BMT, bankrupt at that point, were merged with the City-built Independent System (IND) to form the New York City Transit System under the control of the Board of Transportation. The buses of this time had turnstiles on them rather than just fare boxes, so that when a rider transferred from one to another with a paper transfer, he or she needed to be given a token to pass through the turnstile. The three-cent child’s fare during this period was also handled in this way. These tokens were used from early 1939 through 1948, when the fare was raised to ten cents and the turnstiles on the busses were removed.

New York City Transit System, BMT Division, CN Transfer Token (1939-1948). 1943.99.1 Gift of the Board of Transportation of the City of New York

The semi-autonomous New York City Transit Authority was formed in 1953. In June of that year, the fare was raised to 15 cents, and a solid 16mm brass token began a short life. In September, a 16mm token with a “Y” cut-out was introduced, and the solid brass issue was withdrawn. The distinctive Y cut-out was flanked by N and C, forming NYC (for New York City)-a design lasting through a fare increase to 20 cents in 1966, to be finally placed in storage in 1970. A 23mm Y cut-out token was used from 1970 to 1980, with a special commemorative, for the 75th anniversary in 1979, depicting a 1904 subway car and an entrance kiosk. A 22mm solid token came into use with the introduction of a 60-cent fare in 1980. This was replaced with the steel-centered brass token of 1986. A pentagonal cut-out token (one side for each of the five boroughs-state counties-which make up New York City) was introduced in 1995; it is now only used on the Roosevelt Island Tramway (or, until the end of the year-along with 50 cents-on busses).

New York City Transit Authority, Solid Brass 16mm Transit Token (1953) 1953.103.1 Gift of George C. Miles

New York City Transit Authority, Cut-out Brass 16mm Transit Token (1953-1970). 1953.103.2 Gift of George C. Miles

New York City Transit Authority, Cut-out Brass 23mm Transit Token (1970-1980). 0000.999.10604

New York City Transit Authority, Solid Brass 23mm transit Token (1980-1986). 1980.148.1 Gift of George S. Cuhaj

Some seldom-seen tokens were a 28mm Y-cut out version minted in 1966 for the Aqueduct (Race Track) specials, later used until the early ’90s on the express bus routes; a 23mm bulls-eye commemorative for the opening of the Archer Avenue (Queens) extension in 1988, and a 23mm copper-nickel issue marked “Special Fare,” used only for a short period in the early ’80s for the Aqueduct Race Track Special.

New York City Transit Authority, Aqueduct Race Track Express, Cut-out Brass 28mm Special Fare Token (1966-1990s). 1981.128.2 Gift of George S. Cuhaj

New York City Transit Authority, Pierced Brass 75th Anniversary Commemorative token (1979). 1981.85.1 Gift of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority

New York City Transit Authority, Steel-centered Brass 23mm Archer Avenue (Queens) Extension Transit Token (1988). 1993.134.1 Gift of Katharina H. Eldada

It was the standard “used-by-the-masses” tokens which became nearly coin-like in their function within the New York City limits. Short on change for the morning coffee or paper? Short for a tip? A token would be gladly accepted. That is what folks are lamenting. You can’t use the metro-card (yet!) for that newspaper or coffee purchase!

Tokens were phased out, just after midnight on April 13, 2003.

New York City Transit Authority, Pentagonally-pierced 23mm transit Token (1995-2003), unopened bag, 1996.32.1 Gift of John M. Kleeberg