Photo from Library of Congress
The “West Side Cowboys” in New York City, one of the most fun secrets of the High Line, were city-appointed safety vigilantes on horseback that once prevented pedestrian accidents along 10th Avenue, a thoroughfare nicknamed Death Avenue due to the large number of accidents between freight trains and pedestrians. The original High Line, opened in 1934, was an elevated freight viaduct for the New York Central railroad, built in response to the accidents. Vintage video footage discovered by historian Annik La Farge while writing the book On the High Line: Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park (Revised Edition) provides a rare glimpse into this once-popular symbol of the city’s west side.
The video, dating from the 1930s, shows a stretch of 10th Avenue between 15th Street and 19th Street, beginning with the former Nabisco Factory, now home to Chelsea Market. The High Line is already constructed but freight trains continued to run concurrently at street level for another eight years after the opening of the viaduct.
In the video, an urban cowboy comes into view on horseback wearing what may be overalls preceding one of the New York Central trains. According to the video, “the cowboy waved a red flag by day and a red lantern by night to warn pedestrians of oncoming trains.” Contemporary photographs of the cowboy depict this lone figure wearing a variety of different outfits, from a formal set of clothes to casual jeans.
La Farge explains, “The job of urban cowboy was created by an 1850s city ordinance that permitted freight cars to run along the streets.” Even though these trains traveled an average of six miles an hour, many accidents and deaths still occurred. The trains shared the road with automobiles and trucks at this point in time, along with fearless pedestrians.
At 10:50 a.m on March 29, 1941 George Hayde was the last cowboy to ride down Tenth Avenue, escorting fourteen freight cars, all filled with oranges.