Despite living in New York for some fifteen years now, and despite the iconic nature of this particular attraction, I had never been on — nor indeed even seen — the Roosevelt Island Tram. Somehow, despite countless trips up and down the FDR Drive and occasional trips back and forth across the Queensboro Bridge, I never once caught a glimpse of that bright red skytram being tugged across the East River on suspended cables. It could possibly be because I was, you know, driving, and if you’ve ever been in that particular part of town you know that it does not usually work out very well to distract oneself from the road. Eventually though, and probably after staying up late watching Nighthawks yet again, it was determined that enough was enough. High time to get suspended high above the river en route to a river island about which I know very little and which is visited rarely by anyone who does not live there.
One of the first things you might notice as you arrive (besides the square full of pigeons) is the old trolley station building. I think it’s the last one that still exists in the city. When the Queensboro Bridge was opened in 1909, Roosevelt Island and Queens were served by a trolley which rumbled across the bridge, stopping midway to let passengers off by an elevator to Roosevelt Island before continuing on to Queens. Because there was no transit alternatives for Roosevelt Island at the time, that particular trolley remained in service long after the rest of the city’s trolley lines had been decommissioned. Finally, in 1957, a bridge from Queens to the island was completed and the trolley was decommissioned. The station remains though, and today is used by the Department of Transportation to store heavy equipment. Despite its new role as a truck depot, the DOT maintains the facade of the old trolley station as it used to be. One of the other old trolley stations is now located on the Roosevelt Island side fo the tramway. It’s used as the island’s visitor information center.
In the 1970s, semi-isolated Roosevelt Island was repurposed for low-income residential housing, and it became essential to make the island accessible by mass transit. Subway service was planned, but as was common, the construction of the line was woefully behind schedule. The initial idea of temporarily resurrecting trolley service proved unfeasible do to the advance state of deterioration in the old tracks. Eventually, it came down to two final options: a ferry or an aerial tramway. In the end, the tram won out. It opened in 1976 with the intention being that it would run until work on the subway line finished. A decade passed, and the subway still was not complete. The “temporary” tram became increasingly permanent. It wasn’t until 1989 that the line serving Roosevelt Island finally opened. By then, however, the tram had become an iconic part of New York City and it was decided to keep it in service despite the subway finally being complete.
Well, “keeping it in service” is something of a relative term, as anyone who has ever dealt with New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority can attest. As it aged, the tramway began to suffer more and more problems. In September of 2005, the tram lost power and stranded riders high above the river for ninety minutes. In April of 2006 the tram once again lost power, this time leaving passengers dangling for over seven hours. Eventually, people had to be spirited away in little rescue buckets since the MTA could not successfully get the tram running in time. After that, the city had to decide what to do with its creaking old tram. A series of upgrades to electrical systems were installed, and in 2010 the tramway was fully refurbished and modernized.
For the price of a subway ride, you get a fantastic view of the East Side staring up and down the river, the bridge, and the dramatic Manhattan and Queens skylines. You can reenact scenes from Nighthawks or Spider-Man if you want, but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it. On the other side awaits Roosevelt Island, a strange place seldom visited even by New Yorkers and once home to madhouses, poor houses, alms houses, big houses, and sick houses. Now it’s a strange amalgamation of Gilded Age remnant and 70s-era concrete block modernist design — but the island itself deserves its own write-up.