Gunther and His Railroad

Preface

New York City's massive rapid transit system has many origins.
     Many parts were built by the City for operation by itself or by private operators, financed by bonds secured by the rich city's credit.
     Other parts were built with the aid of private capital, sometimes with the involvement of people we called "robber barons," with all the trappings of monopoly capitalism.
     Still other parts were built by hopeful entrepreneurs, who sometimes succeeded. Some of these ventures failed before laying a single rail.
     And then there were the seat-of-the-pants operations, laid out by folks who may have had the golden spike of the Transcontinental Railroad in their hearts, but had to hold together their little ventures with chewing gum and bailing wire on the ground.
     Such a man was Charles Gunther. The following story tells of the earliest days of what is now the Brooklyn run of the "B" train of New York City Transit, known to older Brooklynites as the West End Line of the BMT.
     This article originally appeared in 1906 in the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company's employee publication. It was written by Morton Morris, who had been a conductor on the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island RR, which became the Brooklyn, Bath and West End before becoming a part of today's subway system.

Continued on page 2

A Little More About Charles Gunther

Morton Morris' article tells us that Mr. Gunther was a.elected a sachem (chief) of Tammany Hall and ran for and was eventually elected Mayor. One might get the impression that he was a Mayor of Brooklyn or some other municipality, but Tammany was the famous New York City Democratic political organization and, in fact, Gunther was Mayor of New York City from 1864-1866 which, at the time, included only New York County--that is, Manhattan and part of The Bronx.
     It should be noted that Mr. Morris refers to Gunther as "Charles L. Gunther," while most records call him "C. Godfrey Gunther," and his full name was, indeed, Charles Godfrey Gunther. As to the middle initial "L" it possible Morris simply didn't recall or misrecalled Gunther's middle initial.
     It is rather remarkable, in light of modern politics, to consider that Gunther was New York's mayor at the same time that he was running a transportation business in one of the suburbs. One could only imagine the outrage if a modern Mayor of New York were running such a business in Suffolk or Westchester.

A Little More About the West End Line

The date of the opening of the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island (West End Line) is a matter of some dispute, with dates of 1862, 1864, 1865 and 1867 showing up in current histories. Lately it seems that the general consensus is that the line reached Bath Beach in 1864 and ran through to Coney Island in 1867. The date is of a little historic import in that this was the first steam road to reach Coney and a bit of the original (albeit many times renewed) right-of-way exists and, if it predates 1865, it may be the oldest surviving original rapid transit right-of-way on the New York City subway system. The absolute oldest rapid transit right-of-way (but not part of the subway system) is on portions of the Staten Island Rapid Transit (Staten Island Railway) dating to 1860.
     Credible contemporary newspaper accounts would seem to finally settle the issue. The BB&CI ran an inaugural train on the unpropitious (for Coney resort traffic) date of Monday, October 5, 1863 only as far as Bath. On October 9, 1863 it began daily (including weekends) service between 36th Street and Fifth Avenue and Bath. On June 8, 1864 the first train made it all the way to Coney Island where dignitaries were greeted by none other than C. Godfrey Gunther, Mayor of New York and President of the BB&CI.
     We should also say something about an error that appears in several accounts--that the line originally ran to Bath (correct, for one fall, winter and spring) and that Bath is the current junction of New Utrecht Avenue and 62nd Street in Brooklyn (wrong). The latter location was Bath Junction, the place where you could change from Manhattan Beach or Sea Beach Line trains to West End trains for Bath. The real Bath is Bath Beach, on Gravesend Bay, on the shore side of the current community of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn
     Despite the fact that Mr. Morris was an employee of the road, there is another issue in which he errs: he describes the BB&CI as initially being a horse road, purchasing dummy engines later. He perhaps relied on descriptions of early operations heard from original employees. What he apparently didn't realize was that the horse operation was from 25th Street, where it met Brooklyn City horse cars to 36th Street, from which the BB&CI's dummy engines departed. Two of these dummy engines, each seating about 40 people (as Morris mentions; a sort of primitve predecessor of the RDC or DMU) were present and operating from the start of operations.

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Copyright 1975 by Third Rail Press, 1999 by The Composing Stack Inc.
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