Cameron: The City Island Monorail


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Looking for a fun day-trip for the family?  Don’t miss City Island, a boat-centric New England style “village” just off the east coast of The Bronx.   In addition to some of the city’s best seafood restaurants, City Island was also home to a monorail over a century ago.

The three-mile line from the Bartow train station on what was then the Harlem River branch of the NY, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (near what today is Co-Op City in the Bronx) through Pelham Park, over a rickety bridge and ending at the Island.  It would replace the slow, forty minute ride to the resort in a horse-pulled trolley with a three to five minute adventure zooming along at a mile a minute.

City dwellers heading to the beach wanted to get there fast and a monorail was not only speedy, but modern and exciting.

It was bankrolled by August Belmont Jr. (after whom Belmont Park racetrack is named) who had financed much of the construction of the City’s IRT subway, often touring that subterranean investment in a private rail car.

Belmont was intrigued with the monorail when he saw it demonstrated at an exposition and especially liked its ability to bank into curves at higher speeds… a design feature that would doom it on its first trip.

This monorail was unlike those we know today as it actually ran on three tracks:  two guiding it from the top, hung from support piers and a single track on the ground over which it was propelled by electric motors.

Belmont used the old horse-drawn tram’s right-of-way he owned along the route to lay out his monorail, known as “The Flying Lady”.  But it took so long for Belmont to find money that his franchise from the City was about to expire so work was rushed to completion.

The line had just a single car…yellow, cigar shaped and about 75 feet in length.  Inside it was equipped with movable rattan-covered chairs.  It was hardly luxurious, but if it hit its goal of running 60 mph it would only be a three-minute ride, so who cared.

On opening day, July 16 1910, the crowds grew anxious to be among the first to ride this marvel of transportation’s future.  The car, designed to carry 40 passengers, was soon jammed with about 100.  When the car groaned into motion it made the first two curves just fine.  But while tilting into the third curve, the “Flying Lady” just flopped on her side.

Fearing that electric lines might be dangling from the overhead towers, the conductor locked the doors as pancaked passengers struggled to get out.  Some of the inaugural riders were injured but there were no deaths.

Among those injured was Howard Tunis, inventor of the monorail, who suffered a broken rib but told waiting reporters he could rebuild the train, chalking up the incident to “a minor mishap which occurs daily in every scientist’s laboratory.”

“The Flying Lady” was uprighted and her roadbed strengthened and service resumed, albeit at slower speeds.  But the damage had been done and the combination of costly lawsuits and dwindling ridership led to the point that the line went bankrupt and the last train ran in April 1914.

Today City Island is still a summer destination, but one best accessed by car or bicycle.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media