On the Roosevelt Island Tram’s Quiet 43rd Birthday

The Roosevelt Island Tram’s 43rd Birthday caught historian Judith Berdy’s attention.

“Happy 43rd Birthday,” she wrote in a May email. The Tram evolved from an essential resource. It’s now also an adventure drawing more tourists than locals who count on it for commuting ever expected. Or welcomed.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

The old Roosevelt Island Tram, fine art photo by Deborah Julian

Some History of the Roosevelt Island Tram

It can stop you in your tracks if you look up and see it gliding silently alongside the Queensboro Bridge. No onboard motor powers its glide from tower to tower, and first-time riders sometimes gasp as it lifts silently skyward.

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For some, it’s almost a carnival ride. For those who live on Roosevelt, it’s a reliable resource and alternative to overcrowded, filthy subways.

But that’s not how it started, and that’s the second thing that should take your breath away.

At one of the lowest points in New York history, politicians teamed to invest in recreating Roosevelt Island. A city teetering near bankruptcy, discolored by crime, decorated with graffiti, designed a miracle.

The result: a residential “city of tomorrow.”

The Tram was born as a temporary solution to make Island living the possible until a subway station was built.

Even in the City of Tomorrow, people would have to go to work.

Step One in the Direction of the Roosevelt Island Tram’s 43rd Birthday

But this is New York City, after all. It took almost 15 years to open the Roosevelt Island Subway Station.

The Q Line first delivered passengers to the community, ending its route one stop away near just inside Queens. You always got a seat when it headed back to 63rd Street.

Demolition Meets Stiff Resistance

When the time came to tear down the towers, fierce resistance flared.

Island’s pioneers locked arms with newcomers. They demanded that this unique transit, the beloved alternative to disappearing underground, must be kept running.

It worked.

Roosevelt Island Tram Redo

A couple of decades later, instead of the scrap heap, the Tram got a complete makeover. New cabins, cables and operating systems and connections with other mass transit brought stability.

It also made the Tram became a tourist attraction.

And overcrowded.

Tourists, today in record numbers, discover the Tram. They wait in line for a glide between skyscrapers and then across the murky East River to Roosevelt Island.

At 43, the Tram is more popular than ever. It’s a truly inexpensive thrill, just $2.75 on a MetroCard, each way, and a chance to look at New York in a way impossible anywhere else.

Here are a couple of videos, one of a nighttime ride in an original Tram cabin in 2009, the other on the unintentionally humorous reopening after the rebuild.

Without internal lights, it was much easier to get an impressive view of the city lights. And it’s so quiet in the air above the city. The reopening of the Tram in November 2010 was an event, as you can see from the news vans, but when the two new cabins arrive side by side, to heraldic music, filled with politicians scrambling to take credit, it gets a little silly.

Anyway, it’s a birthday worth recognizing with many more to come.

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