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The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn

With its bewilderingly complicated passages, dank smell, bare concrete floors, tangles of pipes and conduits, and the rumbling roar that shakes the ground and then fades, the New York City subway system doesn’t win any prizes for beauty. It’s immense, though, and remarkably fast and efficient, and can take passengers within a few blocks of anywhere in the five boroughs for only $2.75.

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Pinnable image
Text: New York Transit Museum inside a subway station in Brooklyn (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo)
Image: Above, a view down a subway platform with a line or subway cars along the track. Below, a view down the stairs that are the entrance to the New York Transit Museum.
Pinnable image

Did you ever wonder, as you waited for a New York City subway train on a crowded platform or hung on for dear life as the train sped around a curve in the dark, how this vast transport system came to be? If so, the New York Museum of Transit is the place to find out.

Where in Brooklyn is the Transit Museum?

But first, you have to find it! It’s easy to miss the entrance. It looks, as you walk down an ordinary sidewalk in central Brooklyn, like the entrance to any subway station: a stairway down from the sidewalk, edged with a railing.  I’m sure there are people who pass it every day who don’t know it’s there. And there must be people who enter it every day, then, startled, turn around and climb the stairs again when they realize it’s not, in fact, a subway station.

Looking down a stairway with a wall on one side and a rail on the other. A small sight on the rail straight ahead says "New York Transit Museum" and lists the museum's opening hours.
The New York Transit Museum’s entrance.

To be fair, the NY Transit Museum is housed in an unused subway station. You’ll even feel the occasional rumble, but the cleanliness level and smell are distinctly better than your average station. The museum extends the length of a city block, using two levels of a 1930s-era station. (See the bottom of this article for more detailed instructions on where to find the museum.)

Here are some other things worth seeing and doing in New York City:

And here’s a complete listing of free or cheap things to do: New York City on a Budget

What will you see in the Transit Museum?

Here you can learn how New York City public transport came to be, starting from its early incarnations using horse-drawn trams to the development of steam-powered and, later, electric trains running on elevated railways and/or through subway tunnels.

The emphasis is often on the people who worked on the transit system, either building it or operating it. How much did they earn? But also: how much did their money buy? (In 1915, drivers earned $4.50 a day, while laborers got $1.50. A hot dog cost 5 cents and a haircut 10 cents.) What did their jobs entail? (In general, it was hard physical work with long hours.) How exactly did they build the tunnels? And so on.

Looking down a long flat subway platform. On the right, on the tracks, is a row of subway trains. Only the nearest is really visible: it's wooden, and painted dark red.
View down a track.

Much of the first section of the museum is fairly dry, with signs and photographs on walls and objects in cases – vintage change dispensers, tram models and such – but it gets better as you move along the platform. Vintage train cars line the platform as if they’re waiting for passengers to board.

Train cars

Only the informational sign outside each one betrays that something else is happening here. The signs tell more information than you probably would ever want to know about the age of the car, how and by whom and why it was produced, how it was powered, and so on.

It’s worth at least skimming them, though, because of the interesting details you’ll learn. Did you know …

  • that wooden trains on steel underframes were first pulled by steam locomotives before the subway system was electrified? It was smelly and smoky.
  • that the wooden cars were removed from subway tunnels and only used on elevated lines after an accident in 1918 involving wooden cars? Transit workers were on strike, and the driver was essentially unqualified. Pulling 650 passengers, he took a curve too fast and the train derailed. Two of the wooden cars fell apart and 93 passengers were killed.
  • that the new steel cars developed next were too heavy to use on the elevated lines? So for some time, the elevated lines used wooden cars while the underground lines used steel cars.

The train cars on show range from the first decade of the 1900s to the 1970s. The signs make clear why some are wood and some are metal and how and why the designs changed over time. For me, it was odd to see a subway car whose 1970s interior brought back childhood memories of trips into the city with my family or, as a teenager, with my friends. The feeling was akin to the time I saw my first desktop computer (a Mac 512 enhanced) on display in a museum. It made me feel ancient.

Looking down the length of a subway car. Harsh lighting, chairs of molded orange or yellow plastic along the walls or perpendicular to them. Here and there a floor to ceiling metal pole.
This train car from 1972 was the first to have molded plastic seats. It also didn’t have the hanging handholds anymore; just poles for standees. I remember these quite clearly from my childhood.

There are also a few vintage ticket kiosks (including the one at the entrance where you buy your ticket to the museum) as well as vintage turnstiles.

While the emphasis is on the subways, some attention is also given to the bus network that makes up another important part of New York City’s mass transit system.

Planning a trip to New York City? Use the map below to book your accommodation:

Advertisements in the trains

Visitors can board the train cars and get a clear sense of each car’s era. You can see this not only because of the car itself – Is the train car made of wood? Are the seats upholstered? And that bright orange could only be from the 1970s! – but because of the advertisements posted in each one.

The ad is about half filled with a drawing of a cat: mostly black with white on its face and paws. It looks down at the ground. The other half of the ad says: "Etti-Cat says 'It was real wild scribbling over the subway walls & cars but, in objective & realistic retrospect & in full evaluation of the initial impact & the effect of the regretful consequences, it would seem that the entire action was motivated rather imprudently &,, truthfully, in recalling the whole stupid mess, I feel real dopey about it, I'm sorry & I'll never do it again.' (ACT YOUR AGE - PLEASE!). I'ts got an emblem in the upper right corner with NYC in the middle and the words "please, thanks, sorry" in a circle around it. Signed on the bottom right: JOM 1962.
A 1962 message from the city about behavior in the subways.

Riding a subway car is often an exercise in people-watching. When the train travels through dark tunnels, there’s nothing to see out the windows. This makes it a great place for companies to advertise; they have a captive audience. Reading the advertisements along the walls of the car, above the windows, helps you avoid eye contact as well.

Ad has a cartoonish drawing of a businessman (jacket and tie and hat) and Hitler (uniform and cap with swastikas). The businessman looks like he's whispering to Hitler. On the right is a drawing of a bottle of Burma Shave that says "no brush no lather". Between the two drawings are the words "Loose lips sink ships Don't talk today if you must talk step up and say -- Burma-Shave". Across the bottom are the words "Buy more war bonds!"
This WWII-era ad manages to include three messages in one: loose lips sink ships, buy Burma-Shave, and buy war bonds.

I ended up spending more time at the New York Transit Museum than I had intended because I was busy reading the ads. In each car, they matched the period when that car was used. It’s a lesson in the history of advertising, though unfortunately the ads have no informational signs to go with them.

Top left a picture of an oblong beige bar of soap. Text: For a refreshing bath / Fairy Soap / Is white and pure; made of choice materials. The cake fits the hand. Fairy Soap floats. 5 cents.

Is the New York Transit Museum worth visiting?

If you’re interested in urban transportation, the New York Transit Museum is worth visiting. If you have kids who are train-crazy, they’ll enjoy it, though it won’t take them long to exhaust what the Transit Museum has to offer.

I’d also recommend the museum to anyone interested in the history of advertising. While there is no extra information about the ads, they’ve clearly been curated. They fit in terms of chronology with each other and with the train car they’re in. You could probably find the ads online, but here you see them in their intended context and time period.

Even with skimming most of the informational signs and dawdling over the ads, I only spent a bit over an hour in the museum.

A view down the length of the inside of a train. The lighting is fairly low and yellowish. The seats are along the walls or perpendicular to it and are upholstered in a yellowish-orange fabric on the seats and backs. Straps hang in loops from the ceiling for standees to hang onto.
A wooden subway car from 1907 has cushioned seats and leather straps.

Getting to the Transit Museum in Brooklyn

Ironically, though you can (and should!) take the subway to get to the museum, you’ll have to walk to it from another nearby subway station.

  • If you’re taking the A or C train, get off at Hoyt-Schemerhorn Station and walk for 4 minutes northwest on Schermerhorn Street until you reach the intersection with Boerum Place. You’ll find the museum there.
  • If you’re taking the 2 or 3 train, get off at Borough Hall Station and walk south on Boerum Place for about 4 minutes to the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street.

The museum entrance is a long stairway, but there is also a wheelchair lift at the other end of the old station platform, at the corner of Schermerhorn and Court Street. The museum is almost entirely wheelchair accessible, since the exhibits are all along two flat station platforms. The station has two floors, but with a wheelchair lift between the two levels. Some of the older train cars are not accessible because of narrow doorways.

Admission: Adults $10, Children 2-17 $5.

Check their website for opening hours.

The Transit Museum also  runs a small gallery and store inside Grand Central Station, off the Main Concourse, near the Station Master’s Office. Admission is free.

Pinnable image. Text: The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. Image: looking down the inside of a 1972-era subway car, with orange plastic seats.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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