Culver Line Memories

The BMT Culver Line in Transition after World War II

The Culver Line began its existence in 1875 as a steam excursion railroad cutting through then-rural Kings County (modern Brooklyn) farms on its way to Coney Island. In the next century it went through an extraordinary number of changes and owners, hosting various Long Island Rail Road services, trolleys, elevated trains, freight trains and subway trains on a variety of routings.

By the time it was made into an elevated in 1919 and 1920 it settled down to being an extension of the 5th Avenue Brooklyn el. In 1931 subway service to the City Hall area joined the elevated trains. In 1940 the City of New York took over the line and abandoned the Culver's elevated access to downtown Brooklyn, but the dual subway-elevated train service continued in truncated fashion, before a new connection brought IND subway service from the Bronx and ended the unusual operation. The Culver is now served by the "F" train. The 1940-1954 service is described in this recollection of Karl Bernstein.

"World's Fair" cars at 149th & 3rd Ave.

I grew up on East 7th St. & Kings Highway, about half way between the Brighton & Culver Lines. My Mom preferred the Brighton because it had an express and was a more direct route to Manhattan. I, on the other hand, preferred the Culver because it was just more "interesting." When I was in the 6th grade in 1946, I was allowed to travel to downtown Brooklyn myself to the Brooklyn Music School on St. Felix Street so, of course, I took the Culver whenever I could.

The Kings Highway Culver station was interesting in itself. When you ascended the stairs into the mezzanine, there were no coin turnstiles as there were at the Brighton station. In the center of the mezzanine was a large wooden change booth in which sat a clerk, usually an older woman I think. There was a turnstile on both sides of this booth although only the eastern side was manned except in rush hours. You passed your coin into the clerk and she would release the turnstile for you to pass through into the fare paid area. In the middle of this space was a pot bellied stove. I used to like it in the winter.

When you walked up to the platform, you were at the very front. The platforms had not yet been lengthened for the coming IND service and they were the standard BMT 8 car platforms. Culver local service always consisted of 3 car trains so that you had to wait towards the center of the platform. Toward the center of each platform there was a shelter structure to protect you from the elements. This too was appreciated in winter as the Culver had a long headway.

The trains (BMT Standard Cars) were always signed:

There was a double signal light at the north end of the local track. Before the reconstruction for IND service, there was a switch here that would allow trains to switch to the express track. I never saw it used. This switch later disappeared in the reconstruction and platform lengthening. Believe it or not but there was not another signal light until Ditmas Avenue. I think that the line ran on the motorman's vision alone. At Ditmas, all 3 tracks curved off McDonald Ave. onto 37th Street. The northbound local track did have a switch connection onto the IND ramp but it always appeared rusty and unused to me. The train would proceed into the lower level of the 9th Ave. station where I would often change for the West End Express.

One thing that always frightened me a bit was that in the Kings Highway station, the 3rd rail for the middle track was directly below the city bound platform. The 3rd rails were aligned for elevated train as well as subway service and there was no protection board. I shuddered to think of what would happen to someone who fell off the platform. Of course, we kids always "accidentally" dropped things onto the 3rd rail.

A special treat was the beginning of the afternoon rush hour which I often saw when I was going for my music lesson after school. They would pull two 3 car local trains into the center track almost touching each other. One of the motormen would climb down on the track and connect the hoses etc. After he got back on the platform, the trains would then be coupled and signed for the Culver Express:

These trains would leave the station and immediately switch onto the local tracks and didn't become expresses until 36th St. & 4th Ave. They bypassed DeKalb and crossed over the south tracks of the Manhattan Bridge. When they returned to Brooklyn through the tunnel, they switched onto the bypass express track before DeKalb Avenue. During the times this "express" service operated, Coney Island to 9th Avenue shuttle service was operated with gate cars.

As I remember, the passengers who got on the elevated cars changed to the West End at 9th Avenue rather than taking the Culver subway trains. The gate car el trains seemed to alternate between the subway car trains. I, of course, always took the gate cars. Once, to my later chagrin, I bypassed the waiting Culver Exp. at Kings Hway for the gate cars. As my gate car train was pulling out of Ft. Hamilton Parkway station, the Culver Express passed us on the middle track. I don't know why it was sent up that track but I missed my only chance to ride the center track past Ditmas, since all scheduled trains ran local on the Culver structure. Oh well! It's funny how you remember these things. It was so many years ago. I even remember that it was a grey day.

If you took the Culver towards Coney Island, you would have noted that the center track had not been maintained very far. I suppose not more than a train length. The ties were rotted and track unused through the Avenue U and Avenue X stations. The ramp down into the Coney Island yards seemed to have been abandoned and unusable.

When the train turned into the bi-level West 8th Street station, the connections to the Brighton line were still in place. Brighton locals came down to the lower level in the summer when Franklin Ave. service operated on the Brighton Express tracks to Coney Island.

When the Independent Subway System (IND) was built out to Church and McDonald Avenues in 1933, a portal and concrete ramp were built from the subway south of Avenue C from which a connection was to be constrcuted to the BMT Culver Line. This portal lay unused. The IND tracks did not extend past the end of the incomplete concrete ramp until 1940 when work started. I remember also taking the 69-McDonald-Vanderbilt trolley to Church Ave to change for the "F" when we went to the Bronx during the war years. There was a visible space between the Culver structure and the approaching IND structure. Only the northbound local track was connected before the onset of World War II and it remained that way throughout the war years and several years after.

In the years after World War II, when money and material for capital projects was freed up, the city began to go ahead with the original plan for the "capture" of the Culver El structure from Ditmas Avenue to Coney Island. The portal on McDonald Ave. south of Avenue C lay unused from its building in the 1930s. Only the Manhattan bound local track had been physically connected to the Culver El. A friend of mine, who later became a structural engineer for the NYCTA, lived in the neighborhood. He remembered a tree growing up through the track bed on the ramp.

Things began to change on the el structure itself. All of the station platforms were lengthened to accommodate the 10 car IND trains. At Kings Highway, this meant changing the location of most of the switches. Northbound trains now had to switch to the center track before entering the Kings Highway station.

The line was also completely re-signalled with the center track receiving two directional signals. The center track south of Kings Highway was rehabilitated along with the ramp into the Coney Island yards south of Avenue X.

Lastly, a fourth stub track was installed on the west side of the Coney Island bound Ditmas Avenue platform and the platform wall was removed. This track was to serve the BMT Culver service after the IND connection was made. There was never any physical connection provided between the two lines after IND train took over the Culver structure.

When the opening of the connection took place in October 1954 changes also took place on the IND. The "F" train, which previously provided service to Church Avenue, was cut back to 2nd Avenue on the Lower East Side and the "D" train was extended to Coney Island via the Culver line. After the opening of the Chrystie St. subway, the "D" train was transferred to the Brighton and the "F" returned to the Culver Line. For a short while, express trains ran on both the Culver El and the IND Brooklyn line subway with the "GG" being extended to Church Ave. during rush hours. Coney Island "F" trains ran express on the el to Kings Highway while Kings Highway "F" trains ran local on the el. The switching arrangements at the Ditmas Ave interlocking were very interesting to watch. Both "F" trains ran express in the subway. I rode the express whenever I could.

--Karl Bernstein

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Comments or questions, share your own recollections?

©2002 and Karl Bernstein
Saturday, June 07, 2003