West Side Elevated Highway

The old elevated highway, looking north at Gansevoort Street
The old elevated highway, looking north at Canal Street

The West Side Elevated Highway (West Side Highway or Miller Highway, named for Julius Miller, Manhattan Borough President from 1922 to 1930) was an elevated section of Route NY-9A running along the Hudson River in the New York City borough of Manhattan to the tip of the island. It was an elevated highway, one of the first urban freeways in the world, and served as a prototype for urban freeways elsewhere, including Boston's Central Artery.

Built between 1929 and 1951, the highway's narrow confines –which could not accommodate trucks – and sharp S exit ramps made the highway obsolete almost immediately. When chunks of the highway's facade began to fall off due to lack of maintenance, and a truck and car fell through it at 14th Street in 1973, the highway was shut down, and a debate began whether to renovate it or dismantle it. Attitudes about urban planning had changed in the intervening decades, and the decision was made not to repair the decaying structure.

A plan for the elevated highway to be replaced by an underground interstate-quality highway, which came to be called Westway, had originally been proposed in 1971. It received approval from many levels of government, from the City to the Federal, but was scuttled in 1985 due to environmental issues. In the interim between the closure of the elevated highway and the completion of its dismantling, while debate about Westway was proceeding, remaining sections of the old highway structure began to be unofficially utilized as an elevated urban park, for jogging and bicycling.

By 1989 the old elevated highway structure was totally dismantled, except for a small portion from 59th Street to 72nd Street, which, in effect, became the southern extension of the Henry Hudson Parkway. Eventually, a grade-level six-to-eight lane "urban boulevard" was built, which is generally referred to as the West Side Highway, although the elements of it use the names of the surface streets which existed before the elevated highway was built: West Street, 11th Avenue and 12th Avenue. It connects to the remaining elevated structure via a ramp at 57th Street.


Early planning

The old elevated highway, looking north at the Chambers Street ramps

Death Avenue

Before the West Side Highway was built, the road along the Hudson River was a busy one, with significant cross traffic going to docks and ferries. At 22nd Street, most traffic continued north along 11th Avenue, along which the New York Central Railroad's West Side Line ran; it was known by many as Death Avenue for the large number of accidents caused by trains and automobiles colliding.

The first official proposal for an elevated highway along Manhattan's west side was made by Police Commissioner Richard Edward Enright on January 12, 1924, in a letter to the New York City Board of Estimate. The highway was to be 100 feet (30 m) wide, running north from the Battery to 72nd Street at Riverside Drive, West End Avenue, or Amsterdam Avenue. According to Enright, "During business hours West Street [was] the most congested thoroughfare in the city. Vast quantities of the city's foodstuffs [were] handled in the territory adjacent to West Street." He cited traffic congestion as an extra cost of doing business and a blockage for fire engines.

Double decker railroad/highway proposal

On February 2, 1925, it was announced that the railroad would build a combined double-decker elevated highway and freight railroad (with the highway above the railroad) for $24,000,000, at no cost to the city. At the time, Eleventh Avenue was popularly known as Death Avenue due to the dangers of the surface line. The elevated structure would eliminate 106 grade crossings over 84 blocks. The proposal came about after six months of negotiations between Manhattan Borough President Julius Miller and the New York Central Railroad. The planned highway would no longer go all the way south to the Battery, instead ending at Canal Street, meeting the Holland Tunnel (which would open to traffic on November 13, 1927). The northern terminus was set at 72nd Street and Riverside Drive. Ramps were planned at Canal Street, 23rd Street, Riverside Drive, and at least two other locations.

The Port of New York Authority opposed the plan, preferring a more forward-looking comprehensive freight distribution plan. They attacked Miller as trying to push the plan through without input from the Port Authority. The Port Authority wanted a system of inland terminals and belt-line railroads. According to Port Authority Chairman Julian Gregory, it was almost certain that the New York Central Railroad would not go along with the Port Authority plan. It was also believed that giving the New York Central Railroad elevated tracks on the west side would allow the railroad to monopolize freight and raise prices. The Port Authority believed it was primarily a freight problem, but the New York Central Railroad and New York City considered it to be a grade-crossing elimination project.

Miller responded by arguing that something had to be done right away. He said that if the Port Authority could put forward a comprehensive plan within five years, he would put his full support behind it. He also pointed out that his plan was only one part of his "comprehensive plan for the relief of traffic congestion"; he had already widened many avenues and removed several Midtown elevated railroad spurs. He said the plan would not give the New York Central any rights they didn't already have; it was merely a relocation of existing tracks. The tracks had been on the surface for 55 years despite legal action taken against them, and Miller claimed they would be there for another 50 if nothing were done. Miller also received a letter from the Vice President of the New York Central Railroad, Ira Place, stating that the railroad would reduce freight rates if the new elevated structure were built.

Miller's elevated single deck highway

A 1920 plan for Boston's Central Artery, based on the West Side Highway

On January 20, 1926, Borough President Miller sent a plan for a $11,000,000 elevated highway, to be built completely on city property, to the Board of Estimate. The elevated railroad was removed from the plan, since the New York Central Railroad had come up with a separate project for partially elevating and partially depressing their railroad (now known as the High Line). According to Miller, there were questions over who would own and maintain the dual structure. There were also objections to its height of 40 feet (12 m) and its placement at the east building line of the existing surface roads. The elevated highway was to connect to a planned parkway (now the Henry Hudson Parkway) at 72nd Street, forming a highway free from cross traffic stretching from Canal Street to 129th Street. The elevated road was to be 60 feet (18 m) wide, wide enough for six lanes of traffic; the existing surface road would carry local traffic beneath the highway. Ramps would be provided at Canal Street, Christopher Street, 14th Street, 23rd Street, 34th Street, 42nd Street, and 57th Street. Slow-moving traffic would use the left lanes, due to the left-hand ramps. This contrasts with the current method of using the left lane for passing and putting ramps on the right side, and to the method popular around the 1950s of putting ramps on whichever side was easier. The highway would "carry buses that will make both its conveniences and its beauties available to the general public", according to Miller. He suggested Hudson River Boulevard for the name of the highway.

On April 24, 1925, Governor Al Smith signed a bill authorizing the construction of the highway. Funds for the $11,000,000 highway were to be procured by property assessments along the route; this was considered reasonable due to advantages gained from the highway by those living along the route. The road was to be 65 feet (20 m) wide, five feet wider than Fifth Avenue, with a speed limit of at least thirty miles per hour (50 km/h), and would be 20 feet (6 m) off the ground. It would be built of steel, with a cement face. A three-foot (1 m) sidewalk would be built for pedestrians, although the highway was intended mainly for motor vehicles. Two-block long ramps would be provided with 'easy grades' for entering and exiting the highway. Trucks would be allowed on the highway.

The Board of Estimate approved the highway, now costing $13,500,000, on June 14, 1926. It was to be built so a second deck could be added at a later time for about $9,000,000, if traffic warranted. Controller Charles W. Berry questioned the proposal until he realized the money would come from tax assessments, at which time he agreed with the project.

On November 10, 1926, the Sinking Fund Commission voted to give the city title to the waterfront property along the proposed highway. The highway plan was linked to a plan by the city for more piers for ocean steamships; since the highway required land takings between 47th Street and 51st Street, it was easier to combine the projects and prevent additional expense.

On February 17, 1927, the Board of Estimate adopted the final plans for the highway, setting a hearing date of March 24. It was split into two sections, Section one went from Canal Street to 59th Street. Section two was to carry the road over the New York Central Railroad's 60th Street Yard from 59th Street to 72nd Street. Section two was approved by the Board of Estimate on August 16, 1928; section one was postponed until September 27 due to objections. On October 18, the Board of Estimate approved section one.

The highway was advocated by most business interests, including the Downtown League, the Fifth Avenue Association, the West End Association, and eleven other organizations. They cited increasing traffic and the need of a bypass route to support the highway, which would cost little in comparison to its benefits.

Manhattan Borough President Julius Miller spoke at a meeting of the Market and Business Men's Association of the Greenwich and Chelsea Districts on October 30, 1928, detailing plans for the highway. It was announced that between 90 and 100 meat and poultry dealers in the West Washington Market and the Gansevoort Market would be evicted to make way for the highway.

Minor changes to the highway were approved on January 10, 1929, in response to several objections. The alignment in the Chelsea district was slightly modified to avoid proposed piers, and the path through the markets was realigned to pass over a corner of the property. In addition, the 14th Street ramps were moved to the area between 19th Street and 23rd Street, where they would spare many markets at 14th Street.

Art Society Objections

The old elevated highway, looking north towards the bridge over Canal Street

The plan was criticized by Thomas Adams, Regional Plan director, at the 1927 meeting of the Municipal Art Society. He disapproved of its ugliness and noise, and suggested simply clearing obstructions to the existing surface road to speed traffic. Adams also supported a comprehensive regional plan for development in the Hudson Valley. The Fine Arts Federation also opposed the highway, saying that elevated structures were unsightly, and that if the existing street were cleared a new highway might not be required.

The City Club and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker objected to the highway on the grounds that it would block waterfront-bound freight traffic. They believed that the plans should wait until the surface railroad tracks were removed in the area, at which point the elevated highway might not be necessary. Parallels were drawn with elevated passenger railroads, which were being torn down at the time; Henry Curran of the City Club called elevated structures "a misfit in New York". The City Club also objected to more passenger cars in downtown Manhattan.

Concerns were raised by the Women's League for the Protection of Riverside Park, which opposed routing trucks through Riverside Park, which would contain a parkway extending from the north end of the planned elevated highway. The League emphasized that commercial traffic should be banned north of 72nd Street (as it currently is on the Henry Hudson Parkway).

Exotic alternatives

An alternate plan was put forth by John Hencken, an engineer, and approved by Ernest P. Goodrich, consulting engineer to the Regional Plan of New York and its Environs. A linear corridor would be built from the Battery to Yonkers. A freight railroad would lie underground. On ground level would be roads alongside the corridor and an indoor enclosed sidewalk. The mezzanine, between the first and second floors, would be occupied by office space. The second floor would carry a "continuous noiseless moving platform system for passenger service", with adjacent belts moving at various speeds, for a maximum of 21 miles per hour (34 km/h) in the middle. This service would be free, and would be a substitute for new subways in the corridor. Above the second floor would be about ten stories of apartments, offices, businesses, and other uses appropriate for the neighborhoods; these would be the main source of revenue to pay for the project. A high-speed motor parkway, open to passenger cars only, would lie on top. Cars would reach the upper level via ramps at both ends and elevators at convenient intervals.

Dr. Benjamin Battin, a professor at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, had a similar plan for an eight-story high boulevard. The street level and first floor would be connected to the Hudson River piers. The second and third stories would carry electric passenger trains, with the second floor carrying northbound traffic and southbound traffic using the third floor. A public garage would occupy the fourth and fifth floors, helping to pay off the bonds for the project. The sixth and seventh floors would carry one-way passenger car traffic, permitting speeds of up to fifty miles per hour (80 km/h). A reversible roadway, carrying cars in the direction of rush hour traffic, would occupy the eighth and ninth (top) levels. Ramps to the upper car levels would be provided every fifteen to twenty blocks.

West Side Highway.png


The old elevated highway, looking south at 23rd Street; this asymmetrical ramp layout only occurs here, on the first section built

Canal Street to 22nd Street (1929-1930)

Construction on the first 1.5 mile (2.5 km) section, from Canal Street to 22nd Street, was started on May 24, 1929, and the road was officially opened on November 13, 1930. Traffic was not permitted on the structure until November 17 due to unanticipated delays in cosmetic work. A speed limit of 35 miles per hour (55 km/h) was set by Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney, and trucks were temporarily banned. On the first Sunday the road was in operation, the northbound roadway was backed up for a mile approaching the north end at 23rd Street. The northbound offramp at 23rd Street, unlike the temporary southbound onramp, was built as a permanent single lane ramp, since in the future most traffic would continue along the not-yet-finished elevated highway. Suggested fixes included a new temporary ramp to 25th Street and conversion of the temporary southbound onramp to two-way traffic. The second Sunday the road was open, rain cut down on the traffic, but police had orders to open the permanent ramp eventually intended for a northbound onramp to exiting northbound traffic if traffic conditions warranted.

A temporary 45-foot (14 m) wide elevated street was proposed by the city between 29th Street and 37th Street to bypass the New York Central Railroad's 30th Street Yard, to provide relief before the permanent highway was finished. It appears that this temporary viaduct was not built.

59th Street to 72nd Street (1930-1932)

The elevated section with abandoned exit ramp that was to be extended to 70th Street is seen here.

The section from 59th Street to 72nd Street was begun in September 1930, and opened to traffic on March 9, 1932. The original configuration fed directly into 72nd Street, with a 90-degree turn in the road. Once the northern extension as a parkway was built, northbound traffic would turn right directly to and from 72nd Street. A southbound left-hand entrance ramp was provided at 72nd Street, with a direct ramp from Riverside Drive (later closed), and a southbound right-hand exit ramp to 70th Street was started, but never completed. This is the only elevated section that remains today, although it conflicts with the Riverside South development plan. A covered, at-grade replacement road to facilitate a southward expansion of Riverside Park was approved by the Federal Highway Administration in 2001.

22nd Street to 38th Street (1931-1933)

Construction of the elevated highway between 22nd Street and 38th Street was begun on August 19, 1931. The road was opened on January 5, 1933, just before Eleventh Avenue was closed for reconstruction of the New York Central Railroad's 30th Street Yard.

38th Street to 46th Street (1933-1934)

Construction on the highway between 38th Street and 46th Street was begun in late 1933. This section eliminated a busy intersection at 42nd Street, where streetcars and automobiles crossed the corridor to reach the ferry to Weehawken, New Jersey. This link was opened to traffic on August 30, 1934.

When the new city piers at 48th Street, 50th Street, and 52nd Street were being planned in late 1934, direct connections between the elevated highway and the second levels of the piers were proposed. Manhattan Borough President Samuel Levy quickly spoke against these connections, citing interference with southbound traffic on the highway. The plan, which had been proposed at the request of several cruise lines, was rejected.

In 1935, the 34th Street-Midtown Association proposed a new ramp for the highway at 34th Street. This ramp would rise above the elevated railroad and highway, splitting into a northbound onramp and a southbound offramp, both on the right side of the highway. It was hoped that the ramp would help businesses in the area and provide better access to the proposed 38th Street Tunnel (now the Lincoln Tunnel) to New Jersey. The ramp was never built.

46th Street to 59th Street (1936-1937)

Construction on the final section of the originally planned highway, from 46th Street to 59th Street, was begun on February 13, 1936. It was opened to traffic on February 9, 1937, thus completing the elevated highway from Canal Street to 72nd Street.

Duane Street to Canal Street (1938-1939)

The old elevated highway, looking west at Duane Street, where construction was halted during World War II; the highway to the left was built later, with a different design

On August 23, 1934, Governor Herbert Lehman signed a bill authorizing construction of a southern extension of the elevated highway from Canal Street to the Battery. Construction on the first section of this, from Duane Street to Canal Street, was begun on January 24, 1938. Unlike previous sections of highway, which used granite blocks as a surface, concrete was used on the new section. The road was opened to traffic on February 4, 1939. A steel superstructure was built at Canal Street because the Holland Tunnel below ground restricted locations of bridge supports.

Barclay to Duane Street (1947-1948)

After a long break due to World War II, construction on the final section of the southern extension, from Carlisle Street to Barclay Street, was begun on April 21, 1947. This section was expanded to reach Duane Street in the north, and was opened on November 29, 1948.

Battery to Barclay (1950-1951)

The southern end was connected to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel on May 25, 1950. A four-lane tunnel under Battery Park, the Battery Park Underpass, taking traffic to the South Street Elevated Highway opened on April 10, 1951.

1973 collapse

The old elevated highway, collapsed at 14th Street

On December 15, 1973, the northbound lanes between Little West 12th Street and Gansevoort Street collapsed under the weight of a dump truck, which was carrying over 30 tons (27,000 kg) of asphalt for ongoing repairs of the highway. A four-door sedan followed the truck through the hole; neither driver was seriously injured. The day after, both directions were 'indefinitely' closed south of 18th Street. Ironically, this not only closed off the oldest section (between Canal Street and 18th Street), but also the newest sections (south of Canal Street), because of the placement of ramps to prevent northbound traffic from entering and southbound traffic from exiting south of Canal Street.


The following exit ramps (and corresponding entrance ramps) were provided.

  • Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (direct southbound exit before the highway touched down to ground level)
  • Duane Street (southbound exit/northbound entrance)
  • Canal Street (southbound exit/northbound entrance)
  • 19th Street (southbound exit)/23rd Street (northbound exit); entrances from 21st Street (southbound) and 22nd Street (northbound)
  • 40th Street (northbound exit/southbound entrance)
  • 46th Street (southbound exit/northbound entrance)
  • 54th Street (northbound exit/southbound entrance)
  • 57th Street (southbound exit/northbound entrance)
  • 70th Street (southbound right-side exit only)
  • 72nd Street (all but southbound exit; northbound ramps were on the right side; continued north as Henry Hudson Parkway)


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  • Enright Asks City to Build Road in Air, New York Times 13 January 1924 page S6
  • Great Crowd Treks Into Holland Tubes After Gala Opening, New York Times 13 November 1927 page 1+
  • Central Offers City $24,000,000 Highway Along the West Side, New York Times 2 February 1925 page 1+
  • Argue on Removal of West Side Tracks, New York Times 8 March 1925 page 16
  • Fears Rail Project Imperils Port Plan, New York Times 19 February 1925 page 1+
  • Censure Port Heads in 'Death Av' Delay, New York Times 4 December 1925 page 25
  • Fears Rail Project Imperils Port Plan, New York Times 19 February 1925 page 1+
  • Miller Proposes Biggest Boulevard to Ease West Side, New York Times 21 January 1926 page 1+
  • New York to Build Elevated Highway, New York Times 25 April 1926 page XX1
  • $13,500,000 Highway on West Side Voted, New York Times 15 June 1926 page 1
  • New River Highway is Assured to City, New York Times 11 November 1926 page 3
  • City Adopts Plans for Motor Highway, New York Times 18 February 1927 page 23
  • Elevated Highway Along Hudson Shore is Ordered by City, New York Times 17 August 1928 page 1+
  • Elevated Speedway is Approved in Full, New York Times 21 October 1928 page 33+
  • Wants Express Highway, New York Times 8 June 1926 page 5
  • Express Highway is Urged at Once, New York Times 31 October 1927 page 35
  • Elevated Highway to Oust Merchants, New York Times 31 October 1928 page 61
  • Express Highway Wins Final Vote, New York Times 11 January 1929 page 28
  • Market to Escape Razing for Highway, New York Times 16 January 1929 page 14
  • West Side Highway Project Criticized, New York Times 8 April 1927 page 48
  • Raised Highway Opposed, New York Times 6 June 1927 page 10
  • City Club Objects to Motor Highway, New York Times 16 May 1927 page 10
  • Seek Plan to Guide Business Traffic, New York Times 14 November 1926 page E1
  • Proposes Speedway on West Side Roofs, New York Times 28 March 1927 page 23
  • Seeks 8-Story Road Along North River, New York Times 24 July 1927 page E17
  • Hudson Highway Officially Started to Cheers of 5,000, New York Times 25 May 1929 page 1+
  • Express Road Unit Opened by Miller, New York Times 14 November 1930 page 3
  • Express Highway Opens, New York Times 18 November 1930 page 52
  • Traffic Rush Jams West Side Highway, New York Times 24 November 1930 page 22
  • Traffic Tie-Up Eased on Express Highway, New York Times 1 December 1930 page 21
  • Temporary Viaduct for the West Side, New York Times 11 July 1930 page 3
  • Pushes West Side Drive, New York Times 19 May 1931 page 27
  • New Link is Opened in Express Highway, New York Times 10 March 1932 page 23
  • Walker Will Open New Traffic Link, New York Times 7 March 1932 page 19
  • New Highway Work is Started by Levy, New York Times 20 August 1931 page 17
  • New Highway Link Opened by O'Brien, New York Times 6 January 1933 page 21
  • Express Highway to Open New Link, New York Times 3 January 1933 page 3
  • New Link Speeded for City Viaduct, New York Times 30 October 1933 page 35
  • New Link Opened in West Side Road, New York Times 31 August 1934 page 19
  • West Side Piers Started by Mayor, New York Times 4 November 1934 page 3
  • Bars Speedway Change, New York Times 27 November 1934 page 2
  • 34th St Group Elects, New York Times 10 January 1935 page 4
  • New Plan Drafted for 34th St Ramp, New York Times 1 November 1935 page 23
  • Last Link Started on West Side Drive, New York Times 14 February 1936 page 21
  • Mayor Wins 'Auto Race' With Levy as Elevated Highway Link Opens, New York Times 10 February 1936 page 25
  • Governor Signs Elevated Highway Bill for Link from Canal Street to Battery, New York Times 24 August 1934 page 1
  • West Side Link to Start Jan. 24, New York Times 14 January 1938 page 25
  • Concrete for Highway, New York Times 7 February 1938 page 2
  • Canal St. Bridge Formally Opened, New York Times 5 February 1939 page 2
  • Start Highway Link, New York Times 22 April 1947 page 29
  • O'Dwyer Appeals for 'Bright Ideas', New York Times 30 November 1948 page 30
  • Brooklyn Tunnel Costing $80,000,000 Opened by Mayor, New York Times 26 May 1950 page 1+
  • City Opens Underpass at Battery, $10,000,000 Link in Express Route, New York Times 11 April 1951 page 31
  • Truck and Car Fall as West Side Highway Collapses, New York Times 16 December 1973
  • Indefinite Closing Is Set For West Side Highway, New York Times 17 December 1973 page 41
  • Highway's Demise: Nightmare for Drivers, New York Times 6 January 1989 page B1+

External links

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