Local History

The Roosevelt Island Tram, Then

Updated 1 year ago Peter McCarthy
From the Old Tram, Queensboro Bridge & Southern Tip of the Island
From the Old Tram, Queensboro Bridge & Southern Tip of the Island
©Deborah Julian

On Tuesday, May 17, 2016, the Roosevelt Island Tram celebrated it’s 40th birthday, having survived with new cabins and a rebuilt infrastructure for twice as long as it was intended. That it endures is a tribute to its popularity. When it first floated across the East River, unfettered by a comedic misstep, the Tram seemed destined to outlive its insubstantial birthright, in spite of obstacles.

Things have changed so much for New York and Roosevelt Island since May 17, 1977, it’s easy to forget that the city was battling through an historic budget crisis, among others crises, that would lead to Mayor Abe Beame, who christened the Tram before it lifted passengers over the East River, being defeated for reelection.

See Tram videos below.

Ford to City: Drop Dead

That headline hit the front page of the New York Daily News just over six months before the Tram turned heads as it glided alongside the Queensboro Bridge. The cultural, financial and entertainment center of the country today, our city was then the urban disaster many Americans loved to hate. 

Unable to pay its bills, laying off essential workers with sweeping dismissals, New York tottered on the verge of bankruptcy, which prompted President Jerry Ford’s refusal to consider a federal bailout. New York’s spending, he said was like an “insidious disease.”

It’s incongruous that a public service as successful as the Tram could come out of the mess that was Gotham in the 1970s, but as we came to know, it’s success sets a standard that most municipal services can never hope to match. 

Day One For the Roosevelt Island Tram

A crowd of 200, some wearing T-shirts “emblazoned with “Roosevelt Island, The Little Apple,” according to the New York Times, joined Mayor Beame, City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, Edward Logue, under whose leadership the Urban Development Corp. planned Roosevelt Island, and Theodore Dudli, Consul General for Switzerland, home of Von Roll, which built the system.

On a more sobering note, Christopher Devine, a laid off fireman piloted the cabin, explaining that he got the job because he knew so much about “rescue procedures.” According to the Times report, he quickly corrected, “we’ll never have to use them.”

Devine’s assistant was Jim Sweeny, a laid off policeman who landed the job “after trying to get on welfare.”

It was a different New York 

Flavor of the City

In an act that for many New Yorker probably thought befitting the skills of the political class then in charge, Mayor Beame executed a memorable christening.

“Ready?” Beame asked both the crowd and the news photographers.

“Yes!” both called back.

The mayor smashed a bottle of New York State vintage champagne, sending a gusher of it over the suit front of Council President O’Dwyer. 

A gifted politician, O’Dwyer drew a sample with his finger across the front of his suit. “Finger Lakes district. Definitely. And dry,” he concluded before the first Tram lifted skyward.

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In the last days of the original tram, I shot this video on the night after the Yankees last won the World Series.

Then, after the long shutdown, I shot a video of the reopening ceremony and the first trip across. It's pretty funny actually, starting with a band playing heraldic music as the new cabins, in unison, ferry politicians eager to take credit into the station.

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