Photo of the Week: West Side Cowboy Twofer


[Cowboy on 10th Avenue and 17th Street. Click to enlarge.]

This is one of our favorite historical images. The West Side Cowboys were employed by the City to ride in front of street-level freight trains and wave pedestrians out of the way. This was the City’s stopgap measure to stop the carnage on what was known as “Death Avenue.” The Cowboys were phased out after the High Line was built, raising train traffic to the third story of industrial buildings. The cowboy above is from the 1930’s, when the High Line was being built, and the structure is visible in the background. The cowboy below dates from 1911, before the High Line was a glimmer in its daddy’s eye.


[Cowboy on 13th Street and 11th Avenue in the Meatpacking District. Photo from, the 100-Year-Old Photo Blog. Click to enlarge and note the guy with the pegleg.]

After the jump, the 1934 London Terrace Tatler waxes eloquent about the Cowboys and their brave ponies.

Note:  This story was taken from the London Terrace Towers site, which has a great history section.

London Terrace News – January 1934

Cowboys of the Cobblestones

Every resident of London Terrace knows , and we believe, likes the cowboy riders of the New York Central, who day and night, rain or shine, majestically precede the electric trains along Tenth Avenue. For over eighty years this unique custom has been in existence, but now, even as the riders of the West have faded into glamorous limbo of romance, their own day is drawing to its close. With the early completion of the overhead roadway, they will disappear from the streets of New York, leaving many to change “The Last Round Up” as the brass bands announce the official opening of a modern Manhattan miracle.
Law of the Range

The story of these riders goes back to December 4, 1850 when the City Council passed a law compelling trains on the streets of New York to be preceded by a rider on horseback, on block ahead of the locomotive, waving a red flag by day and a red light by night to warn pedestrians and prevent runaways of horse-drawn vehicles. This quaint law is still in force, and the New York Central must, until it rises above the street, provide its riders or suffer revocation of its franchise.

Two Mile Ride

The Tenth Avenue freight route extends from 30th Street south to St. John’s yards below Canal Street, a distance of about two miles. To cover the operation of the various trains, a staff of twelve riders is maintained. These boys, who must all be over eighteen years old, are almost wholly recruited from Tenth Avenue and West Street, and strange as it may appear, riders are difficult to find, and only those who have, by strange fortune, learned to ride in the county are used, because a country boy knows and understands horses, and is thus prepared for any unexpected excitement that might affect his steed.

The “Ranch Boss” of these cowboys is the Superintendent of the New York Central Freight Yards, and since the law has been in effect two of the riders have risen from the range to the important position of Yard Masters.

The Ponies

The horses used in this unusual service are tried and true, and are perfectly aware of their important mission in life. They know traffic and excitement, thick fogs and blinding storms, the deep-throated adieus of departing liners and the tremendous thrill of screaming fire engines, but through it all they move surely and serenely, carrying out the Law of the City Council and giving opportunity for their gallant riders to amuse the passerby with amazing variation of the routine waving of the red lanterns. The effective term of duty of these mounts for this service is over eight years, duet to the special care and the use of rubber padding on their hoofs, and when their usefulness on the city pavements is over they are auctioned off at the Bulls Head Horse Market to continue their lives on softer turf in greener pastures.


5 Responses

  1. As the first photo showing the 10th Avenue Cowboy is the newer vintage, the locomotive that shows behind the rider and horse is the DES – 3, which was the New York Central’s answer to the steam locomotive ban on the streets of Manhattan. It was ‘Tri-powered’, containing machinery to be able to run on a diesel engine, batteries or third rail electricity. The earlier photo shows another unique New York Central solution to the problem of a steam locomotive’s running gear supposedly freightening a horse to distraction (and running wild). At the time there were hundreds of teams pulling the freight on the West Side – the motor truck still someones nightmare. The steam locomotive in question (all the way to the right of the photograph is called a ‘Shrouded” or ‘dummy’ locomotive as it was enclosed in a steel shell that covered all its moving parts, thus ‘protecting’ the horses sensative psyche from the outrage of this iron horse. These locomotives were further distuinguished by being ‘Shay’ or geared machines. I’ll stop now for fear of causing sleep. Great photos,
    great Blog, Great Freight Line…

    Ron Parisi –
    the WSFL’s most distinguished modeler.

  2. Thank you for your photos. I am a teacher, and currently I’m working on a first grade history lesson that was inspired by the new children’s book titled “Tenth Avenue Cowboy” written by Linda Oatman High, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. I needed to document my lesson, and found your wonderful photos of the cowboys! The students will enjoy this lesson.

  3. Thanks for showing these photos. My father Anthony “Red” Slevin was a” Westside Cowboy” before working on Pier 32 Moore McCommack Lines.

    I emailed this pic’s to my nieces & nephews. My father did tell them all about the cowboys. Now, they can see how they worked.

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