New York & Harlem Railroad’s Pigeon-handling strategies

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’ve become pretty engrossed in this whole researching and finding old railroad related stuff. I’ve apparently been referred to as a “closeted railfan” (and the “mascot of the Harlem Line”, but that is a different story). Honestly I have never thought of myself as a railfan. Railfans seem to have all this information tucked away in their brains about types of trains and how they function, and could probably tell you the model of whatever locomotive they’re looking at and a good portion of information about it too. I don’t know much about trains other than what I’ve visually observed. In fact sometimes I am a bit shy to post some of my train photography online, because all the railfans always identify their pictures with all that info they know. I am just sort of like, here is a picture. It is a train. The train says Metro-North on it, and I saw it at White Plains station. And thus ends my description of said train. I will admit that I like riding on trains, though I think for the most part it is more that I like watching people on trains. Or getting to know people on trains. I’ve met a lot of nice people on trains. And a lot of crazy ones too. But if you’ve been here before, you don’t need me to tell you that.

However, all this digging in the history books I’m doing may be enough to warrant the title of “railfan”. I assure you, I was not this way before I started writing this blog (nor did I take anything I said seriously at that point, but that too is another story). So I suppose this is my confession to the world. This is me coming out of the closet, if you will. I guess… well… I guess I am a railfan. Okay, I said it.

One thing that I did feel like sharing though, were some interesting postcard images that I encountered in my research. It is interesting to note that pigeons are such a nuisance today, and they certainly were a nuisance back in the late 1800’s for the New York and Harlem Railroad. Some things never change. Here is a postcard from Copake, which back in the day was part of the “Upper Harlem Line”. The Harlem Line no longer extends that far up.


I imagine the photographer there was attempting to get a picture of the station, when all of a sudden that one pigeon jumped up in the foreground. I do believe that is a historic example of what is known today as a photobomb.

One of the things you may not have known, however, is that when it started, the New York and Harlem Railroad operated streetcars in Manhattan. And some of these were in fact pulled by horses. A failed, not often talked about, alternate method was also tried, using specially-bred larger pigeons (of which were plentiful in the city). Here is a never before seen photograph of prototype streetcar #00, being pulled by one of the aforementioned large pigeons.

Pigeon-cars, as they were called never really seemed to “take off” in the city. I think the whole oversized bird thing turned off quite a few people. Plus the temperament of horses was a bit better than the birds. The pigeons’ downfall was an early outbreak of the Avian Flu, which led the city into a complete panic, and many helpless pigeons were “purged” for the sake of humanity. The year after an early version of the Swine Flu struck, leading New Yorkers to endeavor to purge another species, but the pigeons never came back into favor. It does seem that the larger variety of pigeon was driven to extinction, as we are familiar today only with their smaller brethren.

Well, I suppose that is it for today’s history lesson. It is at this time I must admit to you all that back in the day when I was a struggling graphic designer, I always figured that if I failed at design, I could always work in the photography department at the Weekly World News. I was quite heartbroken when they ceased print production in 2007, which led me to seek out “a regular job”.

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