Housed within a former subway station in downtown Brooklyn, this underground institution guides visitors through the evolution of one of the largest transportation systems in the world.

Walking around Brooklyn, it’s easy to understand why most people often miss the entrance to the country’s largest museum devoted to urban transportation. Located in a decommissioned 1936 subway station, a few blocks south of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, the museum entrance looks like any other subway station in the area.

Fortunately, signs for the museum let visitors know that this isn’t your typical active NYC subway station.

The 60,000 square foot New York Transit Museum is housed in the former Court Street subway station. The station would have been the first stop in Brooklyn for the long planned 2nd Avenue Subway line and operated as a shuttle to the nearby A and C lines from 1936-1946.

The museum is dedicated to telling and preserving the stories of mass transportation – extraordinary engineering feats, workers who labored in the tunnels over 100 years ago, communities that were drastically transformed, and the ever-evolving technology, design, and ridership of a system that runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

The museum originally opened in 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial celebration. At the time, admission was just one subway token.

There are a number of different galleries telling the history of the MTA on display at the museum. A new exhibit: Bringing Back the City: Mass Transit Responds to Crisis, offers a unique perspective on the vital, often unseen, work of New York’s transit employees. Using the events of 9/11, the 2003 Northeast Blackout, Hurricane Sandy and other severe weather events as examples, the exhibition reveals the critical role that mass transit personnel play in preparing for and responding to natural and man-made disasters. Through a vibrant display of objects, photographs, media, and personal accounts, the exhibition highlights the technical and professional skills needed to restore public transportation service and get New Yorkers moving again after crisis strikes.

One of the permanent exhibits, Steel, Stone & Backbone: Building New York’s Subways, presents a look at the construction methods and labor required to build the city’s first subway line at the turn of the 20th Century. Historical artifacts, video and photography footage bring to life the dedication and tenacity of the workers who made this project possible.

Another permanent exhibit, On the Streets: New York’s Trolleys and Buses, tells the story of above ground mobility and surface transit from the early 1800s to the present. A 12-seat city bus, “fishbowl” bus cab, walk-don’t walk signs, parking meters, fire hydrants, traffic lights, and an array of other interactive “Street furniture” bring this exhibit to life. Visitors can also learn about the evolution of fuel technologies and its environmental impact.

The best section of the museum is located down these stairs on the platform level.

Moving the Millions, highlights the evolution of the subway and the major issues and events that influenced the development of the largest transportation network in North America.

Home to a rotating collection of twenty vintage subway and elevated cars dating back to 1907, and a working signal tower, the Museum’s working platform level spans a full city block.

This is a shot of the actual signal tower that’s still in use today. The Court Street subway station is an active connection to the A line (although not publicly used), and home for part of the MTA’s annual Holiday Nostalgia Train. The Nostalgia Train is a collection of vintage subway cars that run on two Sundays each December between 10am and 5pm on the M line between Queens Plaza and 2nd Avenue. It’s just one of the Holiday Specials run by the MTA, which includes vintage buses running in all five boroughs, and decreased wait times on several lines.

BMT Q Car Number 1612C (1908, rebuilt 1938)
Car Manufacturer: Jewett Car Company (Newark, Ohio), 1908
Service: 1908-1969
Routes: Brooklyn elevated lines, 1908-1923; Astoria and Flushing lines, 1923-1949; Third Avenue Elevated, Manhattan, 1950-1955; Myrtle Avenue Elevated, Brooklyn, 1957-1969
City officials never considered wooden cars safe for subway tunnel operation and removed them from underground service after a 1918 accident involving wooden cars at Malbone Street, Brooklyn, killed 93 passengers. But more than 2000 open-platform elevated cars, such as 1612C (originally BRT car 1417), remained in use on elevated lines, which could not support the weight of new all-steel subway cars. In 1938 Car 1417 was rebuilt (and renumbered 1612C) to run with 1612A and 1612B; cars A and C were motorized, while car B was a trailer. Under the Dual Contracts, the IRT and BRT jointly operated new elevated sections, such as the Astoria (R) and Flushing (7) lines.  – New York Transit Museum

As the city prepared for the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the BMT faced a quandary. The company was not content to use outdated cars to take passengers to a fair dubbed “The World of Tomorrow,” but was unwilling to spend money on new cars that could be used only on IRT-width lines. Instead, the BMT compromised by rebuilding 90 open-platform cars, including 1612C, into closed vehicles and repainting the cars in the World Fair’s official blue and orange color scheme. The resulting cars were used on the Myrtle Avenue Elevated line (built in 1888) until 1969–providing 60 years of service in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. They were the last wooden elevated cars to run in North America.  – New York Transit Museum

Original signs and advertising from when the trains were still in operation still decorate the interiors of the cars.

R-11 Prototype / R-34 Car Number 8013 (1949)
Manufacturer: Budd Company (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1949
Service: 1949-1976
Routes: BMT 14th Street Canarsie line (L), the Jamaica, West End line (B), and Franklin Avenue Shuttle (S), 1949-1964, 1965-1976

In anticipation of the construction of the Second Avenue subway, the city ordered 10 trial R-11 cars. When a model of the car— equipped with a host of innovations and stainless steel construction—was unveiled to the press The New York Times described it as “The car of tomorrow.” Because of the $100,000 price tag for each car, the R-11 was also called “The Million Dollar Train.” Unfortunately, the “car of tomorrow” never went into full service operation. The Second Avenue subway has yet to be built, and additional R-11 cars were never ordered. Because the cars could not be readily used with other R types, they were rebuilt to be compatible with existing cars under contract R-34 in 1964-1965. With the mechanicals and interior standardized, only the unique exterior of the cars remained the same (except for some minor changes to the doors).  – New York Transit Museum

With its shot-welded stainless-steel body construction and porthole windows, the R-11 car looked thoroughly modern. New features included a public address system and crank operated windows. An air filtration system equipped with electrostatic dust filters and ultraviolet germ-killing lamps were installed. Exposed fans and ventilators were eliminated. The city hoped these measures would help curb the spread of air-born diseases and improve public health. The flourescent lighting used in the R-11 cars proved to be less than reliable at first. One rider commented in a letter to a newspaper editor that while “a wonderful improvement…it has a penchant to go blind. No provision has been made to enable trainmen to replace quickly burnt-out sections and therefore many cars run in a dimout.”   – New York Transit Museum

Getting a chance to sit in some of these old trains was well worth the price of admission.

A 1970s train but without the crime, grime and graffiti.

There’s a lot more to see at the New York Transit Museum, so if you’re into trains, subways or are just a public transportation geek like me, you should definitely check it out the next time you’re in Brooklyn or NYC. How to get there: The Transit Museum is located on the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn. To get there, you could take the 2/3 or 4/5 lines to Borough Hall; the R line to Court Street; the A/C or G trains to Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street; or the A/C, F, or R trains to Jay Street/MetroTech. Museum hours and cost of admission can be found at the New York Transit Museum website.