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west side cowboy

Song of the Urban Cowboy

Hey, the past is past, so gather ’round boys. Let’s all raise a glass to last of the West Side Cowboys….

George Hayde, New York’s  last urban cowboy, finally has his own song, and it’s rockin’ great. Put that drink down before you click the link because it’s gonna topple with the first chord.

Dave Goddess, who lives on Tenth Avenue, was inspired to write the song after he learned about the 1850s ordinance requiring a man on horseback to precede and follow every train as it made its way up and down the city streets. One day a few friends who were visiting from Denmark insisted he join them on a tour of the High Line. When “the guide told the story I was floored. It’s both surreal and poetic. I tried to imagine the seedy Meatpacking District of 80 years ago with its tenements, prostitutes, and hundreds of slaughterhouses. I invented a backstory about George Hayde and wrote the tune about his last ride. When I was finished I realized that my song was just as much about obsolescence. What does a workingman do when his job goes away because times are changing? It’s a scenario we’re still dealing with today.”

The Dave Goddess Group  — Mark Buschi on bass, Tom Brobst on keys and sax, Chris Cummings on drums and Gary Gipson on guitar — just released its new EP. There’s a good interview here about how they work together and Dave’s philosophy of music-making. I didn’t know this band but I’m a new and ardent fan.

And for those looking for more about the West Side Cowboy, this is the link to my tiny documentary made from rare 1930s footage of an actual train — and cowboy — steaming up Tenth Avenue. This link goes to the full story of George Hayde’s final ride. And this one is my own story of first learning about New York’s cowboy from my brother-in-law’s grandfather, Steven Hirsch, who chased trains as a boy and never forgot about it.



Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the world’s attention was focused on events overseas. The Nazis had just bombed an English port, and the Axis powers were gaining momentum. On the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition for March 29, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the American people to stand firm in support of its Allies who were blocking “dictators in their march toward domination of the world.” Readers today won’t recognize the political climate; looking back on the recent presidential election, FDR praised his opponent, saying “The leader of the Republican Party himself — Mr. Wendell Willkie — in word and action, is showing what patriotic Americans mean by rising above partisanship and rallying to the common cause.”

Meanwhile, back at home women were buying Easter hats – just $19.95 at B. Altman. The first Peabody Awards, dubbed “Pulitzer Prizes of air,” had just been announced; the Book-of-the-Month Club featured Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; and a two-room studio at the Chelsea Hotel could be had for $19 a week. Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? was reviewed in the Book Review, and an article in the Magazine explored the question: “Are Movies Good or Bad” for children?

And then there was this photograph, which ran under the headline “Last ‘Cowboy’ Rides Over Tenth Ave. Route; Tracks Now Elevated, Horses Get New Job.”

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy, on March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy. March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

The picture captures George Hayde, age twenty-one, who became New York City’s last urban cowboy with this final ride up Tenth Avenue. He and “his faithful bay, Cyclone” were leading a line of fourteen rail cars loaded with oranges. They were performing, for the last time in history, a unique job created by an 185os city ordinance that permitted freight trains to share the busy streets with pedestrians, dog-carts, bicycles, cars and trucks, on condition they observe a speed limit of six miles per hour and that “a proper person… precede the trains on horseback to give necessary warning in a suitable manner on their approach.” [For rare video of the West Side Cowboy riding up Tenth Avenue, click here.]
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West Side Cowboy riding north on Tenth — aka “Death” — Avenue. At right: warehouse of R.C. Williams wholesale grocer, first client of the High Line and today the Avenues School. Photo courtesy Kalmbach Publishing Co.

On June 8 the High Line turned three years old, and in celebration I’ve put together a special tribute to the “West Side Cowboy” that includes rare video footage shot in the 1930s. The tribute page and video are here. For the full, updated story of the West Side Cowboy’s final ride, including some rare photos, click here.

The High Line is a place of countless stories from New York’s past (I’ve just written an entire book about it….) but none is more captivating than the man on horseback who was required, by an 1850s city ordinance, to ride ahead of every locomotive and warn pedestrians of oncoming trains.  In the course of researching my book I discovered a few minutes of rare video footage that was shot in the 1930s and shows a New York Central locomotive and a long string of boxcars steaming down Tenth — aka “Death” — Avenue, led by the West Side Cowboy. Click here to see the video and read more about the history of the Cowboy. I’ve also included a passage from Mario Puzo’s novel The Fortunate Pilgrim and a description of the Cowboy that appeared in a 1933 edition of the London Terrace Tatler, official newsletter of the brand new apartment complex on 23rd – 24th Streets.

Steven Hirsch in 1986. Photo courtesy Rosston Family

I first learned about the cowboy from Steven Hirsch, my brother-in-law’s grandfather. Gramps, as everyone called him, died in 2000 at 105, and was one of the most lively fellows in town. He used to take me to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel and ply me with Manhattans. Once, he told me about trains running down Tenth Avenue, led by a man on horseback “who waved a red flag by day and a red lantern by night.” By the time we were drinking together Gramps was already a centenarian, and I frankly thought he was conflating some old Western movie with real life. It was just too incredible to believe. But many years later I learned about the High Line, and the key figure at the heart of the railroad’s story was none other than a real-life urban cowboy.

Gramps had died by then, but I’ll always remember his vivid account of being a young boy on the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, dodging trains and horses and living to tell about it over cocktails a hundred years later.

Here’s to you, Gramps, and to the High Line. I wish you could see it now.

Click here to watch the video and read more about the West Side Cowboy.