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.