New York City

Sad Death Of The First Roosevelt Island Tram, 2010

Death of the First Roosevelt Island Tram

Historic Preservation Failure


The first Roosevelt Island Tram made it’s last run across the East River, ten years ago this March. Its replacement is safer and more reliable, but discovered by tourists, it’s not as special.

Breakdowns, one forcing high risk rescues, doomed the old Tram. Its big flaw?

Built in 1976 as the original commuter tram in the U.S., it relied on an integrated pulley system. Cables linked the cabins. More importantly, both had to move at once. Partial shutdowns were impossible.

The first Roosevelt Island Tram... with a reindeer
A legacy photo, the Tram as it once was. A reindeer scans Roosevelt Island’s WIRE buildings from above, year unknown. Thanks to our reader Sylvan Klein for snagging this photo.

The answer? Full replacement, cabins, cables and all. That opened in 2010. RIOC crowded the maiden voyage across the East River with politicians eager for credit. A band played, but it wasn’t the same.

Take a ride with me in the final days of the first Roosevelt Island Tram…

It’s quiet, and the lights are out. No glare messing up the view. This is November, 2009, the day after the Yankees won their last World series.

In the decade since, the universe discovered the Tram. Safer, reliable service draws tourists, but we lost the intimacy of a ride home with neighbors.

After 33 years, the original Tram cabins went out of service as did the gears and cables they relied on. But what became of them?

RIOC preserved the historic relics.

But although RIOC invests millions in the permanently unusable Smallpox Hospital, the old cabins collect dust. And neglect in a cage behind the Motorgate atrium.

The first Roosevelt Island Tram Cabins.
Original Tram cabins collect dust under a parking garage. Giant gears that once propelled it are nearby, also discarded.

Proposals for reviving them has come from artists at RIVAA as well as the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. But RIOC has not budged, and nothing suggests a change.

RIOC’s priorities for preservation are baffling. Blackwell House closed, three years after restoration was announced. Ribbon cuttings also pushed back and no end in sight.

The Smallpox Hospital, treasured for its links to James Renwick, is a money pit, and the Lighthouse is never quite finished.

The legacy Roosevelt Island Tram cabins? Just an embarrassment of neglect.

Old Roosevelt Island Tram
The first Roosevelt Island Tram lifts off across the East River. Photograph by Deborah Julian ($28 Fine Art Shop @ Assorted Ideas)

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