Imagine soaring above the New York City skyline in an aerial cable car every day to get to school.
That’s how I spent my childhood growing up on Roosevelt Island: a two mile long and 800 foot wide sliver of land in the East River sandwiched between Manhattan from Queens.
What is the Roosevelt Island Tram?
When it opened in 1976, the Tramway was the only way on or off Roosevelt Island without using a bridge.
Cars could gain access from Queens and pedestrians could take an elevator down the supporting legs of the Queensboro Bridge, but a subway stop was still 13 years away from opening.
Even after the Q subway line opened in 1989, Tram ridership remained steady.
The journey itself is three minutes and connects Roosevelt Island with Manhattan’s East side (59th Street and Second Avenue, to be exact).
Like ships passing in mid-flight
My favorite part of a Tram ride has always been when the other gondola passes mine in mid-air: halfway through the journey.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved snapping photos of the opposing cable car high above the river with Roosevelt Island or New York City in the distance.
After years of attempts, I finally captured the below photo; which I consider one of my favorite pictures.
I was interviewed about photographing the Tram
I was honored to discuss creating this image and my experiences as a travel photographer in an interview with the PhotoGrill Web Magazine. Below is an excerpt:
. . .
Photogrill: Were you after this particular image, or were you photographing everything?
Past attempts taught me that pressing my camera against the angled corner window was the only way to avoid reflections and glare.
Furthermore, I had to be on the cabin closest to the Queensboro Bridge while heading away from Roosevelt Island with a lens wide enough to capture the island, river, oncoming Tram and tower in one shot. It was a photo years in the making.
. . .
Photogrill: It looks like it was against the light, how did you deal with that and get a full set of tones in the tram?
As the Tram approached, I quickly took a light reading from both the cabin and the sky behind it and went for something in the middle.
When I looked at the results, I was very pleased with the composition but felt the images lacked a certain pop and relegated them to my archives.
It took another few years and teaching myself Photoshop before I revisited the photo.
The original image was captured using a Nikon D80 with a 12-24mm lens set at 14mm, 1/200s exposure, f/7.1 and ISO 100.
Once in Photoshop, I used Hue/Saturation, Exposure, Curves, Levels and Brightness/Contrast layers and Smart Filters.
Sharing the Tram with the world
While traveling, I often regale people with stories of Roosevelt Island and its unique gondola.
For those who seem especially interested, I also have the Tram on one of my business cards; which opens up a whole new line of conversation.
In 2012, I presented my photographic work at Photokina (a photo trade fair). You can bet the Tram was featured in that presentation.
A few years before that, a photo of the Roosevelt Island Tram was selected by Local Social to be a part of their Vessels event.
Basically, I take every chance I get to tell people about the Tram and the island it attaches to.
The Best Ride in the World!
For 34 years after it opened, each gondola left its station in Manhattan or Queens at the same time, every fifteen minutes, 20 hours a day.
Up to 110 people could squeeze into a single cabin, though at times during rush hour pedestrians were left waiting for the next trip.
It’s a machine. Machines break
Life with the Tram was not without its difficulties, as over the years it encountered its share of problems.
Any sign of lightning or strong winds would shut it down for hours, a cabin was once hit by a construction crane working on the Queensboro Bridge and both gondolas have gotten stuck for varying amounts of time.
The most infamous breakdown
Perhaps the most famous of these incidents occurred in 2006, when entire Tram system lost all power while the Roosevelt Island Tram cabins were dangling over the East River and 59th Street, respectively.
Backup power sources failed and rescue workers had to manually crank a rescue cage up the cables to individually evacuate passengers. At one point, riders literally had cross over a gap dangling 250 feet above the river.
When the Tram finally reopened after five months of repairs and upgrades, the writing was on the wall.
Plans were drawn up for a complete replacement of the entire system and on March 1, 2010, the classic cabins were retired to their current resting place: gloomily getting dirtier under the Island’s parking garage.
The “Tramwich Shop
I have heard rumors of turning the old cabins into a welcome center to compliment the Roosevelt Island Historical Society’s current trolley kiosk.
My childhood friends and I want to turn it into a sandwich shop. I also think one should go to the Smithsonian…but I’m biased.