Some Like It Hot

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Aug 1 13:46:06 UTC 2001

Jim Landau writes:
> A "Twelfth Avenue Cowboy" is a man who rides a horse ahead of a
> railroadtrain to warn people to keep clear of the tracks.  This
> sounds like an
> occupation that has been in serious decline since the Andrew Jackson
> administration, but in fact it was practiced in New York City into the
> 1930's.  There is a freight railroad that meanders down Manhattan
> more or
> less along Twelfth Avenue well into Lower Manhattan.  Officially
> this was the
> "West Side Line" of the New York Central, and is now used by
> Amtrak to reach
> Penn Station from the north.
> Part of this line ran in or across city streets, and the New York
> Centralprovided men on horseback, known as "Twelfth Avenue
> Cowboys", to escort
> trains.  Sometime in the 1930's the line was finally grade-
> separated from
> city streets and the Twelfth Avenue cowboys went out of existence.

Meyer Berger has an essay called "Death Avenue Cowboys" in his
collection of New York journalism "The Eight Million", first published
in 1942.  I have a later reprint.  He says "In the old days people
called the riders "dummy boys" because they rode ahead of a special
light dummy engine.  Some pwoplw called them Tenth Avenue cowboys.
Officially they were "flag boys" because by day they waved red signal
flags as they rode before a string [of cars]."  pp. 199-200.  The
article does not explain the term "death avenue".  It does say that the
riders originally served to warn riders and drivers of horses, which
might be spooked by the train and bolt.  It also mentions the
fascination that neighborhood boys had for the riders, and elsewhere I
have read that the boys used to play on the tracks, hop onto the cars,
and so forth, with the inevitable result that every so often one would
fall under the wheels.

So Twelfth Avenue is a couple of block too far west.  According to the
riders Berger interviewed, the occupation dates from 1850, not from the
Jackson administration.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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