If The Simpsons has taught us anything, it's to never trust a monorail. But back at the start of the 20th century, a monorail seemed like a pretty good way of getting around town quickly.

Before City Island voted to become part of New York City in 1895, and before it was consolidated into the Bronx in 1898, the area relied on a horse-drawn railroad — a trolley car that rode on rails and was pulled by horses — to connect to the Bartow station of the Harlem River and Port Chester Railroad. But the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which built New York's first subway line in 1904, was focused on using newer technologies to improve commutes.

So around the same time they were building the subway in Manhattan, the IRT took over this Bronx railway, which was called the Pelham Park and City Island Railroad. A few years later, they decided to substitute the horse railroad for NYC's first monorail. The Flying Lady — so called because of its “long, cigar-shaped yellow car” — could fit 40 people, and took only a few minutes between stops instead of the 40-plus minutes by horse. More than 100 people came out for its inaugural ride on July 16th, 1910.

Things did not go well.

A photo of the City Island Monorail wreck, 1910

City Island Monorail wreck, 1910

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City Island Monorail wreck, 1910
New York Transit Museum, Lonto / Watson Collection

Because of all the extra passengers, it was "much heavier than it was supposed to be," New York Transit Museum curator Jodi Shapiro told Gothamist. "The track that the monorail ran on was over a road bed that didn't have cement under it. So it was not as sturdy as it could have been. As it started to move, the tracks began to sink, and the pole that was connected with the electrical wires overhead — which is what powered the car — separated. So the car lost power. And then the car tipped over."

There was only one serious injury, but that was it for the monorail. "They did restore service in November of 1910, but people didn't want to ride it after that," said Shapiro. "And so the operations were completely gone by 1911."

The history of transit in the Bronx, the only part of the five boroughs that is located on the mainland of America, is filled with rich stories like that one: a compendium of innovations, stumbles and triumphs that parallels the evolution of transit across the country.

And it is the subject of the New York Transit Museum’s newest exhibit, Building The Bronx, now on view at Grand Central Terminal.

The show is filled with photographs, artifacts and other treasures from the Transit Museum's archives, including A Bronx Morning — a 1931 silent short film by Jay Leyda.

When the IRT first began building subways to the Bronx at the turn of the century, the borough was relatively empty, with only around 200,000 people spread across lots of farmland. The subway's arrival jump-started the area's urbanization, leading to a bustling community situated on the Grand Concourse.

"When subways are built into neighborhoods that are sparsely populated to begin with, people start moving there, because rapid transit makes it easier for you to live and work in two separate places," Shapiro said.

The Grand Concourse was conceived as NYC's Champs-Élysées: "There were nice buildings built there to anticipate the influx of people, and as soon as the subway opened, they started flocking to these buildings. And it's because people flocked there that the IND [Independent Subway System] concourse line was conceived and built, which encouraged even more growth, and cemented the neighborhood as the place to live for people who couldn't afford to live in the same type of apartments in Manhattan."

The gallery includes hand-drawn maps of legacy steam rail lines and surface transit lines in the Bronx, which provide insights into the planning and foresight that went into the routes we still use today.

"A lot of people when they look at maps, they just see the polished finished product," Shapiro said. "To have these hand-drawn ones, especially the Surface Transit Company map from 1948 — that is just when they are converting their trolley lines into motor bus lines. That is the map that our current motor bus system in the Bronx is based on."

"Pretty much every trolley route in New York City has been converted to a bus line," she added, "so no matter where you are in the city, if you're on a bus, you are likely on the same route that a trolley traversed prior to 1948."

Although the steam rail lines have been deactivated for nearly a century, some have been incorporated into Metro North. Even more are being considered for use in the Penn Access Project, which would connect the Bronx with Penn Station. "And that's all based on steam rail services that existed in the 1800's," Shapiro said.

A photo of Route Map Showing Surface Lines of Surface Transportation Corp. and Third Avenue Transit Corp., 1948

Route Map Showing Surface Lines of Surface Transportation Corp. and Third Avenue Transit Corp., 1948

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Route Map Showing Surface Lines of Surface Transportation Corp. and Third Avenue Transit Corp., 1948
New York Transit Museum Collection

In addition to the historic maps and photos, the gallery also includes a series of delightful "Subway Sun" advertisements for the borough, created by illustrator Fred Cooper.

Initially, text-heavy posters that would appear on elevated stations and cars (first called the "Elevated Express"), were meant to inform customers about service changes and system improvements. But Cooper, who worked for many years for Life Magazine, illustrated them in far more inventive and whimsical ways, including tigers and hippos to represent the Bronx Zoo.

"He was really responsible for the popularity of the 'Subway Sun' — people just loved going into a subway car or an elevated car and seeing these," said Shapiro. "They're telling people things like, 'Hey, if you stay on this train, you can go hiking in Van Cortlandt Park.' So he really was encouraging people to take a vacation in their own city."

Cooper worked on the ads until the early 1940s, and when he decided he didn't want to do them anymore, he suggested his protege, a woman named Amelia Opdyke “Oppy” Jones, take over. Jones ended up illustrating the famed subway etiquette posters — including NYC icons like Etti-Cat — over the next 20 years.

A photo of The Subway Sun, Vol. XI, No. 19, 1939 Art by Fred G. Cooper

The Subway Sun, Vol. XI, No. 19, 1939 Art by Fred G. Cooper

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The Subway Sun, Vol. XI, No. 19, 1939 Art by Fred G. Cooper
New York Transit Museum Subway Sun Collection

For Shapiro, this was a particularly fun project to work on because she grew up in the Bronx.

"There were things that I didn't even know about, which was great," she said. "I love that I was able to show off our great collection of Bronx-related things — and this is only a fraction of our holdings at the museum. So there's a little something for everyone in this show."

Building The Bronx will be up through October 2022 at the New York Transit Museum Gallery & Store inside Grand Central Terminal. It is located in the shuttle passage on 42nd Street and Park Avenue, adjacent to the Station Master’s Office, and is open Wednesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.