TRAINJOTTING CLASSIC: High Line Curse Plays Out

It’s no coincidence that it’s done nothing but rain ever since the ribbon was snipped on the High Line railtrail park earlier this week. In fact, any student of elementary New York City demonology knows the story of Ezekiel Marcus, who perished on the West Side tracks in 1934.

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Marcus was a Manhattan native, born in a cold-water flat in Hells Kitchen in 1899. He’d initially intended to pursue some sort of career in the arts; he attended the School of the Industrial Arts in the midtown 50s as a teen, but dropped out after a few years and embarked on a career on the railroad.

Prior to the High Line’s construction, the tracks ran ground-level along 10th Avenue, which was ridiculously dangerous for people who walked or drove in the area. For a short spell, Marcus was employed as what was known at the time as the “West Side Cowboy”–he would ride on horseback up and down the 20-odd blocks of 10th Avenue to warn pedestrians that the train was coming.

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While his urban rustlin’ surely saved scores of lives, Marcus undoubtedly witnessed some ugly accidents too. Who knows how that scarred the young man.

The solution to 10th Avenue’s rolling death trap was the High Line–tracks built some 30 feet in the air. Zeke Marcus working unloading freight trains near Gansevoort Street for a number of years, before the West Side Cowboy himself–savior to countless pedestrians–met his early demise after a fall off the side of the High Line between Gansevoort and Horatio, on what’s now known as Washington Street.

It was December 1934.

Despite temps in the teens, several hundreds of people came out to raise a glass to the brave railroad man at a 10th Avenue saloon called Shebeen, about 100 feet from where Marcus perished. The spot wasn’t far from where he was raised, so when word spread of his death, Marcus’s friends and family came out in droves.

Jump ahead, oh, a half-century or so, and plans for a refurbished, publicly accessed High Line are but a glimmer in Joshua David’s and Robert Hammond’s eyes. A writer, David was researching a magazine story on the changing face of Chelsea when he says he was visited by an apparition in the tiny alcove in his Chelsea apartment where he did his writing.

“He had a long brown beard and wild brown eyes, and he wore a suede cap and black corduroy pants,” David told Beyond Investigation Magazine in 2002. “He told me in a gravelly voice to ‘leave well enough alone.’ I thought he was talking about my magazine article, but I think he realized the seeds for a bigger project were just beginning to sow in my mind.”

Indeed, David and Hammond met at a community meeting a month later in 1999, shared their mutual adoration for the old High Line, and got the (seemingly) Sisyphusian ball rolling on the park project.

Eighteen months later, it was Hammond’s turn to get a visit from Zeke Marcus. Hammond, a painter, said he was on the phone with the actor Edward Norton, an early champion on the High Line, in his apartment when the ghost of Marcus slipped through a heating duct in his kitchen.

“He told me the same thing he told Joshua–leave it alone,” Hammond told a class studying the paranormal at Penn State in 2006. “He said he’d make it rain every day if the place of his death was trampled upon by the masses. I dropped my damn cellphone and had to wait about 20 minutes before I collected myself enough to call Edward back. Even then, I was shaking like a leaf.”

It’s rained ever since Mayor Bloomberg and the High Line swells officially opened the park, and the forecast calls for rain every day for as long as the forecast goes.

Somewhere, West Side Cowboy Zeke Marcus is laughing.

[images: NY Times, The Guardian]

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