Underwater Eternity

New exhibit captures how Subway cars became artificial reefs
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Whether you realize it or not, if you regularly set waypoints between New Jersey and Georgia, then you’ve probably been cruising right over the history of the New York City Subway system.

An exhibit of photographs called “Sea Train” that recently opened at the New York Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery documents a project that the city’s transit authority undertook between August 2001 and April 2010. In a nutshell, the city gave a bunch of old Subway cars to a half-dozen states so the cars could be dropped into the Atlantic Ocean, all throughout the waters where boaters typically cruise.

More than 2,500 of the “Redbird” cars, which were built in the 1950s and early ’60s, and “Brightliner” cars, which made their debut on New York City Subway platforms in 1964, were stripped of valuable metals and degradable plastics, cleared of toxic grease and then loaded onto barges. Cranes then shoved the cars overboard, creating fantastic splashes along with an artificial reef system atop what had historically been areas of barren, sandy bottom.

And boy, did the idea work. In places like New Jersey’s Cape May Reef, dozens of the Brightliner cars—each measuring 60 feet long, 10 feet wide and 11 feet high, and weighing 18 tons—joined already-sunken Redbird cars, army tanks and other repurposed machines to form artificial habitats. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection did a study that showed each Subway car, after two years in the drink accumulating coral and other growth, had a mean number of 323 fish hanging around for food and shelter. Extrapolating across the 600 cars that were sunk just off New Jersey alone, that’s a habitat for 193,000 fish, not to mention anemones, blue mussels, lobsters, shrimp, stone crabs and stony corals.

All the way south along the Eastern Seaboard, fishermen and scuba divers now make pilgrimages to check out the thriving underwater scenes. Charleston Scuba in South Carolina advertises a “Subway Cars and Comanche” dive, pairing an underwater tour of the New York City Subway cars with a look at the wreck of a former Great Lakes icebreaking ship. In Delaware, the Division of Fish and Wildlife says Redbird Reef, about 16 miles east of the Indian River Inlet, supports more than 10,000 fishing trips each year. Jeff Tinsman, artificial reef program manager for Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, told The New York Times the old Subway cars had become nothing short of “luxury condominiums for fish.”

Stephen Mallon, whose images are featured in the new museum exhibit, documented the project from above the water. He says he stumbled onto the city’s effort while doing industrial landscape photography. He was living in Brooklyn, New York, and going through his archive of images when he realized he’d accidentally focused on recycling—having photographed things like a bale of compressed aluminum cans in a scrap yard on Shelter Island, New York. Thus, he had industrial-scale recycling on his mind the day he was scouting locations for a photo shoot in Bayonne, New Jersey. In the distance, he saw a barge loaded with New York City’s Brightliner cars. The sight of all those tons of metal heading out to sea, stacked like cargo-ship containers, was visually arresting. Mallon got permission to take his cameras to New York City’s 207th Street train yard, where countless old Subway cars were languishing.

“All the yards were full,” he says. “They ran out of parking. That’s one of the reasons this project happened.” To capture the images now on display, Mallon also hopped onto crew boats that were heading out to meet the barges full of Subway cars. As he photographed the cranes hurling the cars into the Atlantic, he fast got a lesson in how to take great photographs on the water—and in what causes seasickness. “I learned not to edit my photos on the back of my camera on the boat,” he says with a chuckle, noting that he now keeps his eyes on the horizon. “And don’t use a tripod. It will pick up the vibration of the boat.”

New York City disposed of 2,500 Subway cars by stripping and  dumping them into the Atlantic Ocean to become artifical reefs.

New York City disposed of 2,500 Subway cars by stripping and dumping them into the Atlantic Ocean to become artifical reefs.

From among the 4,000 to 6,000 images that Mallon captured of the reefing project, Amy Hausmann, the transit museum’s senior curator and deputy director for collections and exhibitions, chose just 19 to display in the exhibit. “I really wanted to focus on a lot of images that the public hadn’t seen before,” she says. “And I wanted to show them really, really big.” Some of the images in the exhibit are displayed as wall-height murals, hinting at the awesome sight of the mammoth cars in real life. Most of the images are displayed at 40 by 60 inches; a few are 20 by 30.

One of Mallon’s favorite images in the exhibit is “Dynamic Focus,” from 2008. He shot it while standing in a stripped-down car and capturing the action, through an open doorway, of a second car being picked up by a crane. Another of his favorites is “Abbey Road,” also from 2008. It shows a workman walking with a long stride along the roofs of a row of Subway cars, hearkening back to the cover art for the 1969 Beatles album of the same name.

Yet another of Mallon’s favorites in the exhibit is “Donnegan,” from 2009—not only because it has an abstract quality, but also because of what he learned that led to the image’s title. “Some of these old cars would be converted into offices, you know, the way you sometimes see old cars being used as diners,” he says. “Those offices, they called them Donnegans.”

Boaters can often find the subway reefs through online searches. As just one example, in New Jersey, njscuba.net lists the locations of sunken cars along Cape May Reef, Atlantic City Reef, Shark River Reef and more.

Boaters and divers who check out the sites can often see, through their masks, the same type of thing that led Hausmann to curate the exhibit of Mallon’s images.

“His work is abstract in many instances,” she said in the exhibit’s press release, “and it is only when we see these stripped-down machines juxtaposed against the sweep of the Atlantic Ocean that we understand he is celebrating both their past and their future as a new home to thriving marine life.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.