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The Alexander’s Hanging Goods Monorail System

July 9, 2013

Located on the site where the Bloomberg Tower was built, and a Home Depot taking some of the space, the Alexander’s flagship store (59th/LEX) featured an attempt at a fully automated in-store merchandise delivery system.
It consisted of a hung rail similar to what you see in cleaners. Above the rail was a red painted metal cogway encasement, down out of which stuck the pairs of “teeth” that pulled the trolleys or kept them from rolling too far forward.
The “trolleys” were bars hanging from a pair of metal two wheel assemblies, as also some cleaners have. Since the rails were hung from one side, you had to make sure you hung the trolley wheels from the other side. They included buttons on the wheel assembly, which were like movable bolts, that would activate the automatic switches along the way, to determine which floor it goes on.

By the time I got there in 1986, the 21 year old system was largely inactive, except from the loading platform on 58th St. down to the Receiving area in the sub basement. As soon as it got to the receiving area, the cogway looped around and headed back to the platform, and the rail branched off into a “yard” so to speak, (about a dozen parallel rails accessed by hand dropped switches, which were just a piece of rail on a hinge that clamps down on top of the straight rail to divert the trolleys); where the merchandise would be sorted by department, and then since the rest of the system wasn’t in service anymore, us stock men would come down and take our stuff off and take them up on racks onto the elevators.

Past the yard, the rails continued to where they were picked up by the cogways to either side of the building: south-58th St.; north-59th St. facing Bloomingdale’s. (Actually, the “yard” was entirely perpendicular to the rail they came in on, so if you kept going past the yard, you picked up the north side, and if you went through the yard you would merge into the perpendicular rail heading back to the south side near where the rail from the platform was).

The rails went up through shaftways staggered from floor to floor, coming up in the stock rooms usually near the freight elevator landings. There, you would have turnouts (the automatically thrown switches) to the the line staying on that floor where the staff in that dept. would pick up; and the cogway rail would continue up the next shaft to the next floor. They only went up as far as the fourth floor on each side, where they looped back. Fifth floor was hard goods (furniture, electronics, etc) and only used the elevators. (That was the top retail floor, and the 6th floor was a municipal parking garage accessed only via car elevators on 58th St., and the 7th floor was building maintenance and the generator room, which was accessed through the south freight elevator).

The rail system on both sides was shut off for years and only collecting dust. I also later discovered that another section of it (painted dark green), from the 2nd floor north landing to the mezzanine (mezzanines were only in the stock areas, not on the selling floors) also worked, but for some reason, no one was using it. So I began using it to send dresses up to that storage area.

Each of the four cogways had its own power switches (just a fixture with an on and off button). For the two bigger systems, there were switches on each floor, so I can imagine there were conflicts of people wanting it on or off.

There was also a conveyor belt system for lighter boxed goods that followed the monorails on both sides up to the fourth floor; but like the monorails, only the section from the platform to receiving was used.

There was also another kind of monorail, which ran from one corner of the sub basement to a mezzanine down there, where the Alterations room was. In this one, the cogway was actually within the rail itself, and it had teeth sticking up out of the rail every three or so inches, and you just hung the individual hangers of merchandise right on the rail.

I used to love [the idea of] that system, and wished to see the whole thing used again. I wondered which other stores might have had them. I know Macy’s, where I worked next, didn’t. But this seemed to be a 60’s thing anyway, and that Macy’s flagship was much older. I did hear that the Mays on 14th street might have had one. That was gutted when it became Bradlees. (Now, it’s DSW).

I wish I had taken a picture of it. (Wonder if Vornado, who purchased all of Alexanders’ properties, might have inherited any archived plans/diagrams of it).

Edit, on this page, you can see a modern version of the same thing:
http://www.logiss.eu/en/rail_conveyors_trolley.php

Basic system, rounding from an incline:

This modern version uses these clamps (yellow) to hold the trolleys (blue) in place, where we used “pushers” that allowed more freedom of movement.

Handthrow switches into “yard”.

Except for the newer construction with brighter lighting and metallic floor, this looks just like the receiving area of Alexanders (14-LEX). Stock men picked up the hanging garments from their department (indicated on the price ticket) here, when the conveyors to the upper floors were no longer used.
You can see unused trolleys hanging vertically, in the background. We had metal carts to hang them on and send them back to the receiving platform via elevator.

Automated switches that were located in the stock room landings of the upper floors. Trolleys would either be diverted to the floor’s own [unpowered] rail, or continue up to the next floor.

This part of the old Alexander’s system was no longer used when I was there in the 80’s and 90’s.

The chain assembly within the covered guideway (what I above called the “cogway”).

The Alexanders system used “pushers” (see next) to push trolleys (or brake them on inclines), instead of this “pendant” you hang things directly on. One guideway on the second floor was this color; the rest were red.

Modern version of “pusher” (what I above called “teeth”) used in Alexander’s system. It clamps onto and hangs down from the chain within the guideway.

Here we can see yet another, similar one (and using pushers) in use:

You can see the pushers were usually in pairs; one pushed up the incline, or along level sections, and the other one would stop the trolley on declines, but otherwise pivot to pass over a trolley that was already stopped.
Too bad they play music instead of letting you hear what it sounds like.

Can’t find any examples of the Alterations conveyor I mentioned, but it was like this:
(PAC-LINE™ Enclosed Track Overhead Conveyor),
except that the pushers (called “chain pendants”) stuck up instead of down. You hung the hangers on the rail (or “track”) between the pendants which pushed them, instead of hanging them from the pendants, as in this version. This meant the track was hung from hook shaped brackets on one side, like the other monorail and unlike this one which can be hung from directly above.
But it’s otherwise identical, including the slower speed. You see the pendants sticking directly out of the track/rail itself, instead of a separate guideway above.
(The video of this one shows how the chain and drive work. This one is made for heavier loads).

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18 Comments
  1. Hi, just noticed your commentary on this “monorail” system, which I vaguely recall. I did do to that store in my high school days, and then periodically thereafter, until it closed.
    More in the front of my mind is the system that was/is (?) used at the B&H on 34th & 9th. It, too, was a fascinating piece of merchandise transport. I suppose with B&H’s many expansions over recent years the system was either reconfigured or dismantled. I haven’t been in the store in over a year now.
    jrc

    • You *went* to the store, or worked at the store?
      What’s B&H? (Don’t remember any dept store that far west, and was just over there a few weeks ago, seeing Sam Ash moved there).

  2. I went there many times back then (1960’s).
    B&H is the large camera/ audio/ visual complex on 9th, ‘tween 33-34th streets. They use/ used green bucket type containers for merchandise. The track was horizontal and in some parts of teh store, vertical, for getting customer’s stuff from one location to another (namely the cashiers), where the stuff would be off loaded and prepped for payment and handed over to the customer. It was so unique to see these green buckets sailing and zig zagging across the ceiling, and dropping for a clerk to empty out. Not sure if they still use it. Occasionally they would insert a little plastic (?) blimp in place of a bucket

    • You said you went there until it closed. That was ’92. I worked there a second time, until it closed, I forgot to mention. I was in dresses (2nd fl) the first time, and then cameras (5th fl) the second.
      In the 60’s, that whole system would have been running, but you couldn’t really see any of it from the selling floor (you might, IIRC have caught a glimpse of it on the 3rd floor if you knew which door to look through. I still dream about that place sometimes).
      Will have to check that B&H out, then.


  3. Looks pretty interesting. Will have to check it out some time (now no rush, given the time restraints with the store hours and my schedule, since I see what it looks like).

  4. Yes, I posted that I did in the other thread, and had taken pictures, but posted these pictures here from the site you pointed me to, since mine weren’t was good since it was closed and dark.
    I just realized, since I get out early tomorrow, I can go tomorrow (to catch it open and see these belts in use), so I’ll see how I feel.

    • BTW, have you checked the Louden Monorails websites? Interesting as there are/ were kiddie monorails like the Alexanders one you made mention of, up above.
      gcf

  5. Good luck, as I’m not sure if the system is still in use or even if its still in tact. So unique. But the store had been expanded and the upper level opened since so I’m not sure if they use it, or evn if it can be seen. But heck, check it out; there may be something. I’m glad you saw the pix on the website. I was always afraid to take pix inside the store but agonized over it because I was really turned on over this bucket system.
    Do you like elevators and escalators too?
    gcf

  6. Looks like it’s still intact to me.
    I was into elevators when I was around 10. And dumbwaiters too, because they were all sealed up, and were like a mystery.

    Never really into escalators. There was one brief period where I had trouble getting onto them (i.e. balance). I’m interested in the idea of spiral escalators, but they don’t have any anywhere around here (San Francisco has one, from what I saw looking them up online).

  7. Yes, at the Emporium, in SF. I was on it once. That’s about the most exciting one I can think of.
    Love elevators. Classy old style cars(cabins). My dumbwaiter is sealed up; not sure if the car i still in the shaft. When I was a kid, in the Hub section of the Bx. our dumbwaiter was out of service many years but still in the shaft, up near the roof. My grandparents owned the building (5 floors, 9 families) and I’d play in the basement and on the roof, checking out the dumbwaiter. It was a mysterious experience, dangerous, but it always attracted me back.
    gcf

  8. Actually, how can I forget the fabulous old wood escalators of Macy’s, and the old one on Boston’s MBTA subway (probably now dismantled), and of course the old wood escalator that “was” on the IRT at West Farms Sq (177th Street) back in the 50’s & 60’s. (Not sure but was probably dismantled in the 80’s). These are the grooviest escalators. And the extremely long ones on the London Tubes, Washington DC’s metrorail. And the Dallas Transit’s DART light rail line, where the escalator is actually a slanted elevator. Really cool.
    gcf

  9. Funny, when I see B&H had a Wikipedia article (from the “See All” in the J&R article I was looking at since, it was suddenly announced it closed), and I saw the article didn’t mention the conveyors; I happen to search that and find this site with a video of a camera filing a ride on it!

    http://www.doobybrain.com/2012/01/27/a-ride-on-the-bh-conveyor-belt-system/

    • joe caronetti permalink

      Sensational! Great ride too. Notice some of the staff I used to see when I shopped there. Its been a while however. Also see on the video site “sound of nyc subway system”.

  10. Finally got around the B&H today (on vacation).
    The conveyor system is quite impressive. What’s seen in the pictures is not all there is to it at all!
    It starts as branches from each department, merging together to the main area in the front. Groups of rollers (no belts) are strung together and motorized. Baskets on one branch will even stop to yield for another basket at junctions! They make this “whirr” sound when passing overhead. There are even little sections of rollers in glass shafts from the second floor that carry the baskets down to the first floor conveyors. [This can be seen in the video in the link above. I had forgotten about that. Still, you have to see it live to reapply appreciate it].
    There were also these two glass shafts that went from the basement to the second floor, but were visible near the first floor exit. Four thick moped-like chains carry little roller shelves up, and then you see the shelves flattened vertically on the side where they head back down.

    While I was there, I saw the Samsung OLED TV for the first time. I was actually heading to PC Richards where I had seen the LG OLED TV and saw online that they had the Samsung too. (B&H didn’t have the LG. More in LED article comments).

    • joe caronetti permalink

      Very impressive it is. The video doesn’t do it justice.

  11. Update to main article; just occurred to me to find examples of modern versions of the Alexander’s system. (Eddy [of Ed, & Edd fame]; upon peeking at his Christmas gift and finding a dickey; “They still MAKE these things?!“)

    So now, here are the passenger monorail cars in Kresge’s and Wanamaker’s someone once mentioned in comparison:


    They look like cells! They could have used those for merchandise (hanging or shelf goods) also, then.

  12. Joined two Alexander’s FB groups, and linked the article. Some have said that the Rego Park store also had a monorail system like this, and then another said all of the stores did. Rego Park got split up between Sears and Marshall’s, with the smaller Old-Navy and Bed Bath & Beyond-anchored mall on top (And now of course extended with the BJ’s anchored mall to to the north. Kings Plaza is also Sears, with some other smaller stores. So if true, I wonder if any of them survive.

    Just found this article on the B&H conveyor:
    http://www.swiss-miss.com/2012/01/inside-bh-conveyor-system.html

    Heading over there right now to see if they have a 30 inch Sony OLED monitor they have on the site.

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