The Alexander’s Hanging Goods Monorail System
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:
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).