Among tokens created for businesses (Store tokens) is the New York & Harlaem Railroad Co. token (W-NY-840). One of the earliest American transportation tokens, it depicts a coach on wheels with the inscription “B & S NY” (for token makers Bale & Smith) on the obverse, and the inscription “THE N-YORK / & HARLAEM / RAILROAD / COMPANY” in four lines on the reverse.
These historical and visually pleasing tokens have been much sought after by collectors. Quietly since the 1950s, John J. Ford bought every one he could find. When tokens in his estate were examined in a shipment received from his heirs in 2013, a hoard of 14 pieces was found! These were auctioned by Stack’s Bowers Galleries at the American Numismatic Association Convention in August of that year. Varieties exist due to counter stamps of such designs as a rosette, dog (might be a horse), and a feathery-looking leaf.
The New York and Harlem Railroad, or “Harlaem” as it is spelled on the token, could more properly be called a street railway. It was not powered by a steam engine but was horse-drawn by two steeds hitched to the front. Running on steel rails, it was certainly the first such line in New York State and one of the earliest in America, possibly the world.
The enterprise was incorporated as the New York and Harlem Railroad on April 25, 1831, to link Harlem, a farming and residential district, with lower Manhattan. Among the incorporators was John Mason, the president of the Chemical Bank and a well-to-do landowner, whose name was lettered on the side of the first car put into service. Mordecai Noah, a journalist, playwright, and diplomat, was another principal. Others involved were engaged in such pursuits as law and sales, and some owned land in Harlem and stood to benefit from the connection.
The coaches were designed by John Stephenson. Groundbreaking took place on February 23, 1832, in the Murray Hill district near 4th Avenue. Progress was made in stages with the first section from Prince Street north to 14th Street opening on November 26, 1832. Then, on June 10, 1834, it opened to the north along Fourth Avenue up to 32nd Street. On May 9, 1834, the line opened north to Yorkville, including through the Murray Hill Tunnel. Next came development continuing on Fourth Avenue to Harlem, including via the Yorkville Tunnel, which opened to passengers on October 27, 1837. Then followed the opening on May 4, 1839, of tracks farther south through the Bowery, Broome Street, to City Hall and Park Row.
The expansion of the railway was not without difficulty, including lawsuits. Not everyone agreed that it was a good idea to have coaches on rails running along routes traveled by pedestrians and other horsedrawn vehicles. This was overcome in part by recessing the rails slightly below the level of the street, so as not to interfere with other traffic. In later years the line was blended into others. In one form or another, the Harlem name was used for decades afterward.
Close-up photos of the counterstamps used on these tokens can be seen on pages 223 and 224 of A Guide Book of Hard Times Tokens.