Times Square has been the site of huge New Year’s Eve celebrations for the public since 1904. In that year, Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, used the inaugural festivity to publicize his newspaper’s new, 25-story headquarters that had moved from Park Row near City Hall in the Financial District to the intersection of Seventh Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street. In honor of the newspaper’s move to the area then called Longacre Square, the intersection was renamed Times Square. On April 8, 1904, New York Mayor George McClellan presided over the square’s official opening.
In 1904 this relatively sparsely occupied area was well positioned to become a bustling place. On October 27, 1904, the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) subway officially began running from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. This nine-mile route served 28 stations. One was Times Square. IRT service expanded to the Bronx in 1905, to Brooklyn in 1908 and to Queens in 1915. By the late 1920s, five bus routes, 11 surface lines, four elevated train lines, five subway lines and a ferry all had stops or terminals on 42nd Street, according to Alexander Reichel in his book “Reconstructing Times Square.”
On December 31, 1904, the Times celebrated the new year with fireworks at midnight. The newspaper estimated that 200,000 crowded Times Square. In prior years, the public place to be in New York on New Year’s Eve was in Lower Manhattan near Trinity Church where church bells rang to bring in the new year. But church officials were happy to see the celebration move away because the crowd was frequently unruly.
Beginning in 1907, the Times turned to lowering a lighted ball from a flagpole to celebrate the new year because city officials decided to ban fireworks for safety reasons – many buildings by then occupied the area. The Times got the idea of the ball drop from the Western Union Company, wrote Michelle Nevius and James Nevius in their book “Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.” Each day at noon, Western Union lowered a metal ball from atop its headquarters on Lower Broadway.
Made of iron and wood, that first Times Square ball weighed 750 pounds. Even though the Times’ move in 1914 was not its last, the location of the ball drop has never changed. The ball did not drop in 1942 and 1943 because of World War II and blackouts. Instead of the ball drop in those years, organizers held a minute of silence and then played a recording of bells ringing. Six other balls followed the first. By late 2012, the ball was 12 feet in diameter and weighed 11,875 pounds. More than 2,600 Waterford Crystal triangles covered it. One man at a computer controlled the drop of about 70 feet during the one-minute countdown.
Beginning in 1956 and continuing through 1976, bandleader Guy Lombardo led his band in a televised New Year’s Eve celebration from various New York hotels. About five minutes before midnight, the broadcast switched to Times Square, where a reporter covered events there before returning to Lombardo’s live music. But Lombardo had a long history of involvement with New York’s Eve broadcasts. Even before television, he had led his band in annual radio broadcasts, beginning on December 31, 1928.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NYE 2021 at Time Square will NOT be open to the public this year — but there will be live performances, and virtual celebrations to enjoy from the comfort of your own home. New Year’s Eve 2021 might look a little different than usual, but one thing that will never change is the ticking of time and the arrival of a New Year at midnight on December 31st.