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The Curiosities, Secrets, and Unofficial History of the New York City Transit System
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An Underground Microcosm of the City
The story of the subway is the story of the city, with all its energy and dysfunctions.
The New York subway is crowded and decrepit. Chunks of concrete fall from station ceilings with alarming regularity. Rats no longer just scurry along the tracks. They climb up sleeping passengers and drag pizza slices through stations. Then their videos go viral. Passengers suffer long, unexplained delays. Something always seems to be going wrong.
But the subway is also a marvel. It’s extraordinarily efficient at moving millions of passengers a day. When the first line opened in 1904, it was the most advanced in the world, and a source of enormous civic pride. Its express tracks were unique. The project was a bid to put New York on the same footing as London, Paris, and Berlin, a symbol of the young nation’s aspirations.
Overnight, the subway became an essential function, and an essential part of New Yorkers’ state of mind. It inspired dance tunes and movies. Duke Ellington made the A train famous. Nearly a century after the subway’s debut, whole Seinfeld episodes revolved around it.
The subway is also the great leveler, forcing New Yorkers and visitors of all classes and colors to mingle elbow to elbow. It’s mandatory that mayors be photographed on a train, even if they rarely ride the subway. To be a New Yorker is to take the train, to celebrate it, and to grumble or joke about it.
The history of the subway and the city are so intertwined that you can’t understand one fully without understanding the other.
The city’s raucous politics have been at the center of the subway saga in every era. Battles over the subway’s creation in the 1800s pitted streetcar owners and public officials on the take against businessmen and social reformers who aspired to improve the city and society through better transit. William “Boss” Tweed, the city’s legendarily corrupt power broker in the mid-1800s, once planned to send a mob to tear down the first elevated line because it competed with his own transit ventures. In modern times, subway politics have too often been driven by photo opportunities. Mayors and governors repeatedly staged groundbreakings (cue the pickax, cue the jackhammer!) for a Second Avenue subway that didn’t materialize for decades.
The subway was a response to the needs of a city whose streets were clogged and whose slums were dangerously crowded. The city, in turn, was forever shaped by the subway—which neighborhoods got subway lines and which didn’t.
The five men most responsible for making the subway system a reality in the early 20th century are also a window onto the society and social forces of their time. Each is an archetypical American character.
The master contractor for the first line, John B. McDonald, was a no-nonsense, Irish-born immigrant who helped build some of the most difficult rail tunnels of his era. He was snubbed by August Belmont Jr., the wealthy banker and horse breeder who financed and controlled the first subway. But Belmont himself was just one generation further removed from Europe. His father was a German-Jewish immigrant who made a fortune in the 1830s, married into a prominent Protestant family, and assimilated into the city’s elite. The patrician bearing of the gifted chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons, reflected his descent from wealthy colonial landowners and his private school education in England.
George McAneny, the reporter turned politician who brokered the major subway expansion in the 1910s, dedicated his life to civic causes: rooting out corruption, better public transit, city planning, and historical preservation. His frequent nemesis, John Hylan, the mayor who initiated the city-owned Independent Subway System (IND) in the 1920s, grew up dirt-poor on a farm in the Hudson Valley and put himself through law school while working on elevated trains in Brooklyn. The chip always remained on his shoulder.
The 10,000-odd workers who performed the hard labor, many of them fresh immigrants, likewise, were part of the American story.
Much of the subway story has been lost with time. Take Belmont and Parsons. They were prominent figures in their day, but there are no biographies of either in library catalogs or on Amazon.com. William Gibbs McAdoo, the lawyer who built the PATH subways to New Jersey, likewise, is largely forgotten, but this modest, able, likeable character had a colorful side and earned himself a chapter here.
Another chapter of the subway story is the what-ifs, the unfulfilled plans for new lines crisscrossing Manhattan and others spreading to the far corners of the outer boroughs. What would Staten Island be like now if it had been linked to Brooklyn by a much-promised subway tunnel across the Verrazzano Narrows? Would Downtown Williamsburg be a cluster of high-rise apartments or office towers if a 1929 plan had come to pass for two lines from Manhattan to intersect at a massive junction there?
Beyond the politics, personalities, and urban history, the subway is also a feast for trivia lovers. Did you know that tunnel light bulbs have reverse threads so they won’t be stolen? Or that old subway car shells dumped off the Atlantic seaboard are home to large schools of fish? Or that the director of The French Connection bribed a transit official to film a train hijacking on a real train running on regular tracks?
For those who love the city, the subway isn’t just infrastructure or a way to get to work. It’s a New York experience. In what other city could you hear a perturbed conductor bark, “Now listen up, folks!” and threaten to take the train out of service if passengers don’t remove the belongings obstructing the doors? (“Yeah. Right. He’s going to take the train out of service.” You can read the minds of your fellow passengers in such situations.)
Like the city, the subway frequently makes you laugh when it doesn’t make you want to scream. It is awe-inspiring when it isn’t exasperating.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: When referring to particular locations, I’ve frequently indicated in parentheses the lines currently running there, but those were not always the lines running there at the time of the events described.
The government entities overseeing the subways were created, reformed, renamed, and replaced repeatedly between the 1880s and 1953 (see chapter 8). I’ve used the contemporaneous names, so sometimes it’s a board, other times a commission or authority. Since 1953, when the New York City Transit Authority was established, I’ve generally used Transit Authority or TA as shorthand, and at other times, when it seemed appropriate, MTA (for Metropolitan Transportation Authority), the Transit Authority’s parent since 1968.
Horse-Drawn Gridlock and Dreams of a Subway
Corruption and technical obstacles delayed better transit for decades.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, New York was America’s largest city, with roughly 900,000 residents jammed into the lower parts of Manhattan. Its streets were clogged. Large urban stagecoaches, known as omnibuses, and horse-drawn streetcars on rails ran bumper-to-bumper at peak times, making it dangerous for pedestrians to cross the street. By the 1850s, an omnibus passed the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street every 15 seconds in each direction for 13 hours, according to someone who kept count.
By 1880, there were almost 12,000 horses hauling 1,500 omnibuses and streetcars. That brought another hazard: manure. Large draft animals deposited 30 to 50 pounds of fecal material a day. A small industry was devoted just to scooping it up for fertilizer.
Everyone agreed that some form of “rapid transit” was needed, some alternative to the gridlock at street level. The options were elevated lines over the streets or underground lines beneath them. Both posed technical challenges, but vested interests and the city’s monumental corruption were the biggest impediments.
The main engineering challenge was propulsion, particularly for underground lines. Electric motors weren’t powerful enough to pull long trains until the very end of the 19th century, and the steam and smoke from conventional locomotives would build up in long tunnels, making the air unfit to breathe.
The political barrier was Tammany Hall, the club that controlled the local Democratic Party machine and, through it, city government. William “Boss” Tweed, who dominated Tammany Hall from the late 1850s through the early 1870s, was an investor in horse-drawn street railways—forerunners of electric trolleys—and he spearheaded plans for a massive rail viaduct along the east side of Manhattan. Naturally, he opposed any project that could mean competition. Since Tweed was, at various times, a congressman, member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, commissioner of public works, schools commissioner, and a state senator, he had many levers to use against rivals.
As early as 1863, Hugh B. Willson, a railway engineer from Michigan, proposed a subway line up Broadway, after visiting London, where a partly underground rail line had opened that year. Willson arranged $5 million in financing but was blocked by Tweed and his allies in the legislature. Similarly, when Charles Harvey built a cable-drawn elevated line from the Battery to 30th Street in the late 1860s, Tweed sponsored a bill in the legislature to dismantle it. Tweed even laid plans to have a mob attack Harvey’s structure. (Harvey’s line was eventually extended up Ninth Avenue.)
One visionary, Alfred Ely Beach, succeeded in building a short underground line in 1869, but he had to resort to trickery to get around Tammany. Beach told the city his pneumatic tunnel under Broadway would transport only mail. When it opened in 1870, he revealed that it was actually built to carry people (see Other Means of Transport, here).
When Tweed was jailed in 1873 for embezzling tens of millions of public dollars, Tammany Hall was put on the defensive and things looked up for new forms of transit. An 1875 state law allowed cities to grant franchises for elevated rail lines. That set off a construction boom and, by 1880, els, as they were known, ran up Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues from the southern tip of Manhattan to Harlem and into the Bronx, all hauled by small steam engines. Across the East River in Brooklyn, in the late 1880s, el tracks began radiating out from the Brooklyn Bridge and the ferry landings.
The els were far faster than the horse-drawn streetcars, but it still took close to an hour and a half to cover the 10 miles from Wall Street to 155th Street on the Ninth Avenue line.
Moreover, the elevated lines were deeply unpopular. Their locomotives belched smoke and cinders, startled horses, and dripped lubricants on pedestrians. The trains rumbled, clattered, and hissed outside apartment windows, and the streets below were kept in perpetual shadow. One visitor called them “a permanent disfigurement” and “aerial nuisances.”
The els didn’t solve the congestion, either, because the city grew faster than the capacity of the trains (see chapter 10). By the 1880s, business leaders worried that New York would choke on its traffic, and commerce would be diverted to rival ports such as Boston and Philadelphia.
Social reformers, too, were persistent advocates for better transit. They saw it as the solution to Manhattan’s crowded, unsanitary slums. For them, the subway marked “the emancipation of the larger part of the city’s population from excessively cramped and uncomfortable manner of living,” allowing them “to reach comparatively cheap land in half an hour.”
Dreams of a subway thus persisted. Sixteen companies obtained charters to build underground lines between 1864 and 1902. The turning point came in 1888 when Abram Hewitt, a Democratic mayor, put forward a detailed proposal. He envisioned underground trains traveling at a nearly unthinkable 45 miles an hour from City Hall to Grand Central Terminal, across 42nd Street, and then up Broadway—essentially the route chosen a decade later. While the street railroads and els had been built entirely with private money, under Hewitt’s plan, the city would pay part of the cost of a subway.
It was a bold plan, but Hewitt couldn’t get it adopted. Though he had been elected with support from Tammany Hall, he was a Protestant, anti-immigrant businessman who was soon on the outs with the predominantly Catholic, heavily Irish, Tammany wing of the party, which relied on immigrant support. It didn’t help that Hewitt skipped a St. Patrick’s Day parade, refused to indulge in patronage politics, strictly enforced tavern closing hours, and shut down brothels. Meanwhile, businessmen who generally supported Hewitt feared that, if the city constructed the subway, it would be an open invitation to graft. Hewitt’s proposal died in the city council, and he lost his bid for reelection the same year.
Hewitt’s vision lived on, however. A reconstituted Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners, formed in 1891, drew up a plan for a privately financed subway and put it out for bids from contractors. It received just one offer, a $1,000 bid that was not deemed serious. It wasn’t until 1894 that the pieces began to fall into place. That year the city’s Chamber of Commerce allied with Republicans in Albany to form a new board independent of city politicians. Six of the eight commissioners would come from the Chamber itself—the law specified five members by name—and the commissioners were appointed for life with the power to name their successors. They were, in effect, accountable to no one. The bill’s proponents “thought responsibility for a subway should be entrusted to a special breed of honest, upright, farsighted men—namely, themselves,” in the words of historian Clifton Hood.
The Chamber succeeded in its end run around the city’s politicians, and electric motors had advanced enough by 1894 that it was now viable to use electricity instead of steam power, so the Board moved forward. Various routes were contemplated, including Hewitt’s and an alternative scheme where two lines would branch north of Union Square, one continuing up Broadway to the West Side and another heading up Madison Avenue, Park Avenue (then Fourth Avenue), or Lexington Avenue to the East Side.
The financiers behind the street railway and elevated line companies, which were threatened by a subway, didn’t give up without a fight, however. They delayed matters by making vague offers to extend their lines, forcing the Board to postpone a final decision about the subway route. The “fine, high-minded, soft-hearted old gentlemen” on the Board were no match for “the impossibly alert young fellows of Wall Street, with their unlimited money, with their control of the political machines, with the best legal brains at their disposal,” journalist Ray Stannard Baker wrote in 1905, explaining the years of delay.
In addition, property owners sued to block the project. State law required the Board to obtain the consent of at least half of the adjacent property owners. If it couldn’t, it had to go to court for approval. Those with buildings along the proposed route feared the digging would undermine foundations and disrupt business. (The “not in my backyard” concept is not new.) Uptown, where speculators had snapped up large swaths of undeveloped land along the route, owners objected to plans to run the trains on elevated tracks along Broadway north of 92nd Street to save money. The speculators pleaded (successfully) for it to be submerged.
Finally, in 1898, the last suits were settled, and the Board got down to the nitty-gritty financial and engineering details. A protracted financial crisis in the mid-1890s had persuaded even the business community that public money would be needed, and a scheme was devised to use a combination of public and private capital and a private contractor and operator. The city would borrow money to pay for the construction, and it would put the job out for bids. To entice offers, the winner would get to operate the subway and collect the profits under a 50-year lease, with the option for a 25-year renewal. It would pay for the cars and other equipment and pay a yearly sum to the city to cover what the city paid in interest on the construction bonds.
This approach reflected the long shadow that Boss Tweed cast more than 20 years after he died in the Ludlow Street Jail. By employing a private company to do the work at a fixed price, the reformers and the Board hoped to prevent municipal officials from skimming money and doling out contracts to political supporters. And since the company would operate the line for decades, it would have an incentive to see that the job was done right.
In January 1900, John B. McDonald was awarded the contract after making the low bid, $35 million. The Irish immigrant had compiled an impressive track record building difficult train tunnels. He was a subcontractor on the 4.75-mile Hoosac Tunnel in western Massachusetts, the second longest in the world when it opened in 1875, and he had constructed a technically challenging electrified rail tunnel under Downtown Baltimore in the 1890s.
But the city required the winning bidder to post $7 million in deposits and surety bonds—money McDonald did not have. So he teamed up with August Belmont Jr., a powerful Wall Street banker, who provided the capital. In exchange, McDonald handed over to Belmont the right to operate the subway when it was completed. Conveniently, McDonald had ties to Tammany Hall, and Belmont was a major player in the establishment wing of the Democratic Party.
It had been 37 years since Hugh Willson first proposed a subway for New York. By the time work began in New York, London had been operating a fully underground electric line for 10 years, and Paris was poised to debut its Metro. When New York’s subway finally opened in October 1904, electric underground railroads were also running in Boston, Berlin, and Budapest.
OTHER MEANS OF TRANSPORT
The need for a better form of propulsion inspired a generation of visionaries.
Before steam power was adopted for elevated rail lines in the 1870s and electric trains became feasible in the 1890s, inventors hatched a variety of alternative propulsion systems for elevated and underground transit. Some look downright zany today.
Charles Harvey built a cable-drawn elevated rail line from the southern tip of Manhattan to Cortlandt Street in 1867, and by 1870 it reached 30th Street along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue. The cable, which was powered by stationary steam engines, was prone to snap, however, and could pull only a limited number of cars. In the 1870s, a heavier track structure was installed, and the line was converted to steam locomotives.
Others put their faith in pneumatic power, or forced air. In 1870, Alfred Ely Beach, the owner of Scientific American magazine and an outspoken advocate of technology in all forms, opened a two-block demonstration line under Broadway next to City Hall that used enormous fans to push a pod-shaped car on rails at up to 10 miles an hour. Then the fans were reversed and the car was sucked back to the starting point. Beach was a gifted promoter, and his system had what we might call bling. The interior of the car resembled a Victorian parlor with plush, upholstered seats for 22 passengers and lamps. The waiting area featured oil paintings, a grandfather clock, settees, and a goldfish tank.
More than 400,000 people paid to take the short ride on his line in its first year. Beach eventually won permission to extend the line, but forced air wasn’t practical over longer distances, and he couldn’t move enough people to make a dent in congestion. A financial downturn in 1873 forced him to shut the line before he could extend it, and the tube was sealed up. When a subway line was built in the same area in 1915, workers discovered Beach’s tunnel, complete with the original car and a grand piano in the waiting area.
Dr. Rufus Gilbert, a physician who crusaded for better public health and transit, sketched seven different proposals, including an elevated line with pneumatic tubes suspended from lacy gothic arches. Others drew up plans for moving sidewalks and elevated lines with horses pulling cars suspended from overhead rails. Propellers figured in other proposals. Another option: a roller coaster–like elevated line where trains were hauled up inclines by cable, then coasted downhill by gravity.
By the late 1880s, electric motors were powerful enough to be used on street trolleys, and in 1890, London opened a rail line under the Thames River, with electric locomotives hauling three cars (see chapter 4). That was the dawn of the subway as we know it.
Men, Mules, and Dynamite: Building the IRT
The city endured four years of upheaval before the engineering marvel was unveiled.
A thousand police were on duty to hold back the 25,000 onlookers who converged on City Hall on March 24, 1900, to witness the official beginning of construction. John Philip Sousa’s brass band played as Mayor Robert Van Wyck employed a silver shovel from Tiffany’s. The throngs were so dense that August Belmont Jr., the banker behind the subway, and John B. McDonald, the lead contractor, struggled to make their way from the building to join Van Wyck.
That was the photo op. The real work began two days later at the corner of Bleecker and Greene Streets, where the Rapid Transit Commissioner’s chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons, used a pickax to dislodge the first paving stone as a crowd of men hovered around, tools in hand, hoping to be hired on. The site, a full four blocks west of the subway’s future path up Lafayette Street, was telling. A sewer line ran east along Bleecker and would have to be lowered seven feet to pass beneath the subway. It was an omen of the upheaval the subway would unleash on the city for the next four years. The project would require a wholesale makeover of the city’s underground infrastructure, and not just directly along the line.
On Parson’s recommendation, the Board opted for the “cut and cover” approach, laying tracks just below the surface of the street. This was much cheaper than boring deep through bedrock and would make it much easier for passengers to access stations than it would have been with elevators. The bedrock is schist, which is famously hard, but also uneven and prone to fractures, so tunneling would be treacherous.
But building near the surface had its own perils. Beneath the streets in built-up neighborhoods—particularly south of 42nd Street—lay a thick tangle of water mains, sewers, gas lines, and electrical conduits, much of which had to be torn up. The subway was bisecting the island with a trench, which posed a problem for sewers, which flow by gravity. Some that emptied into the Hudson River had to be diverted to the East River. So, in addition to seven miles of new sewer lines along the subway’s path, another five miles had to be replaced under other streets.
- "With a culture all its own, the subway truly is a city beneath the city. In Subway, John Morris takes readers on a breezy ride through that world that will inform and entertain everyday straphangers, transit aficionados, and even those who've never passed through the turnstiles."—Jose Martinez, senior transit reporter at Thecity.nyc
- "In a rollicking, fact-filled narrative and with hundreds of rarely seen images, John Morris tells the story of the birth of the New York City subway system, and how this underground world of tunnels and rails forever changed the shape and feel of the city."—Esther Crain, founder of the website Ephemeral New York and author of The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910
- "An encyclopedic history of the subway system. It's the historical record."—Richard Ravitch, former chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority
"This beautiful tome to the subway would make a great coffee table book, but it’s also the perfect gift for any NYC history or transit buff, as it’s full of gorgeous vintage images and tons of fascinating facts."
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2020
- Page Count
- 264 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal