New York’s First Subway Built More Than Forty Years Ago

From April 23, 1911

NEW YORKS FIRST SUBWAY BUILT MORE THAN FORTY YEARS AGO

NEW YORK’S FIRST SUBWAY BUILT MORE THAN FORTY YEARS AGO: Curious History That Surrounds a Grating Opposite City Hall Marking a Forgotten Enterprise of “Certain Prominent Citizens.” (PDF)

New York City’s subway opened in 1904. So what is this article talking about? Well, there was a secret subway, built without permission from the city. It was only one block long because it was exposed by a reporter before much work could be done. And this subway didn’t run on electricity as our modern subway does. It ran in pneumatic tubes!

So why did it need to be built in secret? Why wouldn’t the city have wanted it? Well, when the subway was first proposed, people did not think it was a good idea. Even the Times was against it:

The Times of March 15, 1869, editorially exclaims: “It is said that the Legislature is quite likely to charter a project for building what is called an arcade railroad under Broadway. We can scarcely believe it. When this wild scheme was dismissed a year or two ago we hoped and believed that we had heard the last of it — and so did everybody else.”

The public and The Times, though, were justified in their distrust of the scheme. Those prominent men wanted to build a subway with a vengeance. What they wanted to do was to dig down, the whole width and length of Broadway from the Battery away uptown, for seventeen feet. They proposed to restore the street by building a roof over the chasm.

This plan, as has been said, died a natural and unobtrusive death. The next move toward a subway was in the early part of 1869. It didn’t seem like a move at all. Legislative power was obtained to construct a pneumatic tube from Warren Street to Cedar Street for the purpose of blowing small and large parcels, indeed all kind of express business, between these two localities.

Then queer rumors began to fly around.

In the latter part of 1869 a young man dressed in working clothes, and looking rather mussed and dirty, went down in the middle of the night to the cellar of the Rogers-Peet Building. In this cellar he groped around until he found an opening he was looking for. He went through the opening and landed in an underground tunnel, dark except for flaring lights here and there. There was an air of excitement and feverish work in this tunnel. Whatever talking there was was done in whispers, although a shout wouldn’t have been heard on the street. The young man applied for work. He got it and spent that and the following night in very hard and earnest digging.

And then The Tribune came out with a full expose of the subway that was secretly being built.

The young man was a Tribune reporter.

The substance of the article was this: In the last week one block of subway tunnel had been dug and built by night. It extended from the southwest corner of Broadway and Warren Street to Broadway and Murray Street. So that nobody should see the earth that was dug away it had all been carted to the big cellar of the Rogers-Peet Building and dumped there. If The Tribune had not exposed what was going on a subway under the whole length of Broadway was to have been secretly built. A car was in the tunnel. Also a big machine that was going to blow the car from one end of the track to the other.

It seemed incredible. Who had ever heard of being blown through the earth to one’s destination?

New York wavered between perplexity and indignation.

When this article came out, the tunnel still existed. But it was most likely destroyed when an authorized subway system tunnel was built soon after. NYCsubway.org has a page with sketches of the pneumatic subway system, and more information about its demise.

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Written by David

April 19th, 2011 at 10:00 am

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