By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
This year marks the centennial of the first subway, which opened from City Hall to Harlem and was to be responsible for the unprecedented growth of the then newly unified city of New York. The subway was to be essential to the new economy and helped shape the connections of new neighborhoods.
At one time it was the largest subway in the world, and today it is the largest system in America, servicing 4.5 million customers each day in 6,400 train cars over 656 miles of subway tracks and 468 stations on 26 train lines.
The three men who first incorporated the private Interboro Transit system in May 1902 and started the project were Gen. William Barclay Parsons, John B. McDonald and August Belmont Jr.
By 1900 New York City was the second-largest city in the world with more than 8 million people — most squeezed into Manhattan — with the outer boroughs mostly undeveloped. Hours were consumed in getting from one place to another in Manhattan, especially from downtown to Harlem. As far as traveling out of Manhattan, it was desirable but impractical.
Some 12,000 laborers worked to build the subway for the then privately owned Interborough Rapid Transit Co., or IRT. On opening day in 1904, 150,000 people paid a nickel each to ride the clean, electric-powered form of transportation. “City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes” became its slogan.
The coming of the elevated subway to Queens in the early years of this century forever changed the character of our relatively isolated villages. From 1917 to 1950 not only was traveling time to Manhattan cut in half but the character of the communities once dotted with magnificent trees and farms quickly felt the effects as many new homes, apartments and commercial buildings now occupied that land.
The idea of building a rapid transit system for our city dates back as far as the 1860s. Many such proposals stemmed from the interest stirred by the advent of the world’s first subway, which in 1863 opened in London. Though London’s underground system inspired thoughts of how it could be adapted elsewhere, the belching smoke that filled its tunnels was an undesirable side effect that many planners wished to eliminate. Electric power, however, was not yet available, and suitable advances in the needed technology had to wait.
Political as well as technological difficulties obstructed the progress of the subway, though an experimental elevated line was opened in Manhattan in July 1868. First run experimentally for half a mile from the Battery to Cortlandt Street, it had by 1870 reached 30th Street. When franchises were sought, Boss William Marcy Tweed, the politician who literally ran the city at the time, and his corrupt cronies made sure they got their “cut.” It complicated the progress that could have been made.
The greater city, which came into being in 1898 and united the five boroughs, stimulated a spirit of progress, and one of the major problems yet to be solved was that of transportation. The five boroughs, now covering more than 200,000 acres, were just beginning to learn the process of acting like one municipality.
Business was still concentrated in Lower Manhattan and for travelers headed from home to workplace the trip was rapidly taking longer, starting from greater distances and subject to more and more overcrowding.
To its credit, the city embarked on a dedicated project of subway construction, which it began when the first spadeful of earth was turned over by Mayor Robert Van Wyck in front of City Hall on March 24, 1900.
To go back to the stories of earlier efforts affords us another page in an interesting history.
Manhattan in 1865 had about 900,000 inhabitants, most of whom had to find a means of transportation every working day. A leading newspaper in February 1866 said: “Street railroads and omnibuses have their uses, but we have reached the end of them. They are wedged for hours at night and morning with men, women, boys and girls, sitting, standing, hanging on. … Gentlemen of the legislature, give us both the underground and the aerial railroad!”
New York’s first subway ran on wind power and was built in secret. It was the idea of Alfred Ely Beach, a patent lawyer and publisher of Scientific American. He wanted to relieve the awesome street congestion in Manhattan and the traffic jams caused by numerous horse cars, carts, wagons and carriages.
An elevated route was under consideration (a project favored by Boss Tweed), but Beach considered that to be an ugly solution and not the way to go for the city. Instead he chose to try an underground route.
His proposal to relieve the possibility of steam-driven locomotives, which filled the tunnels with smoke, was to use wind power. The line had an elegant underground waiting room complete with paintings, a fountain, a piano and seating. When completed, the subway ran from Warren Street to Murray Street (312 feet), had one well-appointed car and seated 22 people. It ran under Broadway, with its tubular-shaped car, and was propelled by a very large stationary steam-driven fan.
Aware of the control over the city by Tweed, the political boss whom we have mentioned above and who favored an elevated line, Beach opted to work in secrecy. Obtaining a permit for a small pneumatic tube for shooting mail and packages beneath the streets, he proceeded instead to dig a subway. The work began in the basement of a store in June 1869, with Beach supervising a dozen workmen who silently carted away the debris at night using wagons with muffled wheels.
He had almost reached his goal undiscovered when the curiosity of the New York Herald was aroused and a story was published in January 1870, exposing the plan. Tweed, enraged, saw to it that a charter was never granted.
After several attempts to fight the veto of his charter by Tweed’s cohort, the state’s governor, Beach ran out of money and the subway closed down. During the time the subway operated, the public hailed the plan and in its first year this one-block operation carried 400,000 passengers and netted $100,000. The remains of this first subway are incorporated in the old City Hall station of the BMT.
It is interesting also that the oldest subway tunnel dug in 1892 for William Steinway, the famed Long Island piano manufacturer, is said to have been used as late as 1982 by the IRT Flushing line. Though this may be true, I could find no confirmation of this information.
Steinway had planned the twin tubes for trolley cars, but work was delayed by the financial panic of 1893, and in 1896 Steinway died. The tubes were taken over by August Belmont, who was responsible for the first actual subway begun in 1900. The work was completed in 1907, but the tunnels remained empty until subway trains began to use them in 1915.
In 1904 the IRT, the first electrically operated subway line, began to run between City Hall and 145th Street, four years after tunneling had begun. That same year delighted New Yorkers welcomed the new facilities, though a system designed to handle 400,000 people a day was soon jammed with many times that number.
“Rush hour” took on a new meaning. The subway had come of age and began to bring together distant parts of the city, although increasing population continued to exceed its capacity. Rapid transit became a city-building influence though few who witnessed its beginning ever voiced that realization.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer. She can be reached via e-mail at JBBAY@aol.com.