Monday, March 24, 2014

"The Race Underground" by Doug Most (2014)

On March 24, 1900 there was a ceremony held in New York City which marked the beginning of digging the subway, which we all take for granted today. But the story didn't start there. It began in the first half of the nineteenth century, when city streets were becoming too crowded and unmanageable for people to move around efficiently. There was also the weather to consider, and the Blizzard of 1888 was a perfect example of how the city could be crippled for days by the weather. While everyone agreed that something needed to be done, agreeing on just what, was another matter entirely.

Most people would point to the pneumatic tube built by Alfred Beach as the first subway in New York City, and they would be right. His “tube” ran from Murray Street to Warren, across from City Hall and it was the first transit system to operate underground. There was already a subway system in London, begun in 1861, but it was plagued with problems. There was no efficient air handling system and the steam locomotives were wholly unsuited for an underground enclosed area. But they already had a pneumatic tube for moving the mail, and this system was of great interest to Alfred Beach.

The story of Mr. Beach and how he had to construct his tunnel in secret, at night, using the basement of Devlin’s department store as a base, is amazing. Although the secret was exposed when a portion of Broadway inexplicably “sunk” one night, he was able to continue with the work by promising to repair the damage when he was done.

On February 26, 1870 he opened the station at Warren Street to a select group of politicians and news reporters for the one block ride to Murray Street. The tunnel was just 312 feet long. It was accomplished at the rate of about 6 feet per night over a period of 58 days, during which time they ran into one major difficulty. That was when they ran into the foundation of an old Dutch fortress, which they were able to take apart piece by piece, hoping that the street above would not collapse upon them as they worked.

The public’s reception to the new tunnel was one of wonderment. They envisioned a day when the streets would be more manageable and cleaner as millions of their fellow New Yorkers were whisked about below ground. And it looked like that was going to happen until Mayor “Boss” Tweedy stepped in. He had the Governor of the state in his pocket, and it was rumored that he would set Governor Hoffman on the road to the White House if he would just play ball with the Mayor.

Accordingly, when 2 proposals were laid before him; one for an extension of the pneumatic tube; the other one for an elevated steam railroad; the choice as clear and the elevated railway won out. Of course Tweed had an interest financially in the project, and when done the elevated railways blocked sunlight and rained soot and smoke on the city’s poor for the next 60 years or so.

It’s so easy to get lost in any one part of this book. The story of what preceded the pneumatic tube is every bit as interesting as what came after it. At first a man named Brower had a coach maker make him a coach that held 12 people and hauled them around town for a shilling; or about 12 and a half cents. This same idea was being used in Boston and would be the first of many competitions between the two in an effort to move the masses about, resulting in the final race between the 2 to build an actual subway.

This horse carriage business was fraught with danger as the competing companies in New York strove to outrace the other in an effort to pick up more fares. The sheer recklessness with which they operated quickly dissuaded most of their prospective customers from using the service. Once again, clearly, something needed to be done.

Then there came the Omnibus; an even larger coach which was being introduced on the streets of London and Paris. The system was adopted in New York and Boston with similar results; once again the drivers were beating their horses to get them to pull harder and faster. The effect of these large vehicles only added to the problem of overcrowded streets and quickly fell from popular favor. While a large wagon might be useful in crossing the continent, it was clearly not suited to an urban setting.

By this time railroads were coming into wide use and the idea of laying tracks in the streets for local transportation came into favor. Accordingly, rails were laid between the Harlem River and 23rd Street. There tracks were for the use of even larger omnibuses and drawn by horses. Without the need, or ability, to make turns it was thought that with this system congestion could be eased in the streets. But the problem of the horses and their waste; coupled with the smell in the summer months; made this system unfeasible as well.

It was now time to turn to a newer technology, and the pneumatic tube carrying mail in London seemed to hold promise in the mind of Alfred Beach. And if it were not for the interference of Mayor Tweed, that technology just may have been the direction the future of transportation would have taken. That station is still there today. Incidentally, Mr. beach also published the Scientific American, which first featured his story about a subway in 1849. That magazine is also still with us.

But this book is more than just the story of the parallel projects taking place in New York and Boston. It is the story of an age of discovery, when new technologies were being invented in rapid succession. Electricity, steam power, the telegraph and telephone were all coming into play at the time. And all would have an influence on the direction which mass transportation would take.

New motors, designed to work on electricity, would be needed to power the trains underground. Ventilation systems would have to be designed; lighting problems had to be overcome. In short, this endeavor was; for the time in which in occurred; very much like going to the moon.

In the end a new list of heroes, and villains, would come out of the story. Men like Marc Brunel, who pioneered the London underground; along with others like Frank Sprague, a colleague of Edison's, who developed and tested his electric motor in an alleyway in New York City. His design is what enabled the whole project to become feasible, and his ideas are even incorporated into the engines which are in use today. The dispute between Thomas Edison and Frank Sprague over credit for the technology would last their entire lives.

Along with others such as William Parsons, the engineer that began the final push to design the system in New York; John MacDonald, the contractor who built it; August Belmont, who put up the money and founded the IRT to run the finished project; and the Whitley Brothers, Henry and William, who would each make a mark on their respective cities in the race to transport people safely beneath the streets. Together they would build and operate the subway, which was finally completed in 1904. In the decades that followed the system would expand to an astonishing 800 miles of track with hundreds of stations.

Then there were the politicians, such as the infamous politician Boss Tweed, and the visionary Mayor Hewitt who was in office when the Blizzard of 1888 struck. He was correct in everything he believed was right for the city, but had angered too many of his colleagues with his Reform Movement. And, of course there was also Governor Hoffman, whose ambitions outweighed his commitment to the public.

Along the way there are explosions, flooding, technical problems, inventions and everything else involved in an effort to change the world about us for the better. With a deft hand Mr. Most has given us a book which is part adventure, part politics, part history; and in the end, just plain fun to read. 

If you are a fan of the subways; and I think many folks are; then this book is one which you will enjoy from the first page until the very last. Illustrated and backed up by Chapter Notes, this book is also a wonderful reference tool.

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