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New York City's First Subway

Most major cities around the world have been faced at some time in history with the question of what to do with all of the traffic in the streets. Mass transportation, including those smelly busses and graffiti-covered trains, has been a somewhat viable twentieth century solution.

But what happened when cities were faced with this problem during the last century?

Imagine what it must have been like in a city in the mid-1800's. Millions of people with no practical means of mass transportation. Remember, engine powered vehicles practical for city use had not been invented yet. Just tons of horse drawn carriages creating one stinky mess in the city streets. Hold your nose!

Such a big transportation problem existed in New York City and, to no one's surprise, there was no practical solution.

Enter one Alfred Ely Beach. Don't worry if you don't know who this guy is - most people don't.

What you do need to know is that in 1846 Alfred purchased a newly launched publication called The Scientific American with a friend named Orsun D. Munn. He quickly became its editor and turned it into the great magazine that we know today (although they seem to have dropped the "The" from their name).

You're probably wondering where he got the cash from to purchase this great magazine. Since you just had to know, I will tell you.

Beach got his start working for the New York Sun, this city's first penny daily newspaper. It would be nice to say that he had to work his way up through the ranks, but he didn't. You see, his father owned the paper. By 1848, management was turned over to Alfred and his brother Moses.

So here we have young Alfred in charge of both a great scientific magazine and a leading newspaper. Day after day he glances out the window of his lofty Sun office to the congested city streets below. Just horse-and-buggy gridlock (better watch where you step!). Surely, he wonders, there must be a solution to this bad problem. He actually had two solutions.

The first was to build elevated roads and place the extra traffic above. Very costly and not very practical.

The second possibility was to go underground. In 1849 he proposed to tunnel the entire length of Broadway and put down a double track. But this was not a track for trains - it was for horses. One track for each direction. Horses pulling cars behind them would stop at every corner for ten seconds and then move on down the track. But such a far fetched scheme was not to happen. At least not yet.

Beach moved on to bigger and better things.

You see, Beach and Munn had also opened a patent agency in 1846 called Munn & Co. (Al was one busy guy). This was no small time operation. Many important inventions walked through their doors. Some guy named Thomas Edison demonstrated his new-fangled contraption called a phonograph for the first time ever to Beach. Other important inventors like Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Morse sought out the company's assistance. Between 1850 and 1860, Beach commuted from New York to Washington every two weeks to look over his clients' affairs.

Oh, yeah. As if Beach wasn't busy enough, he invented some of his own things, also. In 1856 he won First Prize and a gold medal at New York's Crystal Palace Exhibition. Beach had invented a typewriter for the blind that moved the paper carriage along with every keystroke. Yes, he invented the mechanism for the standard typewriter.

During the same period, Beach turned total control of The Sun over to his brother and in 1853 started a new publication called the People's Journal.

Busy guy.

But Beach never lost sight of the traffic problem that faced the city. The population of New York City was growing and growing. More people meant crowded streets, unsanitary conditions, and more horses racing up and down the city's streets (actually they spent most of their time standing still in traffic).

In March of 1864 a man named Hugh B. Wilson offered a solution to the traffic problem. Wilson was a Michigan railroad man and financier and had attended the opening of the London subway in January of 1863. What was good for London must be good for New York. Unfortunately, the proposed bill was defeated. Why? Very simple - the city's mayor, Boss Tweed, received a kickback on every fare in the city. Allowing a subway to be built would cause a loss of revenue. Tweed controlled the governor and this bill was dead in the water before it was ever proposed.

Even if the bill had passed, the idea would never have been a success. The London steam locomotives burned coke and stored the exhaust in special tanks mounted below the boilers. Unfortunately, they didn't work properly. The passengers were forced to store the smoke in their lungs, if you know what I mean. More than one person died from this exhaust.

In other words, locomotives were out. Electric motors had not been perfected yet and subways seemed to be an impossibility.

But wait! We forgot about Alfred Beach! Beach still had his mind set on doing something about that awful traffic congestion.

Through his various contacts, Beach had learned of a pneumatic mail tube that had been successfully built in London in 1866. You've probably seen small versions of these devices at your bank's drive-thru teller. You put your transaction into a little container, close the hatch, and air pressure sends it on its way into the bank building.

The British tube was four and a half feet high and two miles in length. Its sole purpose was to quickly move mail and packages from one place to another. Humans, however, tend to do idiotic things. Scrunching down and going for a ride on one of the mail carriers happened to be one of them.

Beach quickly realized that if the concept was enlarged to carry packages of humans, all of the city's transit problems would be gone. He was convinced that pneumatic transit was the solution and decided to give it a shot.

In 1867, Beach unveiled his idea to the world at the American Institute Fair being held at the Fourteenth Street Armory in New York. His model consisted of a tube six feet in diameter. The walls of the tube were one and one-half inches thick, made of fifteen layers of wood laminated together. The tube was suspended from the roof of the building and ran 107 feet from Fourteenth to Fifteenth Street. The car, which ran on wheels and was confined to a track, was moved back and forth by a ten foot diameter fan. The ten passenger car was kept in constant motion and was a smash hit. More than 170,000 people took a ride on this model before the close of the exhibition. To no one's surprise, Beach took home the Gold Medal for his invention.

Translating this successful prototype into a successful model would not be easy. Tunnel drilling equipment just didn't exist at the time and Boss Tweed still controlled the political scene.

Beach knew that in order to build his proposed subway he would need to obtain a franchise. But to do so would probably mean funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into Tweed's pockets.

Building the subway in secret was the only solution. Beach formed a company called the Pneumatic Dispatch Company and proposed to tunnel two tubes, each four and one-half feet in diameter and approximately one-half mile in length. These tubes were intended to carry packages under Broadway between Warren and Cedar Streets. Since the tubes would only carry mail, Tweed did not object and the project was easily approved. In fact, Tweed had expected Beach to propose a pneumatic elevated train and was very happy to see Beach's focus diverted. The charter was issued to Beach.

Then Beach pulled a fast one over the political machine's eyes. Beach went back to the legislature and requested an amendment to the legislation. Beach wanted one large tube built to simplify the the construction and save money. This very minor change easily passed.

I bet you can now see where this story is going.

Beach wasted no time and did everything possible to keep his project a secret. His first move was to rent the basement of Devlin's Clothing Store which was located at the corner of Broadway and Warren Street.

To cut the tunnel, Beach invented a hydraulic shield that could gouge out sixteen inches of earth with each advance. Six people operated the machine: two to work the hydraulic rams, two to carry out the earth, and two to put in the tunnel's brickwork.

All work on the tunnel was done at night.

Why nights?

Very simple. Trying to build a secret tunnel in the middle of a major city was virtually impossible during the day. All the work on the tunnel was done at night in an effort to minimize public attention. Bags of soil were also smuggled out and taken away on covered wagons with muffled wheels.

The tunnel was drilled at approximately twenty one feet below street level. The entire 312 foot tube was dug out in just fifty-eight nights. The soil proved to be fairly soft. The only obstacle encountered was the foundation of an old fort, but the shield was able to go through it without any problem.

Then, when the subway was nearly complete, a reporter disguised as a workman gained access to the tunnel. As a result, The New York Herald revealed Beach's secret to the world. The newspaper's description was fairly accurate and critically attacked the feasibility of such a project.

Beach counteracted. He opened his tunnel for all to see on February 28, 1870. He charged twenty five cents admission and people were shocked to see what was hidden in the ground below.

Upon entering the rented store at street level, visitors descended down a flight of stairs to Beach's masterpiece. He spared no expense (Beach knew that he had to use this tunnel to impress even the harshest of critics).

The subway waiting room was 120 feet long and 14 feet wide. It was brightly lit with zircon lamps. There was a cascading fountain filled with goldfish that helped to muffle the sound of the street traffic above. Frescoes, fancy chandeliers, and blind windows (with damask curtains) lined the walls. Lets not forget the grandfather clock and the grand piano.

This was clearly not your typical subway (Today everything would be stolen or vandalized within the first twenty-four hours).

One then would further descend six steps down to the train platform where the tunnel came into view. There it was, engraved in the tunnel's header, "PNEUMATIC (1870) SUBWAY". On either side of the tunnel entrance were two bronze statues of Mercury holding a cluster of red, green, and blue gaslights. Mercury was an appropriate choice, as he was the messenger of the gods, the symbol of the great speed of the winds.

The subway car was equally lavish. It was very brightly lit by gaslights and furnished with cushioned seats that could accommodate twenty-two passengers at a time.

When the doors to the car closed, the giant fan (called the western Tornado) kicked into action. With just the sound of the wind, the car would move out of the station at six miles per hour, although it was capable of going much faster.

Oh, I almost forgot. So that Beach would not break his charter, there was a 1,000 foot 8 inch diameter mail dispatch tube incorporated into the tunnel. It carried packages at about 60 miles per hour from a drop box hidden in a hollow lamppost on the street above.

The cost of the tunnel project was about $350,000, including approximately $70,000 of Beach's own money.

The pneumatic subway was an instant smash. Very quickly, the New York Herald changed its opinion and now called for the building of a pneumatic subway that went to every corner of the city.

Obviously, this never happened.


Very simple. Boss Tweed stood in the way. A bill to extend Beach's subway five miles to Central Park passed both houses of the legislature by a wide margin. But good old Boss Tweed ordered then Governor Hoffman to veto the proposal.

Beach tried again in 1873 when Tweed and his chronies were toppled from power. This time there was a new governor, John A. Dix, and the bill was signed into law.

But luck was not on Beach's side. Just a few weeks after the bill was passed, the financial panic of 1873 set in. People had bigger concerns than worrying about building a subway.

Yes, the pneumatic subway was dead and buried.

Beach allowed the subway tunnel to be used as a shooting gallery and later as a wine cellar, but he never was able to clear a profit. Giving up, the tunnel was sealed and forgotten.

Beach died in 1896 without ever seeing a subway built in New York City.

Of course, one was eventually built. In February of 1912, when the Degnon Contracting Company was constructing part of the new Broadway subway tunnel, they cut right into Beach's old pneumatic tube. The construction workers actually knew that the subway was there, so it was no great surprise when they found it.

However, they were shocked to see how intact the entire pneumatic subway was. The tunnel and its accompanying station were in great shape. The car still sat on the tracks, although most of its wood components had rotted away. The hydraulic shield still sat there waiting to complete Beach's dream.

Today, a discovery of this type would be preserved. Unfortunately, this did not happen in 1912. The old subway tunnel was excavated and made part of the new BMT City Hall subway station. No one knows for sure, but it is believed that the subway station itself is still intact and buried somewhere under the city's streets.

In 1940 a bronze plaque to commemorate Beach and his creation was erected in the subway station. Don't try to find it today - it disappeared from the walls of the station years ago (and probably has been replaced by graffiti).

Beach is another one of those great thinkers that history has forgotten. This seems to be the typical honor of those that are ahead of their time.

FIGURE: A view of the pneumatic subway in action. When the car entered the tunnel, doors were closed behind it to create the air pressure needed to move it (from the book Labyrinths of Iron: A History of the World's Subways by Benson Brodrick, 1981, Newsweek Books, New York).
A view of the pneumatic subway in action.


The best source out there on the pneumatic subway is Labyrinths of Iron: A History of the World's Subways by Benson Bobrick (1981, Newsweek Books, New York, pages 169-194). If you can locate a copy at your local library, the February 24, 1912 issue of Scientific American has an excellent story titled "New York's First Subway" (volume 106, pages 176-177). Many great photographs can be found accompanying this article.

The Winter 1997 issue of American Heritage of Invention & Technology features another excellent article titled "New York's Secret Subway" which was written by Oliver E. Allen (pages 44-48).

A nice summary can be found in the book Forgotten Fads and Fabulous Flops by Paul Kirchner (1995, Rhino Records, Santa Monica, California, pages 164-166).

The New-York Daily Tribune has an article titled "Lull in Subway Talk" which discusses Beach's subway (February 4, 1912, page 7, column 1).

The October 1997 issue of Scientific American features an article titled "13 Vehicles That Went Nowhere" on page 65. To no one's surprise, Beach's pneumatic subway is one of the unlucky 13.

A large number of New York Times articles can be found on this subject. Only the best ones are listed here: