Crowds at the now-defunct City Hall Station of the brand new New York subway system. (NYPL)
One hundred and ten years ago today, the first train of the New York City subway system began its first trip underneath the city, filled with eager and excited passengers. Thousands lined up to take this revolutionary new ride, promising a jaunt from City Hall to Harlem in under 30 minutes. At the helm of the very first subway ride was the mayor himself, George B McClellan Jr., refusing to relinquish the wheel until he had completed most of the distance.
The subway is one of the defining creations of New York’s Gilded Age, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion. Early attempts at underground transportation by innovators like Alfred Ely Beach were waylaid by political corruption. Elevated railroad and streetcar companies were hardly enthusiastic about it. Even the idea of going below disturbed and frightened some people. Proponents of the subway in New York must have grimaced when Boston beat them to the punch in the late 1890s.
Both the Boston and New York subway systems benefited from great genius and even greater wealth. As Boston Globe editor Doug Most notes in his terrific book The Race Underground: Boston: New York and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway, the systems even shared wealthy benefactors — the brothers Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, negotiating a host of political and technical speed bumps on their quest to build the country’s first subterranean route.
At right: Subway riders, painting by F. Luis Mora, 1914 (NYPL)
Most’s story is especially fascinating in outlining the difficulties of these ambitious projects. What seems an absolutely sound decision today was deemed highly risky and politically fraught in its day. On this important anniversary, I thought I’d ask the author to elaborate on the significance of this day and the spectacular achievements of these two rival cities. (And I highly recommend picking up his book this week. After all, has there ever been reading material better suited to commute reading?)
The final chapter of The Race Underground is actually titled “October 27, 1904 “? This is obviously an important date for New Yorkers, but what is it about the events of that particular day that make this a milestone in American (and even world) history?
The newly completed subway tunnel in 1904, before the big inaugural ride on October 27, 1904 (Library of Congress)
Under Tremont Station in Boston (courtesy nycsubway.org)
Digging up Union Square to lay cable-car lines, 1891. (New York Public Library)
Now speaking of that pneumatic tube, here’s a what if? – say Beach faced no opposition from Boss Tweed and the elevated railroads. Could New York have actually built a viable transportation system using this method? After all, people are looking into pneumatic systems for possible high-speed travel today!
Back in 2010, the Bowery Boys did an entire series on the history of New York City transportation. In honor of this great day in New York City history, why not check out one of these shows which traces the history of getting around the city — from the first ferries in the 18th century to the struggles of maintaining a modern subway system into the 21st. You can find these episodes on iTunes or download them directly from the links below:
Part One: Staten Island Ferry
A look at the earliest forms of transportation in New York harbor, with a focus on the early ferry services from Staten Island
Blog: Staten Island Ferry, its story, from sail to steam
Part Two: New York’s Elevated Railroads
Starting with the introduction of horse-drawn streetcars and omnibuses to the innovation of elevated trains running along four avenues in Manhattan and in various parts of Brooklyn
Blog: New York’s Elevated Railroads; Journey to a spectacular world of steam trains along the avenues
Part Three: Cable Cars, Trolleys and Monorails
Electrified trolley cars became the most common form of travel in New York starting in the 1890s and into the new century. Find out why they succeeded and why two other forms — cable cars and monorails — did not.
Blog: Cable cars, trolleys and monorails; Moving around on New York’s transportation options
Part Four: New York City Subway, Part 1: Birth of the IRT
The story of the very first subway which went nowhere (Alfred Ely Beach and his pneumatic tube train) and the one that eventually did (August Belmont and the Interborough Rapid Transit).
Blog: The New York City Subway and the Creation of the IRT
Part Five: New York City Subway, Part 2: By The Numbers (And Letters)
The surprisingly difficult attempt to expand the subway system and the curious public/private partnership which got it done. Plus: the history of the future of the Second Avenue subway line
Blog: Modern history of the New York Subway: Expansion from the 1-2-3, A-B-C, Second Avenue and beyond
Post-Script: Subway Graffiti 1970-1989
Art. Vandalism. Freedom. Blight. Creativity. Crime. Graffiti has divided New Yorkers since it first appeared on walls, signs and lampposts in the late 1960s. This is a history of the battle between graffiti and City Hall. And a look at the aftermath which spawned today’s tough city laws and a former warehouse space in Queens.
Blog: The wild times of the subway graffiti era 1970-1989: At the city’s worst, an art form flourishes along transit lines