Opening Day of the New York City Subway: Stand Clear of the (Very First) Closing Doors Please!

PODCAST What was it like to experience that epic symbol of New York City – the world famous New York City subway system – for the first time? In this episode, we imagine what opening day was like for the first New York straphangers.

We begin by recounting the subway system’s construction and registering the excitement of New Yorkers in the days leading up to the opening on October 27, 1904. That fateful day was sheer pandemonium as thousands of people crammed into brand spanking new station to push themselves into the system’s new subway cars.

“For the first time in his life Father Knickerbocker went underground yesterday; went underground, he and his children, to the number of 150,000, amid the tooting of whistles and the firing of salutes, for a first ride in a subway which for years had been scoffed at as an impossibility.” [New York Times, October 28, 1904]

After listening to this show, we hope you gain a new appreciation for this modern engineering marvel. Hopefully it will make that next subway delay more bearable!

LISTEN HERE:

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Library of Congress/cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Detroit Publishing Co
Detroit Publishing Co
Detroit Publishing Co

Crowds gather in front of the Brooklyn Bridge subway kiosk on the subway’s opening day (Oct 27, 1904).

MCNY
NYPL

 

Reportedly an image of the first ticket sold for regular entrance to the subway, sold at the Grand Central hub.

MCNY

The IRT Power House on the Hudson River was the first truly elegant portion of the subway first seen above ground designed by Stanford White in the City Beautiful traditions.

NYPL

The subway was actually in regular operation in the weeks before the opening with regular test runs and even a few ‘experimental trains’ which ran at regular intervals for VIPs.

MCNY

NYPL

WATCH THIS
Seven month after the opening of the subway, the film studio American Mutoscope and Biograph Company made an incredible film underground — Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street. According to the National Film Preservation Foundation, the movie “required coordinating three trains: the one we watch, the one carrying the camera, and a third (glimpsed on the parallel track) to carry the bank of lights.”

 

FURTHER READING
722 Miles: The Building of the Subways by Clifton Hood
The Race Underground by Doug Most — read our interview with the author here
Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway by the New York Transit Museum
New York Subways: An Illustrated History of New York City’s Transit Cars by Gene Sansone

EXHIBITIONS

The New York Transit Museum has examples of early subway cars, as well as other aspects of the first subway experience, including turnstiles, ticket booths and more.

FURTHER LISTENING
For some more information on New York City transportation history, dive back into our five-part transportation series.

….as well as our show on Alfred Ely Beach and the pneumatic tube subway.

 

Special thanks to Kieran Gannon for helping with editing this week’s show.