Tag Archives: Alfred Ely Beach

The little engine that could in downtown Manhattan

Once upon a time, in December 1900, there was a toy store on 67 Cortlandt Street with very, very sad display windows. The store’s owner, Robert Ingersoll, was best known for his ‘dollar watches’ and, on the success of those, had branched out to include other items for sale, including a great variety of toys and novelties.

But he was not advertising wizard. Ingersoll tried to emulate the windows of the great department stores uptown, but try as he might, the items in his display just sat there, garnering little interest. The fire engines for play, the little trains and boats, toy elephants and clown dolls. People rushed by without a second glance.

They caught no one’s eye, until one day came along Joshua Cowen, a tinkerer and inventor with some training at the Cooper Institute and gifted with a wild imagination. He made small electrical trinkets at an office on 24 Murray Street, just a few blocks north from Ingersoll’s little store, and reveled at coming up with unique ways to utilize electrical power.

Cowen saw the display of toys and immediately thought of an invention he was working on. He ran into Ingersoll’s shop and proposed an idea to the shop owner. What if we could make something that the big department stores hadn’t thought of yet? What if we grabbed the attention of shoppers by putting a little momentum into your window display?

Ingersoll liked the idea and soon installed Cowen’s ideas among his merchandise — a rudimentary electric train, “resembl[ing] the maintenance cars…towed around the city by work trolley” [source], an ingenous little device that wove between toys along a small track.

It did the trick. In fact, the electric train, which Cowen sold to Ingersoll for four dollars, was then itself sold to a customer. So Ingersoll asked for six more. From there came demand from other stores, and Cowen suddenly had himself a new business, manufacturing the new toys under a brand taken from his own middle name — Lionel Trains.

From this odd start — built as an advertising ploy — Lionel Train become the leading name in toy trains and a perennial favorite of the Christmas season. In 1999, the Lionel train was named the 4th greatest toy of the 20th Century, beating all by crayons, yo-yos and Barbie dolls.

By the way, do you think Cohen, busily making his miniature trains above ground, knew that right underneath his office at 24 Murray Street was the sole tunnel made for New York’s very first underground train from the 1870s — the pneumatic transit of Alfred Ely Beach?

The Short-Lived Thrill of the Windy Subway


The New York subway was particularly bad this week, with a rainstorm that caused a transit calamity, paralyzing trains and leaving New Yorkers in hot, muggy tunnels waiting for transportation that never arrived. (Gothamist tries to get to the bottom of just exactly why our subway keeps flooding.)

However, maybe we wouldnt have this problem if, instead of electric tracks snaking under the city, we had a subway system powered …. by wind!

That was the basic premise for New York City’s first subterranean not-so-mass transit system, built in 1870. Alfred Ely Beach was a pioneer who predicted the city’s future underground trafficways. He just chose the wrong way of going about it.

Alfred visualed a system driven by air-power — literally a powerful fan that would push a car down a tube from one destination to another, in the same way bank drive-thrus utilize cans that zip the deposits of car-bound account holders down suction tubes to the tellers inside. (Picture Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

The city was initially skeptical of such an idea, so Beach decided to build it without a permit. What I find striking about this is the location of Beach’s tunnel was a mere block away from City Hall. That, my friends, is what is called brio, also known as cojones.

The new subway — the Beach Pneumatic Transit — went all of one block, just east of City Hall, from Warren Street to Murray, underneath the length of a department store, and was intended as a mere demonstraton for a larger model.

Instead it became a novelty, drawing thrill-seekers in the same way the new spectacles at Coney Island later would. It was only a single car, but bedecked with draperies and gaslamps and even musicians, of a non-panhandling type not currently seen in today’s subways.

It operated for three years, until 1873, when the enthusuasm for the new device evaporated in the financial crash of that year. Beach was never able to convince the city of the usefulness of his creation, owing in part to Tammany Hall’s deep corruption of the time.

Other technology effectively knocked the wind out of Beach’s brainchild; a locomotive-drawn elevated track had been successfully tested up on Greenwich and 9th Ave and (hard to believe now) was preferred to an underground transportation which city residents feared would weaken the foundations of buildings.

That’s just a mere introduction to this weird, wild thingamabob of old from under downtown Manhattan. Check here for many, many other articles of the day describing this oddity.

While standing on a platform on Tuesday, completely drenched in sweat, nothing sounded better than a huge wind tunnel and a drapery-covered subway car.