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Going Underground: The History of the New York Subway System

1900s | June 25, 2019

The New York City subway system, which opened in 1904 and is the world's largest rapid transit system serving over 5.7 million daily riders on weekdays. Source: (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City’s subway system is such an integral part of the city that it is hard to image the Big Apple without it. The city would have a much different look if the underground transit system had never been built and elevated railcars were used instead, as was originally planned. It took a debilitating natural disaster to prove to the people of New York that a subway system was a viable option. Let’s go underground to look at the conception and construction of the New York subway. 

Beach Pneumatic Transit. Source: (nycsubway.org)

The Subway Prototype

New York City was growing fast in the 1800s and it became clear that public transportation was needed to alleviate the congestion on the city streets. Several elevated rail car tracks were built to take people above the streets, but Alfred Ely Beach had a different idea. He wanted to take people underground and out of sight. In 1870, he opened his Beach Pneumatic Transit, a 312-foot long tunnel under Broadway. Although he planned to extend the tunnel, his efforts were stopped for financial reasons. 

New York City in the 1890s. Source: (izismile.com)

Fear of Going Underground

New Yorkers were lukewarm on the idea of underground public transportation. Many feared that the tunnels would collapse. Other thought that they would contract tuberculosis from breathing in the stagnant air in the underground tunnels. People used the Beach Pneumatic Transit, but they still needed convincing that an underground subway system would be beneficial. They got the proof they needed in the winter of 1888. 

THe Great White Hurricane. Source: (6sqft.com)

The Great White Hurricane

On March 11, 1888, it began to snow in New York City. The snowstorm turned into a blizzard – one of the worst ones to ever hit the East Coast. Dubbed the Great White Hurricane, the three-day blizzard dumped up to four feet of snow on New York and the howling, 45 mile per hour wind left snow drifts as high as 50 feet in some places. The blizzard crippled New York City, as well as cities in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. In all that snow, the trains stopped running. In fact, it took several weeks to completely clear the tracks and get the trains moving again. People began to realize that an underground transit system would be unaffected by heavy snows. The Great White Hurricane was the push New Yorkers needed to move key pieces of their infrastructure underground…like telegraph lines and railways. 

Construction of the subway system began in 1900. Source: (stuffnoonecaresabout.com)

Moving Forward on the Subway

In 1894, plans were finalized for the underground subway system. The plans came with a $35 million price tag and the construction contract was awarded to John B. McDonald and the Rapid Transit Construction Company. As part of the contract, the RTCC would retain ownership of the railway lines and lease them to the city for 50-years. Construction on the project started in 1900. 

Building the subway was a challenging job. Source: (bnproducts.com)

The Tough Task of Tunneling

Although subsequent subway tunnels were constructed solely underground, the first subway line was built using a process called “cut and cover.” In a sense, a giant trench was dug and then a top was constructed over it. Most of the digging was done at night by men using pickaxes and lanterns. During the day, the debris was cleaned up and removed. Building the subway meant maneuvering around various underground obstacles, such as water and sewer lines, gas and electrical lines, basements, building foundations, and even a bank vault. Throughout the construction process, only three major accidents happened, resulting in 16 deaths. 

Opening day of the New York subway. Source: (americanhistory.si.edu)

A Memorable First Day

The subway was complete and ready to take passengers on October 27, 1904. On that day, New Yorkers were abuzz about the new mode of transportation. The first line to open was a 9.1-mile track from City Hall in Lower Manhattan to 145st Street and Broadway in Harlem. Among the 28 stopped on this route were stops at Grand Central Terminal and Times Square. At 2.35 p.m. on October 27, New York City Mayor George McClellan boarded the first subway car, along with contractors and financial investors. They took the first New York subway ride and deemed it safe for the public. And the public came out in droves to try it for themselves. That day, the subway system carried 150,000 passengers at a nickel a ride. 

Source: (nycsubway.org)

Good-Bye, Elevated Rails

The elevated train lines in New York were quickly closed and the routes were incorporated into the underground transit system. Removing the elevated lines and moving commuters underground greatly reduced the congestion in the streets of the city. 

Source: (vanityfair.com)

The New York Subway Today

The largest and busiest underground transit system in the world, the New York subway is now an icon of the city. Roughly 4.5 million passengers take the subway every day. It has become more than a form of public transportation. It has become a slice of Americana that has been featured in books, songs, movies, TV shows, music videos, and video games. 

Tags: the New York Subway System

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.