How The New York City Subway Came To Be

By | April 12, 2021

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The City Hall station of the I.R.T. Lexington Avenue Line, sometime between 1900 and 1904, part of the first underground line of the subway that opened on October 27, 1904. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

On October 27, 1904, the New York City Subway opened its doors to allow citizens of the Big Apple to make their way across the city that never sleeps at any time, day or night. The New York City subway system may not be the oldest in the world or even in the United States (those titles belong to London and Boston, respectively), but since its inception, it's grown to be the largest subway system in the country.

The New York City Subway

As New York City expanded in the late 19th century, Mayor Abram Hewitt (the "father of the subway") recognized that people who lived outside Manhattan needed a new method of transportation into the city center that wouldn't clog the streets. He was only in office for one year, between 1887 and 1888, but he proposed an underground rapid transit system, resulting in the 1891 New York Rapid Transit Act, which guaranteed any city in the state with more than 1 million inhabitants the cash and resources to build rapid transit.

Once the money was available from the state, entrepreneurs started moving quickly. John B. McDonald won a $35 million contract for the Rapid Transit Construction Company, which would later be known as the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, giving them a 50-year operating lease. Although some of them feared tunnel collapses and poor air quality, the city went all-in on sending its inhabitants underground.

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Subway construction in the Bowery, 1901. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Building The New York City Subway System

Today, there are numerous means of building an underground subway system, such as giant tunnel-boring machines, conveyor systems to remove dirt, and concrete tunnel liners that speed up production without disrupting life above ground. That wasn't the case in the 1890s, when the I.R.T.C. used open excavation to dig beneath the city. Moving around ground water, rock formations, and the canal from which Canal Street gets its name, crews drilled at night and then blasted the rocks with dynamite early in the morning, a decision that damaged multiple homes during the early stages of the subway's construction. After the A.M. detonations, midday crews removed debris in mule carts, and the whole thing started all over again.

Of course, a single subway line couldn't serve a city as far-flung as New York. While the I.R.T.C. was in charge of the subway line that stretches from City Hall to Times Square and the lines that travel from 145th Street and Broadway, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (today known as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation) had control of the elevated lines in Brooklyn dating back to 1876. This shouldn't have been a big deal, but both companies wanted to be the head honcho, so B.R.T.C built their trains longer and wider so they couldn't run on the I.R.T.C. lines. Meanwhile, the city appointed the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad to run the Eighth Avenue line in 1932, making it the first subway service actually run by the city.

Hopping between the different lines was a headache both for riders and the city, so by 1940, the city subsumed the I.R.T.C. and B.R.T.C. and began a unification project that closed many of Brooklyn's elevated lines while creating easier transfer points. On June 15, 1953, the New York State Legislator created a governing body to deal specifically with public transit, initially called the New York City Transit Authority.