Nearly 141 years ago, something quite momentous happened in New York history: the first subway line was opened to the public. The system was the invention of Alfred Ely Beach and his company Beach Pneumatic Transit Company. Beach put up $350,000 of his own money to build the first prototype and tunnel and his company managed to put it together, somewhat covertly, in just 58 days. The tunnel measured about 312 feet long, eight feet in diameter, and was completed in 1870.
When Beach initially filed for permits to construct the project beneath Broadway, on the eastern edge of what we know today to be Tribeca, he claimed that he was simply building postal tubes beneath the street. Beach later had the permits amended, slyly claiming he was excavating a single large tunnel wherein the smaller tubes could reside. Construction was however obvious and well-documented by the papers, but Beach remained hush until the New York Tribune published an article—which many suspect was planted—a few weeks before the line’s opening.
The line was the first attempt to build an underground public transit system in New York City. And unlike the subway we know today, this system was powered pneumatically, using air pressure in the tube (think Jetsons if you’re unfamiliar).
The line’s opening was a momentous occasion but not without problems. Although the ribbon was cut February 26, 1870, the subway wouldn’t move a soul for at least another week due to engine failure. But once the appropriate repairs were made, passengers (22 at a time) enjoyed a very, very short journey under Broadway that took them from Warren to Murray Street and back.
Riders would enter via a clothing store located at 260 Broadway on the southwest corner of Warren Street and be welcomed into a very ornate and luxurious station filled with frescoes, easy chairs, zirconia lamps, statues and even a goldfish pond to contemplate upon while waiting to board. Each rider paid a 25 cent admission which went to the Union Home and School for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans. Given the short ride, which was about a block long, most of those who boarded did so simply out of curiosity.
More than 11,000 people rode the first two weeks Beach’s line was open, and 400,000 rides were given in the first year. Beach hoped to extend the project about five miles to reach Central Park, but his dream was never realized for an array of reasons, including the stock market crash of 1873, various political hurdles, and the introduction of the city’s elevated railway. By the time Beach got the OK to build more track in 1873, the underground line had fallen out of favor. The project shuttered that same year and the tunnel entrance was sealed with the subway car inside. Today the station that was has been eaten up by the present day City Hall Station along the N/R line under Broadway.
If you want to see more of what this subway looked like, your don’t need to go far, just visit your local Subway…sandwich shop! According to blogger/historian Rob Macdougall:
There is one very simple way to see Beach’s railway…Go to a Subway shop–the fast-food chain, you know, where you can buy a six-inch Cold Cut Trio?–and lo! Pasted upon the walls are pictures of Beach’s invention. Whoever was designing the chainwide decor for Subway simply clipped out a bunch of old public-domain illustrations of subways, including three that originally ran in Scientific American in the 1870s. Look for the pictures that depict an almost perfectly round (save for a slight groove in the bottom) brick-lined subway tunnel, and a rounded subway car interior. These are Beach’s own handpicked illustrations for what was to be an ultra-million-dollar venture.
- MAP: Here’s what the NYC subway system looked like in 1939
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