From The Race Underground: Boston, New York and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway, by Doug Most. Reprinted by arrangement with Saint Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2014, by Doug Most.
A Secret Subway
They came on foot and by carriage, and from the city and around the country. On September 12, 1867, thousands of people lined up outside the Fourteenth Street Armory, a hulking gray building in downtown New York, to see what the future held for them. The women wore hoop skirts and their finest bonnets, the men came in their dark suits and perfectly knotted ties. The American Institute Fair was more than an event. It was a monument to the times, the place to come and see the latest crazy ideas that the inventors of the day had dreamed up and to get a glimpse into the fantastic future. This year one particular innovation that a reporter for The New York Times had seen during a sneak preview and raved about in an article was turning the 37th year of the fair into a spectacle before it even opened.
The American Institute Fair was a collection of novelties, some practical, some bizarre, that had been started in 1829 as a way to encourage innovation in the country. For a number of years the fair had no permanent home, until it grew so big that organizers decided it deserved its own space. A group of financiers, including August Belmont and William Cullen Bryant, two of New York’s richest men, imagined a warehouse-sized building more grand than London’s glittering Crystal Palace. And on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, in the same place where George Washington’s troops had once been chased across a field by redcoats, that’s what they built. Their own Crystal Palace was shaped like a Greek cross and topped by an enormous 123-foot high dome, the tallest in America. With eighteen hundred tons of iron and fifteen thousand panes of clear enameled glass, there was nothing else like it. When it opened on July 14, 1853, President Franklin Pierce was there to welcome in a new era, when dazzling advances in technology and science would define the country’s direction.
One year later at the fair, a clever mechanic named Elisha Graves Otis showed how climbing hundreds of stairs no longer had to be an obstacle for cities to grow up. His elevator, a new invention that was pulled up by ropes, could not only be safe, but it would herald in the age of buildings much taller than eight, ten or twelve stories. With a crowd standing around his elevator, Otis rode it to its highest level, and, for the riveted audience below, reached out and cut the elevator’s only rope. Instead of plummeting down, he fell only a few inches and then stopped, showing everybody how the safety catch he had installed worked.
A few years after that, in 1856, another promising inventor and entrepreneur brought a typewriter he’d been tinkering with to the fair. A short and skinny thirty-year old man with slicked back black hair and a razor thin mustache, Alfred Beach was a devoted churchgoer and opera lover who rose early and went to bed early. When he was awake, he was in perpetual motion, exercising regularly and working with one thing or another. He despised vacations. Any spare time that he had, he spent toying with wires, cables, or any contraption he could get his hands on, always with the hope of understanding how it worked, and how it could be improved.
In 1848, after Beach had spent almost an entire year exploring the inner workings of the typewriter, he discovered that by having the keys strike both sides of the paper rather than one side, it would create embossed, or raised, letters that could be felt. He knew that if the letters could be felt with the fingertips, then the blind would be able to read. The device worked, and it won him praise from fellow inventors and affirmed in his own mind a desire to do something even greater. It took him years to refine his idea enough to where he was comfortable showing it to the world. And when he finally brought it to the American Institute Fair in 1856, it was a hit. It was recognized as the most advanced typewriting machine yet, and won first prize and a gold medal.
Those were the sort of inventions that drew people every year to the fair, sometimes more than five thousand a day. And Crystal Palace was as much of an attraction as the inventions inside. The palace was described as “beautiful beyond description.” It was also thought to be indestructible thanks to its cast-iron beams. But on October 5, 1858, with two thousand people roaming the exhibitions, one of the storage rooms caught on fire. In minutes the flames had shot through the wood flooring and began melting the walls and roof. As the crowd raced outside to safety, Crystal Palace was swallowed up by sparks, smoke and flames until it collapsed into a heap. Days later, just five years after its celebrated opening, it was nothing but a pile of rubble. Scavengers came to sift through the remains in hopes of finding a souvenir from the building that was supposed to signal America’s new dawn of invention.
Erecting a new permanent home was out of the question. In 1867 its home was the Fourteenth Street Armory, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, a building as plain as Crystal Palace was extravagant. Inside, there were tables and booths showing off the dreams of hundreds of inventors. Medical instruments, pianos, sewing machines, steam engines, wagons, sleighs, electric telegraphs, boots, hats, gloves, kitchen utensils, furniture, artificial limbs, wigs, fishing tackle, pocket knives, umbrellas, and toys. There were inventions that rolled along the floor and others that lined the walls. But it was the latest idea from Beach, this one suspended from the ceiling that crowds flocked to see.
Alfred Ely Beach was born into a prestigious family on September 1, 1826, in Springfield, Massachusetts, an hour west of Boston. His father, Moses Yale Beach, owned the New York Sun, a popular daily newspaper that sold for a penny, mostly to the city’s working class. He sent his boy to Monson Academy, one of the very best private schools, near Springfield. Alfred Beach learned from his father at an early age that it was fine to dream big, but more important to respect an honest day’s work. His first taste of labor was as a newsboy, hawking the Sun on the streets of New York. From there he moved on to work in the press room, where he set type and left each day covered in ink and sweat. And after that he moved up to the newsroom, first to do menial accounting work, and then to work as a reporter.
He loved working with his father. But he dreamed of striking out on his own. In 1845, another young man from Massachusetts named Rufus Porter presented him with that chance. Porter had just published the very first issue of a weekly magazine he created, called Scientific American. It was four pages and it sold for a subscription rate of two dollars per year. The first edition included a note from Porter explaining how useful he believed his publication could be. “As a family newspaper,” Porter wrote, “it will convey more useful intelligence to children and young people, than five times its cost in school instruction.”
Scientific American was published every Thursday morning and filled with original engravings of new inventions, improvements or ideas, along with scientific essays, poems and even things completely unrelated to science, like moral and religious musings. But Porter saw himself as more than an inventor or an editor. He was also an artist who enjoyed painting portraits. Not surprisingly he quickly lost interest in a magazine devoted to science and barely ten months after he founded Scientific American, Porter went looking for a buyer.
Beach was twenty years old and through his father’s newspaper he saw the value of the printed word. But he didn’t have the money to go it alone. He needed a partner. Thinking back to his days at his private school in Massachusetts, he reached out a good friend that he thought might make the perfect business partner. Two years older than Beach, Orson Desaix Munn moved to New York and in July 1846 the two of them paid $800 for the tiny, obscure technical magazine and its subscription list of two hundred names. It would mark the beginning of a friendship and partnership that would last nearly fifty years.
Scientific American had only a few hundred subscribers under Rufus Porter. But as Alfred Beach and Orson Munn learned once they took it over, inventors of the day saw real value in their magazine. The inventors wanted a dreamer like themselves to help them, someone who saw the same potential in their ideas as they did. Beach and Munn had barely settled into their offices in 1846 when they were besieged with letters from inventors, or sometimes with unannounced visits. The requests were always the same: Help me apply for a patent and secure it and I’ll pay whatever it takes. Beach and Munn realized that Scientific American was more than a magazine. It was a trusted brand.
Late in 1846, the two launched a new business. If an inventor had an idea, the owners of the Scientific American Patent Agency would happily take their money, help them write the perfect patent application and track the progress of it once it reached the U.S. Patent Office in Washington. There was no other business like it in the country, and before long Beach was traveling to Washington every two weeks to monitor the hundreds of patents he or Munn helped write. Eventually the business was filing three thousand patents a year and Beach was forced to split his time between New York and a branch office in Washington, directly across the street from the patent office. The patent business earned Beach a fortune and some measure of fame. He became a Pied Piper of sorts for the American inventor, the one they all sought out for advice, for opinions or for help with a patent. Thomas Edison walked in one day to show Beach a device he called the phonograph. Beach turned a crank on Edison’s small machine and a voice piped up, “Good morning, sir. How are you? How do you like the talking box.” He liked it, and he helped Edison file a patent. He also would help Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel F. B. Morse and thousands more.
But it was Scientific American that gave Beach the platform he craved to promote his own personal interests and inventions. Quite quickly, Beach and Munn had been able to resurrect the magazine by focusing its content less on the highly technical science stories, and more on what they knew best, curious inventions and practical, interesting patents. Simply by printing a weekly list of patents given to them directly from the U.S. Patent Office, the number of people who subscribed to Scientific American took off and by 1848, not even two years after they bought it, the circulation passed 10,000 readers.
Beach was becoming a man of real importance. When his father decided in 1848 to hand over management of his newspaper to his two sons, Moses and Alfred, Alfred’s prominence reached even greater heights. He owned the most respected and lucrative science magazine in the country. He had the attention of every serious and not-so-serious inventor across the land. And now he was running a daily newspaper with more than fifty thousand readers in the nation’s largest city. He had a vast and growing audience riveted on his every opinion. And he was only twenty-two years old.
The mid-nineteenth century was a magical time for anybody who loved to tinker and had good ideas and good hands. Inventors were changing the way people lived their lives and ran their businesses. Elias Howe, not yet thirty years old, introduced his sewing machine in 1846, and within only a few years the garment-making industry had been revolutionized and made clothes more affordable. A year later, a middle-aged inventor from Charlestown, Massachusetts named Samuel Morse, who had been working for more than a decade to perfect his idea to speed up long-distance, person-to-person communications, received a patent for an invention called the telegraph. In 1848, a blacksmith from New Bedford changed the whaling industry with a new type of harpoon. And farming was in the midst of huge change. The American economy relied heavily on the success of the farmer who might spend an entire day doing backbreaking work in the fields to plow or harvest only a single acre. But as 1850 approached, each passing year brought farmers more relief. A grain elevator invented in Buffalo dramatically sped up the way grain could be hoisted from ships into bins. The production of artificial manure to help crops grow began to take off, and the artificial fertilizer industry was born. New inventions allowed farmers who were previously able to manage only a dozen acres to handle a hundred or more. Amid all this upheaval, no industry underwent more dramatic change than the transportation industry.
In 1825, most everybody who lived in cities got to work the same way. They walked. Only the rich could afford to own or hire a private carriage and the idea of multiple people riding together in the same vehicle seemed farfetched. New York City had more than two hundred thousand residents who were mostly crowded into a small portion of the island. Only as more immigrants arrived, and the population grew, did the footprint of the livable parts of New York expand. That’s when Abraham Brower saw opportunity.
Brower asked the coach-making business of Wade & Leverich in 1827 to design and build for him a vehicle that could hold twelve people. The vehicle, which he called “Accommodation” when it was finished, had large wooden wheels with spokes, open sides and two compartments inside, each with a forward-facing and backward-facing seat for three people. Steps on the side made getting in and out easy, and for a flat fare of one shilling, passengers could be whisked almost two miles up and down Broadway. In bad weather, the driver would sometimes go slightly out of his way to get a passenger closer to home.
Emboldened by the success of “Accommodation,” Brower added a second vehicle with some improvements. The door was in the back, with iron stairs, and inside the seats ran lengthwise instead of across. The new design made the ride more social for passengers, thus the name “Sociable” was painted on its side. Boston, in the same year, had seen a similar service introduced on a regular schedule. For twelve cents, passengers could ride between South Boston and the downtown area. But no other American city jumped on the experiment and for a short period Boston and New York were alone with these small, local, transportation services.
While Americans were just getting used to the idea of riding with others, Brower began to hear of an even bigger, more lumbering vehicle, taking over the streets of Paris and London. It was called an omnibus, and on a spring day in 1831, he introduced it to the streets of New York. The sight of the driver sitting up on a raised seat and a small boy standing on the rear steps to collect the twelve and one-half cent fare was jarring for New Yorkers at first. But before long more than a hundred decorated omnibuses were crowding the streets of the city, with names painted on the sides, from “George Washington” “to Lady Washington” to “Benjamin Franklin.” They were popular. And they caused complete chaos.
For the individual owners of the omnibuses, nothing mattered more than the paying passenger. Drivers whipped their horses repeatedly to speed them past a competitor to the next potential fare, even if it meant a harrowing few seconds for those already on board. Grazing a lamppost to cut a corner, or to cut in front of a rival, was fair game, and pedestrians not paying attention could get maimed by a cornering horse or the trailing carriage. Nobody benefited more from the crowded, jostling cars than the pickpocket. The omnibus, which had started out with such promise, quickly lost favor with the people. “Bedlam on wheels,” is how the New York Herald described it. The bedlam would not last, and it would give way to something better.
On a biting morning in late 1832, Walter Bowne, a former state senator entering his third term as New York mayor, joined a sidewalk crowd of high society gentlemen in top hats and ladies in satin dresses standing in the Bowery district. They came to see where street transit systems were headed. A year earlier, Bowne had signed an ordinance allowing the New York & Harlem Railroad Company to build a “single or double railroad” between the Harlem River and Twenty Third Street. It was promised to the city that a transportation system on rails would be a dramatic upgrade for passengers, a smoother and faster ride than wooden wheels on cobblestone streets, and much easier for the horses. It took months for a route to be agreed upon, and on November 26, 1832, shouting spectators lined the downtown streets to come see what they had been told was the future of transportation.
Flat iron strips had been fastened to blocks of stone imbedded in the ground and steel wheels were designed with grooves to ride directly on the rails. The new carriages, on the outside, looked no different than omnibuses except they were bigger, able to carry up to thirty people. But inside, the three compartments each had their own entrance door and the seats and sides were lined with a fine, plush cloth.
When the signal was given, the horses trotted off and the first carriage filled with city officials zipped away behind them at a speed the spectators had never seen. It caused some to even gasp, with a mixture of fear and excitement. A second car followed right behind carrying the top men of the New York & Harlem Railroad Company. As the vehicles pulled away, the railroad officials knew that for their experiment to succeed financially passengers would have to feel safe riding on rails rather than the security of the solid street they’d grown accustomed to. They would need to prove that starting, and more importantly, stopping, was as simple as applying the brake designed to grind the wheels to a halt. The two carriages had gone only a few blocks when John Lozier, the vice president of the company, stood at the corner of Bond Street. As the trotting horses neared, he raised one arm. The driver of the first car quickly brought his vehicle to a stop. But the driver of the second, thinking he was still steering an omnibus, pulled on the reigns of the horses rather than applying the brake as he’d been taught. The horses neighed and slowed, but they couldn’t stop in time, and they collided into the first car. The passengers emerged unscathed, and the damage to the cars was minimal. Other than a few snickers from the spectators, what perhaps was the first street railway accident in the United States could do nothing to dampen the excitement of the ride that preceded it.
“This event will go down in the history of our country as the greatest achievement of man,” Mayor Bowne said afterward.
The Courier & Inquirer, one of New York’s leading papers of the day, gushed over the event.
“Those who made violent objections to laying down these tracks and fancied a thousand dangers to the passing traveler, now look at the work with pleasure and surprise,” the paper wrote the next day.
By the 1840s the omnibus was not even a decade old on the streets of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albany and Cincinnati. But already it was dying. A respected doctor and author named Asa Greene had made the routine challenge of crossing Broadway sound like a modern-day video game. “You must button your coat tight about you, see that your shoes are secure at the heels, settle your hat firmly on your head, look up street and down street, at the self-same moment, to see what carts and carriages are upon you, and then run for your life.”
The street railway car carried more passengers, rode faster and provided a quieter, smoother ride than the omnibus, and any fears that people had of its safety vanished once they climbed on board. The “age of the omnibus” that the newspapers had been so quick to herald only a few years earlier was over. The age of the street railway was here.
On November 3, 1849, Alfred Beach could see clear down to the Hudson River from his top-floor office in downtown New York. Scientific American that morning published an article he wrote suggesting just about the craziest idea that New Yorkers had ever heard. It would be laughed at, mocked, and, ultimately, ignored. Nobody took it seriously in the days and weeks after it appeared, except for the young man who wrote it.
Looking out from his window at the corner of Fulton and Nassau streets in one of the city’s tallest buildings, Beach could look up and see the next tall building being built, or he could look out to the water and see the parade of boats floating past in the New York harbor. It used to be that the waters were filled mostly with tugboats, fishing boats, sloops and the occasional mammoth steamship pulling in from Europe after the long crossing. But more recently, Beach was seeing a new type of boat dominate the harbor. Ferry boats, operated by more than twenty different competing lines, were whisking an increasing tide of passengers out of Manhattan and taking them to the nearby shores of New Jersey, Staten Island or Brooklyn. The suburbs were calling, luring city residents with open land, affordable rents, and a peacefulness that made New York feel increasingly less appealing. But there was also another, more troubling, reason that the big city no longer held the allure it once did.
On the chopped up streets, garbage and debris was mixing with the perfume of horse-drawn carriages and piles of dung to create an odor that was almost unbearable to breathe in. And the packed sidewalks and overcrowded streets were grinding New York to an angry standstill. Some mornings the carriages would be forced to stand motionless for half an hour or longer. When they finally moved at all, it was inches or feet at a time. One horse would lurch forward, then another, and just when it seemed as if the congestion was about to ease, it wouldn’t. All day long, drivers jostled with other drivers, whipping their own horses or the one next to them competing for passengers. The horses didn’t like it any more than the well-dressed passengers inside the carriages they were pulling. The animals neighed at each other and sometimes raised up their front legs, causing fear and pandemonium. Pedestrians who tried to cross the street knew the risk they were taking carried deadly consequences with one misstep.
“We can travel from New York half-way to Philadelphia in less time than the length of Broadway,” The New York Tribune wrote one day. In all of this clutter, Beach didn’t see a problem. From high above the city streets, he saw opportunity.
In 1849, Beach, by now sporting the skinny mustache that would become his trademark feature, lived only a few blocks from his office. And yet dodging the horses, the carriages and the throngs of people each day turned his short walk from his office near City Hall to his house over on West 20th Street into a treacherous hour-long commute. After three years of listening to a parade of inventors promote their dreams to him, Beach decided it was time to share his own dream for his city and he published his essay in Scientific American.
“Nothing less than a railway underneath, instead of one above,” he wrote. “Railway life down stairs, instead of railway life up stairs. The idea is at least original, but anything except feasible, that is so far as the expense is concerned, for there would lie no difficulty in executing the work. To tunnel Broadway through the whole length, with openings and stairways at every corner. This subterranean passage is to be laid down with double track, with a road for foot passengers on either side – the whole to be brilliantly lighted with gas. The cars, which are to be drawn by horses, will stop ten seconds at every corner – thus performing the trip up and down, including stops, in about an hour.”
Beach’s proposal went nowhere. The newspapers ridiculed him and New Yorkers sneered. Who would risk going down there under the streets and sidewalks? That’s where you go when you’re dead. It was ludicrous. “It’s better to wait for the Devil than to make roads down into hell,” one critic said of the idea of subways. Only somebody who worked at a science magazine would believe something so outrageous could actually work. On and on the criticism went. Reluctantly, Beach took the hint and moved on.
On March 4, 1861, ignoring the advice of those who feared for his safety, President-elect Abraham Lincoln decided to travel through the streets of Washington to his inauguration with President James Buchanan. Together, in a horse-drawn carriage, they rode from the Willard Hotel to the steps of the Capitol Building. In the two months leading up to the inauguration, Texas, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina had all seceded from the Union, and a civil war appeared unavoidable. Yet in his speech Lincoln promised peace until an attack on his people left him no choice.
“There needs to be no bloodshed or violence,” Lincoln said, “and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority.” Five weeks later it was, with the first shots fired at Fort Sumter. Not even the Civil War, however, would slow the transportation revolution underway. On January 9, 1863, nine days after Lincoln ended slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation, workers in London achieved one of mankind’s greatest industrial breakthroughs. After four years of digging through mostly thick clay and rock, London opened the world’s first subway.
But while London’s subway, which came to be called the Underground, proved that a long tunnel could be built beneath a city to carry trains and move millions of passengers, there were numerous fundamental flaws to it. Those trains were powered by steam, and from the very first day the tunnels were filled with dark soot, black smoke and showers of sparks which made for an altogether miserable traveling experience. Even the Chief Inspector of Railways in Great Britain, Captain Douglas Galton, cautioned other cities from following London’s lead. “An underground road is enormously expensive to construct,” he said. “It greatly interferes with street traffic during construction, from the large quantities of material to be removed and brought to the surface; it can never be wholesome or free of deleterious gases, and in foggy weather it is always full of thick atmosphere, which increases the liability to accident and is very disagreeable to passengers.” A rousing endorsement to a historical achievement it was not.
Beach believed the air in a subway had to feel no different than the air above ground, and just like he had taken apart the typewriter and made it better, he set to work to improve upon London’s breakthrough. Five weeks after the underground Metropolitan Railway opened (and introduced “the metro” into the lexicon of transportation) Beach found his inspiration.
While Londoners were still buzzing over their new subway, another invention in the same city caught Beach’s eye. The British Postal Service had approved a charter for a British engineer named T.W. Rammell and his partner, J. Latimer Clark. The two men had designed an underground, airtight tube that could carry mail and packages the short distance between a London post office and nearby suburb. Distributing the mail throughout the world’s largest city was an immense and time-consuming task, and Rammell and Clark promised to make it easier. Their tube was only four feet in diameter, hardly big enough to carry people, but what excited Beach, and impressed British postal officials, was how the mail was moved inside Rammell’s tube.
With a thirty-horsepower steam engine, Rammell produced compressed air that could blow a five-foot long canister through the tube. The tube could carry 120 mailbags a day, blowing them the one-quarter mile in fifty-five seconds, a huge improvement over the ten minutes it took workers to push mail carts the same distance. It was so efficient that the post office gave Rammell a contract to build a maze of forty-eight tubes under London’s streets. When Beach heard how well this pneumatic propulsion system worked, that it had been tested successfully with people on board, and that a couple of curious daredevils had even managed to climb aboard it for a short joyride, he was more certain than ever. It was clean. It was smooth. And when Mechanics Magazine wrote of Rammell’s invention, “We feel tolerably certain that the day is not very distant when metropolitan railway traffic can be conducted on this principle with so much success,” Beach was convinced.
In 1865, he did for himself what he had done thousands of times for other inventors. He began the application process for a patent and set his eyes on the 1867 American Institute Fair.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in this metropolis of the commerce of the new world, the American Institute uplifts the banner of labor and creative art,” Horace Greeley, the president of the institute and longtime editor of the New York Tribune told the thousands gathered on the Armory’s floor in his opening address on September 12, 1867. He spoke about America’s ability to create tools for farming that were far superior to anything seen in Great Britain. “No nation on earth can make them as good in quality or as cheap in price as we can make them here.”
His speech ended with loud applause and the doors to the fair were thrown open.
Alfred Beach was there. And instead of one invention, he came with two. One was a small tube, twenty-four feet long and two feet wide, which was built to move letters and small packages through it with air blown by a fan. But most visitors barely stopped to study it.
His second idea was suspended from the ceiling by strong cables, and it stretched across the vast room, to all four corners. There was a long plywood tube, and fitted snugly inside of it, with only an inch to spare on the sides, was a cylindrical car with an open top that was big enough to hold ten people. The car rested on four wheels and a steam engine positioned at one end of the tube powered a large fan that blew the car on its rails. When the fan was reversed, it acted like a vacuum and literally sucked the car back to its starting point. Throngs of people would stand for hours beneath the tube, lining up to ride it or simply to watch the car go back and forth. Beach, himself, made sure everybody at the fair, in the city, and beyond, knew about the excitement surrounding his creation.
In an article in Scientific American, Beach wrote just before the fair opened that he had come up with a transportation system that was as “swift as Aeolus (god of Breezes) and silent as “Somnus (god of sleep and dreams).”
Halfway through the fair, on October 19, another article on Beach’s pneumatic tube appeared in Scientific American. At the time that his article appeared, more than twenty five thousand people had already ridden the tube and a new line was forming every day. Beach wanted to make sure the crowds kept coming.
“The most novel and attractive feature of the exhibition is by general consent conceded to be the pneumatic railway, erected by Mr. A. E. Beach,” the article began. It spared no words of self-praise. “The car fits the tube like a piston and travels both ways with the utmost regularity and steadiness. Nothing can be more gentle and pleasant than the start and stoppage; no jerking or wrenching of any kind is observable.”
The article focused on the railway’s details, but in one line, it planted the notion that perhaps the pneumatic railway was the future of transportation. “It is probable that a pneumatic railway of considerable length for regular traffic will soon be laid down near New York.”
Of the hundreds of inventions that filled the floor of the Armory for six weeks, Beach’s pneumatic tube was the sensation that could not be ignored. Everybody wanted to ride on it, and by the time the fair closed in November, more than seventy five thousand people had. Beach did not want anybody to forget what they had witnessed, so that he could begin to push the idea with New York’s lawmakers. He published a pamphlet in which he described in the simplest terms how his pneumatic railway worked.
“A tube, a car, a revolving fan!” he wrote. “Little more is required. The ponderous locomotive, with its various appurtenances, is dispensed with, and the light aerial fluid that we breathe is the substituted motor.”
New Yorkers believed.
“Passengers by a through city tube could be carried from City Hall to Madison Square in five minutes, to Harlem and Manhattanville in fourteen minutes, to Washington Heights in twenty minutes, and by sub-river to Jersey City or Hoboken in five minutes,” the Times wrote after the fair had ended.
Beach was jubilant. Just as it had in 1856 for his typewriter, the American Institute Fair once again awarded him its top prize, and New Yorkers were buzzing with talk about this sleek, quiet, smooth riding train and how Alfred Beach had struck upon a solution to the overcrowding that everybody was clamoring for. Everybody, that is, except for the only person who really mattered, a three-hundred-pound state senator who also happened to be the crime boss who ruled New York City.
William Marcy “Boss Tweed” Jr. ran the most corrupt political machine in the country, Tammany Hall, and it was tied in closely to the city’s omnibus system. Tweed, with his blue eyes and long mess of a gray beard, stood six feet tall and was grotesquely overweight. Nothing happened in his city without his approval.
Born into a Scottish-American family in 1823, he joined his father’s business making chairs as a boy and in his early twenties he showed his outgoing spirit by convincing some 75 friends and strangers to join a fire company he was starting up. It came to be known as “Big Six” and it was the first sign of the power of persuasion that Tweed could have over people. His men wore red shirts, they elected their husky leader as foreman and soon he was wearing a white fire coat while leading Americus Engine Company Number 6 in to battle fires. It proved to be a short-lived career for him when the city’s chief fire engineer booted him out for fighting with other fire companies, but all that did was raise Tweed’s profile in a city where Democrats were hungry for leaders. They drafted him to run for assistant alderman as a 27-year-old in 1850 and he lost. But a year later he was back, and this time his victory marked the beginning of what would be two decades of ruling the city by whatever means necessary.
Using kickbacks, violence and bribery, Tweed became the third largest landowner in the city and one of its richest men (a point he took great pride in, by flaunting his giant mansions, private cars, yachts and a diamond pin that he wore every day on his shirt). For years, as New York’s deputy street commissioner and later as public works commissioner, he extorted a nickel out of every omnibus fare in the city. And with twenty-nine bus lines and fourteen horse-pulled lines carrying more than one hundred million passengers a year in New York, Tweed had become a very wealthy man. Boss Tweed, determined to maintain his stranglehold on the city’s street transit system, blocked any attempt that came along that might threaten his empire, with a whisper, a nudge, a payoff, a threat or a promise. He instructed those in power, all the way up to the governor’s office, to reject what he said reject and approve what he said approve. And they did. Most men who ran up against Boss Tweed eventually backed down, knowing it was a fight they could never win. One did not.
Tweed refused to give Beach a penny for his project, or to grant him the charter that he needed. In 1868 Tweed was at his most powerful, after the candidates he owned had won city and statewide offices. If he didn’t want something done, it didn’t get done. But Beach was a foe unlike any he’d encountered. He believed that his pneumatic subway was going to change the city, maybe even the world. It was that attitude that drove him in the same year that he unveiled his subway to donate both the money and the land to open the Beach Institute in Savannah, Georgia, a school for freed slaves that was staffed with white teachers from the North. With his school, as with his subway, Beach was determined to build a proud legacy. And nobody, not even the man who ruthlessly reigned over the city, was going to stop him.
Beach knew he couldn’t outmuscle Tweed. And he was far too proud to be bribed and pay Tweed a cut of his subway fares. He would have to outsmart him. In 1869, he applied to the New York state legislature for a charter to build not the giant, people-moving tube he had shown at the fair, but the much smaller one to carry mail. He proposed building an underground mail line near Broadway that would run between Cedar and Warren streets, connect to the main Post office at Liberty Street, and provide even faster mail service than the telegraph. Tweed studied Beach’s proposal carefully. The tubes Beach was proposing to build each had a diameter of just four and a half feet, far too small to carry a train car that could hold people. Satisfied that Beach’s idea posed no threat to him, Tweed and the rest of the state lawmakers granted Beach his fifty-year charter to build mail tubes under the city.
But Beach’s deception had only begun. A few weeks later, he sheepishly returned to the state legislature with a minor request. He asked the lawmakers to amend his charter so he could build one large tube for much less money than it would take to build two smaller ones. Tweed, by then, had moved on to other concerns and nobody questioned Beach’s request. It passed.
That tweak gave Beach the proper paperwork he needed to carry out the most daring project New Yorkers had ever seen. He had no intention or desire to speed up mail service in New York. He was going to build a subway in secret. And he would do it almost directly across from City Hall and Boss Tweed’s minions.
Devlin’s clothing store was a five-story, thriving commercial success. Brothers Daniel and Jeremiah Devlin opened their business in 1843 a few blocks away from City Hall, but when business took off they needed more space for their endless racks of ready-made frocks, suits, umbrellas, underwear, ties, and trousers. One of the reasons the new space near the corner of Warren Street and Broadway worked so well was the gigantic basement, which went two levels deep underground.
Alfred Beach needed just such a space for his own new business, the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company. After scouting for real estate all along Broadway, when he saw the basement of Devlin’s, and he noticed that it could be accessed from the sidewalk of Warren Street, he negotiated a deal with the brothers. For $4,000 dollars a year, starting on December 1, 1868, he leased their entire basement for a period of five years.
Beach spent the next year focused on the single piece of machinery he would need to dig his tunnel. The device he came up with was ingenious. It resembled a hollowed-out barrel, used a water pump to exert pressure and a sharp digging mechanism that could loosen 16 inches of soil with each push forward. He also designed a metal hood over the edge of the shield that would protect his workers from falling debris, or in the catastrophic event of a collapse.
But before he could start digging, a different kind of catastrophe nearly derailed Beach’s project in the fall of 1869. A pair of Boss Tweed cronies schemed to drive up the price of gold by buying it in bulk. By late September the price of gold had risen to an astronomical 137, and by the morning of Friday, September 24, it had risen to 150. Frenzy enveloped Wall Street and riots nearly broke out. The National Guard was put on notice. And yet gold kept rising, to 160, as lunchtime passed. Brokers lives were destroyed, and one left to go home, where he shot himself. By the time the government intervened in the afternoon and sold four million dollars in gold, it was too late. Wall Street’s first “Black Friday” exposed how two men, acting alone, could bring the country to the brink of financial ruin.
Black Friday touched everybody, including Beach, who lost a fortune. But he was too far invested in his subway to stop, and three months after Black Friday, he was ready to start tunneling. In late December of 1869, Beach, his son, Frederick, whom he tapped to be the foreman of the project, and a small group of men started arriving at Devlin’s after the store had closed for the night. They brought down picks, shovels, covered wagons, bricks, lanterns and other tools. Following Beach’s instructions to tunnel south directly under Broadway from Warren Street and then curve slightly to just below Murray Street, the laborers worked quietly to avoid rousing suspicion on the streets above. Night after night, six men would stand inside the shield, while another half dozen would perform the more tedious tasks to polish the tunnel. Some carried out the dirt in the covered wagons, others laid the bricks to line the tunnel, and still others laid the tracks to carry a single car. The walls were painted white, iron rods were installed through the tunnel’s roof up to the pavement, and gaslights and oxygen lamps were hung. It was an efficient operation. But it was also scary work, too claustrophobic for some workers who simply walked off the job. The rumbling from a street railway’s wheels overhead created a terrifying roar that made the late-night work nerve-wracking. Still, thanks to surprisingly soft soil and the efficient tunneling shield, the digging went quickly. On a good night, one crew would dig forward eight feet.
Beach was relieved at how smoothly the work progressed until one night when the shield buckled and the ground shook. The soft dirt had come to an abrupt end and the workers stared at a stone wall in front of them. It was an old Dutch fort from before the Revolutionary War. Beach faced a dilemma. Either the wall had to come down or the project was over. And nobody knew if removing the wall would cause Broadway to buckle or collapse from above. Beach told his men to carefully chip away at it and take it down, stone by stone. It took several nights, and Beach stood by as every stone was removed and passed from worker to worker and carted out into the night. But the ceiling held, the wall came down and the digging resumed.
As hard as Beach tried to keep the work a secret from the world above, it was impossible. The operation required wooden scaffolding and iron tubes and occasional pieces of enormous machinery that would arrive at the corner of Broadway and Warren, where it would sit for hours or days before mysteriously disappearing down the steps, never to be seen again.
New York Mayor Abraham Hall, one of Boss Tweed’s loyalists, grew increasingly suspicious of what the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company was up to, and when a section of Broadway near Warren Street sunk ever so slightly, the mayor acted. On January 3, 1870, he sent an aide over to the construction site with a written order, demanding to be let in so he could inspect the work. He got nowhere. Beach’s men had strict orders to let nobody in and to remind anyone who tried that they were granted a charter by the state to complete their tunnel. As for whether his work was responsible for that minor sinking of Broadway, the response from Beach was simple: Nonsense! The New York Times reported the flap the next day and suggested that Hall was not going to back away.
“As the street in which the company have commenced operations is partially blocked up with wooden scaffolding and iron tubes, it is likely the mayor will at least counsel them to remove these,” the paper wrote.
But Beach was equally stubborn. On January 8, he released a statement: “In reference to the ridiculous stories that have been circulated about our men being sworn to secrecy, and the doors being closed to all persons, there is no truth to them.” The company promised to make any repairs to the surface roads and begged for four more weeks of patience.
Mayor Hall backed off and Beach bought himself time. And one month later, fifty-eight days after the digging began, the tunnel was finished. It was a perfect cylinder of 312 feet. All that was needed now were the two most important pieces, the subway car and the fan to blow the car down the tracks.
The design for the car was unlike anything people were riding on the streets above. It was much smaller than the horse cars, and upholstered seats lined the sides so that it felt like a comfortable lounge inside, with bright lighting and plenty of room to hold twenty two people. The sliding doors closed with a whoosh.
As for the fan, Beach knew that he needed one so powerful it could easily blow a car 120 feet long and fourteen feet wide, down the tracks. He found it in Connersville, Indiana, where the P.H. & F.M. Roots Company had built a powerful fan to ventilate mines. The Roots Patent Force Rotary Blower, nicknamed the “Western Tornado,” was the critical piece to Beach’s pneumatic subway. At fifty tons, it was so big it took a train with five platform cars to deliver it from Indiana. It was discretely placed at the Warren Street end of the tunnel and testing of it began.
The air for the fan came through a shaft and grate near Murray Street, inside City Hall Park, and when the fan was working it would occasionally blow the hats off unsuspecting pedestrians passing over the grate. Down below, it worked just as Beach hoped. Vacuum-tight doors in both stations controlled the air pressure so that the passengers barely noticed the breeze from the fan. When it was in “blowing” mode, the car gently but swiftly flew down the tracks at about six miles per hour, until it tripped a wire that caused a bell to ring back at Warren Street. That was the trigger for the engineer to pull a rope that reversed the fan, putting it into “sucking” mode. And then the car would return in an equally smooth ride.
The pneumatic subway worked. But Beach didn’t just want to impress the visitors he was planning to invite down. He wanted to dazzle them, not to mention distract them from any fears they might have of being underground with vermin and demons. He remembered the stories about how dark and miserable the London subway was. And he knew he had only one chance to convince New York that his subway was the future of transportation. He spared no expense, using more than $70,000 of his own savings to make sure the station was a place people would actually enjoy waiting. The waiting room was enormous, more than 120 feet long, and it was lavish, with chandeliers, mirrors, a towering grandfather clock, a fountain with a basin stocked with goldfish, paintings, settees and a grand piano.
News that the tunnel was finished leaked out on February 19, 1870, after a reporter for the Tribune disguised himself as a worker and snuck in. His story the next day provided a detailed description of the tunnel and the stations, but it was the accompanying editorial attacking the subway as useless and not worth any further attention that galled Beach. A week later he decided it was time to let his work be judged. On February 26, 1870, Beach invited lawmakers, reporters and dignitaries from the science community to step down into the basement of Devlin’s.
The final touches paid off. Not a single criticism was heard. The tubular train worked beautifully, whisking the visitors one block, from Warren Street to Murray Street and then sucking them back. The reviews the next day were glowing.
“The problem of tunneling Broadway has been solved,” wrote the Evening Mail.
"Certainly the most novel, if not the most successful, enterprise that New York has seen for many a day is the pneumatic tunnel under Broadway,” The New York Times wrote. “A myth, or a humbug, it has hitherto been called by everybody who has been excluded from its interior; but hereafter the incredulous public can have the opportunity of examining the undertaking and judging of its merits. Yesterday the tunnel was thrown open to the inspection of visitors for the first time and it must be said that every one of them came away surprised and gratified. Such as expected to find a dismal cavernous retreat under Broadway, opened their eyes at the elegant reception room, the light, airy tunnel, and the general appearance of taste and comfort in all the apartments; and those who entered to pick out some scientific flaw in the project, were silenced by the completeness of the machinery, the solidity of the work, and the safety of the running apparatus."
Beach reacted swiftly, and two days later, on March 1, he threw open his tunnel to the public. Come and ride my subway, he crowed, for just twenty five cents. And to prove that he, unlike his nemesis Tweed, was not motivated by money, Beach promised to donate all the money raised to the United Home for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors.
Come they did, by the thousands. They had read about the tunnel and the enormous fan, and they sat down in the car leery that it would blow them right out of their seats. Instead the breeze was barely noticeable and many of them enjoyed the ride so much they stayed on for multiple trips, going back and forth between Murray and Warren for twenty minutes or more. One woman later described her ride as “most delightful” and called Beach’s invention “one of the greatest improvements of the day.”
“We took our seats in the pretty car, the gayest company of twenty that ever entered a vehicle,” she wrote. “The conductor touched a telegraph wire on the wall of the tunnel and before we knew it, so gentle was the start, we were in motion, moving from Warren Street down Broadway. In a few moments the conductor opened the door and called out, Murray Street with a business-like air that made us all shout with laughter. The car came to rest in the gentlest possible style and immediately began to move back to Warren Street where it had no sooner arrived, than in the same gentle and mysterious manner it moved back again to Murray Street.”
This, Beach told his visitors, was only the beginning. He proudly told them the days of riding in a dusty horse car on crowded streets were coming to an end, and that no snow storm would ever again cripple their city. Daily trips to work that used to take an hour might only take a few minutes, he promised.
“We propose to run the line to Central Park, about five miles in all,” Beach said. “When completed, we should be able to carry twenty thousand passengers a day at speeds up to a mile a minute.”
There was only one obstacle. Boss Tweed was enraged. Not only had Beach snuck around him to complete his subway, he had done it directly across the street from him.
“New York needs a subway,” Beach said after learning of Tweed’s reaction.
Tweed was unmoved. The two men were poised to go to battle. It would not be a fair fight.
In less than a year of operating, more than four hundred thousand passengers rode Beach’s one-block train for the sheer novelty of it. That emboldened Beach even more. Imagine, he argued, if it actually took them places! State legislators saw the public’s enthusiasm for the subway and wasted no time taking up Beach’s request to extend his line up to Central Park and to raise the five million dollars he needed from private investors. But at the same time, Tweed was drafting his own bill. He called his the Viaduct Plan, and he made sure that it landed on the desk of Governor John Hoffman, a man he helped get elected, at the same time as Beach’s proposal.
Boss Tweed’s viaduct plan was absurd. It called for forty-foot stone arches to be built throughout the city to carry elevated railroad lines. And the astronomical eighty-million-dollar tab would not only be footed by New York taxpayers, but Tweed arranged the financing in such a way that he, personally, stood to reap a fortune from it.
Both bills passed easily and they landed in Governor Hoffman’s hands in early 1871. New Yorkers anxiously waited for him to decide between a clever subway that would relieve their city once and for all of the unbearable congestion, or one more attempt by their corrupt state senator to hold them hostage. What nobody knew at the time was that three years earlier, in 1868, when Hoffman was running for governor, Tweed had sidled up to him one afternoon at a campaign stop and whispered in his ear, “Stick with me, and you’ll be the Democratic nominee for president in 1872.”
No doubt those words were still echoing in Hoffman’s ears in March 1871 as he considered both Beach’s bill and Tweed’s proposal. Beach’s bill came first, and he swiftly vetoed it. Legislators tried to override Hoffman’s veto, but Tweed’s influence was too powerful and the override failed by one vote. To no one’s surprise, Hoffman then signed Tweed’s Viaduct plan into law.
It was a devastating blow for Beach. He had stuck to his honest roots. He had persevered. He had succeeded in building a tunnel like nothing anybody had seen before, a subway that people wanted to ride. And he had still lost. And as each day passed that he was unable to extend his one-block tunnel any further, the curiosity around it wore off and the crowds thinned. New ideas were gaining greater interest, like the one Tweed had proposed, only more refined. After all, why tear up the town to bury tracks underground when you can build tracks overhead on pillars with much less disruption and still reduce congestion on the streets? Maybe the elevated rail really was the future, after all.
As for Beach, he had a subway to nowhere. And he could not keep pouring his own money into it just to keep it alive for the sheer novelty. He needed one last break to keep his dream alive and New Yorkers were pulling for him. At a humdrum town meeting on congestion, a lawyer and respected judge named Sanford E. Church summed up the feelings of the masses. “Next to the air we breathe, or the food we eat,” he said, “no one thing in city life touches so vitally the comfort and interest of every citizen, of every condition, in every calling, every day, as this question of city transit.”
One day early in July 1871, a young man walked into the offices of George Jones, the publisher of The New York Times. He said his name was Matthew O’Rourke, that he used to work as a bookkeeper in the city’s comptroller office, and that he had tried to tell his story to other newspapers, but none of them seemed interested. He also used to be a former military reporter, which is why when he saw some odd claims that had been filed under “Armories and Drill Rooms” for half a million dollars of various things, he didn’t ignore them. And when he left his job a few months earlier, he copied a few dozen of the suspicious entries. Jones, whose newspaper had spent almost year a looking into Tweed’s Tammany Hall ring, was almost giddy with excitement when he heard O’Rourke’s story.
The paper’s first story corroborating O’Rourke’s details ran on July 8, under the headline: “More Ring Villainy: Gigantic Frauds in the Rental of Armories.” And in its coverage, the Times asked the same question New Yorkers were asking:
“Who is responsible for these frauds?”
Of course it was Tweed. Beach had his opening.
It took him a year and a half to scrape together one last effort to get his subway bill back before lawmakers. It was the same plan as before, except for one dramatic change. After two years of operating his tunnel, Beach finally conceded that pneumatic propulsion was not the future, after all. Blowing such a huge volume of air required tremendous energy that was too costly to sustain, and too hard to control over great distances. Moving packages was one thing. Moving people was another. Reluctantly, Beach embraced the idea he had loathed at the start, and he proposed steam power for his tunnel. The smoke, steam, and sparks London was dealing with were all surmountable with engineering changes, he believed, and he couldn’t deny that steam was a proven power source.
On April 9, 1873, legislators passed Beach’s subway bill again. But it was too late. He didn’t have investors lined up, and when the economy collapsed on September 18, 1873, triggering the worst depression ever in the country, far worse than what Black Friday had caused back in 1869, Beach was done for good. Banks folded. Businesses went under. Millions lost their jobs and all their money in the Panic of 1873. And New York, the nation’s financial and cultural capital, became a city full of the homeless and hungry, with more than a quarter of its people suddenly out of work. Even Boss Tweed finally was brought down. After his arrest in 1871, it took almost two years for prosecutors to convict him, but they did, and on November 19, 1873, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
By then, Tweed’s most stubborn foe was bankrupt and exhausted. After operating his one-car, one-station subway for almost three years, Alfred Ely Beach, still only 48 years old, abandoned the dream he had pursued for a quarter century and began to rent out his tunnel to anyone who would pay him. It was a pathetic end to what was once a promising vision. The pneumatic subway tunnel was converted into a shooting gallery and then eventually into a vault to store wines. Unable to continue affording the upkeep of his tunnel, Beach sealed it up for good in 1874 and returned to his roots as the editor of Scientific American.
Years later, a solitary figure with white hair, sitting on a wine crate, could sometimes be seen staring off into the darkness. He had failed in his promise to deliver New Yorkers a subway. But that would not be Alfred Beach’s legacy. Until he came along, the idea of walking down a staircase beneath their streets, standing on a concrete platform and waiting for a train to whisk them away through a dark and mysterious tunnel sounded like some of sort of fantastical science fiction tale to New Yorkers. Now, when you peel back the modern layer of any big American city and look beneath its skin, below the steel and glass skyscrapers, below the cars, trucks, taxis, bikes and pedestrians, that’s where Alfred Beach’s legacy endures. In the subway tunnels beneath the streets.
Embracing that world underground did not come easily for man.