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I've always romanticized the story of New York's first subway since I first heard this song by Klatuu many years ago. I love it because it tells the tale of one person with a vision and how he stopped at nothing to make it come true.
Alfred Ely Beach was born on September 1, 1826 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was an avid inventor who secured several patents. In 1847 he got one for an improvement he made to the typewriter, ten years later he received a patent for a typewriter that created embossed letters which he saw as a way of educating and communicating with the blind.
By 1849 Beach was being plagued by city traffic. From his office he'd hear noise from the over-congested streets below, and every night it took him nearly an hour to get home. Believing that either an elevated railway or a subway beneath the streets was necessary for New York City, he settled on an idea for a subway thinking it would be less noisy and less dangerous.
In 1866 Alfred began experiments with pneumatic power. He had been granted a patent in 1865 for a pneumatic transit system for mail and passengers that included a design for pneumatic tubes. (These are still in use in some buildings and in the drive-through tellers at banks).
At the Fair of the American Institute in New York in 1867, Beach exhibited a tube in which a 10-passenger car was driven back and forth by a powerful, 100-horsepower fan. The idea was met with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm.
Knowing that state senator William M. Tweed would extort thousands of dollars from his project and other politicians would block the idea out of concern for the safety of surrounding buildings, Alfred put up $350,000 of his own money. He rented the basement of Devlin's Clothing Store and then, with his twenty-one year-old son Fred as foreman, secretly began tunnelling under Broadway with a boring machine. For fifty-eight nights workers stealthily hauled bags of dirt out of the tunnel, dumping them into wagons specially fitted with wheels muffled for silence. While these wagons hauled the dirt away, others arrived with tools and bricks for the tunnel walls.
Beach designed a waiting room 120 feet long (the entire tunnel measured 312 feet) and embellished it with a grand piano, a fountain, ornate paintings, and even a goldfish tank. Instead of entering a dark dreary tunnel, the customers on the pneumatic subway would find themselves in an elegant, airy salon lighted with zircon lamps. The walls of the waiting room were adorned with frescoes.
Alfred operated his demonstration railway from February 1870 to April 1873. It had one station in the basement of Devlin's clothing store, at the southwest corner of Broadway and Warren St. and ran for a total of about 300 feet, first around a curve to the center of Broadway and then straight under the center of Broadway to the south side of Murray St. A single car which fitted snugly into the cylindrical tube nine feet in diameter was propelled by a giant fan. Operated by a steam engine, it drew air in through a valve and blew it forcefully into the tunnel. This single car was driven from Warren Street to Murray Street, the other end of the line. Reaction from the public and media was mostly favourable, with people walking away dazzled by the opulence and impressed by the subway's practicality.
Sadly in 1873 Alfred Ely Beach's dream of an underground pneumatic subway ended under political opposition and corruption. Beach died of pneumonia on January 1, 1896 in New York City at the age of 69.
New York's first subway remained forgotten until February 1912 when a construction crew - digging for a new Broadway subway, the BMT - chopped through the wall of the Beach tunnel. Unaware of the pneumatic tube, the workers were flabbergasted at what lay before their eyes.
With the exception of some rotted wooden fixtures, the salon retained its original splendor. The magnificent station fired their imaginations; not only did they delight in the vision of an underground fountain but in the discovery that there had been a subway operating under Manhattan years before they began digging. Beach's tiny railroad car was still on its tracks...
The BMT City Hall station now includes part of the original pneumatic tube.
City Hall Station
City Hall Station opened along with the rest of the Interborough's first subway line on October 27, 1904. It was immediately clear that expansion of the subway system would be necessary and additional lines were built. But ever-increasing ridership eventually required the Interborough's five-car local stations to be lengthened to accommodate longer trains, and so the IRT underwent an extensive program of station lengthening in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Due to its architecture and its being situated on a tight curve, City Hall station was deemed impractical for lengthening. The new longer trains had center doors on each car, and at City Hall's tight curve it was dangerous to open them. It was decided to abandon the station in favor of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge station, so City Hall was closed to passenger service on December 31, 1945. The street entrances were sealed and the skylights were covered over.
The station was spruced up for the October, 2004 IRT Centennial celebration. The skylights were uncovered, lighting fixed or replaced and a stairway to the street reopened. A VIP ceremony was held there on October 27, 2004 and for a few hours after the station was open to the public once again.
New York's City Hall station has remained closed since, but fortunately it's been captured in photos. I think it's gorgeous...
(Note that I've borrowed heavily from some of these articles, therefore I claim no ownership of this text)
City Hall Subway Station (photos)
City Hall (IRT East Side Line) (photos)
Inventor of the Week
Beach's Bizarre Broadway Subway
Alfred Ely Beach