100 Years Underground A Historical Look at the New York City Subway

100 Years Underground

This year, New York City celebrated the centennial of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)'s public transit system. From its humble beginnings as a fleet of horse-drawn stagecoaches to its current incarnation as the largest public transportation system in North America, the MTA has gone through a dizzying array of changes during its first century of operation-and hauled an awful lot of people. According to MTA spokesperson Charles Seaton, today the New York City subway system handles an average of 4.6 million commuters on any given weekday, incorporates a fleet of 6,400 cars, and employs 47,000 personnel to handle everything from steering trains to cleaning stations. In recognition of 100 years of service, this month The Cooperator takes a look underground at the New York City subway system.

The "El"

New York's public transit system has had to come a long way since its early days in the late 19th century. Although the subway is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, planning for the system actually goes even farther back, to the mid-1800s. According to Seaton, private companies originally managed the city's rapid transit routes and surface lines. Businessman Abraham Brower established New York City's first public transportation route in 1827, a 12-seat stagecoach called the Accommodation that ran along Broadway from the Battery to Bleecker Street. By 1831, Brower had added the Sociable and Omnibus to his fleet.

The next year, John Mason organized the New York and Harlem Railroad, a street railway that used horse-drawn cars with metal wheels and ran on metal track. By 1855, 593 omnibuses traveled on 27 Manhattan routes and horse-drawn cars ran on street railways on Third, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth Avenues.

And the idea of mass transit wasn't limited to Manhattan, of course. Before the first shovel of dirt was dug for the "official" underground subway in 1900, the City of Brooklyn was serviced by a series of elevated railway lines or "Els" under the management of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Corporation, or BRT. By 1883, lines stretched out from Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge to Park Row, shortening the commute to downtown Manhattan.

According to Joseph Brennan, an expert on the New York subway system and a member of the Academic Technologies Group of the Academic Information Systems (AcIS) at Columbia University in Manhattan, "The elevated lines provided good rapid transit service from about 1878, with frequent trains, a cheap fare, and faster time than street traffic." The first El in Manhattan was established in 1872, and ran along Ninth Avenue, connecting Dey and 29th Streets. Initially, the El was a wooden cable car powered by a steam engine, and prone to snapped cables, engine problems, and track fires. Getting off a stalled El was no picnic: stranded passengers had to climb down 30-foot ladders to the street below when the train was out of commission. Not only that, but the soot and constant screeching of the cables made living or walking anywhere near the elevated tracks a dirty, unpleasant experience.

Despite the drawbacks, the success of the Ninth Avenue line led to the expansion of the elevated train into every part of Manhattan. By 1878, lines had been established on Trinity Place, Church Street, West Broadway and along Sixth Avenue between Rector Place and Central Park. The Third Avenue El opened in 1878; a Second Avenue El in 1880; and between 1900 and 1904, all the trains were electrified. By 1921 at the peak of its usage, the El system in Manhattan and Brooklyn carried about 384 million passengers annually.

Despite the proliferation and electrifying of the elevated railways, says Brennan, they were still hardly ideal; the noise and grime remained, and the tracks and trestles blocked out sunlight that was in short supply between tall buildings in the first place. From the raising of the very first trestle to the elevated system's last gasp in the roaring '20s, the pressure was on city officials to come up with a better alternative for transportation into and out of Manhattan.

Taking the Tube

That pressure led many civic-minded thinkers of the day to put their ingenuity toward solving Manhattan's transit problem. The first such man was an inventor and journalist by the name of Alfred Beach, who in 1866, hypothesized that a giant pneumatic fan could be built underground to blow a train car from one point to another. Beach worked feverishly on his idea, and in 1867, unveiled a model of his "pneumatic transit" at the American Institute Fair in Manhattan.

The 10-passenger car ran on wheels mounted on a track, where it was kept in constant motion by wind generated by a 10-foot-wide fan. Beach's dream of expanding his invention to a grand metropolitan scale was stymied, however, by Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall political machine, which in those days got kickbacks from all the horse-drawn carriage drivers in the city and thus not much interest in a public transit system. Funding and approval for Beach's project was stonewalled.

Not letting shady politics and self-dealing get in his way, however, Beach took things into his own hands: in 1870, under the pretense of building a pneumatic mail delivery system, he began the clandestine excavation of a rail line, right under Broadway between Warren and Cedar Streets. Camouflaging the entrance to the construction site in the basement of a clothing store and smuggling bags of dirt away on covered wagons with muffled wheels, Beach finished a section of tunnel and a luxuriously-appointed station in about two-and-a-half months. Crowds flocked to see the marvel when it was unveiled, and paid 25 cents apiece to ride the 22-seat rail car.

According to historians, Beach's tunnel project cost about $350,000-roughly $70,000 of which was Beach's own money-and included such deluxe accoutrements as a grand piano, crystal chandeliers, and hand-painted frescoes on the station walls. That was the extent of Beach's triumph, however. No sooner was Boss Tweed banished from City Hall than the nation was gripped by the financial panic of 1873. Eventually, the tunnel was sealed, until the winter of 1912, when the excavation company contracted to dig the tunnels for the new-official-Broadway subway line broke through a layer of dirt to find Beach's tunnel, with even the old pneumatic car still intact, and the chandelier still hanging from its subterranean ceiling 20 feet below Broadway.

Forging New Paths Underground

Once the nation began to recover from the stock market dive, the necessity of constructing a reliable mass transit system reasserted itself. The problem now was money. Many of the city's top financiers and engineers felt the project was bound to fail, and private investors were not willing to support the costly venture without the city's backing. According to www.nycsubway.org, a website devoted to MTA history and lore, in 1888, Mayor Abram S. Hewitt outlined a proposal to use the city's own credit to pay for the construction of the underground railway. In 1894, New York City citizens voted all rapid transit railroads be owned, controlled and operated by the city-not by a private company holding a perpetual franchise. That's where August Belmont, head of the banking firm of August Belmont & Company, stepped in. Belmont saw the potential of the subway project and agreed to provide the financial backing. Bonds were issued in order to generate the capital required to initiate the building of the subway.

Breaking Ground

On March 24, 1900, the groundbreaking ceremony finally took place with ex-Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck digging the first shovel of dirt. It took four years and 10,000 workmen to build the subway running from the Brooklyn Bridge to 145th Street and Broadway. Engineers employed a variety of construction methods to complete the project, depending upon the conditions present. Over 3.5 million cubic yards of earth and rock were excavated during the initial construction of the subway system, and the cost of the excavation was $13 million. By the end of the first phase, the total cost to the city was in the neighborhood of $40 million, covered by bonds. Despite the great cost, according to Brennan, "The subway was an immense success from the beginning and the five-cent fare turned a profit for about a decade." And all those dollars brought new technology to the people of New York, Brennan continues. "It was the first railway in the world to operate steel cars-in for passengers, rather than as test cars-designed in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Railroad to reduce the risk of fire and collision. It pioneered advances in electric signaling, because of the frequent train service and limited sightlines, and in electric power supply for train service. And the city took care to decorate the stations with artistic mosaics and pottery, since the subway was considered a matter of civic pride."

IRT service expanded to the Bronx in 1905, to Brooklyn in 1908, and to Queens in 1915, sparking waves of new housing development in the outerboroughs. Shortly after the turn of the century, BRT service extended between Brooklyn and Manhattan, followed by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) which assumed control over the line. The Independent Subway, or IND, was formed by the city in 1920 as an independent system. The IND lines were the main trunk lines along Eighth and Sixth avenues in Manhattan, and they also extended to sections of Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn as well. By 1933, the IND line along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx was completed. In an effort to unify the system, the city assumed control of the BMT and IRT companies in 1940, closing many of the elevated trains in the process. In 1953, the New York City Transit Authority (now the MTA) was formed to operate all the city-owned bus, trolley and subway routes.

Look Out Below

Over the decades, the New York subway system has seen its way through serious growing pains. The infrastructure of the rapid transit system fell upon dark times-literally-particularly in the 1970s. During the budget crisis of 1975, many of the upgrades and maintenance programs initiated in the late 1960s were suspended, despite the MTA raising fares multiple times that year.

According to subway expert Mark S. Feinman, "Looking back, it would seem that the New York City Transit Authority didn't have a chance in the 1970s. Only 4 days into 1970, the fare was raised from 20 cents to 30 cents. The fare increase was supposed to plug up large deficits in operations, and whatever surplus was available could go to infrastructure repairs. With this fare hike, ridership declined, and this vicious cycle of fare hike/reduced ridership repeated itself several times in the 1970s-yet the required maintenance was never done."

The state of affairs underground became so dismal, many were surprised to see the trains still running. Some didn't. Many of the cars were dirty, lacked adequate lighting and were covered in graffiti. Crime was a serious issue as well. While some experts believe the level of crime reported on the New York subways system during the notorious late 1970s and '80s has been somewhat exaggerated, the facts were enough to gain the system a dubious reputation. In January and February 1979 alone, six homicides were committed on the subway. This compared to nine for the entire year prior.

Fed up with escalating violence on his city's subways, Mayor Ed Koch decided to make a stand. In March 1979, Mayor Koch assembled a panel of the city's top law enforcement officials and asked them to come up with a plan to deal with the violence underground. Six months after the panel was formed however, the city was recording an average of 250 felonies being perpetrated on the subway per week. New York City had the dubious honor of holding the record for the highest crime rate on any public transit system in the world. To add insult to injury, according to Feinman, in 1980, there was a 12-day subway workers' strike-the first since 1966.

The Tides Turn

Despite the rough start, however, during the 1980s the future of the New York subway system began to look upward as the MTA enacted a series of plans to dust off its image and increase ridership. New stainless steel "graffiti-proof" cars were ordered. Electrical problems and lighting problems were resolved. The existing fleet of cars where cleaned up and graffiti disappeared as more police officers were stationed underground in stations and on platforms. In the '90s, the MetroCard system was introduced to an enthusiastic public eventually sending tokens the way of the dinosaur. More new trains were put into service, and many stations, tunnels and rails were completely overhauled-an effort that continues today. Technological improvements upgraded the MTA's signaling systems, safety systems and power lines, and combined with more vigilant law enforcement and better service, New York's subway system-despite being one of the oldest in the nation-is one of the safest and most reliable.

And more improvements and expansions are in the works today. Planning and design for the oft-discussed, long-awaited Second Avenue subway line has begun, and funding is in place for the initial excavation. The east side of Manhattan is mostly served by just the 4, 5, and 6 lines, and has needed another line for decades. The debate over where, how, and with what funding to build an entirely new system of tunnels and rails has been raging for more than 70 years-ever since the Second and Third Avenue El lines were torn down, in fact. The entire Upper East Side from Third Avenue to the East River was rezoned for high-rise apartments in the 1950s in anticipation of a Second Avenue line, but despite massive development in the neighborhood, the train was never brought in.

Now, however, with residential prices and demand for transit-accessible properties at an all-time high, things are moving forward again with the Second Avenue project. Federal funding was secured in 2003, and final designs are being drawn up and presented to the public and city government in anticipation of construction beginning on the $10 billion project in the next year. One can only sit back and marvel at what the New York subway system has become over the past one hundred years. As Brennan puts it, "People have always complained about it, but I think the subway has been improving. I'd like to see more integration with the regional rail lines and a blending of the distinction between subway and suburban services. It needs to be easy to use to get people to try it. After all, street traffic is not going to get any better!"

Brian Ormsbee is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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