The Early Proposed Railways for New York City, Part 2
Continued from The Early Proposed Railways for New York City, Part 1.
In 1870 Alfred Elt Beach put up $350,000 of his own money to enable his Beach Pneumatic Transit Company to push their pneumatic tube underground railway beyond just a proposal. The company actually built 312 feet of tunnel under Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street. During its first two weeks of operation, the Beach Pneumatic Transit sold over 11,000 rides and provided 400,000 rides during its first year of operation. However, it took 3 years to get permission to extend the line and by that time public and financial support had waned, resulting in the close of this project in 1873. According to Joseph Brennan the tunnel was used for a while as a shooting gallery, but even that did not pay, and for years the tunnel was neglected and the entrance was closed by an iron grating. Probably by the end of 1878 the vent, which by than became the only entrance to the tunnel from the basement of 260 Broadway, was walled up. No further use of the tunnel is documented before it was destroyed in 1912 during the construction of the Lexington Avenue Rapid Transit Railroad. The project was described in a booklet: Illustrated Description of the Broadway Pneumatic Underground Railway, with a Full Description of the Atmospheric Machinery, and the Great Tunneling Machine (1870). Some of the illustrations from this booklet are shown below, but please also see more of them in our Digital Collections.
In June 25 1870, Appletons' Journal of Literature, Science and Art published an article "Proposed Railway Systems for New York." The anonymous author opened the text with these words: "There is in New York no more absorbing subject than the question of how to get up and down town safely and rapidly. As almost the entire business and laboring portion of the population has to be transferred in the morning from the upper part of the island, or the suburbs beyond, to the lower part, and in the evening must be sent back again to their domiciles, the present means of travel are not only inadequate in extent, but are far too slow and cumbersome. (...)" Then he proceeded to the description of the most advanced project.
The first fully-developed elevated railway in New York City was the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway which was built by Charles T. Harvey and ran on Greenwich Street from July 1, 1868 to 1870. Still, protests both in the New York State Senate and in court continued. Under the provisions of the Rapid transit act of 1875, while some were celebrating and others were protesting, it was later extended north and operated as the Ninth Avenue Line until 1940. There were also other elevated lines in Manhattan: the Second Avenue Line (1875-1942), the Third Avenue Line (1878-1955), and the Sixth Avenue Line (1878?-1938). The NYPL has several maps that show the locations of these lines. See also a post by Artis Q. Wright of the NYPL's Map Division discussing several older NYC rapid transit maps (1845-1921).
The great Blizzard of 1888 with snowfalls of 20–60 inches made many think that underground transit system was the only reliable solution to New York's transportation problems. The Ninth Avenue elevated railway derailment (1905) which claimed 13 deaths and was the worst accident on the New York City elevated railways, added to the push for underground transportation in the city.
The first underground line opened on October 27, 1904 and the New York City subway system eventually grew to include 232 miles of routes and 468 stations. It still grows but, needless to say, the methods of construction used today differ in striking ways from those employed a hundred years ago. Also, not all proposed or discussed lines have been built. See this interesting map of Abandoned Stations and Unbuilt Lines.
In addition to numerous materials on New York City subway system that the New York Public Library preserves and makes available to the public, the Science, Industry and Business Library has hosted two exhibits devoted to this subject.
- The Subway at 100: General William Barclay Parsons and the Birth of the NYC Subway (March 2004-July 2005). This exhibit celebrated the centennial of the opening of the New York City subway system in 1904 and saluted William Barclay Parsons, the first chief engineer of the subway whose collection of books is housed at the NYPL.
- The Future Beneath Us: 8 Great Projects Under New York (February-October 2009) was a joint exhibition of the New York City Transit Museum and SIBL which focused on eight megaprojects planned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
At the opening of the The Future Beneath Us exhibit John Ganly, Assistant Director for SIBL Collections, said: “New York City’s transit and vast infrastructure are key focuses in the collections at SIBL. Our ability to document the past allows for a unique perspective into the future.”