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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.

New post office & proposed Broadway underground railway. Image ID: 1113643
View looking from within the tunnel into the station. Image ID: 1113649
Interior of the pneumatic passenger-car. Image ID: 1113644

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.

Appletons Journal of Literature, Science and Art (1870) stated that: The Elevated Railway is so far advanced as to have one track erected from the Battery to Thirtieth Street [...] In an experimental trip on this road it was found that the cars ran with great steadiness and smoothness, with little noise, and with uniform speed; while the transit seemed perfectly secure.
Proposed Arcade Railway. Under Broadway, view near Wall Street as it appeared in Appletons Journal of Literature, Science and Art (1870) where it was stated that: Of all the plans proposed to supply our citizens with swift and easy transit, the Arcade Railway is the most audacious, involves the most expense, and has been the most actively discussed. (...) It proposes the construction of another street below the level of Broadway. The plan was developed in 1867 by a civil engineer B.B. Nowlan and survived for more than 10 years as an active plan although it lacked specificity on the mode of power that it was to use. The project was also described by its inventor in Transit in New York City: New York Arcade Railway (1868?)


Dr. Rufus Henry Gilbert received a charter for his plan but could not attract enough investors and the financial panic of 1873 ended his plan which was : to place along the street, at distances from fifty to one hundred feet, compound Gothic iron arches, which shall span the street from curb to curb, at such an elevation as shall not interfere with the ordinary uses of the street. On these arches, a double line of atmospheric tubes, eight or nine feet in diameter, are to be secured. (...) Through the tubes, supported as described, cars, carrying passengers, are to be propelled by atmospheric power. There is also provision in the same set of arches for two or more sets of tubes for the transportation of mails and packages. The stations will be situated at distances of about one mile apart along the line, and will be provided with pneumatic elevators to raise passengers to and from the place of transit with perfect safety, thus obviating the necessity of going up and down stairs for transit. [Proposed City Railroad, Scientific American, April 13, 1872]. See also: Richard P. Morgans Report on Gothic Arch Elevated City Railway (1869).
This is a perspective view of the proposed Gilbert elevated railway for quick transit from 1872. Although this elevated construction is somewhat similar to that noted above this proposal was to utilize regular trains. The source of this drawing is unknown.

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.

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.”


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