With over 420 stations and millions of users each year, the New York Subway system is mind-blowing. Opened in 1904, New York’s subway is one of the world’s oldest public transit system and is a renowned and central part of American history.
But did you know that it was not the first subway system in New York? One of America’s first attempts at underground transportation was powered by steam, built in secret and illegal!
In 1869, Alfred Ely Beach was inspired. Looking out from his window in one of the city’s tallest buildings, he watched the boats in the New York harbour. More and more, Beach noticed ferry boats moving through the harbour, powered by a fan on the surface of the water. He imagined ‘The Beach Pneumatic Transit’ – an underground railway, powered by a giant fan using wind power to propel and suck a railcar back and forth through a tunnel.
Writing in Scientific American in 1849, Beach had first proposed a horse-drawn railcar to run underManhattan. However, after paying close attention to developments of pneumatic transport in England, he quickly adapted his ideas. At the 1867 American Institute Fair, Beach unveiled a demonstration of steam powered design – a tube made of laminated wood 100ft in length, that could accommodate a car holding ten people. However, before making his model a reality he had to get consent from the local politician and landowner William M. Tweed.
Tweed refused to grant consent, because of potential profits he would get from his own idea of an elevated railroad through Manhattan. Determined, Beach created a cover story, proposing that it was purely for transporting and dispatching mail for the city, not human passengers.
Having received consent for this ‘new’ plan, Beach and a small group of men began building his subway in secret with $350,000 of his own money, beneath a rented store located right across the street from City Hall. They dug in the dark of night, and the dirt was hidden in the basement of a building Beach bought specifically for that purpose.
After taking 58 weeks to complete, in grand style they opened to the public on March 1, 1870. According to some, there was a waiting hall 120-foot-long even decorated with a goldfish fountain. People queued around the block. The New York Herald labelled it Aladdin’s Cave, and marvelled at how people could miraculously transport from one end of the tunnel to the other. In fact, it was via air pressure from a 48-ton fan. When the fan reversed its’ spin, it sucked the car back to the start of the rail line. It cost twenty-five cents per passenger and the money was donated to charity. It was a huge success selling over 11,000 rides in its first two weeks of operation and carrying over 400,000 passengers in its first year. It ran from 1870 until 1873.
Tweed was outraged and rejected extensions to the subway. However, Tweed was later imprisoned for his corruption in politics. After numerous attempts, in 1873 Beach finally gained approval to resume work extending the subway. Unfortunately his investors were fast disappearing, due to the beginnings of an economic crisis in America. After the project was shut down, the tunnel entrance was sealed and the station was reclaimed for other uses. The entire station building was lost to fire in 1898. The underground subway itself was not completed and remained sealed up and hidden under the city.
Work on the modern subway system began in 1900, and was opened in 1904. The pneumatic tunnel was long forgotten by most New Yorkers until, in 1912, sixteen years after his death in 1896, workers excavating a new branch of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit found Alfred Ely Beach’s well-preserved, almost fully intact tunnel and subway car. They even discovered a piano from the subway’s waiting room. It is even rumoured that a small portion could still be accessed by a manhole on a nearby street.