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Chapter 03: Early Subway Schemes

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Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities ยท Chamber of Commerce, 1906

During the period from 1868 to 1900 many subway schemes were brought forward in the effort to provide transportation that would be rapid and reliable, and would meet at least the demands of the times. Most of these are now historical incidents only.

New York City Central Underground. In 1868, by an act of the Legislature, the New York City Central Underground Railway Company was incorporated. The line was to run from the City Hall to the Harlem River. The charter granted ample powers as to route, capital, and facilities for construction. Although the standing of the incorporators indicates that their purpose was serious, no practical result was reached.

New York City Rapid Transit. Following this, in 1872, an act was passed by which Cornelius Vanderbilt and others were incorporated, as the New York City Rapid Transit Company, to build an underground road from the City Hall to connect with the New York & Harlem Railroad and with the New York Central. This company was duly organized and the necessary surveys and plans were made for the construction of the road. Adverse criticisms made at the time led Commodore Vanderbilt to decide that he would not construct the road. Many years later Mr. Hewitt said: "To this decision the members of his family, who succeeded in the management of the New York Central Railway, uniformly adhered; although they, as well as he, always insisted that the road ought to have been constructed and would have proven profitable, probably, to the New York Central Railroad."

Other Schemes. Of all the early endeavors to provide rapid transit this was the only one supported by sufficient capital. Other companies were incorporated as follows: The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company in 1868. The Central Tunnel Railway Company in 1881. The New York & New Jersey Tunnel Railway Company in 1883. The Terminal Underground Railway Company in 1886. The Underground Railroad Company of the City of New York (a consolidation of two companies) in 1896. The Rapid Transit Underground Railroad Company in 1897.

Beach Pneumatic. Of all the plans brought forward the most interesting and perhaps the most important was the Beach Pneumatic, otherwise known as the Broadway Underground Railway. It was the only one upon which constructive work was done. A full-sized section of a tunnel was built on the line adopted, and is to-day in good condition. The route selected by the company had been advocated by every rapid transit board since that time, namely, from "the Battery, or Bowling Green, under Broadway to Madison Square; thence under Broadway to its junction with Central Park and Eighth avenue; with a branch under Madison Square and Madison avenue to and under the Harlem River."

The first company, the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, incorporated in 1868, was empowered to "provide for the transmission of letters, packages, and merchandise in the cities of New York and Brooklyn, and the North and East Rivers, by means of pneumatic tubes to be constructed beneath the surface of the streets and public places."

The Charter. The charter provided that the company must, as a preliminary step and to demonstrate the practicability of its plans, "first lay down and construct one line of said pneumatic tubes from the Post-Office in Nassau street, between Liberty and Cedar streets, in the City of New York, not extending above Fourteenth street, which shall be put in successful operation, and continue so for the period of three months,... before proceeding to lay down and construct any other lines of such pneumatic tubes."

As amended in 1873 the company was permitted to "construct, maintain, and operate an underground railway for the transportation of passengers and property." The capital stock of the corporation was fixed at $10,000,000. A two-track section, from Bowling Green to Fourteenth street, was to be finished in three years, and the remainder within five years thereafter. The act stated that the water and gas pipes and sewers must be maintained, and that street travel must not be interrupted during construction. The work was to be done under the supervision of a board of three engineer-commissioners, one of whom was named in the act, and two of whom were to be appointed by the Governor.

It was proposed to operate the tunnel by means of compressed air, the car being circular in cross section and approximately fitting the tube. This, as was pointed out at the time, would do away with the dust and obnoxious gases arising from the combustion of coal in a locomotive.

Work was begun on the tunnel at the corner of Broadway and Warren street, and a section was built under Broadway to the southerly side of Murray street. The curved portion at the corner of Warren street was constructed of cast iron plates, the straight portion being lined with brick to a diameter of 8 feet in the clear. The tunnel was built by means of a shield which was forced forward, 2 feet at a time, by hydraulic jacks.

Experimental Section. Early in 1870 the tunnel was thrown open for inspection, and a car was run from one end to the other, the object being to convince the public that the plans were safe and practicable. But all of the work done failed of successful issue. Engineers of prominence were divided in their opinion as to the possibility of building an underground road through narrow streets lined with heavy buildings. Even in the seventies the Beach plans were condemned because it was thought that the tube could not be constructed under the street in front of such a massive structure as the Astor House. Since the methods were not endorsed by engineers, financial interests were chary about investing money in it. Many believed that if built the returns would be insufficient to pay operating expenses and interest on the invested capital.

Electric Traction. The capitalists and engineers of those days should not be too hastily condemned as shortsighted. The needs of the people of our city for rapid transit increased greatly in the next thirty years; the population increased greatly; the city's wealth increased, and notable advances were made in the science of tunnel construction and of the movement of trains. A revolution was effected in the matter last named by the introduction of electric traction. We would have had no subway to this time if private enterprise had been relied upon.









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