Chapter 07: Rapid Transit Commission of 1875
Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities · Chamber of Commerce, 1906
Commission Appointed. A law enacted in 1875 authorized the Mayor of New York City to appoint a Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners to decide whether the city actually needed rapid transit, to select the route or routes, and, if found expedient, to organize a company to build the lines. Mayor William H. Wickham appointed the following commissioners: Joseph Seligman, Lewis B. Brown, Cornelius I. Delamater, Jordan L. Mott and Charles J. Canda.
This Board had power to locate "such railway or railways over, under, through, or across the streets, avenues, places, or lands, except Broadway and Fifth avenue below Fifty-ninth street, and Fourth avenue above Forty-second street, and except such portions of streets and avenues as are legally designated for the main line of or occupied by an elevated or underground railway in actual operation." The Board was to decide the first question within 30 days after its organization, and the second within the next 60 days.
At that time the only facilities the City of New York had for the transportation of passengers north and south were the Broadway omnibuses and the horse car lines on the avenues and along the docks, and the section of the New York Elevated Railroad, along Greenwich street and Ninth avenue, from the Battery to the Park.
Early Railways. The Gilbert Elevated Railway Company had been incorporated, and had the privilege of building an elevated road along Sixth avenue; but the structure, required by the terms of the charter, was so costly that the company had not been able to procure the necessary capital. That company held the opinion that if the Commission would permit them to construct a less expensive road, they would be able to complete the work. The two companies entered into amicable arrangements to construct certain portions of their lines, which were located in common, by a union of their funds. To further this object the Commission located routes for each company; one from the Battery to the Harlem River, through Third avenue and the Bowery, for the New York Elevated, and the other from the Battery to the Harlem, by way of Second avenue, for the Gilbert Company.
The Commission was satisfied with these two companies. In its communication to the Mayor under date of September 6, 1875, it says:
"Having investigated the plans by which the two companies propose to raise capital, and having ourselves personally conferred with and interrogated the gentlemen whose names were put forward as furnishing the financial guaranty, we were satisfied that the location, upon their chartered routes, of rapid transit roads under this act, would, humanly speaking, render success certain."
Commission Organizes Transportation. Doubts as to the exact meaning of certain sections of the act influenced the Commission to organize a corporation "as the law allows us to do, to render assurance doubly sure that our labors will result in rapid transit actually." The corporation was known as the Manhattan Railway Company, and was capitalized at $2,000,000. The corporation was organized for the purpose of constructing, maintaining, and operating steam railways for the transportation of passengers, mails, or freight, wholly within the city of New York. The routes selected were practically identical with the present Second, Third, Sixth and Ninth avenue lines. The articles of association defined the type of elevated road to be built, the time for the erection of the several portions, and the rates of fares. Books were opened October 29, 1875, and the entire capital stock was subscribed for. The work of this commission was finished with the granting of franchises for building roads to the Harlem River along the routes just named. In 1879 the Manhattan Railway Company acquired control of the other two companies, and thereby the control of the elevated railroad service of New York.
Tunnels Not Seriously Considered. Although tunnel projects were at that time very numerous, the Commission did not at any time seriously consider the subway question as in any way likely to meet the demands for better transit accommodations. The engineering difficulties and the financial uncertainties involved were held to bar such projects. At that period underground works of the kind were in their infancy. The great sub-surface lines of to-day did not then exist, excepting two tunnels under the Thames. But London had already foreseen that the only practical solution of rapid transit, in thickly populated cities having narrow streets, involves the use of tunnels. Upon the completion of the Tower Subway, in 1869, this method was widely heralded as being the only one capable of solving the street traffic problems of a crowded city.
The next fifteen years witnessed a change of opinion in New York. The Commission of 1891 advocated a tunnel scheme, and the absolute exclusion of further elevated structures from narrow streets. Its work merged into that of the present Rapid Transit Commission.