Chapter 10: Abram Stevens Hewitt
Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities · Chamber of Commerce, 1906
On the 5th of April, 1900, the Chamber of Commerce held a meeting at which Alexander E. Orr, President of the Rapid Transit Commission, reported the signing of the contract for the construction of the subway.
That act marked the beginning of the end of an undertaking that had been vainly attempted for a period of twenty-five years. Just six years before (1894), the Chamber of Commerce had discovered the key to the solution of the problem of rapid transit with municipal ownership, and through the efforts of its members had prepared the way leading to successful.achievement. It had drawn the bill that had become the Rapid Transit Act of May, 1894, and under that law the work had been commenced and would be carried to final completion. After giving a brief history of the efforts made to secure this great boon, Mr. Orr said the result was due mainly to the active influence of the Chamber and the genius and foresight of Abram S. Hewitt, who had brought to the task a wide experience in civic affairs and an intimate knowledge of the requirements of the case.
At that meeting the following resolutions were adopted:
Medal to Mr. Hewitt. Resolved, That a gold medal* [* Following the frontispiece is an engraving of this medal.] be struck in recognition of the eminent services of the Hon. Abram S. Hewitt in the cause of civic rapid transit under municipal ownership, and that it be presented to him by the President, with the assurances of the admiration, respect, and affectionate regard of his fellow members of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York.
Medal Presented by the Chamber of Commerce to Abram S. Hewitt.
Resolved, That a committee of five be appointed by the President, of whom the President shall be Chairman, to carry out the provisions of the foregoing resolution.
The committee was constituted as follows: William E. Dodge, Alexander E. Orr, Charles S. Smith, Seth Low, and the President as chairman. A medal was designed under the direction of the committee and executed by 0. Roty, of Paris. It carried the following inscription: "Ingenio svo vrbis benefactor et rei pvblice conservator Abram Stevens Hewitt, Aetat svae LXXVIII." Translated this reads: "By his genius, benefactor of the City, and conservator of the public property. Age 78 years."
On the obverse: "The Chamber of Commerce of State of New York. Rapid Transit, MDCCCC."
At the monthly meeting of the Chamber held October 3, 1901, the medal was formally presented to Mr. Hewitt by the President. In reply Mr. Hewitt said in part:
Mr. Hewitt's Remarks. "The present honor would, perhaps, have been deferred until the completion of the rapid transit system, with which this occasion will imperishably link my name. Time, however, moves with relentless tread, and when a man reaches his eightieth year, it may well be supposed, as doubtless it was by the Chamber, that whatever recognition it desired to make during my lifetime should be quickly done. I regard it, and my family will always look upon it, as the seal of your approbation upon my public career."
"I am not the author of the idea of rapid transit in this city. It is an old story, but the circumstances probably ought to be recalled on the present occasion, even at the risk of being somewhat tedious, in order that your records may show how it has come to pass that the Chamber of Commerce is so thoroughly identified with this great enterprise."
N.Y. City Central Underground Co. "For many years prior to my election as Mayor in 1886, I had given careful study to the means of communication in the city of New York, and had been connected in various ways with the changes required from year to year since 1850, when I was concerned in the manufacture of the first tram rails for street railroads in this country. For a time the demand for increased movement of passengers was met by the construction of these tramroads on the leading avenues of the city. The growth of business, however, made it apparent that some better mode of transit should be devised in the near future; and at various times propositions were made for building railways overhead and underneath the surface of the streets. In 1868 the legislature granted a charter to the New York City Central Underground Company, with ample powers as to route, capital, and facilities for construction. Under this charter, however, it was found impossible to raise the money required for the construction of the road."
N.Y. City Rapid Transit Co. "In 1872, therefore, the legislature incorporated the New York City Rapid Transit Company, authorizing Cornelius Vanderbilt and his associates to construct and operate an underground railway, which would have connected the City Hall with the Grand Central Station. This corporation was duly organized, and the necessary surveys and plans were made for the construction of the railroad. Unfortunately, however, the criticism which this grant produced in the newspapers and elsewhere brought Commodore Vanderbilt to the conclusion that he would not construct the proposed underground railway, and 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 extension at that time ought to have been made, and would probably be profitable, at least to the New York Central Railroad."
Other Legislative Grants. "Various other grants were made by the legislature. It was found, however, that capital could not be secured by any of these companies, and hence the undertakings were practically abandoned as early as 1875. In that year what is known as the Rapid Transit Act was adopted, under which the elevated railroads were constructed. The completion of these railroads relieved the congestion of travel to such an extent that no substantial complaint existed until about the year 1884, when the pressure for an underground railroad system reappeared, and the subject occupied much public attention and very general discussion, which I followed with great interest. It was evident to me that underground rapid transit could not be secured by the investment of private capital, but in some way or other its construction was dependent upon the use of the credit of the city of New York. It was also apparent to me that if such credit were used, the property must belong to the city. Inasmuch as it would not be safe for the city to undertake the construction itself, the intervention of a contracting company appeared to be indispensable. To secure the city against loss, this company must necessarily be required to give a sufficient bond for the completion of the work, and be willing to enter into a contract for its continued operation under a rental which would pay the interest upon the bonds issued by the city for the construction, and provide a sinking fund sufficient for the payment of the bonds at or before maturity. It also seemed to be indispensable that the leasing company should invest, in the rolling stock and in the real estate required for its power houses and other buildings, an amount of money sufficiently large to indemnify the city against loss in case the lessees should fail in their undertaking to build and operate the railroad."
Mayor's Message of 1888; N.Y. Central Not Interested. "These views were communicated to the Common Council in the Mayor's message of January, 1888. They did not receive the approval of the Common Council. In this communication it was suggested that the New York Central Railroad Company might be induced to undertake the construction and operation of the underground road. On consultation with the officers of that company I found that their co-operation could not be secured. Hence in drawing the act, which was submitted to the legislature, it was made general in its character, and provision was made for competition on the part of any and all responsible individuals or corporations who might be disposed to undertake the work. The act thus drawn was submitted to the legislature in 1888. The prejudice against the scheme was so great, however, that it was difficult to find any member of the legislature who would be responsible for the introduction of a bill, which was opposed, not only by the Common Council of the city, but by the political organization which controlled the politics of the city."
"The Mayor appeared, however, before the committee of the legislature and made a very elaborate argument as to the necessity for increased rapid transit facilities, and of the mode under which he proposed to secure them at an early date. The committee declined to report the bill back to the Senate, and so far as the session of 1888 was concerned the proposition entirely failed."
Rapid Transit Commission of 1891. "Nothing further was done in this business until 1891, when the pressure of travel had become so excessive that some action was demanded by public opinion. The result was the passage of Chapter 4 of the Laws of 1891, under which the Rapid Transit Commission of that year was appointed, and in October, 1891, reported a plan of rapid transit, mostly underground, which, in accordance with the provisions of the statute, was approved by the Board of Aldermen, by the Department of Public Parks, by the Commissioner of Street Improvements of the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth Wards, and by the Supreme Court."
"Bids were then invited for the construction of this work by private capital, as required by the provisions of the Act of 1891. The attempt thus to secure the construction of the line failed for want of responsible bidders, and the whole scheme was practically abandoned."
Mr. Hewitt then briefly outlined the work of the Chamber that led to the passage of the Act of 1894, under the provisions of which the present Rapid Transit Commission was organized. The only amendment of any importance made in the legislature was that which required a referendum to the people. The address then continued:
Rapid Transit System. "It is by no means certain that the contracting company will, for a considerable time, be able to realize any profit from the operations of the railroad, although the outlook is now much more favorable than at the time when the contract was made. The estimate of the profit which was to be made by the contractors out of the enterprise was purely conjectural, but it is generally agreed by competent men familiar with great public works that the terms of the contract are unusually favorable to the city. One thing is certain: that the rapid transit system adopted by the Commission will be fully completed and put in operation without involving any additional taxation whatever, and at the end of fifty years it will be the absolutely unencumbered property of the city. Compared with other enterprises in other cities, it must be conceded that the arrangement made for the construction of this work is the most favorable that has ever been devised or accomplished."
Results Due To Chamber of Commerce. "In achieving this result the Chamber of Commerce has been the prime mover, and I think it is not too much to say that in the future its successful intervention will be regarded as one of the most creditable achievements in its long and honorable history, identified, as it was and is, with the construction of the Erie Canal and of the great system of water supply which has made it possible for more than three millions of people to dwell together in health and comfort."
"If by the continued efforts of the Chamber of Commerce we can secure a municipal government which will enable great public works to be undertaken and carried to completion with the same economy and honesty as have characterized the execution of the Erie Canal, the Croton Water Works, and the Rapid Transit System, no reasonable limits can be assigned to the future growth of this city in prosperity and grandeur."
"In conclusion I take this occasion to thank the members of the Chamber for the confidence which they have uniformly manifested in my efforts to serve the public, and I am particularly grateful to Mr. Alexander E. Orr, Mr. Charles Stewart Smith and Mr. William E. Dodge for the gracious remarks which they were good enough to make at the time when the Chamber voted to bestow upon me this medal. It will be treasured by my children as the most precious possession which will descend to them, and be regarded by them, as it is by me, as the crowning honor of a long career, which, by the action of the Chamber of Commerce, is brought to a happy ending."
Statue of Mr. Hewitt. The Chamber of Commerce having so honored Mr. Hewitt in the closing days of his long and useful career, did not forget him when less than fifteen months later he passed to the greater reward which lies beyond the grave. At he meeting following his death the Chamber directed that a statue of him should be made and placed in the corridor near the north end of its assembly chamber. It is the first time in its long history that such an honor has been rendered to any member of the body. It will be long before a like honor can be so appropriately awarded to any other member.
This statue was unveiled at a special meeting on the 11th of May, 1905. The address made at that time before the Chamber by Charles Stewart Smith, in the presence of Mr. Hewitt's widow and other members of his family, was an impressive and affectionate tribute to his character, his intellectual endowments, and his services to the city, the State, and the nation. The statue will give evidence, so long as the Chamber lasts, that whether or no it is true that republics are ungrateful, the Chamber of Commerce seeks to cultivate the highest ideals of citizenship by generous recognition of those of its members who have best illustrated such ideals.