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Chapter 17: Opening the Subway

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

Opening Ceremonies. The ceremonies incident to the opening of the Subway took place in the City Hall, October 27, 1904. Mayor Geo. B. McClellan, with Archbishop Farley, led the procession to reserved seats in the Aldermanic Chamber. Following them were President Fornes of the Board of Aldermen with Coadjutor Bishop Greer; President Orr with Father Lavelle of St. Patrick's Cathedral; John H. Starin with ex-Mayor Van Wyck; Comptroller Edward M. Grout, and Deputy Comptrollers J. W. Stevenson and N. Taylor Phillips; Morris K. Jesup, Woodbury Langdon, John Claflin, Charles Stewart Smith, August Belmont, John B. McDonald, William Barclay Parsons, Edward M. Shepard, Albert B. Boardman, George L. Rives, George S. Rice and H. A. D. Hollmann. A large number of other citizens were present.

After a brief address by President Fornes and prayer by Bishop Greer the Mayor said:

Mayor McClellan. "Without rapid transit Greater New York would be little more than a geographical expression. It is no exaggeration to say that without interborough communication Greater New York would never have come into being."

"The present boundaries of our city included, ten years ago, a multitude of independent and heterogeneous communities, which would have continued, in all human probability, to work out their own destinies independently, had it not been that modern genius and modern enterprise afforded their population the possibility of movement."

"When the Brooklyn Bridge was opened Greater New York was born. Every addition to transit facilities has added to her growth, which can only reach its full development when a complete system of rapid transit shall be rapid in fact as well as in name...."

"We have met here to-day for the purpose of turning over a new page in the history of New York; for the purpose of marking the advent of a new epoch in her development. If this new underground railroad that we are about to open proves as popular and as successful as I confidently expect it to be, it will only be the first of many more that must ultimately result in giving us an almost perfect system of interborough communication. When that day arrives borough boundaries will be remembered only for administrative purposes, and New Yorkers, forgetting from what part of the city they come, and only conscious of the fact that they are the sons of the mightiest metropolis the world has ever seen, will be actuated by a common hope and united in a common destiny."

Chief Engineer Parsons, on being introduced by the Mayor, said:

Mr. Parsons. "I have the honor and very great pleasure, to report that the rapid transit railroad is completed for operation from the City Hall station to the station at One-hundred-and-forty-fifth street, on the west side."

President Orr said:

Mr. Orr. "Mr. Chairman-- On behalf of the Rapid Transit Commission, whom I have the honor to represent, I congratulate you, and through you the people of New York, upon the successful completion of a large part of the first division of the great work confided to our care a few years ago. I think it is unnecessary to occupy your time in speaking of the subway that you are about to open to the public, as it will soon speak for itself, and in a manner that I believe will carry conviction to every one who investigates it or enjoys its benefits, that it is in the line of an ideal system of local transportation for this city, and indeed I may add for all large cities where time, comfort, and safety are considered essentials...."

Franchises. "It is unnecessary to argue, for I think it must now be apparent to every thoughtful mind, that among the most valuable assets a large city can possess are to be classed its franchise rights. This opinion has not always prevailed either here or in cities of the Old World, and as a consequence, many of New York's franchise rights have been disposed of without giving due consideration to future possibilities, which, if under her control to-day, would be of incalculable value. I use the word "incalculable" advisedly; for it is very safe to say that in things American it is impossible to forecast the future for a single generation, indeed I might say for a single decade. Will any one undertake to picture the New York of thirty years hence? In each of the civilized countries of later years there is only one great metropolitan city, largely the result of improved methods of national transportation, and all roads lead up to it in which are centered the culture, the refinements, and the wealth of the nation. Just as London is the metropolis of Great Britain and Paris of France, so is New York the metropolis of the United States. I know we have many large and growing cities, but if we are true to ourselves and do not overlook or recklessly cast aside our opportunities, this country of ours, great as it is, can only have one New York."

"With the growth of the city its franchise rights increase in value, and hence the need of their periodic readjustment so that the city may enjoy from time to time its fair proportion of the increase it helps to create. I do not wish it to be understood that I meant franchise rights should be denied to carefully considered enterprises at their fair value when applied for, for enterprise stimulates development; but enterprise should not object to pay at fixed periods of future readjustment its fair proportion of the increase predicated on the conditions as then will then exist, else the errors of the past, which in the light of to-day we now deplore, would fail of correction."

Pennsylvania Tunnels. "Who could have foretold, twenty-five years ago, that one of our most important railroad systems would make application to enter this city in tunnels under the streets, at a depth below their surface that would not interfere with any present or prospective street purpose, and agree to pay for the privilege an annual rent per mile of single track greater than the annual net earnings power per mile of almost any steam railroad in the United States; and who will undertake now to estimate what will be the fair value of that franchise twenty-five years hence, which is secured to the city through the introduction into the agreement of a provision for readjustment at the end of that period. It is an imperative obligation resting upon those endowed with the authority to grant franchise rights, to protect not only the present but also the prospective values of these most important assets."

"And I am also led to believe that subway construction under municipal ownership is only in its first stage of development. Every city is divided into two great sections, the business and the residential, and the larger the city the further these sections will be apart, and passenger transportation is an important factor. Surface railroads are serviceable for short distances, and will always have their place, but they are not applicable to long distance street travel. At best they are an aggregation of grade crossings, subject to continual interruptions that cannot be obviated, nor can dependence be placed upon reaching a destination at a given time."

Elevated Roads. "It cannot be denied that elevated railroads have proved of inestimable value in hastening the city's development, and also a great personal convenience as to time; but they are unsightly in appearance, interfere with light and ventilation in the congested streets, in many instances injure the value of abutting property, and at times are subject to serious delays through atmospheric changes. I question whether further elevated railroad-building will have many advocates in the future, except in sparsely inhabited outlying territory, or for bridge approaches, or that it would have been advocated, in the first instance, if the electric conditions of to-day had then obtained. In subway passenger service all these objectionable features are eliminated, and the promised 'Harlem in fifteen minutes,' and other places in proportion, via subway transportation, has passed beyond the realm of conjecture and become an established fact."

Pipe Galleries. "I also desire on behalf of the Commission to express the hope that in future subway construction the city will make provision for the installation of pipe galleries along the routes. It is true that these pipe galleries are not in any way a rapid transit requisite, and are, therefore, outside of the province of the Commission to construct, but they could be put in place at a minimum of cost during the process of tunnel excavation, would prevent the inconvenience of continual street disturbance in the future, and would, we believe, prove a profitable source of revenue to the city in proportion to their cost. It has always been a regret to the members of the Commission that permission could not have been obtained to install pipe galleries in New Elm street and lower Broadway during subway construction, by way of practically demonstrating the convenience and revenue to be derived from such a system."

Chamber of Commerce; Future Benefits. "When, in 1894, the Chamber of Commerce, that time honored guardian of the commercial interests of this city and State, realizing the need of enlarged local transit facilities as a means of retaining the prominence New York had already acquired and of insuring its continual growth, earnestly advocated the building of subways through which electric trains could be run at high rates of speed, they adopted the plan of municipal ownership that the late Abram S. Hewitt, when Mayor of this city in 1888, had urged without success. Happily Mr. Hewitt was one of the Chamber's most prominent members, and, guided by his intelligent supervision, and assisted by the late Judge Henry R. Beekman, the Chamber formulated the present Rapid Transit Act, under which, with a few subsequent amendments, the Rapid Transit Commission is now operating. It is unnecessary at this time to enumerate its provisions-- they are pretty well known-- but when this city is in the full enjoyment of its own system of rapid transit, a system not confined to one or two localities, but so comprehensive as to embrace the whole of Greater New York, which will transport its citizens from one station point to any other station point for a single fare (as I firmly believe will be the ultimate result), which will increase municipal revenues through the development of places that are now comparatively: waste, which will help to safeguard to New York her well-earned position as the financial and commercial center of the United States, and all this at a mere bagatelle of cost to the treasury of the city, then, and not till then, will the genius of Mr. Hewitt and the enterprise and energy of the Chamber of Commerce be fully understood."

Municipal Ownership. "Viewed from the standpoint of to-day, it is a singular fact that only a little more than four years ago subway construction under municipal ownership was regarded with suspicion and distrust by those largely identified with local and national passenger transportation, and, as far as I have been able to discover, with the single notable exception referred to above, by the prominent financiers of that period. If it had rested with the men controlling these great interests, I think I am justified in saying that municipal rapid transit would yet remain an unsolved problem."

"It is, therefore, with a feeling somewhat akin to gratitude that the Commission makes record of the fact that on January 15, 1900, John B. McDonald, neither a railroad man nor a financier, but a contractor identified with large undertakings, after making a careful study of the situation, had the courage of his convictions and made an acceptable tender for the franchise contract and lease which the Commission were empowered to grant."

"Immediately after the contract was awarded, August Belmont became associated with Mr. McDonald and organized the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company, by whom the subway has been built. That the work has been rapidly, admirably, and willingly performed is certified to by our engineer corps; and when public inspection is made evidences of refinement, comfort and safety will be observed that are not to be found anywhere in like structures. I am not in the confidence of Messrs. McDonald and Belmont as to the present or prospective financial outcome of their undertaking, but I am sure I express the hope of the members of the Commission, and of every New York citizen. that their courage and enterprise may reap a very generous reward."

Mr. Orr then paid a very warm tribute to Mr. Parsons, the chief engineer of the Commission, who had been elected to the position on the day the Board organized, as follows:

"The Commission is responsible for the subway route. They were controlled in a measure by the amount of money at their disposition. and by the previous findings of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, but the merit of the plan of construction and its supervision from beginning to end is Mr. Parsons' alone. When we consider its twenty-four miles of length, running through some of the busiest and most congested sections of the city, the nature of the ground, largely of rock formation, the superstructures to be carried, consisting in most part of water and gas mains and surface railroads (the operating of which latter was not suspended for a single day), the difficult sewerage problems involved, and then the final result, it is not to be wondered at that Mr. Parsons' professional reputation has passed beyond the confines of his native city and received well merited national and international recognition. I never returned from any of my visits to the subway during the progress of the work without being more and more impressed with the magnitude of the engineering difficulties presented, and the magnificent manner in which they were being overcome. As long as the subway is made to render service to the people of New York, the Chamber of Commerce, Abram S. Hewitt, John B. McDonald, August Belmont and William Barclay Parsons should be held in remembrance as household words...."

Mr. Starin. John H. Starin briefly reviewed the work of the Commission since its inception in 1894 and then said:

"Since the execution of the contract between the city and Mr. McDonald, on the 21st of February, 1900, the work of construction has been carried on entirely under the supervision of this Commission. The Board has continued, with only a few changes in its membership, practically as at that time, and I may safely say that it has been as devoted to its work as if the railroad was being constructed with the money of its members. Winter and summer, in season and out of season, it has met both as a full Board, of which hundreds of sessions have been held, and in committees, of which the meetings are without number. And at all times its members have given a patient and expert care and attention to every question, no matter how trivial, that might in any way affect the quality and value and usefulness of the great railroad system that is to-day thrown open to the public...."

Public Opinion Changed. "Since the signing of the first contract in 1900, a great revolution in public opinion has taken place regarding city travel. My mind goes back to the time when the Commission of 1891 first came to the conclusion that underground rapid transit was the only cure for the ills that traveling New Yorkers were heirs to. In those days the number of persons who believed in an underground construction was most limited; indeed, it might have been comprised in a list made up of the Commissioners themselves, their engineers and assistants, and a few who had given the matter some study. Even among those who in the few subsequent years came to believe that such a plan was feasible and desirable, there were few sanguine enough to expect its construction; and to come down to 1900, even after the contract was signed, many could be found who said they did not expect to live to ride on such a road."

Manhattan-Brooklyn Extension. "No sooner had the first great work been well started than the Board confidently laid out a second one to bind together with Manhattan, by a subway and tunnel under the East River, the great sister borough of Brooklyn, which by consolidation, had become a part of the greater city, and over which the powers of the Board had been extended by legislative enactment. So thoroughly had the value of the underground idea been demonstrated, even at this time, in January, 1902, that a contract was secured by the Board for the city upon surprisingly favorable terms, and the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company contracted to build the new line for $3,000,000, although its total cost will undoubtedly reach $10,000,000...."

"So the great work was commenced, and so it has gone on. That it has been successful beyond the fondest anticipation of its early advocates is cause for universal rejoicing. But, in the midst of that rejoicing, let us not forget the men who fought the battle and won the victory. Let us remember McDonald the contractor, and Belmont the capitalist, and William Barclay Parsons the engineer, and above all and beyond all let us remember Alexander E. Orr, the president of the Rapid Transit Commission."

Mr. McDonald. John B. McDonald spoke in part as follows:

"... The discussion and final building of the subway has been coincident with an evolution in public affairs in New York as marked as this great work. The city has grown from a population of 1,500,000 to 3,500,000, the buildings from six to thirty stories, and commercially the City of New York now stands in the front rank in the world."

"When the final work of preparation had been concluded and the Rapid Transit Commission had formulated their specifications, prepared their plans, and advertised for proposals, my work began. It would be rank conceit to say that I did not approach this great undertaking with many misgivings as to my ability to accomplish the task; but I believed it practicable, necessary to the city, and, after careful study, determined to become a bidder for the work. After fair competition the contract was awarded to me."

"The work of organizing and giving a bond for the faithful performance of my contract finally resulted in bringing to my aid the distinguished financier, Mr. August Belmont, and his associates, and the organization of the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company, whose generous support and co-operation I have had in carrying out this important work."

"In the sub-division of the work, there were brought to my aid as subcontractors, men of means, ability, and experience not surpassed. What greater compliment can I pay them than to say: 'Behold their work'?...."

Mr. Belmont. August Belmont said that in an undertaking of this character there "is enough credit... to go round." After praising the courage, patience, industry and intelligence of those who had unitedly carried the plans to completion, he said:

"Attempts to install an underground system of railroads in the City of New York began many years ago. There had been some legislation and even some work prosecuted under such legislation, but the legislation and the work alike were inoperative. Until the present project was conceived, no real progress was made. Although much time and thought had been wasted upon these previous attempts, the resulting failures did not, as is frequently true of failure, furnish any suggestions for the guidance of those entering upon what, to all intents and purposes, was a wholly new undertaking."

Difficulties of Construction. "Almost insurmountable difficulties stood in the path of the enterprise. The questionable right of the city to incur the obligations necessary to be assumed upon its part; the uncertainty as to the legal rights of abutting owners; the difficulties of carrying the subway through soil occupied by innumerable obstructions of pipes and wires; the fact that the work had to be prosecuted without interference with the operation of surface transportation lines and general surface traffic, which required the uninterrupted use of the thoroughfares under which the subway was to be constructed-- all combined to give pause even to the most pronounced enthusiasm."

Financial. "Nor did the solicitude as to success end with the decision to proceed. At all points in the progress of the work great care was at all times requisite lest by unwise counsel and decisions, either in the physical or financial prosecution of the work, there might result a collapse which would defer indefinitely the completion of a work so essential to the municipal well-being of this metropolis, whose true development was hemmed in by the rivers at its very threshold."

"It was only by exhaustive preparation in almost infinite detail, both in the engineering and in the transportation and in the financial departments, that it has been possible for this enterprise to proceed to a successful termination without serious interruption or embarrassment and with credit to all identified with it."

New and Untried Venture. "If any especial credit is due to my associates and myself, it is that the financial end committed to our care required the exercise of a kind of courage not frequently demanded for an investment. It was a new and untried venture. No one had yet been willing to assume the risk in order to enjoy the possible resulting benefits and profits. The dangers attending its undertaking were clear and unmistakable; nor was the outcome guaranteed by any experience upon which it was possible to rely. It was essential before a decision to go forward could be reached, to eliminate, as far as possible, all apparent elements of probable failure."

"With all this I am entitled to add, I think, and I add it with no inconsiderable pride, the initiation and prosecution of the work have not involved any excessive capitalization. The capital represented by the par of the stock issue, together with the obligations issued by the city, represents substantially the cost of the investment for construction, equipment, and installation of the subway and the railway."

Object Lesson. "It is my judgment, too, that the claim is not extravagant that the plan and the execution of this work have set an example which may fitly serve as an object lesson and a standard for similar quasi-municipal projects."

"In this case the City of New York was, by appropriate legislation, authorized to extend its credit by the issue of municipal securities, for the building of the subway, but that was the limit of its participation. Even this risk was reduced to a minimum, because municipal securities were to be issued and the proceeds devoted to the payment for the subway only as results, rigidly required by the contracts, were forthcoming from the contractor."

Guarantees by Contractor. "The city had, before entering upon the undertaking, a substantial guarantee of performance by the contractor. Added to this protection there was demanded a much more substantial guarantee, not only that the interest upon these securities to be issued by the city would be met, but that, through the accumulation of a sinking fund to be provided by the private interests, the total municipal capital invested would be ultimately repaid. In the end, the subway constructed at the expense of the city, will be delivered to it free from obligation."

"At a time when there are so many ill-digested and ill-considered plans under discussion, having for their object not only municipal ownership, but municipal operation of transportation lines, the State of New York has reached the true solution of this problem-that municipal participation is justified to the extent of furnishing credit for the construction of such a work, but should stop short of the operation of the property when constructed. To private interests should be committed the risks and the burden as well as the profit of constructing, equipping, and operating the road, the latter not being within the governmental functions or other legitimate province of municipalities."

"I think I am entitled to take you frankly into my confidence and say that nothing in my career has given me greater pause than the question as to whether I should permit my firm to assume financial leadership in this undertaking. It was not alone on account of the large sums of money it was necessary for me personally to risk in the new venture. Comparatively, that was not of first importance, for it was essential in a work as vast as this to secure extensive co-operation on the part of other financial interests, entitled to look to me in large degree for its success, which no preliminary investigation, however comprehensive and intricate, could assure with absolute certainty."

Preliminary Investigation. "My associates and myself, however, had complete confidence in the exhaustive preliminary investigation, conducted at great length and with great care and having assured ourselves that the work could be completed within the estimates, we were willing without hesitation to assume the further risk, supposed by many at the time to be the main risk, that the growth of the City of New York would be sufficient to justify the providing of these new facilities for transportation."

"Now that the work has been completed and the subway, or, rather, this splendid arcade, is formally opened, although not a passenger for hire has yet been carried upon its tracks, being entirely assured of the success of this enterprise, we have in contemplation plans for still further adding to the rapid transit facilities of the system of elevated and subway lines now united."

"This great metropolis has now rid itself of the bonds that heretofore have limited and impeded its growth, and has included within itself, in all but legal description, a vast adjacent territory."

Subway Declared Open. After benediction by Archbishop Farley the Mayor said: "Now I, as Mayor, in the name of the people, declare the subway open."

Mr. Belmont handed the Mayor a mahogany case, saying: "I give you this controller, Mr. Mayor, with the request that you put in operation this great road, and start it on his course of success, and, I hope, of safety."

The first train started from the City Hall station at 2:34 P. M.









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