New York's Subway In Operation (1904)
City Hall Station.
Outlook Magazine · November, 1904 · pp. 563-568.
By Earl Mayo
As we stand in the dome of the great newspaper building the Man from Montana becomes interested in watching the crowd of pedestrians streaming across the open asphalted space before the City Hall, three hundred feet below. It is a hurrying crowd, for the hour is five-thirty in the afternoon, when a hundred and fifty thousand New Yorkers simultaneously leave the great office buildings in the lower tip of Manhattan for their homes in that extensive region known as "uptown" or "out of town." From all directions the crowd converges, swirling and eddying like water poured into a huge basin, and finally emptying into a hooded opening in the surface.
"New York must have a big subcellar," observes the Man from Montana, "to hold all those folks. Where are they all going?"
"Home," I answer, briefly. "Come and see."
I am somewhat nettled by the cool way in which the Montanan has received my exposition of the glories of New York, and I am resolved that no further word of exuberant enthusiasm shall escape me.
We descend, cross the street, are swept into the vortex, go down a short flight of steps, and find ourselves, with some hundreds of others, on a broad platform extending along one side of a subterranean vault.
It is a very clean, dry, and brilliantly lighted vault. The arch of the roof above us and above the track that curves past us alongside the platform is smooth and spotless in white paint. The wall behind the platform on which we stand glistens in the glory of shining white panels, and bears a large sign, "City Hall."
In a moment there is a slight rumble, and around the curve, to the left, appears a brilliant beam from the headlight on the leader of a sinuous line of cars which glides smoothly alongside the platform and comes to a sudden halt. An illuminated sign displayed on the forward side of every second car reads:
Express - 96th Street.
We enter the forward car through a broad vestibule, and the guard closes the door behind us by throwing back a lever on the platform. The car, like the station which we have left, is wide, clean, and brightly lighted by a triple row of electric bulbs. It is much like the ordinary car of the elevated lines in appearance, but somehow it impresses us as being very different. It seems difficult to explain wherein the difference lies, but presently the Man from Montana discovers it.
"Why," he exclaims, "the blamed thing is all metal-steel sides, steel seat frames, and aluminum ceiling. I've heard of submarine boats, but I never heard of a submarine armored cruiser on wheels. That's what this looks like."
"Well, something," I admit. "It's a fire-proof, collision-proof car, all metal except these rattan seats and the advertisements on the side walls. You see, Paris taught us this, with its underground fire horror. No danger of that here, for there's nothing to burn. Those cars behind us, in the middle of the train, have wooden trimmings and fittings, but are copper-sheathed on the exterior, and are considered practically fire-proof. In fact, everything about the subway except the station ticket offices is non-combustible- steel, stone, cement, terra cotta, or tiling. These steel cars have been adopted tentatively, and if they satisfy expectations the others will be removed gradually to the elevated lines until only these are in operation underground."
By this time the train is in motion. With a short warning blast from its sharp little whistle, it glides around the curve and almost immediately emerges in a broad gallery where four tracks stretch away side by side, with a station so roomy that it seems impossible that it can be entirely underground. Between the two inner tracks is a broad island platform connecting by a passage underneath with the platforms at either side beyond the outer tracks.
"This is the Brooklyn Bridge station," I explain. "Up that stairway is the entrance to the bridge. The two outer tracks are for local trains, which stop at all stations. The stations are four or five surface blocks apart. The two inner tracks are for the expresses, such as this one, which stops only at Fourteenth, Forty-second, Fifty-ninth, and Seventy-second Streets before reaching Ninety-sixth."
"How far uptown is that?" asks my companion. "I mean in miles, not blocks."
"Let me see," he says, reflectively, looking at his watch as our train crosses over to one of the express tracks and flashes forward with steadily gathering speed. "It's 5:37 now. That ought to mean about thirty-five or forty minutes."
I hold my peace, and we look out of the windows at the line of columns flying past so rapidly that they give the impression of closely set pickets in a fence, although in reality they are five feet apart. There is no rattle, no jar, no vibration; but the swift-flying columns suggest that we are making speed. The hundred-pound rails laid in solid concrete underneath the train, the heavy cars and level tracks, make the smoothest and easiest possible running.
There is a twinkle of lights as a train rushes past in the opposite direction, a momentary widening of the walls of our passageway, as we flash past a station. At 5:40 we halt at Fourteenth Street. In thirty seconds we are off again, moving swiftly, silently, drawn by that mysterious force that men call electricity, which is the greatest wonder-worker of all that do their bidding. Two minutes more and we are at Forty-second Street.
My Westerner looks out at the broad platforms, with their throngs of debarking passengers, the stairways leading up and down, and the roomy ticket offices.
"Are we still below the street?" he questions.
"Very much so," I reply. "That stairway close by leads to the Grand Central Station. The one down at the other end gives entrance to a big hotel on the opposite side of the street. This is one of the largest of the stations, and the one used by the greatest number of passengers."
"It's bigger than our depot at home," said the Montana Man, "and we consider that something pretty good in the way of a station. And to think that it's all underground, too!"
"We are running across town now," I interpose. "We swing around this curve into Broadway, and now we have a straight course all the way uptown."
In two minutes more we halt at Columbus Circle, and in another two-minute run we reach Seventy-second Street. While I am still trying to explain our position relative to Central Park and other familiar portions of the city, the train comes to a standstill at Ninety-sixth Street. "Look at your watch," I suggest.
The man from Montana looks, and then involuntarily holds the watch to his ear.
"Yes, it's still going," he says. "Just 5:50-thirteen minutes. Are we seven miles from where we started?"
"Well, now, that's traveling for a city car line. We must have been running forty-five miles an hour."
"About that, Without stops the running time would be ten minutes."
"A man goes seven miles to his business, and does it in less than a quarter of an hour. That's about the time it takes me to walk to my office at home, a quarter of a mile away. Is it safe?"
"It is reputed to be the safest railway line in the country. In addition to having four tracks, a complete block signal system is in operation. When one train is following another upon the same track, it cannot enter any block until the preceding one has left it. The lights which illuminate the tracks are set close beside the pillars supporting the roof, so that the motormen cannot see the lights themselves, and consequently run no risk of confusing them with the signals. The columns between the tracks are set so close together that if a train were to leave the rails it could not jump over upon the adjoining tracks. The third rail, through which the electric power is fed, is protected by a broad covering, so that there is no danger of the workmen coming into contact with it. Even the windows at the sides of the cars are so arranged that they cannot be raised from the bottom. To open them the upper part must be let down. There is no opportunity for foolhardy persons to risk their lives by putting their heads out of the windows."
"And how far does this line extend?"
"From Ninety-sixth Street north one will soon have a choice of two routes, one continuing up Broadway, the trains emerging for a moment into the open air to cross Manhattan valley on a lofty viaduct, then through a deep tunnel to One Hundred and Ninety-first Street and beyond along an elevated structure to Spuyten Duyvil, at the extreme northern point of Manhattan; the other turning eastward at One Hundred and Third Street, passing underneath an upper corner of Central Park, up Lenox Avenue, diving under the Harlem River, and continuing as an elevated line to Bronx Park. Altogether, there is a little more than twenty-two miles of line, but at present only that on the west side of the city as far north as One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street is in operation. The remainder will be opened about the end of the year."
The upper end of the Manhattan Valley Viaduct.
Descending from the central platform to a cement-lined passageway, we pass underneath the tracks to the western platform and step into a local train, which proceeds downtown in more leisurely fashion, making the run in twenty-five minutes. The slower pace gives better opportunity for the observation of details, and presently the Man from Montana makes another discovery.
"Each station has a color scheme different from the others," he announces, "and each has its individual decorations. They are all very attractive, too. I should not call these stations beautiful, but they are artistically decorated."
"The variation in color and style of decorations," I explain, "serves primarily a utilitarian purpose. It helps the passenger to distinguish his station. If a man is accustomed to using regularly a certain station in which the color scheme is green and white, be will soon learn to identify it by this combination of colors, even if his eye does not happen to catch the large station sign as he glances through the window. In addition, the various stations have each an appropriate design worked into the frieze along the wall. Here we are at Columbus Circle, and you see the design represents one of the caravels in which the great discoverer voyaged to America. Along the frieze, too, the numbers indicating the street appear every few feet. Watch for the next station and you will see a whole row of 50's along the wall, indicating Fiftieth Street. The guards call out the stations also, so that one should make no mistake in one's station.
"The neat and artistic appearance of the stations is one of the greatest surprises to New Yorkers of all the features of the subway. We have been accustomed so long to having every structure that is devoted to utilitarian uses made hideous of aspect that it is a pleasurable surprise to find artistic effects in the stations of the underground railway- about the last place one would expect to see them. This result has been brought about largely through the employment of two materials of comparatively recent adaptation to this purpose- tiling and cement- both of which have been, used to a greater extent here than in any other structure in existence."
"Another thing that surprises me," says the Westerner, "is the dryness and good ventilation and the amount of natural light at all the stations. I have been accustomed to associate the word tunnel with a damp, dark, stuffy hole."
"This really is not a tunnel," I reply. "It is a subway, and the fact that it was cut from the surface, while it caused New Yorkers much inconvenience during the process of building, enables the stations to be supplied with daylight through the glass discs that you observe forming a large section of the roof. Proximity to the surface allows fresh air to come in at every station, too, and this is kept in circulation by the movement of the trains, without any artificial system of ventilation. Dryness was assured in the construction. We really are riding in a long, rectangular, waterproof box, the sides of which are composed of layers of concrete, with heavy felt between, so that not a drop of moisture can get through."
As the train stops at the Twenty-third Street station we alight, and I call the Montana Man's attention to another novel step in New York's development for which the subway is responsible.
"You notice that long line of windows beyond the platform?" I query. "That is the first subway shop. Its show windows are for the benefit of subway passengers, and its, doors open directly upon the platform. Of course it is not visible from the street. It has been proposed to extend this underground arcade along Twenty-third Street to Broadway, and if this plan is successful it may be followed in other parts of the city."
The admiration of the Man from Montana is at length aroused.
"That is an idea that could be thought of only in New York," he says. "You have developed modern cliff-dwellers, living in houses on the tops of twenty-story buildings, and now you propose to evolve a race of cave-dwellers, with shops, restaurants, and ultimately, I suppose, hotels and apartment houses, all underground."
"How much did all this cost?" he asks.
"The actual work of construction amounted to about $37,000,000. The operating company has expended in its great power-house, equipment, and rolling stock a sum nearly equal to this. The road as it stands represents an expenditure of nearly $3,000,000 per mile, and is the most expensive ever built. At the end of fifty years it becomes the property of the city."
"But it will repay its builders and operators long before that time?"
"Decidedly yes. When its construction was first authorized, capitalists were loathe to risk their money in it, but to-day it is recognized as almost certain to prove the most remunerative transit line in existence."
As we emerge upon the surface the Montana Man speaks again.
"You have given me the most interesting experience that a man can have in New York. Other cities have tall buildings, even great bridges, but no city has anything to compare with your subway. I have ridden in the Paris underground and in the famous London "tuppenny tube," but this is far superior to either, both in speed and in attractiveness. You New Yorkers may not realize the fact, but it, and the others of its kind that are sure to follow, will prove to be the most important influences in the city's development that have been evolved thus far in its history. Nothing human is perfect, and there is just one serious fault with this magnificent rapid transit line."
"And that is?"
"These ugly exits and entrances stuck in the middle of the sidewalks. The entrances should be off the street, through the ground floors of buildings, as they are in the London system. But that can be remedied. As a whole, the subway is something of which not only New York but the whole country may feel proud."
"Thank you," I say, and I feel that at last I have succeeded in leaving a lasting impression of New York's greatness with the Man from Montana.