Ten Years of the Subway (1914)
Interborough Bulletin · 1914
By Superintendent A. L. Merritt
The Remarkable Story of the Opening and Growth of the World's Greatest and Most Efficient Transportation System
It hardly seems possible that a decade has passed since the day when we first descended into the bowels of the earth to curiously witness what was then generally considered a novel railroad, built entirely underground, and study the new and wonderful method of transportation which was destined to revolutionize rapid transit in Greater New York.
I can well remember, after spending several days groping through a dark and dingy tunnel, of repeatedly stumbling and falling over lime barrels and getting mixed up with innumerable contractors, finally to be unceremoniously pitched off a flat car in the pit at One Hundred and Thirty-seventh Street by Dan Havens, the engineer of the portable motive power used in the tunnel at that time.
After such a one of those patience-trying days of mingled hopes and doubts as to the issue confronting us, it was no unusual thing to find both Mr. Otto Hayes, one of our efficient Teamsters, and myself comfortably seated in Keith's Fourteenth Street Theatre, there trying to glean from the moving pictures some new ideas and inspirations of courage and perseverance with which to tackle anew the vexing problems awaiting us the next day.
Naturally the opening of a brand new method of transportation like the new Subway, then hailed by all as the panacea of all the traffic ills harassing New York, presented many new and almost insurmountable difficulties for solution, and judging from my experiences with the kaleidoscopic succession of obstacles encountered at that time, the new extensions, when constructed, will, doubtlessly, at times, also reveal equally perplexing operating problems which will severely test the patience, if they do not seriously shatter the Christian training of the one to whom the honor of mastering their intricacies falls.
As there was no other Subway in New York in which the men could be schooled in their vocation, it was, therefore, necessary to devote the period from July 20th to October 27th, 1904, to training the crews that were to operate the road, and, consequently, during this period the tunnel was practically nothing more than a training school for recruits.
On August 17th, 1904, the first electric train was operated through the tube, Mr. August Belmont guiding it on its initial trip southbound, while Mr. Frank Hedley was the operator on the return trip northbound. The train, which was made up of cars Nos. 3306, 2045 and 3223, started from Ninety-sixth Street, went south to Brooklyn Bridge and returned to Ninety-sixth Street.
This first official round trip in the new Subway was a great success, outstripping the most sanguine anticipations of every one in the party, for we emerged from the tunnel unscathed and without having done any more damage than knocking down a few wires along the road and clipping off a couple of markers, which accidents were lightly regarded on that occasion as mere incidents of the trip.
Of course, it is needless to say that the trip each way was not made in sixteen minutes as it is to-day. At that time the stations at Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central, Seventy-second Street and Ninety-sixth Street were not completed.
In addition to a parlor car, the 52 cars which were then ready for service formed the nucleus of the Subway equipment. On September 1st, 1904, that part of the Subway which was practically completed and ready for operation, consisting of tracks and stations, from Brooklyn Bridge to One Hundred and Thirty-seventh Street and Broadway, in the West Side, and from One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street and Lenox Avenue, on the East Side, was formally turned over to the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.
Following the operation of the first official train over the road, nine trains which were used as schools of instruction for the crews, which later on were to regularly operate the road, were run over the road each day.
By September 18th, we had increased the number of trains operated from nine to twelve, and were getting along so well with our proposed schedule that we decided to make an exploring trip afoot into the unknown and dark region below the surface of the City's streets.
So with each one of our little band of explorers carrying a lighted lantern on his arm, we started out one day to explore the unknown country through which later on passengers were to be safely transported from place to place in almost the twinkling of an eye. That the prospects of performing that wonderful feat did not appear bright to any of us as we slowly groped our way through the dark subterranean passageway will be seen from the tone of the following paragraph appearing in our report made at the conclusion of the trip, which read:
"From One Hundred and Fifty-seventh Street to One Hundred and Sixty-ninth Street is a rocky cave filled with drills and mules, and it looks like a year's work to complete this section."
Notwithstanding the pessimistic prognostications contained in our preliminary report, on October 10th, 1904, a regular train schedule was inaugurated between One Hundred and Thirty-seventh Street and City Hall, both expresses and locals operating under a six minute headway. Though we carried no passengers on those trains, a full crew was aboard each one, and stations were announced, doors opened and closed, and bells passed to the motorman just as though we carried people.
By Friday, October 21st, 1904, the entire schedule as it was to be operated on the opening day - 25 local trains and 15 express trains - was placed in operation. And it was "some" schedule, too, particularly when we first attempted to spread it out evenly over the road.
At first the power would suddenly balk on us, then the Road Department in its attempts to coax it back on the job, would block the track until we had a half dozen or more trains piled together at a standstill, and the next thing we knew was the news that all the rest of the trains were lying idle in a bunch at one end of the road.
However, after many nerve trying experiences, we gradually unraveled the innumerable knotty problems which we encountered and on October 27th, 1904, at 2.38 o'clock in the afternoon, three special trains carrying Mayor McClellan with a party of City officials, the General Manager of the road and other officials of the Company and their friends, were run over the line, formally opening the road to the public. The Mayor's train consisted of cars Nos. 3371, 2118, 3369, 2083 and 3359.
The auspicious opening ceremony immediately excited the curiosity of the public, and it was several days before the novelty of riding underground wore off. Large crowds rode back and forth through the tube just to see what the Subway looked like and to learn what the sensation of riding beneath the surface really was.
On the Sunday following the opening day, at the upper end of Broadway, we had to call for the police reserves to help us handle the vast crowds of the curious who were crossing the street in a steady stream on their way back again. All sorts of comments on the new method of transportation were to be heard on all sides, and frequent comparisons between it and the Elevated railroad were made by most every one.
At this time but one side of the Brooklyn Bridge station was ready to handle the crowds surging there, and, of course, this meant quite a handicap for us. At One Hundred and Thirty-seventh Street the train dispatcher's office consisted of an old lime barrel on the top of which was fastened a train sheet. At Ninety-sixth Street somewhat more sumptuous quarters were improvised for the dispatcher's office there, for we had appropriated to ourselves a small shanty occupied by an inspector of the old Rapid Transit Commission, after convincing the inspector that he really did not need a shanty with a desk in it, or at least not as much as we did.
On November 23rd, 1904, the One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street spur of the Lenox Avenue line was opened, and a few days afterwards the Westchester Branch (that is the section between Brook Avenue and One Hundred and Eightieth Street) was opened and operated by the Elevated Division, the section from One Hundred and Forty-second Street junction to the Third Avenue portal not being completed.
The Broadway line was opened as far as One Hundred and Fifty-seventh Street on the 4th of December. The temperature in the open air on that day was 32 degrees, but down in the tunnel it was 50 degrees and much more comfortable than on the street, consequently many more people used the Subway than on any day previously.
Our first really serious operating difficulty was encountered on December 14th, 1904 when a city water main located at Eighty-first Street and Broadway burst and flooded our tracks, putting us out of business for the first time since we began operation. As a consequence of the flood from Seventy-second Street to Ninety-sixth Street all trains were discontinued from 10.15 A.M. until 1.15 P.M.
Without even giving the matter so much as a thought that snow storms would involve the operation of Subway trains in any material way, we were suddenly confronted with our first blizzard on January 4th, 1905. During the storm the temperature on the streets above registered 10 degrees, and in the tunnel it was 35 degrees above zero. Naturally there was a great rush for the Subway which was much warmer than the open and not subject to interruption by the raging storm outside. On that day we hung up our first record for a big day's business, having safely transported 360,000 people, and without losing any time.
January 16th, 1905, saw the south end of the road extended down from Brooklyn Bridge to Fulton Street. While but half of the Fulton Street station, the up side, was ready for business, the General Manager said that half a station was much better than no station at all, therefore the Fulton Street, up side, platform and station was opened a full six months before the downtown side.
Just as we were forgetting about our first blizzard and the big business we did as a result of it, along came blizzard No. 2 on the 26th of January. Recalling the record crowds we carried on the occasion of the first blizzard, we at once prepared for a similar rush on that day, and were surprised in tallying up the day's business to find that we had again broken our record, carrying 411,000 passengers as against 360,000 on January 4th. The day following we did even better, carrying 425,000, and on the third day of the blizzard established a new high record of 446,000 passengers transported without a single mishap. Those three record days were conspicuously marked on our ledger with several asterisks to emphasize the big business done.
The traffic of the road increased steadily and rapidly, and nine years later, on January 26th, 1914, without wasting any time to stop and mark in the big business-denoting asterisks to which we pointed so proudly in earlier days, we merely chalked up 1,207,000 passengers as the business done for the day.
We gradually pushed along, progressing step by step, toward either terminal, and by March 15th, 1905, the East side of the Brooklyn Bridge station was opened up for business.
The downtown platforms of both the Wall and Fulton Street stations were opened on June 12th, and on this day the road was again crippled with a second flood, this one occurring just below Grand Central station. As a result of this inundation, the road was cut in two from Sunday night until Tuesday morning, the longest interference with our operation we had thus far encountered.
In rigging out a relief schedule with which to overcome the operating difficulty, the very first train we turned at Wall Street unfortunately got derailed by a piece of pipe falling across the track, which, of course, added to the confusion in which we were already floundering, and made things all around more interesting for every one.
The West Farms Division of the Subway, north of One Hundred and Forty-second Street, was placed in operation on July 10th, 1905, and on the same day the South Ferry loop station was opened.
On March 12th, 1906, the Broadway line, with the exception of the stations at One Hundred and Sixty-eighth Street, One Hundred and Eighty-first Street and Two Hundred and Seventh Street, which were not quite ready at the time, was opened up as far as Two Hundred and Twenty-first Street.
On April 14th the One Hundred and Sixty-eighth Street station was opened, and on May 30th the One Hundred and Eighty-first Street station was also opened.
The Two Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street station of the Broadway line was opened on January 14th, 1907, and on January 27th, 1907, the Two Hundred and Thirtieth Street station of the same line was also opened.
On April 1st, 1907, the Two Hundred and Seventh Street station of the Broadway line was opened.
The Brooklyn extension of the Subway to Borough Hall was formally opened on January 9th, 1908. That was a big gala day for Brooklyn, as the extension supplied the kind of rapid transit which the districts it tapped had been clamoring for many years past.
At the Borough Hall station over five thousand people vied with each other for a vantage place in the long line into which the police had molded the surging crowds of happy people, each one of whom was bent upon being the possessor of the coveted first ticket sold at the station.
It was the writer's privilege to stand at the head of the Borough Hall stairway, together with our lamented Mr. Lockwood and Police Captain Max Steinbruck and make the following public announcement:
"We are authorized at this moment, 12.01 A. M., January 9th, 1908, to pronounce the Subway, connecting the City of New York with the City of Brooklyn, open to the public."
Immediately pandemonium broke loose, voices shouted themselves hoarse, hats were thrown into the air and bells rung to proclaim the dawn of a new transportation era.
Within five seconds after the announcement a mass of people came surging down the stairways into the station, all anxious to ride on the first public train running through the tube to Manhattan.
Mr. Hedley brought the first train into the station and took it out filled to its capacity, while the writer and his executive staff enjoyed another new experience in collecting something like 5000 nickels. To a man of the name of Ira H. Wood went the honor of purchasing the first ticket sold for a ride in the tube connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The crowds that filled the trains gazed about in wonder and silent admiration as they sped along under the river toward Manhattan. Plainly the novelty and utility of the new railroad greatly delighted them. In chronicling the event, the "Brooklyn Eagle" that afternoon said:
"Borough Hall terminal carried on the day's business as if the railroad had been running there for years."
Happily there was not a single hitch anywhere.
On May 1st, 1908, the Brooklyn extension was completed and opened to the Atlantic Avenue station, at the southern terminus, and on August 1st, 1908, the extension to Van Cortlandt Park, at the northern terminus, was placed in operation.
Since that date the Interborough Rapid Transit Company has opened shuttle stations for facilitating the Brooklyn traffic; built numerous stairways; materially increased ticket selling facilities; increased the number of cars in all trains; extended stations to accommodate the increased length of trains; assembled speed control signals; readjusted signals; placed more doors in cars; placed in service improved draft gear and electrically applied brakes; connected tunnel streets with the Subway; built and operated more elevators; assembled greater power generators and turbines in power houses and mammoth transformers in sub-stations; systematized the transfer ticket plan; built and opened new entrances through buildings to stations.
The foregoing epic story gives but a brief epitome of a few of the many improvements effected in the way of new facilities, devices and inventions that have been placed in the Subway in the van of progress and made for it a world-wide reputation that railroad men envy.
Whether considered in point of its utility or in respect of its marvelous operating achievement, the New York Subway stands to-day as an example of railroad efficiency, far outstripping all other forms of rapid transit of any age. And it is a pleasure to say that the credit for this splendid record is due in part to the exertions of every one of the employees of the Company.
With the same co-operation from the employees, the operation of the new subways will be accomplished in such a fashion as will retain to us the enviable record which the Interborough Subway has made, and the task should be less difficult for the simple reason that we will have more facilities and railroad tracks to carry the people, and if we do carry them with less congestion and pushing and crowding among the passengers, our patrons will all be better satisfied.
We have, all of us combined, been a busy family, and it would seem, now, that we are ready for greater work yet to come for the great good of the traveling public, the great good of our vast body of men, and for the advancement of our Company's interest and the good will in which it is held.