Our Subway Open: 150,000 Try It (1904)

From nycsubway.org

The New York Times · Friday, October 28th, 1904

Mayor McClellan Runs the First Official Train
Big Crowds Ride At Night
Average of 25,000 an Hour From 7 PM Till Past Midnight

For the first time in his life, Father Knickerbocker went underground yesterday, went underground he and his children, to the number of 150,000, amid the tooting of whistles and the firing of salutes, for a first ride in a subway which for years had been scoffed at as an impossibility. New York's dream of rapid transit became a reality at exactly 2:35:30 o'clock yesterday afternoon, when the running of trains with passengers began.

With a silver controller Mayor McClellan started the first train, the official train, which bore John B. McDonald, the contractor who dug the subway; William Barclay Parsons, Chief Engineer of the Rapid Transit Commission, and most of the other men who made the subway a possibility and a reality.

The Mayor liked his job as motorman so well that he stayed at the controller until the train reached Broadway and One Hundred and Third Street, when he yielded the place to the company's motor instructor.

Official Train On Time

The official train made its run exactly on time, arriving at One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street in exactly twenty six minutes, and all along the way crowds of excited New Yorkers were collected around the little entrances talking about the unheard trains that they knew were dashing by below, and waiting eagerly for the first passengers to emerge from the underground passageways at their feet.

Before this was done there had been simple ceremonies at the City Hall, while a multitude waited outside, kept in check with a strong force of police. After the first train came others in quick succession, almost treading on its heels, so that the first train had hardly turned back to make the run down to City Hall before another train passed it.

Those who rode on these trains were the 15,000 invited guests and their friends. The general public would not be admitted until 7 o'clock, and its curiosity was vastly whetted all the afternoon by the unfamiliar appearance of crowds emerging from the earth.

Of this sight New York seemed never to tire, and no matter how often it was seen there was always the shock of the unaccustomed about it. All the afternoon the crowds hung around the curious-looking little stations, waiting for heads and shoulders to appear at their feet and grow into bodies. Much as the Subway has been talked about, New York was not prepared for this scene and did not seem able to grow used to it.

Even on the first or official train, however, there were a great many who did not make the round trip from City Hall Park to One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street and back again, but got off at their own station on the return trip in the most natural and matter-of-fact way, as if they had been doing it all their lives, and so within half an hour from the start the waiting crowds at the stations were getting that half-shocking sense of the unfamiliar as the heads and shoulders came up from underground.

Carnival Night in Town

The result was that at night a vast crowd stormed the terminal entrances and taxed the best efforts of New York's police, who had been on duty all day to shepherd them; it was carnival night in New York. Every noise-making instrument known to election night was in operation, and a great mass of people surrounded the celebration at Times Square. The crowd was, as on election night, a good-natured crowd, it disposed to snarl or say, "Awww, who're yer shovin'".

Long before noon, the City Hall Park was surrounded with crowds, there to wait patiently for hours to gaze at the flag-decked building and at the end to see nothing but some silk hats moving rapidly toward an unimpressive looking steam-siren-shaped affair which was the entrance to the City Hall station. Through them, at least until they became too densely packed, circulated hacksters with every cry from "Popcorn" to "Git a programme, git a programme!".

At 2 o'clock there was a wild shriek of whistles, because everybody who had a whistle to blow had in mind the Mayor's request, and thought that the City Hall ceremonies were over. They were not, because some of the speakers could not resist the temptation to talk a little longer than the programme called for. The tactful Mayor, in anticipation of some such event, held his speech down to the minimum, but even at that it was 2:26 o'clock before the silk-hatted procession emerged from the City Hall to the snapping of cameras and vitascope machines, and amid whistles from persons with messenger-boy lungs.

The crowd that banked Broadway and swarmed on Mail Street and stretched back to the Brooklyn Bridge did not have much to pay it for its pains. It was too far away to see much but the few silk hats and some running messenger boys and lookers-on. Then the official party disappeared down the steps, and nine minutes later the running of regular trains for passengers through the Subway began.

It was astonishing how little noise there was on that first train; but then, it was an official train. Somebody with a shrill tin whistle furnished most of the noise. And there was something strangely natural about the whole thing, picturesquely unnatural as it was in this town of trolleys and elevated trains. In that first train there was the usual elevated jam, the regulation number of strapholders. It seemed singularly homelike and familiar, despite the olive-green woodwork, the queer and unfamiliar air, the darkness alongside, and the sudden shooting into beautiful white stations like nothing that the elevated ever had.

But on the later trains all that was made up for. They were well filled but not crowded. Yet even on one of these was noted that familiar sight, a young man with his bare head lounged luxuriously back on the seat, his hat beside him and his eyes closed. Homelike? Why, in two days it will seem to New York as if it had never ridden anywhere but in the subway.

Several Cases of Firsts

There are a few firsts to be noted in writing the history of this great change in New York transportation. The first man to give up his seat to a woman in New York's subway was F. B. Shipley of Philadelphia. He was on the official train, and the lady was good looking, but he said that made no difference-- in Philadelphia everybody was polite.

The first man to ask for a transfer refused to give his name. It was on the return trip of the official train. He wanted to get off at Spring Street and he asked "can I get a transfer?"

There were other firsts, no doubt, and they will fight over it in later years as now men dispute who was the first man to answer Lincoln's call to arms, and who was the first man to enter Richmond in 1865. This was a historic event, and nobody seemed to doubt it, except the youth with the closed eyes and his hat by his side.

Everybody was busy all the way up explaining to everybody else "where we were." The big signs on the white-walled stations left nobody in any real doubt, but the explaining crank was as busy as was the portly man who was buttonholing everybody with "As I said to McDonald ten years ago, says I."

Rapid Transit was assured. The evidence of that was convincing as was the evidence that Harlem knows it and realizes that a great event for Harlem as happened. For when the first train whizzed through the tunnel and out into the open air above Manhattan Street, it broke up a ball game. It was a hotly contested game, too, and one of the players had just made a home run; yet as the olive green train shot past, the players dropped bat, ball and the business of the hour, the spectators forgot that there was such a thing as baseball, and the whole crowd surged up to the fence waving bats and handkerchiefs and yelling like mad at this beginning of fraternity between Harlem and City Hall Park.

An Old Story Even Now

It was astonishing, though, how easily the passengers fell into the habit of regarding the Subway as a regular thing. While the crowds above were still eagerly watching the entrances to see men emerge, were still enthralled by the strangeness of it all, the men on the trains were quietly getting out at their regular stations and going home, having finished what will be to them the daily routine for the rest of their lives. It is hard to surprise New York permanently.

On every hand there were evidences that the novelty was gone soon and the time is not many hours distant when few, save the oldest inhabitant, would be prepared to admit that they had more than a vague reminiscence of the days before the Subway began to run.

It was forty-one minutes after the start from One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street when, headed by Mr. Orr, the leaders of the Subway emerged from the little station at City Hall park and walked rapidly across the pavement. The Mayor was smoking a cigar which looked guiltily short, as if he had lighted it on the train, and he was stepping briskly toward his office, with sharp salutes to those of his acquaintances who shouted recognition to him on the way. He dashed up the steps as if he had just left some hard work up there and had just remembered about it.

The official or afternoon end was over and everybody concerned in it was returning to work. It was typical again of New York.

Then at night began the real introduction of New York to the Subway, and at two places there was a genuine election-night jam: the two terminals, the Brooklyn Bridge Station and the One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street Station. At the latter, the reserves had to be called out.

But for the intervening stations the way New York received the great change was beautifully knickerbockerish. Everybody took it with the utmost calmness. The early trains were very little crowded after the rush from the two terminals had been taken care of.

Then the trains began gradually to fill up, until people were standing, but it was a full hour after the Subway was opened before people were elbowing each other and there was the usual indecent crush of elevated and trolley lines.

The crowds varied from hour to hour. At first, the down-town trains were sparsely filled and the up-town trains crowded. The explanation was simple; the good folk of Brooklyn and Jersey had come over early to try the subway and get home to bed. Later on the down-town trains began to bear the preponderance; the up-town New Yorkers were trying the new experiment, and the Brooklynites and Jerseyites had gone home.

And it was amusing to note the difference. The up-bound Brooklynites and Jerseyites and Richmondites had boarded the trains with the stolid air of an African chief suddenly admitted into civilization and unwilling to admit that anything surprised him. The Manhattanites boarded the trains with the sneaking air of men who were ashamed to admit that they were doing something new, and attempting to cover up the disgraceful fact. They tried to cover it up with gibes and jokes.

Which was the preferable attitude, the hardened stolidity of the islander across the river or the blushing and speaking confusion of the urbanite in the face of something new, may be a subject for debating societies. But there isn't a doubt that a balance struck between the two makes up the New Yorker of today.

Traffic: 7PM to Midnight
Figures gathered by Times reporters at Midnight
StationUp TownDown Town
City Hall7,100 
Brooklyn Bridge17,800 
Worth Street1,800 
Astor Place4,780500
14th St, Both Ways9,500 
18th St3,200643
23rd St3,1002,173
28th St1,7801,134
33rd St1,2001,070
42nd St, Both Ways4,900 
Times Square7,6005,100
50th St1,1001,350
Columbus Circle1,8702,800
66th St7101,260
72nd St, Both Ways2,292 
79th St6501,310
86th St7001,260
91st St2281,025
96th St7002,625
103rd St, Both Ways3,142 
Cathedral Pkwy1901,903
116th St1,6301,661
Manhattan St, Both Ways3,592 
137th St 7,813
145th St 6,790

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