"To Harlem in Fifteen Minutes!"

"To Harlem in Fifteen Minutes!"
Room for one more! Join me on an illustrated dive into NYC transit history.

// How the Subway Transformed New York City (and the World)

My whirlwind trip to New York City last month, in the company of my wife and two sons, took us to some of my favorite transit landmarks: Grand Central Terminal (with a pitstop for a "pan-roast," or oyster stew, at the Grand Central Oyster Bar), the kiosk at Astor Place, the old City Hall station, and of course various uptown and downtown locals and expresses. This week's post is a plunge into the early history of the New York subway which, one hundred and twenty years after it first started running, is still one of the world's great urban transit systems. All aboard!

Every city has its phantom tollbooths, spots on the map where the space-time continuum does not seem to apply. In New York, there is a certain subway train that, after the last passenger has gotten off, makes a brief stop at a ghost station: a spectacular, century-old chapel of rapid transit that has been sealed like King Tut’s tomb since the end of the Second World War.

Photos from my visit to the old City Hall Station.

This is the old City Hall station, a legend among transit historians.  In order to visit it, I had to promise a spokesman for New York City Transit that I would not reveal the number—or letter—of the train that stops there. James Anyansi met me at the end of a damp subway platform in Lower Manhattan, and, after showing his ID to the operator of a train emptied of its passengers, we took a short, wheel-shrieking ride around a sharp bend in the track.

The doors opened, and we emerged into a time capsule: a station of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (the IRT), looking much as it did when it first opened to the public on October 27th, 1904.

It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the diffuse light cast by the frosted globes of multi-armed chandeliers. We were standing on a sweep of platform curved like a sultan’s scimitar. Unlike the simple, post-and-lintel construction of most subway stations, there is not a straight line to be seen in the old City Hall station: a succession of arches curved out of sight, as in the crypt of a Romanesque church. Between the semi-circular ribs, a herringbone pattern of glossy cream and emerald tiles bordered skylights of leaded glass; incandescent bulbs illuminated the station’s gloomier corners. As the train pulled away, leaving us alone in the station, it revealed an elaborate bronze plaque on the other side of the tracks. Between seated damsels bearing the dates 1900 and 1904,  it paid homage to, “This first municipal rapid transit railroad…Authorized by the state / Constructed by the city,” and bore the names of Cornelius Vanderbilt and August Belmont. We walked up a broad staircase to a domed mezzanine crowned by a glass oculus, once the spot where “ticket choppers” collected fares from commuters. Anyansi directed his flashlight beam up a staircase sealed by heavy metal doors. (Had we been able to open them, we would have emerged next to the statue of Nathan Hale outside City Hall.)

When it opened, a New York World reporter called the City Hall station, “A cool little vaulted city of cream and blue earthenware like a German beer stein,” which just about gets it right. In all New York, there is only one other place remotely like it: the time-warp temple of hygienic tile that is the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Both were designed by a Spanish architect known for bringing the technique of tiled vaulted ceilings common in Catalonia to America. During the Second World War, the station’s magnificent leaded glass ceiling was blacked out in anticipation of air raids; it closed permanently in 1945, because its platform was too sharply curved to handle longer  trains. Waving his flashlight at waist height, Anyansi signalled the driver of the next train to pick us up. We rounded another curve, and, in a Viewmaster’s click, were back from the rabbit hole, in the workaday, no-nonsense domain of the MTA.

New York’s early subway boasted other touches of elegance, most of them effaced during the twentieth century. Oak ticket booths, with elaborate bronze fittings, were supplanted by cages of Plexiglas and steel. Glass-bricked sidewalks that allowed light to pour in from street level were gradually paved over. Over one hundred arched iron and glass kiosks, modeled on Turkish summer houses, were removed when motorists complained they blocked their view of traffic. (The kiosk that shields commuters from rain and wind at Astor Place is a faithful contemporary recreation.) In total, August Belmont, Jr., the financier behind the IRT, allowed half a million dollars for ornamentation of the entire system, a paltry sum even then—he spent more operating his private subway car, the Mineola, which featured mahogany from the Philippines, sliding leatherette curtains, overstuffed couches, and its own motorman.

The Sunday after its grand opening, one million New Yorkers lined up to ride the IRT, which bored north from City Hall along Broadway all the way to 145th Street in Harlem; queues at some stations stretched for two blocks. Its express trains reached speeds of 40 miles an hour, making it the fastest mass transit railroad in the world (it is still one of the world’s only subways with dedicated express tracks). Public enthusiasm was genuine. In a chronically congested commercial center, freedom of movement had been a long time coming.

Gridlock in New York is a function of the city’s geography and history: it is, after all, an urban archipelago whose islands are divided by tidal estuaries and rivers; the charming muddle of narrow, frequently off-bias streets in Lower Manhattan is a legacy of colonial and even Dutch pre-industrial settlement. In 1811, state commissioners laid out a street plan that became the template for all future growth: one hundred and fifty five streets which spanned the island from river to river, crosshatched by 11 hundred-foot wide avenues, creating a gridiron that extended from Greenwich Village to Harlem, with little provision for green space. Broad north-south avenues were fretted with narrow, closely spaced streets, their width best suited for buildings of one to four stories. Broadway, which followed an old Native American footpath, threw a diagonal across the grid, introducing confusion at key intersections.

At a time when Central Park was still swampy bog and Harlem was a distant village surrounded by the estates of wealthy farmers, the commissioners’ plan must have looked like a fond dream. But, as the port boomed, so did New York’s population, doubling from 1820 to 1840, and again from 1840 to 1860—and yet again to 1890. With 3.4 million inhabitants, New York at the turn of the century was the second largest city in the world, and by far the densest. With almost 5,000 people crammed into an average city block, the Lower East Side, staging ground for America’s immigrants, was the most crowded patch of real estate on the planet.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, New York had been a walking city,  crossable on foot in less than half an hour. As the city stretched north of Fourteenth Street, and travel times increased, the city’s first transit entrepreneurs competed for passengers’ nickels. Swiping an idea from the French, a stable owner in the 1820s introduced horse-drawn omnibuses running on fixed routes and schedules. The New York & Harlem Railroad, the world’s first horse railroad, upped the ante by sinking iron rails into the Bowery: the tracks reduced friction, allowing more passengers to be pulled faster, and with fewer horses, than the poky omnibuses.

By 1860, when fourteen horse railway companies were carrying 38 million passengers a year, conditions on the streets of Manhattan had become unbearable. As there were no separated lanes, traffic moved any which way, and progress was glacial: such was the confusion of drays, butcher carts, and grocers’ wagons that it was said crossing Broadway at Fulton Street could take twenty minutes. Mark Twain, writing for a California newspaper in 1867, captured the sheer folly of the situation: “You cannot ride unless you are willing to go in a packed omnibus that labors, and plunges, and struggles along at the rate of three miles in four hours and a half, always getting left behind by fast walkers, and always apparently hopelessly tangled up with vehicles that are trying to get to some place or other and can’t. Or, if you can stomach it, you can ride in a horse-car and stand up for three-quarters of an hour, in the midst of a file of men that extends from front to rear (seats all crammed, of course,)—or you can take one of the platforms, if you please, but they are so crowded you will have to hang on by your eye-lashes and your toe-nails.” Getting any business done in New York, Twain concluded, involved devoting an entire day to fighting traffic.

In a city at a virtual standstill, schemes for improved transit proliferated like patent medicines, filling the pages of scientific journals and illustrated weeklies. Some of the follies actually got built. The West Side & Yonkers Patent Railway, a scheme straight out of Dr. Seuss, consisted of a single track suspended thirty feet above Greenwich Street (in what would later be known as the Meatpacking District) by slender wrought-iron stanchions. Steam engines hidden beneath the sidewalk powered loops of continuously whirring wire rope threaded through giant pulleys; passengers filed into a car, a gripman pulled a lever, and the car grasped the cable, to be jerked into motion along half a mile of track. The “rattletrap line,” as the dailies dubbed it, was constantly breaking down, leading to comical scenes in which commuters stranded three stories above street level had to be rescued by ladder. After only two years of unreliable service, the entire apparatus was sold for $960 at sheriff’s auction.

As long as William “Boss” Tweed ran Tammany Hall, efficient rapid transit didn’t stand a chance. The impossibly corrupt commissioner of public works had a vested interest in keeping transit on street level: a major investor in omnibuses, he made a fortune dispensing 999-year franchises to the owners of the horsecar lines. Despairing of political approval for a subway, inventor Alfred Beach, inspired by the success of London’s underground, decided to build a subterranean railway in secret. A team of workmen, digging at night and carting away dirt in wagons from the basement of a clothing store at Warren Street and Broadway, managed to excavate a 300-foot long tunnel without being detected. In 1870 Beach triumphantly unveiled his Pneumatic Railway. The curious waited in an underground parlor furnished with settees, chandeliers, and a grand piano, and then filed into a horseshoe-shaped car which fit snuggly into an eight-foot diameter tube. A giant fan, used for ventilating mines, blew the car and its passengers down the tracks at six miles an hour; almost half a million people paid 25 cents a head to ride the Pneumatic. Tweed tried to bring suit against Beach, but shortly after the opening, he was imprisoned for life on corruption charges. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1873, in which railroads across the continent failed, killed off investment in new schemes, and the Pneumatic was sealed up and forgotten. When sandhogs digging a subway line to Brooklyn forty years later broke into the subterranean parlor, where the piano still sat, they might as well have been Morlocks stumbling on a Victorian Time Machine.

The Pneumatic turned out to be an idea before its time: it would take a generation of in-fighting before construction of another underground railway began. In the meantime, New York had to make do with its balky surface transportation. Cable cars ran up many avenues, but they were notoriously dangerous. Electric trolleys, which began replacing horsecars in the 1880s, were soon ubiquitous, but their progress on Manhattan’s crowded streets was always painfully slow. The stopgap solution for rapid transit was the elevated railroad, and soon the “Els” ran up four major avenues. They seemed like a natural solution in the laissez-faire nineteenth-century: private enterprise could throw them up quickly and cheaply, without government help. By 1890, New York’s trolleys and Els were carrying a billion passengers a year, more than all the other railroads in the Americas combined.

Widely used, Els were also widely hated. What’s wrong with an El? Nothing—unless it happens to run through your neighborhood. Brooklyn retains many stretches of elevated, and to get an idea of what an intrusion they can be, I rode the Q train to Coney Island one afternoon. Four El tracks run right down the middle of Brighton Beach Avenue. At the best of times, strolling past the Russian delis and nail salons is an intense experience: the tracks overhead cast the street into perpetual gloom, and amplify the honking and revving of cars and trucks at least twofold. I watched as a Manhattan-bound train arrived, its contrapuntal clacking mounting to a teeth-gnashing crescendo as the wheels screamed on the curve over Coney Island Avenue; when two trains went by at once, it was like being in a basement suite beneath Valhalla’s bowling alley.

Living on Second Avenue in Manhattan in the 1890s must have been even more trying. The trains passing overhead weren’t powered by electricity, but coal. Pedestrians were splattered with axle grease, or blinded by iron filings from brake shoes, and chunks of coal routinely fell to the pavement. An Australian visitor to New York complained it was like having an “ever-active volcano” overhead, and posed “a severe trial to the average nervous system.” Though they reduced property values in their immediate vicinity, the Els succeeded, as the streetcars had before them, in reducing the extreme density of Lower Manhattan. Gradually, tenements spread northwards past Central Park, as people moved to less crowded neighborhoods and rode to work downtown.

Building an underground railway was another matter, and opposition to Manhattan’s subway came from all quarters. Property owners on Broadway feared foundations would be undermined and entire department stores swallowed up, and papers published scare stories about women suffocating in the pestilential atmosphere of the new London Underground. And citizens were afraid—quite rightly, after decades of Tammany corruption—that municipal involvement would mean sweetheart deals and kickbacks for developers and pols. Then, early one March, as the debate raged, a vicious Nor’Easter blew in from New Jersey, piling snow to the second floor of brownstones. Ferries stopped running, steam engines were extinguished, and piles of snow blocked the tracks of every horsecar and elevated line. The commercial capital of the western hemisphere had been paralyzed after only two days of inclement weather. “New York,” the Times marveled, “was as completely isolated from the rest of the world as if Manhattan Island was in the middle of the South Sea.”

Brooklyn Bridge, with trolleys, after the Blizzard of 1888.

The Great Blizzard of ’88 cinched the deal: New York would have its subway. The mayor came up with a formula by which private enterprise would build and operate the trains, with nominal ownership in the hands of the city. Though this put transit in control of the business elite, and beyond effective democratic control, voters approved the formula in a referendum by a factor of three to one. On February 21, 1900, August Belmont signed Contract No. 1, to build and operate the IRT—at a guaranteed nickel fare—for the next fifty years. One month later, an honor guard fired a twenty-one-gun salute in City Hall Park. Between each volley, Joseph Pulitzer’s paper reported, “the World’s watchword, ‘To Harlem in Fifteen Minutes,’ ran from lip to lip and swelled into a splendid chorus.”

It had been a long time coming, but New York’s first subway was finally getting built.

(This week's post is adapted from "The Subway That Time Forgot" chapter of my book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. Here's the link for more information on the book, including ordering information.)

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