Subway history: Don’t be early

While riding Boston’s Red Line I finished reading The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway. A critical lesson from the book is that you can’t get too far, either practically or financially, if you’re too early. Mass transit started in 1827:

Brower asked the coach-making business of Wade & Leverich in 1827 to design and build for him a vehicle that could hold twelve people [for trips up and down Broadway in New York].

But no other American city jumped on the experiment, and for a short period Boston and New York alone had these precursors to urban mass transit systems. While Americans were just getting used to the idea of riding with others, Brower began to hear of an even bigger, more lumbering vehicle taking over the streets of Paris and London. It was called an omnibus, and on a spring day in 1831, he introduced it to the streets of New York.

But before long more than a hundred decorated omnibuses were crowding the streets of the city, with names painted on the sides, from George Washington to Lady Washington to Benjamin Franklin. They were popular. And they caused complete chaos. For the individual owners of the omnibuses, nothing mattered more than the paying passenger. Drivers whipped their horses repeatedly to speed them past a competitor to the next potential fare, even if it meant a harrowing few seconds for those already on board. Grazing a lamppost to cut a corner or to cut in front of a rival was fair game, and pedestrians not paying attention could get maimed by a cornering horse or the trailing carriage.

By the 1840s the omnibus was not even a decade old on the streets of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albany, and Cincinnati. But already it was dying. A respected doctor and author named Asa Greene had made the routine challenge of crossing Broadway sound like a modern-day video game. “You must button your coat tight about you, see that your shoes are secure at the heels, settle your hat firmly on your head, look up street and down street, at the self-same moment, to see what carts and carriages are upon you, and then run for your life.” The street railway car carried more passengers, rode faster, and provided a quieter, smoother ride than the omnibus, and any fears that people had of its safety vanished once they climbed on board. The “age of the omnibus” that the newspapers had been so quick to herald only a few years earlier was over. The age of the street railway was here.

“We can travel from New York half-way to Philadelphia in less time than the length of Broadway,” The New York Tribune wrote.

The editor of Scientific American could see that this wasn’t sustainable:

In 1849, Beach, by now sporting the skinny mustache that would become his trademark feature, lived a walkable distance from his office. And yet dodging the horses, the carriages, and the throngs of people each day turned his short walk from his office near City Hall to his house over on West Twentieth Street into a treacherous hour-long commute. After three years of listening to a parade of inventors promote their dreams to him, Beach decided it was time to share his own dream for his city, in an essay he published in Scientific American. “Nothing less than a railway underneath, instead of one above,” he wrote. “Railway life down stairs, instead of railway life up stairs. The idea is at least original, but anything except feasible, that is so far as the expense is concerned, for there would lie no difficulty in executing the work. To tunnel Broadway through the whole length, with openings and stairways at every corner. This subterranean passage is to be laid down with double track, with a road for foot passengers on either side—the whole to be brilliantly lighted with gas. The cars, which are to be drawn by horses, will stop ten seconds at every corner—thus performing the trip up and down, including stops, in about an hour.”

Beach wasn’t crazy-early by London standards. London opened a steam-powered subway in 1863. But it would be more than 50 years before a subway could be opened in New York City due to a variety of practical and political obstacles. Beach built a 312-foot demonstrator powered by air:

The design for the car was unlike anything people were riding on the streets above. It was much smaller than the horsecars, and upholstered seats lined the sides so that it felt like a comfortable lounge inside, with bright lighting and plenty of room to hold twenty-two people. The sliding doors closed with a whoosh. As for the fan, Beach knew that he needed one so powerful it could easily blow a car 120 feet long and fourteen feet wide down the tracks. He found it in Connersville, Indiana, where the P. H. & F. M. Roots Company had built a powerful fan to ventilate mines. The Roots Patent Force Rotary Blower, nicknamed the Western Tornado, was the critical piece to Beach’s pneumatic subway. At fifty tons, it was so big it took a train with five platform cars to deliver it from Indiana. It was discretely placed at the Warren Street end of the tunnel, and testing of it began.

The pneumatic subway worked. But Beach didn’t just want to impress the visitors he was planning to invite down. He wanted to dazzle them, not to mention distract them from any fears they might have of being underground with vermin and demons. He remembered the stories about how dark and miserable the London subway was. And he knew he had only one chance to convince New York that his subway was the future of transportation. He spared no expense, using more than $70,000 of his own savings to make sure the station was a place where people would actually enjoy waiting. The waiting room was enormous, more than 120 feet long, and it was lavish, with chandeliers, mirrors, a towering grandfather clock, a fountain with a basin stocked with goldfish, paintings, settees, and a grand piano.

After two years of operating his tunnel, Beach finally conceded that pneumatic propulsion was not the future, after all. Blowing such a huge volume of air required tremendous energy that was too costly to sustain, and too hard to control over great distances. Moving packages was one thing.

Reluctantly, Beach embraced the idea he had loathed at the start, and he proposed steam power for his tunnel. The smoke, steam, and sparks London was dealing with were all surmountable with engineering changes, he believed, and he couldn’t deny that steam was a proven power source. On April 9, 1873, legislators passed Beach’s subway bill again. But it was too late. He didn’t have investors lined up, and when the economy collapsed on September 18, 1873, triggering the country’s worst depression, far worse than Black Friday in 1869, Beach was done for good. Banks folded. Businesses went under. Millions lost their jobs and all their money in the panic of 1873. And New York, the nation’s financial and cultural capital, became a city full of the homeless and hungry, with more than a quarter of its people suddenly out of work. Even Boss Tweed finally was brought down. After his arrest in 1871, it took almost two years for prosecutors to convict him, but they did, and on November 19, 1873, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. By then, Tweed’s most stubborn foe was bankrupt and exhausted. After operating his one-car, one-station subway for almost three years, Alfred Ely Beach, still only forty-eight years old, abandoned the dream he had pursued for a quarter century and began to rent out his tunnel to anyone who would pay him. It was a pathetic end to what was once a promising vision. The pneumatic subway tunnel was converted into a shooting gallery and then eventually into a vault to store wines. Unable to continue affording the upkeep of his tunnel, Beach sealed it up for good in 1874 and returned to his roots as the editor of Scientific American.

Elevated trains started operating in Manhattan in 1878 (today’s High Line park is a remnant of that system, on a structure built from 1929-1934). The city hadn’t even figured out how to do power and communication lines:

By 1888, a sea of wires that stretched from pole to pole, rooftop to rooftop, filled the air over New York’s streets. The idea of burying lines in the ground had not yet been embraced, and so when New Yorkers gazed upward, their view was blocked by a dizzying collection of ugly black lines. In addition to Edison’s, there were wires from Bell Telephone, the Gold and Stock Ticker Company, the fire and police departments, private alarm companies, Western Union, and more. There was little incentive to share a power line, and so a single fifty-foot pole might carry a dozen or more wires. To no one’s surprise, the weight was often too much for the poles to hold, and they might snap and bring down dangerous live wires to the street. An attempt to legislate the crisis failed when the biggest companies simply ignored an order to put their lines underground and received no punishment.

Boston pulled slightly ahead of New York with a 1.5-mile long subway that opened in 1897 at a cost of $4.2 million (under the $5 million budget, unlike the Big Dig!). (The inflation calculator says that this would be $116 million today or $77 million per mile. Compare to the Second Avenue Subway currently being built in Manhattan at a budgeted cost of $4.45 billion for two miles, i.e., $2.23 billion per mile (29X the cost per mile).)

New York in 1904 finally opened a 21-mile system that was built for $35 million ($1.6 million per mile or $41 million per mile in today’s money or 1/54th the cost of the Second Avenue Subway project).

What made Beach too early with his idea? The electric motor hadn’t been perfected. That was done by Frank Sprague, though Thomas Edison got the credit:

If one man deserves more credit than he’s received for the birth of the subway, it’s Sprague. The London Underground was a remarkable breakthrough for mankind, but its greatest flaw was the reason it was not replicated for thirty years. Steam trains in underground tunnels made no sense. Only once Sprague perfected the electric motor and the multiple-unit control system could cleaner and quieter subways be built around the world. Sadly for Sprague, who died on October 25, 1934, the shadow of Thomas Edison proved difficult to escape, even after Sprague branched out on his own. The roots of the resentment Sprague felt toward Edison can be traced back to an article that appeared in The New York Sun in 1919. The writer, Edward Marshall, interviewed Edison about the electric streetcar. Marshall credited Edison with “the pioneer appliance of cheap, quick power street transportation in America. Naturally he is proud of it.” Sprague, who in the 1880s had led the fierce competition to electrify street railways, could not sit by quietly while Edison received what he believed was undue reward. Two weeks after The Sun article appeared, Sprague answered back with a long-winded response that ran in The Sun under the headline INVENTORS OF THE ELECTRIC RAILWAY: FRANK J. SPRAGUE PROTESTS AGAINST THE SHARE OF THE GLORY ASSIGNED IN AN INTERVIEW TO THOMAS A. EDISON. The dispute played out in the pages of The Sun over the next few months, two engineering greats demanding the other back off certain claims. Neither would. Sprague went so far as to take the fight to Congress, asking for a correction in the description of Edison’s work that was used in awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was to no avail. Only long after Edison’s death in 1932 and Sprague’s death two years later did a third party attempt to resolve the matter. Sprague’s widow, Harriet, his second wife, published a short biography, for which the title alone revealed where she stood: Frank J. Sprague and the Edison Myth.

(Note that Sprague’s son, not Sprague himself, was the founder of the electronic components manufacturer “Sprague”.)

6 thoughts on “Subway history: Don’t be early

  1. Yup. American visitors to Europe + UK often marvel at the efficient passenger railway system and wonder why the US can’t build something similar, without understanding the history of how they were built. In the 1800s early investors/inventors went through a railway mania, grossly overbuilt, and went bankrupt. The good lines were later scooped up for a fraction of their original cost by a 2nd round of investors, and morphed into today’s system. It was never economically feasible to build a passenger railway system without first wiping out the “too early” investors.

  2. The High Line is not the remnant of a (passenger) elevated. Manhattan had elevated passenger lines on 2nd, 3rd, 6th & 9th Ave. All were built around the 1870s and torn down shortly before or after WWII. The 6th Ave line was replaced by a subway. The others were not replaced at all, leaving the East Side with only one transit line to this day (though they are working , seemingly forever, on a 2nd Ave. subway).

    The High Line was built much later. It did not open until the 1930s, when the els were about to be torn down and served a completely different function and was built in a different way. The function it served was as a freight railroad spur, to replace a street level railroad (before the era of tractor- trailers, factories (of which the West Side had many) had their own freight spurs leading right into the factory. Instead of running above the middle of an avenue, where it would block light, the High Line was punched thru the middle of the block between 10th and 11th, sometimes running right thru buildings.

  3. The Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded only for military bravery. Edison received the Congressional Gold Medal, which is a completely different thing.

    There is no excuse anymore for these kind of fact checking mistakes, with the internet at our fingertips. However, I think book publishers no longer bother with fact checking and authors don’t seem to care about such niceties.

    China today is building subway systems for around the same (inflation adjusted) cost as the 1904 NYC system and there are dozens of lines under construction or already built, many in cities that you may never have even heard of (even though they have far more people than Boston): Changsha (7M), Dalian (6.7M), Wuhan (10M), Zhengzhou (8.6M), etc. More systems than the US ever had or even contemplated:

    You will increasingly find that the real action in the 21st century is in China, while the US and the West have become mired in paralysis caused by over-regulation, etc.

  4. Edison was the Steven Jobs of his day – he made himself the public face of the Edison companies and did not hesitate to take personal credit for things that were actually developed by others in his R&D lab, which employed dozens (including Sprague) to do the actual hard work of turning brilliant ideas into practical devices. Sprague (unlike Edison) had a mathematical background and was able to work out many problems mathematically on paper instead of using Edison’s blind trial and error methods, which saved Edison a ton of money. He played Wozniak to Edison’s Jobs.

    Beside stroking his ego, it was good business – the public prefers its inventions to spring fully formed from the mind of lone, photogenic geniuses – it’s much more glamorous that way.

  5. NYC’s and Boston’s subways are horrible contraptions. I used to think the Paris metro was awful. It’s filthy, poorly constructed, outdated, and noisy (trains screech and thump upon arrival. I won’t even mention the fact that no one seems to have thought of setting up barriers that line up with train doors to keep people from falling into the tracks (and many do and many die). It is a noisy slaughter house and a rusting relic of the past.

    Now, I fully expect the standard litany of excuses (“It’s expensive to update!” or “It’s not as easy as you think!”). However, the real answer is that these kinds of projects are routinely riddled with corruption, carelessness, and incompetence (won’t even mention the Big Dig). (I also know former employees of the companies or the city involved with these projects who roll their eyes whenever I ask them about the issue and will point to corruption as a major source of the problem). I remember when the Green Line in Boston was being updated with new (hideous) trains. They wouldn’t even get the wheels to match the rails and they kept slipping off until enough was enough (you can still see a few scars on the platforms around Boston). Also, perhaps because of the corruption of lobbying, massive amounts of money are frankly stolen as it trickled down toward supplies. This happens all over the world, not just NYC or Boston, but the difference is that many placed around the world have newer, MUCH quieter trains and better stations that don’t feel like the inside of a dank coffin in the middle of the jungle. I’m sure overregulation has a part to play as well, but it can’t be the only factor. The West is frankly going to hell. We’ve no longer investing in meaningful or useless things. We’re impressed by the new webapp that let’s us fling birds at pigs or have promiscuous sex in public bathrooms. Now about we move our transportation tech to the 21st century instead? We’ve made no real advances in decades. We’re stagnating and yet we convince ourselves that technology is getting so much better. Yeah, my phone is now as powerful as the computer on the rocket that took people to the moon and I’m using it to play Angry Birds.

    Update the trains! Update the rails! Update the stations! There is NO excuse. Our 19th and early 20th century forefathers would roll their eyes at us.

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