Ten Things You Didn’t Know About America’s Subways

By Doug Most

Think about the last time you rode on a subway. You were in a large city, maybe New York or Boston, Paris or London, Budapest or Tokyo. You found a station and casually walked down a set of stairs, or maybe you rode an elevator down under the streets. You slipped a few bucks into a machine, or a credit card, and it spit a ticket out for you to grab. You slid the ticket into metal barrier and, whoosh, a gate opened and you walked through. Then you sat on a bench and stared at your newspaper, or book or smart phone while waiting for the train to arrive. Once it pulled in, the doors whisked open, a crowd hustled off and you breezed on, taking a seat once again or maybe holding on to a metal pole or overhead strap until it was your turn to get off. You weren’t nervous. You weren’t scared. Even if you had never ridden a subway before, you figured out exactly what to do.

tunnel diggers

Now imagine the world before subways. There were no stairs to go underground. The streets were overcrowded with horse-pulled carriages, electric trolleys and cable-pulled streetcars. The next time you ride on a subway, rather than take the trip for granted, think about what life must have been like for city dwellers before underground travel and how much sweat and blood must have gone into building the world’s first subway in London, and America’s first subways, in Boston and New York. It was an amazing journey.

So how did we get here?

Marc Isambard Brunel

1. The man who designed the world’s first subway, the Underground in London, very nearly designed one of the most important buildings in American history.

Marc Isambard Brunel came to America with a forged passport and found work in upstate New York as a land surveyor. But his ambition took him far. He met the recently resigned U.S. treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who saw brilliance in Brunel and helped land him the important job of chief engineer for New York City. He designed theaters and business buildings and then he submitted drawings to build a new capitol building in Washington, D.C., for which there was also a $500 prize. Alas, his proposal was considered too expensive and lavish and a late entry to the contest, an amateur Scottish architect and painter named Dr. William Thornton was chosen for the job instead. That disappointment led to Brunel returning to London soon after, where he would make history with a very different project.

2. Shortly after the world’s first subway opened came the world’s first secret subway.

Before the London Underground opened in 1863, a daring and fiercely determined entrepreneur in New York City did the unimaginable. His name was Alfred Beach and he believed that if he could show New Yorkers that underground travel could be brisk, clean, bright and airy, rather than dark, scary, slow and dank (as many of them feared ), the city would have no choice but to let him build an entire network of tunnels beneath the streets of Gotham. And he would be hailed as the savior of New York! So Beach rented out a downtown department store near City Hall, and when the city went dark each night, a small army of workers joined him in carving out a tunnel below the store’s basement, and beneath the spine of Manhattan, Broadway. Nobody knew it was happening other than the few dozen workers armed with picks, shovels, and a giant shield that bore through the ground an inch at a time. When the street above appeared to cave in slightly, and the mayor’s office inquired what was happening in the department store, Beach promised that nothing unusual was going on, and kept right on working. And when he was finished, he invited the city’s press corps and dignitaries to come down and see the marvel he had created: A train that could be blown down the tracks by an enormous fan, functioning like a pneumatic tube, and a subway station stocked with beautiful goldfish, lavish chandeliers, a grand piano and all the comforts of a grand living room.

3. The family that played a major role in the first subways in America had ties going back to the longest serving governor in Massachusetts history.

When James Scollay Whitney married Laurinda Collins, it was a blending of two of the most important families in Massachusetts history. The Whitney family, which included the cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney, joined forces with Collins, a descendant of William Bradford, who was elected governor of Massachusetts thirty times in the 1600s, helped settle Plymouth Colony and drafted the Mayflower Compact. Two sons of James Whitney, William Whitney and his older brother, Henry Whitney, would play critical roles in getting the first two subways in America built.

William Whitney

4. Before William Whitney got involved in New York’s transit system, he restored the United States to a place of military might and elevated himself into the race to become president.

When President Grover Cleveland named William Whitney as his navy secretary in the 1880s, that branch of the military was in dismal shape. After the Civil War the navy’s fleet of ships had been allowed to rot and fall into a state of disrepair. The ships were mostly wooden and slow and America was in danger of losing its position as a world military leader. Had there been a war at sea in the 1880s, the United States Navy might have been crushed. Under Whitney, who insisted the next ships to be built would be made of steel and that the naval guns would be modernized, the military branch was restored to glory. And when the United States became engaged in the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth century, the army was America’s weakest military branch and the Whitney-built Navy was the force of strength that ensured a swift victory for America.

5. The brilliant engineer who designed New York’s subway was living in China when he learned New York would finally build a subway after decades of debate.

The tall bearded American was in trouble. It was 1898 and he was passing through a weekly outdoor market in the tiny village of Wu-ni-pu in the Chinese province of Hunan, accompanied only by three unarmed soldiers who were supposed to protect him from harm, when a boy spotted him and started a chant. “Yang-kwei-tze!Yang-kwei-tze!”

The American had heard it before and knew that it was as harmless as calling someone a “Yankee.” But actually it meant “foreign devil,” and to the people of Hunan, that’s what he was. Quickly, the throngs along the side of the road where he passed were chanting along with the boy and there was pushing and shoving and the natives closed in on the middle-aged American. The once-passive crowd was now an angry mob. They had never seen a foreigner before, nor did they want one intruding on their civilization. Thwap! A piece of sod landed with a thud against the American’s body. Thwap! Then another. He lowered his head, protected himself using the collar of his coat, and hoped that none of his aggressors would find something harder, like a stone or a brick, to throw his way, and that eventually they would grow bored. Sure enough, after fifteen minutes or so the crowd dispersed and left their victim covered in dirt and bruised slightly, but no worse off than when his day began.

Had the attack ended differently, it might have changed the entire course and timeline of the New York City subway. The endangered American was William Barclay Parsons Jr. He had fled to China to escape his frustrations back home with the endless delays in New York’s subway project, and he very nearly did not make it back. But then one day a cable arrived telling him the project was approved and it was time to come home.

subway tunnel

6. The debate in Boston about whether to build a subway heated up in the early 1890s, and fought for headlines in the day’s newspapers with the most famous and notorious crime in Massachusetts history.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, a husband and wife in the seaside Massachusetts town of Fall River were bludgeoned to death in their small box of a home. The case captivated the public and local reporters, as details, hoaxes, accusations, formal charges, questionable police work and finally a riveting trial helped keep the story on the front pages of all the newspapers from the day of the murder until the day of the verdict.

The husband, one of the richest men in town, was discovered downstairs in a pool of blood on the couch, while his wife was found upstairs with her head almost split in half. It was no secret in the family’s small community of friends and neighbors that Emma Borden, who was forty four, and her younger sister by twelve years, Lizzie, despised the woman her father was with.

A police lieutenant took Lizzie’s story and searched the barn. At first, he found only some rusty axes covered in dust in the cellar of the house, but then he found another, tucked into a chimney opening and appearing to be recently washed. That afternoon, Lizzy’s sister, Emma, returned home to the horror and after going upstairs realized that Lizzie had changed her dress in the morning and hidden the first one in Emma’s closet. Emma didn’t tell anyone right away, but when a neighbor claimed to have seen Lizzie the following day burning a dress in the kitchen, Emma confessed to what she knew but said the dress Lizzie changed out of was stained and a poor fit for her. Eventually, however, it became increasingly hard to ignore the evidence, and Lizzie was arrested on September 14, 1892. Despite what seemed to be overwhelming evidence against her, including testimony that her father had threatened to cut her out of his will, on Wednesday, June 20, the jury reached a verdict on its first ballot. Not guilty.

7. A critical invention to digging subway tunnels was perfected in the early 1800s, during the digging of a massive railroad tunnel through a mountain in Western Massachusetts.

In the early 1800s, the tracks of the Boston Albany Railroad headed west by veering circuitously around the Hoosac Range in Western Massachusetts and over steep grades. Because of the time and effort trains required to clear Hoosac Mountain, a 1,700-foot peak west of the town of North Adams, Boston was losing business and revenue to rival port cities like New York and Baltimore. Something had to be done to speed up those trains. As early as 1819 the idea had been floated to tunnel through Hoosac Mountain, but it was close to five miles from one side to the other and never had a tunnel nearly that length ever been dug. At the time, dynamite for blasting had not been invented and so blowing holes in mountains was not even considered. When a young engineer named Loammi Baldwin was hired by the Massachusetts legislature to survey the route in 1825 and proclaim whether a tunnel was possible, his enthusiasm upon returning was widely mocked. “It seems as if the finger of Providence had pointed out this route from the East to the West,” he said excitedly, to which a bystander is said to have replied, “It’s a pity the same finger wasn’t thrust through the mountain.”

Baldwin’s enthusiasm was thwarted by the projected cost of tunneling Hoosac Mountain and it was not until 1850 when work began. That’s when it got interesting. Diggers worked inward from both sides of the mountain, but it was on the east side where they pinned their hopes on a giant, steam-powered machine that was supposed to cut huge circles, twenty-four feet in diameter, into the rock. It roared and shook and whirred and it did manage to carve about ten feet in. And then it conked out, no doubt exhausted at the prospect of what lay ahead. Hand drilling continued and progress was so tedious that after ten years barely one mile of tunnel had been dug. It was not until 1866, when a compressed-air drill was built that proved better than the steam-powered drill, when progress picked up speed. But it was another invention that same year that accelerated the Hoosac Tunnel’s progress even faster and revolutionized tunneling through mountains and underground around the world from that day forward.

The chief engineer for Massachusetts, Thomas Doane, had read an article in Scientific American about a young Swedish chemist named Alfred Nobel, who had been tinkering for years with a new explosive, and a professor in Pennsylvania who found that it worked well in oil fields around the town of Titusville. The black powder being used as an explosive at the time, which was essentially leftover gunpowder from the Civil War, was not powerful enough to shatter the mountain’s quartz and Doane was looking for a way to speed up the Hoosac work. The new explosive was called nitroglycerin, but the problem with it was that it was so unstable to use safely that it had been banned in Europe, and American railroads refused to carry it. The slightest shock could cause the liquid to explode and in fact in 1864, one of Nobel’s brothers was killed when a small shed where nitroglycerin was being prepared blew up. Unfazed, Nobel became more determined than ever to harness its power because he saw the potential in having a controllable explosive.

In 1866, when he was only thirty-one years old, Nobel discovered that he could improve the stability of nitroglycerin by mixing it with an oily fluid called kieselguhr and churning it into a less volatile paste. That paste was safer to work with than the liquid and, more importantly, it could be carefully kneaded and shaped into long rods or balls. He called the paste dynamite. And when he combined it with a blasting cap that he made, he now had a way to detonate the explosive in a controlled manner using electrical fuses so that miners could insert it into a hole in the side of a mountain and blow it up from a safe distance away.

When one of Nobel’s researchers visited Hoosac Mountain at Doane’s invitation in 1867 and set off an explosion in rock outside the mouth of the tunnel, Doane was convinced that dynamite was the breakthrough they’d been waiting for. The substance was still extremely dangerous and for years an occasional worker would handle it carelessly by forgetting that the slightest spark could set it off and blow himself up. But handled the right way it was the solution boring through rock without relying on a drill or a strong-armed laborer swinging a pickaxe. The Hoosac Tunnel officials did not hesitate to use it. They authorized Nobel to build the first nitroglycerin factory in America right there in North Adams, Massachusetts, to speed up their tunnel project. It was called “The Acid House.”

On a fall day in 1867, with the Hoosac Tunnel one-third complete and workers pushing forward about a hundred feet per month, twenty years of work was almost lost in a single accident. A leaking tank of lamp fuel that was providing lighting for gas lamps exploded, setting fire to the buildings near the tunnel shaft, the wood timbers that were used for bracing and the shaft itself. Four workers got out, but thirteen more were trapped and presumed dead. A miner was lowered into the shaft by rope two hours after the explosion to look for survivors, but he came back with a two-word report. “No hope.” As it turned out, he was wrong. The trapped miners had survived the blast briefly, but they eventually died of suffocation. The tragedy stopped work for a year on the tunnel and cost the state of Massachusetts $40,000, angering citizens who demanded the folly be put to an end since it was obvious the tunnel would never be finished. But too much time and effort had been invested to stop and it would be another eight years before the first train passed through the completed tunnel, on February 9, 1875.

subway opening

8. One man who played a little-known, but vital role in getting New York’s first subway project going was not an engineer or a contractor or a digger or a politician. He was piano manufacturer.

His birth name was William Steinweg. He was born on March 5, 1835, the fourth of six children in a tiny German village called Seesen. Their father, Heinrich, was a piano maker and one day he anticipated bringing all of his children into the business with him. But when his third son, Charles, was at risk of going to war at a time when revolutions were breaking out across Europe, Charles fled for New York, joined the piano-making business there, and wrote home to his family that they should come, too, because the piano factories in the city were thriving. In 1850, the Steinweg family did come, sailing into the harbor just as the summer began. It was not long after they arrived that their family name, Steinweg, was anglicized into Steinway and a piano manufacturing behemoth was soon on its way. Another son, William Steinway, helped the family grow its business with a manufacturing plant in Queens. And his ability to juggle so many tasks, to disarm anyone he came in conflict with, and to convince politicians to give him what he wanted, was seen by New York’s most powerful political figures as a man they could use to get a subway approved. William Steinway was named to head New York’s Rapid Transit Commission of 1891.

9. The man who first proposed that Boston dig a subway around Boston Common is the man responsible for how Beacon Street in Brookline looks today.

On August 9, 1886, residents of Brookline presented a petition to the town selectmen. They wanted Beacon Street converted into a townway. The selectmen approved it, and the land along Beacon Street immediately became more valuable for anybody who owned there, and nobody owned more land there than Henry Whitney. Brookline asked Frederick Law Olmsted to landscape the wide boulevard of Beacon Street into Boston and make it into one of the prettiest streets in all of the country. As a Brookline park commissioner, Whitney knew Olmsted’s work and described him as “a man who stands second to none in this land for laying out avenues of this kind, whose fame extends from Maine to Mexico.” Whitney’s vision was to see Beacon Street, now dotted by only a few scattered mansions, become a busy thoroughfare lined with apartments, homes, and stores. But also have it be two roads, not one. One would handle the personal vehicles of the wealthy, the second for commercial vehicles. The boulevard would be two hundred feet wide, flanked on both sides by bicycle and bridle paths, and lined in the middle by American elm trees. But the signature piece of his plan that Whitney wanted a street railway track, hidden by the trees so that the cars would feel less intrusive to the community, to run down the middle of Beacon. It had been tried before and denied, but Whitney had the political muscle his predecessors did not.

10. Henry Whitney was not only a dreamer of big projects like subways and trolley tracks. He nearly invented a product that’s in most household refrigerators today.

In a rambling letter to his daughter Laura in 1914, written from his home in Cohasset after his seventy-fifth birthday, Henry Whitney revealed some insight into his impatience for the next big thing. He wrote that he was feeling healthy and strong and full of new ideas after a visit to California. “Why not lemon juice?” he wrote to his daughter. “The same as grape and lime juice, and varieties of other fruit juices, and I thought that there was some good reason why it had not been exploited before, that perhaps it would not keep its vitality.” He said he had looked into the matter by speaking to chemistry professors and to the owners of S. S. Pierce, the big market in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, and that he had been assured that not only would lemon juice stay fresh, it would be a popular item on store shelves. “Nothing may come of all this,” he wrote to Laura, “but it is surely something to think of and may possibly result in giving one something to do. I am certain that Whitney’s Pure Lemon Juice would attract some notice in every store in Boston.” It went nowhere, but as with everything in his life, Henry Whitney was always dreaming big.


DOUG MOST is the deputy managing editor for features at The Boston Globe. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Runner’s World and Parents and his stories have appeared in Best American Crime Writing and Best American Sports Writing. His latest book is The Race Underground.

Read an excerpt from The Race Underground at Delancey Place.

Posted in Modern History

The History Reader Newsletter