Fascinating New York Event: Opening of NYC’s First Subway, Oct. 27, 1904

Running throughout NYC like a body’s circulatory system—veins and arteries of blasted rock girded with iron, steel, and wooden beams while millions upon millions of corpuscles (riders) shuttle in and out in a never-ending chaotic commuter ballet—it is impossible for me to imagine this city without the subway system. Yes, we moan and complain about its crowdedness, its filthy conditions, the delays, the always-increasing fare; but if there is a more quintessential NYC experience other than riding the subway, I can’t conjure it up. And there are few things that separate out the “real” New Yorker from our welcome visitors than seeing an empty subway car pull up to a platform on a hot, crowded NYC day and see many of us run for the neighboring jam-packed cars while gloating out-of-towners can barely conceal their amazement at scoring a car seemingly all to themselves—but O! the stifling heat or stink (or combination of the two!) that awaits them makes me almost want to personally hail a cab for them to clear NYC’s good name!

All that said: happy birthday, NYC Subway! On October 27, 1904 (also a Thursday), throngs of New Yorkers (tens of thousands) made their way to City Hall in order to be a part of the opening ceremony for the first extended underground subway line (there had already been a very limited clandestine pneumatic subway line constructed by Alfred Ely Beach in 1870 that deserves credit for the first underground mode of transportation; the opposition to underground rail was not just driven by rational arguments against the feasibility/affordability of constructing such a system but also by an intriguing financially-vested interests of elevated rail or competing mass transit options in the 19th/early 20th centuries—a dynamic that has largely shaped NYC’s entire urban planning and deserves serious contemplation as we go from station to station.) New York’s was not, of course, the first subway—London had already developed its Metropolitan Railway in 1863, Budapest had an electrical line by 1896, and even Boston beat out New York as the first American city with an underground line opening in 1897; but few cities (especially in the Americas) have developed as extensive a system with as devoted service as NYC.

Ceremonial sterling silver shovel used to break ground for subway construction in 1900

The construction of the subway system actually began four years earlier in 1900 after much debate about how the city should alleviate rampant gridlock throughout the city (the very term “gridlock” is a NYC-centric neologism that derives from NYC’s (in)famous grid above 14th street—a subject deserving of its own future blog entry or two.) A debilitating snow-blizzard in 1888 (also deserving of its own blog entry!) started to convince influential city planners that an underground subway system would be a wise direction for the city to take. Despite the impression that the incredibly ornate ceremonial shovel used to break ground on the subway construction might give (which will be a featured item in the Museum of the City of New York’s highly-anticipated exhibit “NY at its Core”), the work of actually digging out the tunnels for the train tracks was extremely dangerous and incredibly disruptive to day-to-day life along the Bowery, 42nd Street, and Broadway where the tracks lie (ever wonder why 5th Avenue doesn’t have ready access to subway lines? Well, do you think the movers-and-shakers at the turn of the century would tolerate their neighborhoods being disrupted by the construction of these lines?!)

Building NYC's subway tunnels at the turn of the century

Men affectionately known as “sandhogs” risked life-and-limb to dig and blast through the various kinds of rock that comprise the geological base of this city (indeed, scores of men lost their lives in the construction of the subway tunnels.) Interestingly, the crews that dug the subway tunnels we all use today were more racially-integrated than most other operations in the day in part because the stereotype of the time was that blacks could better tolerate the oppressive heat and thin air in the compressed-air environment of digging these tunnels since they supposedly derived from people from the tropic regions of Africa. At any rate, the labor, ethnic, and racial history of the men who worked on the subway system is an incredibly intriguing aspect of NYC’s history.


Mayor George McClellan (center) taking the helm!

The ceremonial Tiffany-designed silver, steel, and ebony throttle used in 1904

On the opening day of the subway line, NYC Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. (McClellan Sr. was a Civil War general), was scheduled to merely pose for photographs as helming the inaugural run by gripping a ceremonially Tiffany-designed throttle made of sterling silver, steel, and ebony. Unexpectedly, McClellan commandeered the subway train and refused to yield the controls to the motorman, declaring to nervous inquiries: “I’m running this train!” He even skipped some stops (even at the beginning, NYers learned to acquaint themselves with the familiar refrain: “this train will be going express between X and Y…”) and it wasn’t until the West 103rd Street stop that he returned control of the throttle to the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company officials.

NYC’s original subway line extended just over 9 miles, starting from City Hall and terminating in 1904 at 145th Street; it took a very sharp turn at Grand Central Terminal (GCT) and made its way west to the newly named Times Square station (basically following what today is the shuttle between Times Square and GCT); it is difficult to completely trace the original 1904 subway route since subsequent extensions and integration of other competitor subway lines have entirely reconfigured the subway map imprinted on most NYers’ minds, but basically it followed a route from City Hall to GCT that is equivalent to today’s 6 line, and then took the aforementioned shuttle route before turning up along what is today’s local 1 line.

The station where the whole enterprise started, City Hall, is actually now closed but is still one of the most beautiful interior spaces in the whole city. Designed by George Lewis Heins & Christopher Grant LaFarge, the station embodies the spirit of the City Beautiful movement of the turn-of-the-century that professed that architectural beauty was not an end in and of itself but created civic and moral virtues to citizens who passed through such structures; the station originally had a magnificent oak ticket booth that has since disappeared, but the wonderful Guastavino-tiled arches in a Romanesque Revival style with glass skylights still remain. The station was eventually closed in 1945 when the trains were extended to accommodate increased ridership but the sharp, confined curve at the City Hall station could not be also be extended (if you join the Transit Museum, they offer guided opportunities to their members to explore the otherwise inaccessible station – and even if you don’t join, visiting the Transit Museum is an incredible way to spend an afternoon; it is located in Brooklyn at the corner of Schermerhorn and Boerum Streets near Borough Hall in another abandoned subway station, Court Street.)

A first subway ticket (five cents)

In researching and writing this blog entry, I found myself frequently thinking about what exactly I appreciate the most about NYC’s subway system. Having lived previously in Chicago and other Chinese/Taiwanese cities, I think that NYC’s mass transit system is special insofar as it forces all walks of life to interact and tolerate one another. There is a real equalizing force at work once you’ve paid your fare and board the train, and certainly one successful aspect of NYC’s subway system has to be attributed to its common fare—it originally cost five cents no matter where you were going or coming from, and while the fare has certainly increased dramatically since (it now costs just under $3.00 per trip), the principle of everyone paying the same rate regardless of distance traveled or exchanges made ensures that so-called “outer” borough residents who typically don’t have as many resources as Manhattanites might have don’t end up having to pay an outsized fee for riding longer distances or for a much longer trip duration.

August Belmont, Jr.

August Belmont's private subway car, The Mineola

But at the same time, I found my appreciation of the social/class-leveling aspect of the subway system frequently challenged in my reading over the past week or so. The subway was from its inception a money-making proposition and perhaps no one embodies that more than the IRT’s first chairman, Mr. August Belmont, Jr. (his father was the famous politician and thoroughbred horse breeder who established and gave his name to the Belmont Stakes.) Belmont was instrumental in financing and growing the IRT, but he was certainly no socially-minded reformer intent on providing affordable mass transit to the city; he actively tried to suppress any competition to the IRT and intentionally wanted to create crowded cars in order to maximize ticket sales. Perhaps nothing embodies the tense relationship between the capitalistic ethos of robber barons like Belmont and how NYC’s infrastructure has developed over the ages than stumbling across the whole history of Belmont’s own private subway car, the Mineola: it featured a kitchenette, an oak roll-down desk, sleeping facilities, a private toilet, and a servant alert system. Belmont used the car to impress his business associates up until his death in 1924, traveling from the Biltmore Hotel near GCT to Belmont Park where the horse races named after his father took place; by a circuitous route, the Mineola has finally found its way into the holdings of the Shoreline Trolley Museum up in Connecticut. The car suffered flood damage following hurricane Sandy but is still more-or-less in its original condition. It is a fascinating artifact that seems worlds away from the cars I enter on a daily basis in 2016!

There are ample opportunities to discuss the development of mass transit and its effects on NYC history and urban development over the centuries on any one of my walking tours – we won’t just explore subway personalities like Belmont, but such powerful figures like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Robert Moses (not a big fan of the subways, hint, hint.) At any rate, consider joining me for a tour – you only need to “Take the ‘A’ Train” to any number of stops along the walking routes!