On October 27, 1904, New York City’s subway system was born with the opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT). In celebration of this event, a commemorative book entitled Interborough Rapid Transit: The New York Subway—Its Construction and Equipment, in an edition limited to 200 copies, was distributed to high-ranking guests. This illustrated volume details the construction of the subway tunnel, considered to be the first subway line in New York.
That it was the first subway line is almost true. Although the IRT was the first line in our current subway system, decades before it opened, there was another subway tunnel that ran under lower Broadway from Warren to Murray Street that was operated by the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company. Yes, you read that correctly. New York’s very first subway ran, not on electrical power as it does today, but on wind power through a pneumatic tube.
In 1868, publisher and inventor Alfred E. Beach received permission from the City, under Tammany Hall’s rule, “to provide for the transmission of letters, packages, and merchandise in the cities of New York and Brooklyn and under the North and East Rivers by means of pneumatic tubes to be constructed beneath the surface of the streets and public places.” What Beach actually built was a tunnel that was large enough to transmit a car that held 22 passengers by alternatingly blowing and sucking air, much in the same way that interoffice letters were (and in some places still are) sent around in buildings.
Before Beach opened his subway to the public, his entire operation was quite hush-hush, and done literally as well as figuratively on the down low. Using an enormous pointed cylinder pushed by hydraulic pressure, Beach’s crew worked at night removing dirt as it bore a hole under the street. Rumors abounded but nobody knew for sure what was going on under the street until the subway opened to the public in February 1870.
At each end of the tunnel, Beach built elegant stations decorated with seats and paintings and even a fountain. The eight-foot diameter tunnel itself, which took 58 days to dig, was lined with white-painted bricks and sat 21 feet under Broadway with a four-foot-wide track. The subway car, which was about half the size of a streetcar, was cushioned, lighted, ventilated, and “elegant in all its appointments,” according to The New York Times on February 27, 1870. Although the tunnel only stretched 120 feet, Beach planned to extend it in all directions.
In the end, Beach’s pneumatic subway project never moved forward. Some engineers did not think it was possible or safe to build a series of tunnels under such massive structures as the Astor House and other large buildings, and then as time passed the introduction of electric traction made the pneumatic train obsolete. By 1904, when the IRT opened and the commemorative book was handed out, Beach’s subway was already all but forgotten. All that remains from his endeavor is Beach’s own volume about his subway project entitled, The Beach Pneumatic Company’s Broadway Underground Railway issued in 1873 and marked “for private circulation only,” that has the rather long subtitle: with complete maps of the city of New York and adjacent territory, showing the main lines and connections of the Broadway underground railway, profiles of the routes, etc. : together with approximate estimates of cost and traffic, text of the charters of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, legal proceedings and miscellaneous information.
Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast, “The New York City Subway and the Creation of the IRT,” that contains an overview of Beach’s pneumatic subway system here.