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Construction of the New York City Subway System

Origins and the Elevated Railways:

What happened below was the result of what happened above.

Measuring a meager two miles wide by 13 miles long, 23-square-mile Manhattan Island grew into one of the world’s most populace cities. Like a cohesive trunk, it grew four other branches, or boroughs, in 1898, which stretched to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, and became unified as New York City.

Although its insular status would have logically dictated the opposite, this jigsaw puzzle of land parcels, sandwiched between the East and Hudson rivers, was quickly fed by the Erie Canal and its bustling, East Coast ports.

Lower Manhattan, incubating most of the city’s businesses and industry, grew ever-denser and needed a frequent, low-cost means of access for its workforce, yet the obstacles to its creation were many.

Because electricity as a source of motive power had yet to become a viable option, traditional steam engine technology would forcibly have to be used, yet it was ill-suited toward anything but short, underground tunnel passage and would therefore be relegated to outside, elevated track.

Financial hurdles were likely to be considerable, and few would be willing to inject such a massive capital outlay into a transportation mode that had yet to be tested. Who, in the event, would own such a network and, even if its costs could be covered, how high would its fares have to be to do so?

Any street-level usage by track-plying trains would obviously require significant approvals, permits, and contracts from city, state, and governmental agencies and regulators.

What was needed was a method to transport its burgeoning population, which had begun to obstruct its streets as if they were clogged arteries. Tracks, laid both on and above them, would, albeit temporarily, serve that purpose before they found their way below them.

Indeed, a quad-wheeled wooden passenger car, pulled by two horses and constituting the New York and Harlem Railroad, became Manhattan’s–and the world’s–first horse rail company, providing surface travel between Prince and Fourteenth streets via the Bowery when it commenced service almost two centuries ago, on November 26, 1832. A byproduct, foreshadowing events to come, fostered outlying population growth and construction, enabling residents to commute from increasingly distanced dwellings to core-city businesses.

So popular had these horse railroads-along with their trackless, but equally equestrian-propelled omnibuses-become by the middle of the 19thcentury, that street congestion negated their speed advantages, resulting in traffic snarls and protracted commutes.

The only way to continue to harness the advantages of such a transportation method was to devise a means by which it could operate independently of other, competing forms, placing its rails either above or below the existing ones. In the case of Manhattan, it meant the former-and its first elevated railroad.

Designed by Charles T. Harvey, a Connecticut inventor, it employed a single, quarter-mile-long track supported by 30 columns that stretched from Day to Cortland Street and used a stationary steam engine, which propelled steel cables that in turn moved its cars. First tested on December 7, 1867, the Greenwich Street routed West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway became the world’s first elevated one when it opened seven months later, on July 3. But the following year’s Black Friday financial collapse, which occurred on September 24, consumed the necessary funding to either continue or expand the system.

Several other ideas for what could be considered the city’s first “rapid transit” system were posed. Alfred Speer of Passaic, New Jersey, for instance, envisioned a continuously moving conveyor belt that encircled New York, enabling passengers to board and deboard wherever they needed to go, although it never eclipsed the idea circulating in his head.

Dr. Rufus Gilbert, a Civil War Army surgeon, advocated a dual pneumatic tube transportation system in 1872. Mounted in a Gothic arch above Broadway, the tubes themselves were intended as channels for circular streetcars. Although, like Speer’s plan, it never saw the light of day that its elevated arrangement would have provided, it passed the torch, at least in concept, to the one that did.

Substituting steam for Charles Harvey’s cables, the New York Elevated Railway inaugurated service on February 14, 1870 along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue, and five years later, the tracks had reached 42nd Street. The Metropolitan Railway, a second elevated company, offered definitive, inter-urban rail transportation luxury with oil lamp chandeliers, oak and mahogany walls, murals, tapestry curtains, couches, and carpeting in its first class cars, and plied its own Sixth Avenue elevated tracks by June 5, 1878.

When it merged with New York Elevated on September 1 of the following year, it gave rise to an eventual 81 miles of stilted tracks along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth avenues, which reached 129th Street on the East Side and 155th Street on the west and enabled some 14 million passengers to be carried to the fringes of the Bronx. Owned by the Manhattan Railway Company, all of the elevated lines collectively carried 184 million passengers by the turn of the century

Compared to the existing, horse-drawn, street-level lines, this system afforded far greater convenience and a three-fold speed increase to its passengers. But, since all technologies inherently incorporated trade offs, it had its own: its erector set of track supporting structures were less than attractive and permanently shielded the streets over which they passed from the sun. Plied by a continual parade of coal-snorting and steam belching engines, they emitted a trail of carbon and burning cinders, which settled on to pedestrians like black, microscopic snow. And they created a virtual 24-hour symphony of chugging, puffing, and track clacking, which rendered it difficult to be heard immediately below them.

Although the most extensive rapid transit network had been created by 1890, New York’s intertwine of track could still not meet the insatiable demand. Indeed, with every rail that was laid, there was always a line of people waiting to ride it, and before they choked the city into transportation asphyxiation, it became apparent that elevated steam engines had become an interim-technology solution and a third realm of railroad construction would have to be explored. That realm was below ground.