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Unearthing the First Subway: Alfred Ely Beach

Do you commute on the subway? If you do, you’re one of millions who swipes their MetroCard each day, and probably does not consider the first people who traveled underground in Manhattan and the subway’s lost history.

Alfred Ely Beach was the editor and published of The Scientific American, an inventor, a publisher at The New York Sun, and a patent lawyer. In 1867, he worked in an office on the crowded corner of Chambers Street and Broadway. Traffic congestion, especially down Broadway, was an increasingly pervasive problem in Manhattan and Beach had a hugely ambitious idea: public transportation for New Yorkers, entirely underground.

Beach struggled to get the approval and permits he needed from Tammany Hall–New York’s corrupt political organization overseen at the time by William “Boss” Tweed. To legally begin construction, he’d have to possess a franchise, which was proving to be impossible. So he began his process unofficially, without providing any information to the public. His son and their friends dug overnight, starting in the basement of Devlin’s Clothing Store at 260 Broadway (today, the TD Bank across from City Hall Station). Beach obtained individual patents for the tube, the giant air-blowing contraption at one end of the tube, and the car that would travel back and forth. Materials were dropped off in secret; they continued digging for 58 days, and building under wraps, until Beach was ready to reveal what he had made.

Elite New Yorkers paid a steep ticket price to attend the unveiling of Beach’s 312-foot pneumatic¬†tube on February 26, 1870. The New York Herald called the event, “A fashionable reception held in the bowels of the earth.” The tube was about 9 feet in diameter, propelled from end to end by a giant fan. When it reached one side, the conductor would touch a wire to ring a bell, which reversed the blower to pull the tube back the other way. About 25 people could fit inside at once. Amidst a grand piano and goldfish tank, guests marveled at this edgy innovation: full of potential, and soon to be forgotten.

The demonstration remained on display for three years, while Beach pushed for his plans to move forward. But he faced tremendous political opposition, financial obstacles, and ultimately opposition from residents and landlords that worried about the digging damaging the foundations of their buildings. He tried lobbying New York’s leaders and raising funds to expands his pneumatic railway, but when the Great Panic of 1873 hit, there was little hope for Beach’s plans.

Plus, an elevated railway was being built near Chelsea during these years. Propelled by a steam engine, this transit system seemed a more viable option than the underground system to politicians and city planners. Beach fell ill in the 1890s and is not credited in the conception nor invention of the largest public transit system in the world. When the IRT began construction in 1912, Beach’s original station was discovered, and destroyed.

150 years ago, Alfred Beach dreamed up a version of New York City where people commute underground, on a schedule, avoiding traffic congestion and road wage. This year, more than 1 billion people will pass through the turnstiles. Beach’s legacy is that of New Yorkers who shaped the city’s history: an ambitious dreamer, stubborn, and relentless, committed to what he knew was a groundbreaking idea.

Which stories are excluded from a city’s history? What can a city–or the storytellers in it–do to include the visionaries, the workers, the inventors, and the shapers of the infrastructure we use today, in its very fabric? What is our role in preserving important stories?