The Beach Station - I visited it today! My email inbox is full of all sorts of things, but believe me that subject got my attention. Thank you Steve Packard, wherever you are. That was late summer of 2003. He had seen strange old stuff in the basement space where once there was a near-mythical pneumatic railway. A railcar moved only by a blower in a tubular tunnel! Not a model but a full-size demonstration that people could ride in!
Was there actually something left? I doubted it, especially since the building on the site is not the one that was there in Alfred E Beach’s day, more than 130 years ago. But I could not rule it out without looking. They had replaced the old building pretty fast in 1899. Could they have reused some of the old foundation? It was a loose end I had always wanted to tie up.
Little did I know, as I began researching the details, that the subject was going to claim my spare time for the next year, or that in February 2004 I would be standing in that basement with WNBC-TV reporter Jane Hanson, looking at the remains of a private direct-current power station— alas that is what the eight-foot iron wheels and six boilers really were for. But for Jane’s New York, we gestured on camera to the sacred spot in the building corner where in a different older wall there had once been a portal to a pneumatic railway tube.
The thing that kept pulling me deeper into this research topic is that the history books have so much wrong about Beach Pneumatic Transit. History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon. Amusingly Napoléon Bonaparte's bon mot is often misquoted as ‘the lies people agree upon’. That’s what we want him to have said. The Beach story is something like that.
The clever, honest inventor builds a subway in secret right next to City Hall where the corrupt politicians have tried to stop him. Finally getting a franchise a few years on, he’s done in by the business world in the Panic of 1873. The tunnel is sealed up and totally forgotten. Years later workers digging the city subway suddenly break into a hollow space, and to their astonishment, there is the old tunnel, the car on its track, the station with the fountain. Pretty cool.
As I went through the newspaper reports and other documents, the story slowly fell apart. Half of Warren St was blocked with construction equipment and the newspapers wondered how far the tunnel ran— not exactly a secret. When I got to where ‘Boss’ Tweed tried to help Beach get a franchise, I knew I was on to something. The truth was out there and I started to wonder where the now-standard history came from. I found that too: from the inventor, entrepeneur and writer, Alfred E Beach himself.
The tunnel was never completely forgotten, not by the thousands of New Yorkers who had visited it or by the journalists who wrote about it from time to time, especially when at the end of 1898 a spectacular fire destroyed a building and whatever was left of the station and engine rooms. And in 1912, officials of the city and the construction company went in to ‘take possession’ of the tunnel as soon as the papers were signed. They found the remains of the two cars still in the tunnel, and the shield. And then they destroyed the tunnel.
There is quite a lot here that is not directly about Beach. The ‘life and times’ of Beach Pneumatic Transit begs for coverage of the first elevated railways and the Park Avenue railway tunnel as well as the unbuilt rival projects. The reason I included all this besides its intrinsic interest is that for a long time I believed the Beach Pneumatic to be a developmental dead end in New York transit history, leading nowhere, a curiosity getting more than its share of attention; and the reason I thought so was that it was so often separated from its context, and I wanted to put it back. So I have started at the beginning with the street railway politics, the bribery and corruption, and the richest man in town who blocked every transit project that threatened to touch Broadway.
To provide authenticity and nineteenth-century flavor, I have used a lot of quotes. They are in color instead of curly marks because I like the way it looks. All of the quotes and other astonishing statements are referenced with little footnote numbers, and those who want to ask me how I happen to know all this stuff should check the bottom of each page. (Sometimes I wish I’d done this on my other pages.)
These pages are formatted in HTML 4.01 ‘strict’, so I hereby make the obligatory statement that they will look best in Safari (which I use), Netscape 7, and Internet Explorer 5 or higher. I did this to get good typography, simplify coding, and increase the potential longevity of the pages.
— Joseph Brennan, May, 2004.