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1830— 1866

The transit problem in New York

For one hundred fifty years, it has been hard to travel quickly in Manhattan.  The streets are clogged with vehicles and the sidewalks are jammed with people. 

The first two practical demonstrations of rapid transit were both opened to the public in the same year:  the legendary tunnel of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company and the Greenwich Street elevated railway of the West Side and Yonkers Patented Railway Company.  They were not the only solutions proposed.  But Alfred E Beach and Charles T Harvey were the first inventors and entrepeneurs to get something built that the public could see and ride on.  Beach’s demonstration never advanced into a functioning transit line, but Harvey’s idea, soon modified by others, became the basis for New York’s nineteenth-century rapid transit system of elevated railways. 

How and why the elevated railway succeeded and the subway did not is the subject of these pages.

New York had been an important port and trading city since the colonial period, but at the opening of the nineteenth century the nation’s population was still small, and New York with just under 80,000 residents was only a tenth the size of London.1  The city had doubled in population by the time the Erie Canal opened in 1825, an impressive enough increase, but then the really rapid growth started.  It is hard to overstate the impact of the Erie Canal on the city and on the country.  The cost of transporting a ton from Buffalo to New York dropped from $120 to $6, and the time from 21 days to 8.2  New York was the only port with this tremendous advantage, and so it immediately became the gateway to the Midwest, and secured its place as the center of commerce and banking for the nation.  Warehouses, offices, and shops sprang up wherever they could, and so did housing for the army of workers and their families. 

Manhattan had 313,000 residents in 1840.  The trading city had its business center along the docks and in the narrow streets behind them, mostly in the small area south of Fulton St but now stretching also northward along the East River side.  The same wide and deep waterways that made New York the great port also funnelled all of the land development between them.  An inland port like London could grow in all directions, but New York represented the other extreme.   The business center was at the tip of a narrow island, forcing all the growth only to the northeast (conventionally called north).  As a result the streets were clogged with pedestrians and vehicles, not only in the business district as would be usual, but also for some distance away, since it could not spread out.

Growth was constricted not only by direction but even more so by land values.  The wealthiest New Yorkers occupied the nearest neighborhoods outside the business districts:  at first Greenwich Village, and then what is now midtown, and by the 1860s they were taking over the lands east and west of the new Central Park.  Travel beyond the high-priced districts took so long that the middle classes took to the ferries, establishing little clusters of dense development within walking distance of the slips in Brooklyn and Jersey City.  The poor had nowhere to go and crowded into the edges of the commercial districts, living in old buildings from which they could walk to work.  Open land in northern Manhattan was available for building, but how could anyone travel to work from so far away?3


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Topography of the New York region.  Modern waterlines.  100-foot contours.  It is about ten miles from lower Manhattan to Newark, Jamaica, or the northern part of Manhattan.  Map by Joseph Brennan, from U S Geological Survey data.


The Times described the situation at the start of 1860.  While the commercial centre creeps toward Union-square, the residential quarters stride by the half-mile towards the Central Park.  And as population and business increase in a much greater ratio than the means of transit, the demand for some radical improvement in our City locomotion is becoming imperative.  The average time occupied in getting down town, including that wasted in waiting for vehicles, or going afoot in default of a chance to ride at all, can hardly be less than three-quarters of an hour.  In a few years the distance will be doubled, and since the speed of horses is limited by nature, while that of steam in the streets is limited by law, the time is likely to be doubled also.  Two hours and a half to three hours in getting to and from business!  One could better go fifty miles into Jersey.  The entire upper part of the island offers every advantage to residents, except accessibility.  Any respectably-rapid means of communication would give it the highest advantage in this regard also, over the Long Island and New-Jersey suburbs, since these only communicate with the business centre by a most dilatory and disagreeable transhipment in ferries and omnibuses. …

While business is spreading over its appointed space, and crowding the dwellers out of its natural limits into their own proper quarters, the dwellers are punishing themselves with every variety of inconvenience, from having the noise, dirt and high rent of commercial ground, on the one hand, to dragging daily through goods-encumbered streets, crowded into foul cars, at snail’s pace, on the other hand ; meanwhile, the wide and wholesome country lies like an impenetrable wilderness, almost in sight.  An iron viaduct over the house-tops, carrying steam railway trains at thirty miles an hour, and extending from the City Hall to the Central Park, and thence connecting with the New-Haven, Harlem, and Hudson River Railroads, would at one grand stride place the business centre of New-York within ten minutes of the upper part of the island, and within from fifteen to sixty minutes of the ample and healthy river and sea-side regions beyond, and the splended country that intervenes.4

Some of the clamor for rapid transit was from those who owned property in northern Manhattan, which would vastly increase in value with good transportation.  But even people without those interests could see that the economic health of the city was going to depend on solving the transit problem. 

The first local transportation routes were the omnibus and streetcar lines, that is, horse-drawn vehicles that ran on fixed routes for anyone to ride, on the street surface or on rails.

Surface transit: Omnibus and streetcar lines


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Omnibuses wait at South Ferry, about 1865.  This location at the tip of Manhattan is best known for the Staten Island Ferry terminal, but that had been started just a few years earlier than this, and the boat service called the South Ferry was actually the southernmost of the old crossings to Brooklyn, running to Atlantic Ave.  Photo by George Thorne.


Omnibus lines, providing frequent service on fixed routes, dated to the 1820’s.  By the 1830s New York was called the ‘city of omnibuses’.5  One railroad, the New-York and Harlaem, had begun service in 1832, and by 1837 it ran city horsecars up to 27th St and steam trains north of that point.6  The horsecar portion began at Broadway, running up Park Row, Centre St, Grand St (northbound) and Broome St (southbound), Bowery, and Fourth Ave.  In 1846, there were twelve lines of omnibuses running 258 vehicles, mainly south of 14th Street, and the Harlem railroad ran city horsecars every six minutes.7


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An ‘instantaneous’ view by E Anthony looks down Park Row from Centre St in about 1860.  At this time there were still only two tracks, and the New York and Harlem Railroad tracks can be seen coming in from Centre St, right, and joining the Third Avenue Railroad for the run down to the end of the line at Broadway.  City Hall Park is on the right, and some of the newspaper buildings line the street at the left.  This stretch would be four-tracked by 1864, the Third Avenue Railroad sharing the outer tracks with the new Bleecker St and Fulton Ferry Railroad.


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A closer look at some horsecars shows that they were much larger than omnibuses, although small by later standards of electric cars.  This is a late image, about 1890, of New York and Harlem cars standing at the terminal at the end of Park Row.  The buildings shown here are on the left side of the street in the background of the previous image.  Because of long exposure time, horsecars are usually blurs in old photographs, like the car at right and what seems to be the ghost of another at left.


The first street railways started in the 1850s.  The city’s Common Council granted the small companies the right to lay rails in the city streets and to provide transportation service, with no payment to the city for the privilege, presumably as a benefit to the public.  No state law authorized the city to do so until 1854, when the state legislature retroactively confirmed the grants.8

The Common Council made the first grants in 1851, for the Sixth Avenue Railroad and Eighth Avenue Railroad routes.  Both originated in jointly owned track west of City Hall, the former proceeding up Varick St, Carmine St, and Sixth Ave to 42nd St, and the latter up Hudson St and Eighth Ave to 54th St.9  The next year’s Common Council turned to the east side, granting the Second Avenue Railroad and the Third Avenue Railroad routes at the very end of 1852.  The former followed a somewhat meandering path from Peck Slip (a few streets north of Fulton Ferry) through Chatham Square and the lower East Side to 42nd St and Second Ave.  The latter ran in Park Row, Bowery, and Third Ave, ultimately to Harlem.10

Of the first four companies, the two with routes closest to the center became the most profitable and politically powerful.  The Third Avenue Railroad would be the only great rival to the New York and Harlem.  The Sixth Ave Railroad, while following as closely to Broadway and Fifth Ave as the New York and Harlem did, would be stopped at 59th St by the designation of Central Park, which cut off its route to the north. 

There was one other grant at the end of 1852:  Broadway. 


Broadway was the main line of the omnibus routes.  Fifth Ave would be the other holdout against street railways, but it was an uptown residential street.  Broadway was the most important street in New York, lined with shops and businesses, the most obvious route in need of public transit.  It was the preferred route of many railway plans, and was their undoing.  The politically connected property owners would block plan after plan solely because of the routing.


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Another ‘instantaneous’ photograph by E Anthony shows Broadway looking south from Duane St on a sunny day in 1860.  The spire in the distance is St Paul’s down at Vesey St.  The white building in the left center background is Devlin’s clothing store, where Beach would construct his subway nine years later, and the trees to the left of it mark City Hall Park.  This stretch of Broadway was a shopping district thanks in part to the anchor of A T Stewart’s ‘Marble Palace’, which is not quite visible but was on the left in the last block before the trees.  Rush hour traffic was worse than this.  More than half the vehicles visible are omnibuses.


The writer of an unsigned editorial in Scientific American, presumably Alfred E Beach, reviewed the Broadway problem as early as 1849.  Many plans have, from time to time, been brought forward, to rout out the long train of omnibuses that so often block up the principal street of our city.  He did not think however that this evil will be remedied by another, namely the pproposals for elevated railways.  Rather, he suggested, let us look to another scheme … Nothing less than a railway underneath, instead of one above— railway life down stairs … The plan is to tunnel Broadway through the whole length, with openings and stairways at every corner.  However, he would settle for something less ambitious.  At the present moment we would be sincerely grateful for the extension of the Russ pavement throughout Broadway and on our principal streets; and at best, we do not see why a rail road could not be built with a double track in the middle of the causeway.  This would do away with so many stages, and there is not a single good objection that can be argued against it.11

There may have been ‘not a single good objection’ to a street railway in Broadway, but objections were made.  Historian Denis Tilden Lynch described the situation as it was three years later:  During the latter part of the year a portion of the press hammered away at the Aldermen for contemplating a grant to run street cars on Broadway.  Much of the opposition to the proposal, which was inherently sound, was inspired by Alexander T Stewart, the richest merchant in the United States, whose store at Broadway and Chambers Street was one of the sights of the town.  It was the first structure of marble erected on Broadway, and the people proudly called it The Marble Palace …  The Merchant Prince, as he was called, fearful that street cars would keep his fashionable patrons from driving their carriages to his store, organized a formidable opposition to the laying of tracks on Broadway.12

The Common Council comprised a twenty-member Board of Aldermen and a twenty-member Board of Assistants, responsible among other things for granting street railway franchises.  The first franchises had been granted to groups of applicants as gifts, with no compensation of any kind to the city.  A grand jury handed in a presentment in February 1853, finding that bribery had been involved from the very first franchise in 1851.  In regard to the franchises for the Second Avenue, Third Avenue, and Broadway routes, the grand jury found, it was clearly shown that enormous sums of money had been expended for and toward the procurement of railroad grants in the city.  The Eighth Avenue grant had cost upwards of fifty thousand dollars, a witness testified, and another said the Third Avenue grant cost about thirty thousand.13

The Broadway street railway was promoted chiefly by a single-minded individual called Jacob Sharp, sometimes spelled Sharpe, who fought for this prize from 1852 to 1885.  His opponents, merchants led by A T Stewart and omnibus operators, were equally stubborn in opposition.  Sharp was accused as soon as the franchise was awarded.  He protested to the Times, You have intimated the charge that the vote (16 to 2) by which that resolution was passed was a bought and bribed vote.  Heavily wronged and aggrieved by such an insinuation, we desire to meet it with a prompt, broad and full contradiction …  There never was a public enterprise projected, urged forward or conducted in a more upright, straightforward or honorable manner.  None, too was ever executed with a more liberal regard to the public accommodation or satisfaction, than is contemplated in all our plans.16

Sharp went further.  His rivals had proposed to charge low fares, and to pay the city ruinously high fees, up to twenty per cent of the gross.  To naive observers they made Sharp’s more realistic proposal look bad.  One of the rivals was A T Stewart himself, and Stewart’s biographer Stephen Elias found that he financed all of the others, too.17  Sharp said of Stewart’s own proposal, that offer was not a genuine and bona fide one, but a mere device to get possession of the work for the purpose of killing it.  This will not be denied.  We know it from several respectable gentlemen to whom it was acknowledged by prominent persons among those who made the said application and offer.  At the same time that they thought to kill off our serious application, and to get the grant themselves by dint of such counter-offer to our application, they had the arrangements ready, even the papers drawn, for an injunction to be served to stop the work, to which injunction they would, of course, oppose no efficient defence, if any at all.16

The historian Lynch considered Stewart still novel then in the ways of persuading lawmakers, meaning perhaps that Stewart, known for honest dealing, did not want to use bribery.  But Sharp was right about the plot.  Having failed to prevent the Common Council from voting in favor of Sharp, Stewart and others went to Mayor Kingsland to influence him to veto the measure, which he did on December 18, citing the better returns to the city promised by the five rival routes.  The council expected this.  They had enough votes to override, and said that they would do so. 

But on December 28, the council and the mayor were served an injunction requiring them to desist from further action regarding the Broadway railroad.18  The complainants were Davies and Palmer, two of the losing bidders.  The papers were drawn up for them by Stewart’s corporate and personal lawyer Henry Hilton.19

The complaint was a list of reasons not to build that would apply to the rivals who filed it as much as it did to Sharp.  There would be four months of disruptive construction.  The street had just been paved with the Russ pavement (blocks of granite on a bed of stone and cement) at a cost of $500,000, and it would be broken open.  The council’s meeting dates did not meet the letter of the law, nullifying its action on the days the franchise was awarded.  It was even claimed that Broadway is too narrow to admit of a railway.18  The motion was precisely what Sharp had predicted, although he had expected it to be served against the winning bidder, not the city itself.  Stewart did not want a street railway in Broadway. 

The Aldermen met anyway the next day.  After a heated debate on the wisdom of defying the court, they re-passed the bill 15 to 3.  Alderman William M Tweed spoke for many:  When the people of the Seventh Ward elected me as their representative, they gave me the right to think for them, and they have not delegated that right to Mr Justice Campbell.  Mr Justice Campbell might issue an injunction to stay the Executive, but the members of the Board of Common Council must think for themselves.20

It was Alderman Oscar Sturtevant who presented the resolution.  In response, the members of the council were fined for contempt, and Sturtevant was jailed for fifteen days.  But they appealed.  The case turned into a thorny legal question of who had standing to seek an injunction to stop the city council from acting.  Stewart, now openly the plaintiff, had a second injunction served on Sharp’s Broadway Railroad Association in April 1853 to prevent construction while the matter was decided.  Sharp claimed damages, but since he had put up no bond and had done no work, it was argued he had suffered no damages.  An engineer testified for the plaintiffs that the railroad would be found a nuisance, and an impediment to the free use of the street.21  The injunction remained, while the case ran on into the next year.22  It took until December 1856 for the Court of Appeals to determine that the resolution of the Common Council was void.23

In December 1853, the Common Council again voted on and passed a Broadway Railroad bill, assigned to a new Jacob Sharp company, the Manhattan Railway.  Again, the mayor was expected to veto, and again the council planned to override.24  This time it was the Attorney General who sought an injunction, remedying the problem of standing, and this time, the council did not defy it and re-vote.  This injunction was never lifted.23

Also in December 1853, the Common Council granted one last franchise, for the Ninth Avenue Railroad route, to the same owners as the Eighth Avenue Railroad.  The route ran by single tracks in Greenwich St and Washington St near the western edge of the island, and then up Ninth Ave to 54th St.  The Ninth Ave portion was laid but the lower part was held up for years by lawsuits over the narrow streets, and was not opened until July 1859.25

As a result of the grand jury findings about bribery, the state legislature passed a law in April 1854 that limited the power of Common Councils to grant franchises.  The successful franchise applicant would need consent of a majority in interest of the owners of property along the proposed route.8  That is, the ‘vote’ of property owners consenting to construction was weighted by property values.  With Stewart and his allies owning so much valuable Broadway property, it became impossible for Sharp to try again at the council.  Instead, Sharp began petitioning the state legislature to affirm either of the Common Council votes previously taken.  After all the 1854 bill did ratify routes that had been opened or had started construction, namely all of the other routes that had ever been granted by the Common Council. 

Bills in favor of Sharp’s Broadway route got through the Assembly three times, but they were not voted on in the Senate,23 instead killed by resolute, inflexible rural senators26 and by Stewart’s personal lobbying in Albany.27  In fact, no routes were awarded under the rules of the law of 1854.

In the wake of Sharp’s repeated failures, other parties brought a different route to the Common Council in 1859, called the ‘Broadway Parallel’.  It ran in Broadway only north of Union Square, and in other streets just west of Broadway to the City Hall area.  In an effort to circumvent the restrictive law on street railways commencing and ending within the city limits, the promoters organized the New York and Yonkers Rail Road as a steam railroad running between two cities.  Street railway historian Harry Carman called it the second attempt to steal Broadway.29  Stewart opposed it,30 apparently because of the use of upper Broadway.  But it would probably have taken pressure off calls for a street railway in lower Broadway itself.  In an incredible re-enactment of history, the Council awarded the franchise, the mayor vetoed it, and a court issued an injunction.29

On Governor Morgan’s recommendation, the state legislature passed new legislation in January 1860 by a unanimous vote, completely taking away the Common Council’s power to issue street railway franchises.  The legislature itself would now grant franchises.  Morgan signed it into law, and the lobbyists flocked to Albany.  A package of five routes was passed by both houses in April, over the governor’s veto.  There is little doubt that the legislators were bribed, wrote Carman.  The franchises included a version of the Broadway Parallel route.  The city council fought the loss of its power in court till 1862, but all of the franchises awarded in 1860 were constructed over the next few years.31


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Street Railways of New York, 1866.  The base map is Cities of New-York and Brooklyn &c &c by W Williams, 1847.  RED:  The original routes granted by the Common Council up to 1853.  Left to right:  Hudson River, Ninth Avenue, Eighth Avenue, Sixth Avenue, New York and Harlem, Third Avenue, Second Avenue.  GREEN:  The routes granted by the Legislature in 1860.  YELLOW:  Omnibus routes.


Jacob Sharp had a financial interest in the two 1860 franchises that closely paralleled Broadway, and he settled down to managing them for some years.  The Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railroad got the ‘Broadway Parallel’ route, namely Broadway from 44th St to Union Square, and then down University Place and Wooster St and Greene St just west of Broadway.  The Bleecker Street and Fulton Ferry Railroad route fitted itself through narrow streets just east of Broadway, Elm St and Crosby St, on its winding way from Fulton Ferry to 14th St at the Hudson, crossing Broadway at Bleecker St.  Both of Sharp’s roads opened in 1864, delayed by litigation over the franchises.  Sharp had got as near to lower Broadway as he could and bided his time.  The receiver of the Bleecker Street company reported in 1876 that during the company’s first ten years it had been preyed on by evil-minded and unscrupulous men, that $434,000 of its bonds had been given away free to company men including Sharp, and that it was so profitable that had it been run properly, it could have repaid its construction costs in less than two years.32

It was to be many years more before a streetcar line was built on Broadway south of Union Square.  During the decades that underground railway companies made proposals for Broadway, only the ancient horse omnibus provided transit on the surface.  But it is worth jumping ahead to see how the Broadway streetcar line was finally built.

Attempts to build on Broadway were made in the 1860s by the Eighth Avenue Railroad, the New York and Harlem, and one of the 1860 companies, the Dry Dock, East Broadway and Battery Rail Road.  A bold and dishonest attempt, which eclipsed all others, was made to secure Broadway in 1869, wrote historian Carman.  Bills were introduced in the Senate and Assembly for a Broadway railroad, to be built with no compensation to the city.33  The Broadway Railroad scheme— the great thieving job of the session— displayed itself in its true colors today, wrote the Times correspondent.  One bill was introduced, and another was substituted at the last minute surprising the senators, granting even more streets and privileges.  Senator PALMER moved that it be amended so as to allow the corporators to take possession of all the streets in New-York and have done with it, and Senator Morgan denounced it as the most wicked, corrupt and shameless bill that was ever introduced before the legislature.34  A T Stewart offered two million dollars for the franchise but he was ignored, wrote Carman.  The bill was shelved by the Senate. 

The story of Jacob Sharp would conclude with his Broadway Surface Railroad, incorporated in 1884, chartered to run from the Battery to Union Square.  By this time the franchise power had been returned to the common council, and A T Stewart was dead.  The Documentary History of Railroad Companies summed it up.  December 5, 1884, over the mayor’s veto, the common council of the city of New York granted this Company a franchise for a double track railroad on the route described in its charter.  This was the famous franchise obtained by Jacob Sharpe after trying to secure it for so many years … May 8, 1885, the Supreme Court, after the company had failed to get the required consents of property, confirmed a report of the commissioners authorizing the construction of the road without such consents.35

Sharp had won.  The court’s ruling was the legal permission needed when the property owners along a route did not consent.  The new company quickly made arrangements to run a through route to Central Park together with Sharp’s Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railroad.  Sharp bought up all the omnibus lines, and began laying track, and got the line open.  Then the deal fell apart.  In January 1886, the Senate sent a committee to investigate charges of bribery.  The results led the state legislature to dissolve the company in May.  Twenty of the twenty-two aldermen were implicated.36

The Documentary History gives the outcome.  Many members of the Board of Aldermen that granted this franchise were indicted for bribery.  Three turned state’s evidence, one was convicted on his own confession, and two convicted after having been tried in court. Jacob Sharpe himself was sentenced to four years in state prison.  He obtained a stay and a new trial, but died before the trial was had.  Six of the Aldermen fled to Canada.35 

Sharp died in 1888.  The franchise itself remained in litigation until the Court of Appeals ruled in 1890 that the franchise was still valid, even though it had been obtained by felonious bribery.  The trustees sold the franchise and the railway, which had been operating in a legal limbo.  The new company, the Broadway Railway, soon became the main line of the Metropolitan Street Railway system, in 1893.36

The Metropolitan Railway

As the day of rapid transit began to dawn in 1864, the street railway routes served 61 million passenger trips a year, but in a city of 700,000, that averaged only 87 trips per resident.37  Most people still walked to work.  The built-up part of Manhattan was stretching past 14th St.  In what is now Midtown, there were still farms.  Tracks provided the horsecars with a much smoother roadway than the streets, but their speed was still limited by congestion and the speed of other street vehicles. 

Elevated railways had been proposed even before street railways.  A man called H Sargeant patented a system in 1825.  Colonel John Stevens of Hoboken, an important early proponent of railways in America, suggested an elevated railway in Broadway in 1832.  There were others, including the Scientific American article of 1849 quoted above that suggested a railway through the blocks, above street level.38 

But the first detailed proposal to construct off-street local transportation in New York was for an underground railway, not an elevated line.  A businessman called Hugh B Willson formed the Metropolitan Railway in 1864, inspired by the railway of the same name that opened in London in 1863.  The London road ran in mixed tunnel and open cut, connecting a few outlying mainline railway terminals with the downtown ‘City’ district of London39.  Willson was present at the opening and travelled on the line many times while he was in London. 

Willson proposed a Metropolitan Railway running from the Battery under Broadway and Sixth Ave to Central Park.40  He wrote to the Times in April.  It is proposed to construct the tunnel under Broadway, there being found, on a careful examination, no engineering difficulties of any moment in the way.41  The report of his engineer, R T Bailey, mentioned only one problem, at Canal St where the low ground level and a crosstown sewer would force the railway to go below water level.  However, Bailey wrote, the sewers had been built following the old course of the Collect Pond and its drainage to the Hudson, and my attention was directed to the practicability of so changing the sewers as to conduct the drainage of this district into the East River, thereby making Broadway the dividing line.  He proposed to do so, and raise the grade of the tunnel almost to street level from Lispenard St to Grand St, to avoid drainage problems and improve railway grades.42

While the civil engineering was of some concern, the most serious objection to an underground railway was the use of steam locomotives.  On all English railways, locomotives were required by law to consume their own smoke43 so the Metropolitan was not unique in needing to run smokelessly, but the difficulty of achieving this at all times was a greater problem underground.  John Fowler designed an engine for the Metropolitan with a brick-lined firebox, the idea being to damp down the fire any time it was in a tunnel, and at the same time the steam leaving the cylinders would be directed into a condensing tank.  Leading engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel backed the idea, but when the engine (afterwards nicknamed ‘Fowler’s Ghost’) was constructed, experiment showed that it quickly ran out of steam.  The Metropolitan then used engines that condensed their steam while running in the tunnel, but made no special provision for exhaust smoke and gases.44  The railway had continual problems with exhaust despite the open cuts and condensing engines.

Willson wrote that there exists a little skepticism on the subject of ventilation, which suggests some purely imaginary difficulties.  A much more perfect plan has been devised for ventilating the New-York tunnel than that used in London, which, as I claim to be the originator, I shall now allude to more particularly.  It will be sufficient to say, that no complaints are made by those using the London tunnel.  The engines employed have been constructed so as to consume their own smoke and gas, and the continual and rapid motion of trains keep up an ample circulation of air.41  He was certainly wrong about the engines consuming their own gases, and as to smoke, an historian many years would write that it was no doubt reassuring to passengers to hear from one of the engine drivers that the smoke was ‘very seldom’ thick enough to obscure his view of the signals.45

Putnam’s Magazine commented about London just a few years later.  The ventilation can hardly be considered perfect, but it is infinitely better than might be supposed.  The occurence of two or three deaths on the road in the year 1867, apparently from asphyxia, called public attention strongly to this matter ; but in neither case did the coroner’s inquest refer the case directly to want of ventilation.  The air of the tunnels was carefully analyzed by competent physicians, and the proportion of oxygen was found to be up to the ordinary standard, while the amount of carbonic acid was inappreciably small.46

Still, transit historian James Blaine Walker, writing in 1918, did not think steam was the main problem.  Research indicates, however, that it was not power but politics and the war for franchise rights which postponed the building of the first underground road.  Steam had been successfully used in London’s underground as early as 1863, and if Hugh B Willson and backers had been able to obtain the necessary rights from the Legislature, it is clear from the historical review of the period that the first rapid transit road in New York would have been a subway and that it would have been operative by 1870, or about the time the first elevated road began actual business.47

A bill for the Metropolitan Railway was introduced into the Senate in 1864, but it did not find much support.  It was sent back to committee and died as the session ended.  As Walker notes, The corporations of those days had great influence with the Legislators, and as no corporation already operating favored the new scheme it got short shrift in the Railroad Committee of the Senate, to whom it had been referred.48

Later in 1864, Willson hired another engineer, Asa P Robinson, to make more detailed plans for the project.  Robinson’s report, dated January 1, 1865, is a detailed and insightful analysis of the need for rapid transit.49  He calculated the likely population growth and the capacity of surface transit lines, and foresaw the impossibility of accommodating the growth of the city without off-street transportation.  He noted that the more frequent the service, the more riders would be attracted.  If a car with a capacity of 80 passengers can be filled every four minutes, it will be fair to assume that one with capacity for at least 50 can be filled every two minutes. He presented calculations showing that the railway should run every two minutes, and designed passenger cars.  He proposed an ideal route slightly different from Willson, a two-track railway to run under Broadway and Fifth Ave (instead of Sixth Ave) from the Battery to 59th St, whence it was to branch east and west to meet the two main line railroads.50

The arched tunnels of brick and masonry were reminiscent of the London road, and so was the sensible plan of connecting with the main lines.  The problem of ventilating the gases from the steam engines was to be dealt with by vents leading to fifteen-inch diameter lamp posts every hundred feet.  The vents would connect alternately to the top and bottom of the tunnel.  The tunnel would be completely paved to reduce dust.  Following English railway practice, passengers would pay as they enter the station, and the station platforms would be at car floor height.49 


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Drawings from A P Robinson’s Report.  A possible combined locomotive and passenger car; cross section between stations showing the ventilation ducts; plan of a way station; cross section at a station.

Below, a cross section of Baker St station as planned, Metropolitan Railway, London.51  Willson and Robinson obviously followed much the same design.

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Baker St station still looks much as it did in 1863, after a thoughtful renovation in the 1980s.  The original vent shafts no longer reach the street, but electric lights have been installed in them to simulate daylight.  New York could have had a two-track Broadway subway that would look much like this today.  Photo by Joseph Brennan, August 1988. 


It was of course not the engineering difficulties that were the great obstacle, as Jacob Sharp could have explained.  The company directors knew too that the problem was the property owners and omnibus operators, and wrote in 1865, The construction of this road interferes with nobody.  It conflicts with no vested rights.  It touches no man’s property.52  In 1865, the bill was defeated in the Senate, but was then reconsidered, and passed on April 3.  The Assembly passed it on April 27.  Governor Fenton held the bill till the legislature had adjourned, and then vetoed it on May 20.53

Walker blamed it on the street railway owners.  To the unprejudiced reader of this chapter of Legislative history it would appear that the first underground railroad bill was defeated by the corporations then owning the street railroads, who did not want the competition of a subway.  Fenton’s action gave the opponents of the scheme time to organize rival projects and ultimately to defeat it.  He thereby deferred underground transit in New York City for almost half a century.54

Fenton’s stated objection was to the use of public streets and places for what he called private use.  He raised special concern over Battery Park, where the route would start in a terminal above ground, and then dip into a portal under Bowling Green.  The federal government had granted the land to the state on the condition that it remain a public place.  While preservation of park land is a worthy goal, Fenton’s objection solely on grounds of private use seemed weak.  Street railways already used street surfaces for the same kind of ‘private use’.55  The Times’s editors wrote, We think his action will be regretted by all classes of people in this city, except those who are interested in existing and prospective street-railroads56

In 1869, the Times, reviewing the history of underground plans (and mistakenly calling it the Manhattan Railroad), wrote, The bill granting the charter was vetoed by Governor FENTON, as was generally understood at the time, through the influence of A T STEWART, who has uniformly and very earnestly opposed any road in Broadway, either underground, or elevated, or surface.  Had that bill been signed, New-Yorkers would, probably ere this, have been able to travel by steam cars from the Battery to Central Park in less time than it now takes them to go one quarter of that distance.57

In December of 1865 the Times ran a long article under the headings THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.  /  The Proposed Route— The Cost and Estimated Profits.  /  Engineering Difficulties to be Overcome.  In it they reviewed the situation.  Our streets are at present a network of railways that are absolutely dangerous to ordinary vehicles, and yet the cars, with the aid of numerous omnibuses, are insufficient to accommodate the traveling public … One of our most experienced engineers is of opinion that an underground road from the Bowling Green to the Central Park might be constructed for $8,487,006, even at the present price of labor and materials … Now for the purpose of avoiding as much as possible existing sewers, water and gas pipes and heavy buildings, the following route is proposed:  Commencing at the Bowling-green the route would follow the line of Broadway to Fourteenth-street … This and much more was of course all related to the Metropolitan Railway plan, not mentioned by name.  The tunnel interior would arch to 16 feet in height and would be 25½ feet wide at the sills of the cars, and 45 feet in stations, to allow side platforms over 12 feet in width.  The stations would in buildings, with stone stairs down to the platforms.  Short trains would run every two minutes, pulled by small steam locomotives.  It was expected to net more than $950,000 a year to the investors.58

Willson’s plan was taken up once again in the session of 1866, along with the plans of others.  Early in the session, the legislators asked for the opinion of the chief engineer of the Croton Aqueduct Department, Alfred W Craven.  In 1865 he had reviewed how the Robinson plan would deal with water and sewer lines, the only underground infrastructure in the city at that time, and had written his approval of the plans.  But now one year later he objected to the same plans and others.59  Something was up. 

Walker notes, Broadway was the route most desired, and the fight for underground rights was waged over this thoroughfare.  The reason for this was that Broadway was then as now the main business artery of the city, and the traffic on its surface was greater than that of any other street, so that the great need for relief of congestion was a new road of some kind along Broadway …  As before stated, the horse railroad interests looked with hungry eyes on this thoroughfare and for years had sought the priceless franchise for the surface rights.  Property owners had resisted their efforts successfully, and when the Legislature of 1866 met were prepared to continue their resistance.  Owners of the horse railroads, too, argued that if Broadway underground rights were granted to rivals the construction and operation of a subway would delay, perhaps for all time, the building of a surface road in that street.  As they were still fighting for the surface rights, they naturally opposed the grant of the sub-surface rights sought by Willson.60

Willson fought for the franchise with one chief rival led by Origen Vandenburgh, who had been earlier part of Willson’s team.  Vandenburgh’s bill passed the Assembly first.  Walker writes, Meantime the Senate Railroad Committee gave a public hearing on all bills affecting Broadway, and a large delegation of wealthy men from New York City attended.  Among them were William B Astor and A T Stewart.  The latter argued against the giving away of franchises, and offered $3,000,000 for the rights which the pending bills proposed to confer for nothing.  When asked to make a bona fide offer for the Broadway underground franchise, however, Mr Stewart declined.  In general the millionaire delegation opposed all railroads in Broadway, but especially the underground and elevated projects.61  Days later, the committee reported favorably on the Vandenburgh underground bill and a surface railway bill, but an argument broke out on the floor, with charges of bribery.  When votes were taken, none of the bills passed.62

The Senate Committee of 1866

The Senate did take one positive action on the rapid transit problem.  They appointed some of their members to gather information and report to the next session:  Resolved:— That a select committee of three be appointed …  to ascertain and report to the Senate the most advantageous and proper route or routes for a railway or railways, suited to rapid transportation of passengers from the upper to the lower portion of the city of New York …63

Anticipating the results, William Whitbeck, President of the East Side Association, made a presentation on the subject in October 1866.  The association members were land owners who stood to benefit when rapid transit reached their properties.  The question here arises, he noted, is the use of the powerful locomotive practicable within the heart of a great city?  The two existing steam railroads in Manhattan, the Hudson River and the New York and Harlem, had been prohibited by law from running steam locomotives any farther south than 30th St and 42nd St respectively, not only because their routes ran in streets, but because of fear of steam boiler explosions.  But Whitbeck proposed that by steam only can the two ends of the island be brought sufficiently near each other in point of time.  Since the locomotive cannot be run at high speed on the surface, nor on aerial railroads because they are impracticable for the purposes of high speed, underground railways must be considered even though many consider them opposed to reason and common sense.  He then went over much of the same ground as Willson and Robinson to answer objections to problems with ventilation and civil engineering, and brought up the example of the Metropolitan Railway in London. 

I propose the Broadway route because it is the great line of travel in this City … provided, however that it is possible to construct it here, and provided further, that while in process of construction the damage to private interests shall not be so great as to more than counterbalance all the public benefits derived therefrom … The opinion is freely expressed that when the excavation comes to be made, the earth on either side will slide into the ditch, the foundations of buildings will give way, and that all property on Broadway will be damaged more or less … a repetition of what occurred in London.

Whitbeck admitted that there had been problems in London with tunnelling directly under buildings, causing them to settle, but emphasized that the Broadway tunnel would not run under buildings.  He said there had been no problems with buildings next to open cuts in streets, and the open cuts in Broadway would not be done in the slovenly manner practiced by our sewer builders but with proper shoring up of the sides.  He went on at great length to say that it must be possible to avoid closing Broadway to traffic where digging was in progress— necessity is the mother of invention— and proposed a movable bridge be devised to cover the open cut.64

This was all in fact a pitch for an underground railway plan that Whitbeck was involved with, the project led by Origen Vandenburgh.  The group included an engineer called Joseph Dixon who later worked with Alfred E Beach.  The route was, again, to be Broadway and Eighth Ave, and by some ‘convenient’ routes to join the Hudson River and Harlem railroads.  Nothing came of it.65

The Senate Select Committee reported their work on January 31, 1867.  They reached the oft-quoted conclusion that if every avenue lengthwise of the island were to be occupied at once by surface rails, the relief afforded thereby would not be adequate to present requirements and therefore certainly not those of the future.  Off-street transit was essential.  Not only that, they concluded that underground railways passing under streets present the only speedy remedy for the present and prospective wants of the City of New York in the matter of the safe, rapid and cheap transportation of persons and property.66

There was still concern about steam locomotives underground, because the London road had many open cuts where it passed through private property, with no lengths of tunnel similar to the distance of Broadway from Bowling Green to Union Square.  The committee suggested the investigation of pneumatic power for underground operation, inspired by recent projects in England.  In an appendix, an engineer called M O Davidson proposed tubes of twelve to thirteen feet diameter, with a required pneumatic pressure at three to seven ounces per square inch.  The committee wrote, The successful application of this principle on a large scale would be a practical solution of the difficulties which embarrass an underground plan relying on locomotive engines for power, in the matter of ventilation and injurious concussion and the accommodation of the tunnel to the grade of the surface.66

The committee found only one existing proposal worth consideration, and it was not an underground railway but Charles T Harvey’s plan to build an elevated railway.  It was to run in Greenwich St and Ninth Ave from the Battery to Yonkers, using his patented method of cable propulsion.67

The committee therefore set the stage for the two forms of rapid transit that were eventually to operate in New York.  Of these, the elevated railway, after conversion to steam locomotive power in 1870, rapidly became the dominant system for the next thirty years.  In time the public became convinced that the steam-powered elevated was the only practical means of rapid transit. 

Proposals for underground railways continued, but every time they were routed in Broadway, they were dogged by political obstacles.  Blame was placed on street railway owners or Tammany politicians, both known for corruption, but the facts always seemed to lead to A T Stewart and his group of millionaires and their opposition to any possible disruption to carriage traffic. 

Alexander T Stewart

Alexander T Stewart opened his first store in 1832 at 257 Broadway between Warren St and Murray St, when he was 29 years old.  He became known for the innovations of selling goods for set prices, with no haggling, and for buying his goods with cash, avoiding credit because of a bad experience early in his career.  In the Panic of 1837, because he owed no money, he suffered little. He bought other stores’ goods at auction and re-sold them, as he said, ‘below wholesale’.  In 1846 he relocated to his large ‘Marble Palace’ store mentioned above, at 280 Broadway, the northeast corner of Chambers St.  Stewart had assembled the property and designed the building for his purposes.  It took the whole block front along Broadway, and had a central rotunda open to the height of the building.  Retail was on the ground and second floors, wholesale above.  The Tuckahoe marble exterior and large windows were rarities that inspired similar buildings.  In the first building expansion, in 1852, Stewart relocated his office to the second floor, where it remained the rest of his life.68

In 1846, some considered the location a little too far uptown.  Worse, it was on the wrong side of Broadway, the ‘shilling side’.  Broadway was an obstacle to pedestrians.  The fashionable shops had all located on the same side because it was so dangerous to cross Broadway on foot.  Some say the west side was chosen because it is shady in the afternoon; others because the homes of the wealthier class were to the west, in what is now Soho and Greenwich Village.  Stewart bet he could change old habits, and he succeeded.  His store was large enough to be a destination in itself.  Eventually, liveried escorts were provided by merchants to assist their customers in crossing the thoroughfare.69 

The retail business continued to move gradually uptown.  Stewart relocated the retail store again in 1862 to the much larger ‘Great Iron Store’ that grew to fill a whole block bounded by Broadway and Fourth Ave, Ninth and Tenth Sts.  Stewart spent two and a half million dollars to construct the main portion that opened in 1862 along Broadway.  It was a cast iron building, supported by brick piers that rested on huge granite blocks laid in sand.  The basement included vaults under the sidewalks on all sides, a taking of public property that was common practice at that time.  The cast iron front was painted white, and its commanding appearance was its identifying feature, because there were no signs identifying the store.  According to Stewart, New Yorkers knew what the building was.  Later Wanamaker’s, it was kept open as a store until 1954, and was then destroyed by fire two years later.70

Stewart continued to use the Chambers St store entirely for his large wholesale business, and his own office remained there.  The building still stands today, but has undergone a long series of alterations that have destroyed much of its original appearance.  Stewart’s awe-struck admirers would write, He has gained all his wealth fairly, not by trickery and deceit, or even by a questionable honesty, but by a series of mercantile transactions the minutest of which bears the impress of his sterling integrity.71 

1 Hood, 722 Miles, 35.
2 Ellis, Epic of New York, 223-229.
3 Katz, The New York Rapid Transit Decision of 1900.
4 Times, 1860 May 9.
5 Hood, 722 Miles, 38.
6 Condit, Port of New York, v1, 23-26.
7 New York Panorama, 65-67.
8 Documentary History, 1410.
9 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 39-54.  Documentary History, 1158-1163, 393-397.
10 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 54-71.  Documentary History, 1143-1156, 1290-1308.
11 Scientific American, 1849 Nov 3.
12 Lynch, ‘Boss’ Tweed, 79-80.
13 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 46-48, quoting Documents of the Board of Aldermen.
16 Times, 1852 Nov 26.
17 Elias, Alexander T Stewart, 144.
18 Times, 1852 Dec 29.
19 Elias, Alexander T Stewart, 144.  Hilton was very close to the Stewart family and business, and was the executor of Stewart’s estate.  Often called Judge Hilton, he left the judiciary permanently in 1863 upon losing an election to Albert Cardozo, a Tammany Democrat and law student of his own brother Archibald Hilton (see Andrew L Kaufman, Cardozo, New Haven:  Harvard University Press, 1998).  Stewart paid Hilton $34,000 a year from that date on:  $24,000 from A T Stewart and Company, and $10,000 personally. (Elias, 198).  Hilton is most infamous today for excluding Jews from the Grand Union Hotel, Saratoga Springs, in 1877, after he acquired it from the Stewart estate, a highly publicized event that made such prejudice seem more acceptable because of the great prestige the hotel had gained under Stewart’s ownership (Times, 1877 Jun 19).
20 Lynch, ‘Boss’ Tweed, 79-80.
21 Times, 1853 Jul 26, 1853 Oct 13
22 Times, 1853 Nov 5, 1854 Jan 6.
23 Times, 1860 Oct 31.  See also Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 78-81.
24 Times, 1853 Dec 9.
25 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 72-77.  Documentary History, 1027-1032.  Times, 1855 Aug 16, 1859 Jul 23.
26 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 87.
27 Elias, Alexander T Stewart, 145.
28 Documentary History, 501-503.
29 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 82-85.  Documentary History, 841.  See also Times, 1860 Oct 31.
30 Elias, Alexander T Stewart, 145, referencing letter from Stewart to Republican party leader Thurlow Weed, thanking him for his help.
31 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 85-93.
32 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 119-129.  Documentary History, 28-36, 45-51.  Times, 1876 Mar 7.
33 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 94-103.
34 Times, 1869 Apr 10.
35 Documentary History, 67.
36 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 159-170.
37 Walker, Fifty Years, 5.
38 Reeves, First Elevated, 1.
39 Walker, Fifty Years, 10-11.  Documentary History, 690-691.  The route in London is now the northern part of the Circle Line from Farringdon to the Hammersmith and City Line portal at Paddington.  Some portions of the open cut have been covered by buildings since the introduction of electric operation in 1905.
40 Walker, Fifty Years, 10.
41 Times, 1864 Apr 7.
42 Bailey, Proposed (Underground) Metropolitan Railway, 4.
43 The Oxford Companion to British Railway History from 1603 to the 1990s.
44 Robbins, Points and Signals, 120-124.
45 Barker and Robbins, A History of London Transport, v1, 235.
46 Putnam’s Magazine, 1869 Jan.
47 Walker, Fifty Years, 15-16.  James Blaine Walker was an official at the Public Service Commission for the First District.  He was Acting Secretary in 1915.
48 Walker, Fifty Years, 12.
49 Robinson, Report.  Walker, Fifty Years, 16-50.
50 Robinson, Report, 24-25.
51 Illustrated London News, 1860 Apr 7.  This was drawn before construction.  The vent openings were built a little differently than drawn, as seen in the photograph below.
52 Times, 1865 Mar 6.
53 Walker, Fifty Years, 32.
54 Walker, Fifty Years, 38-39.
55 Walker, Fifty Years, 33-35.
56 Times, 1865 May 22.
57 Times, 1869 Oct 16.
58 Times, 1865 Dec 27.
59 Walker, Fifty Years, 43-50.
60 Walker, Fifty Years, 50.
61 Walker, Fifty Years, 56.
62 Walker, Fifty Years, 57.
63 Walker, Fifty Years, 58.
64 Times, 1866 Oct 14.
65 Times, 1867 Jan 13.
66 Walker, Fifty Years, 65-67.
67 Walker, Fifty Years, 69.
68 McCabe, Great Fortunes, 94-114.  Elias, Alexander T Stewart, 59-71 and passim.
69 Elias, Alexander T Stewart, 143.  See also McCabe.
70 Elias, Alexander T Stewart, passim.  See also AIA Guide to New York.
71 McCabe, Great Fortunes, 94-114.  See also AIA Guide to New York.

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