“PROVING ITS FAITH BY ITS WORKS”
Political winds of change
Many Tammany Democrats whose terms had not yet expired since the reform movement of 1871 were swept out of office in the elections of November 1872. Among them were Mayor A Oakey Hall and Governor John T Hoffman.
The new Republican governor was John A Dix, at age 74 a respected elder statesman, whose long resume most recently included the offices of Major General during the Civil War and Minister to France from 1866 to 1869.1 He was one of the commissioners who determined the route for the Gilbert Elevated late in 1872.
The new Republican mayor was William F Havemeyer, who had been mayor before as a Democrat in 1845-1846 and 1848-1849.2 In his inaugural address Havemeyer reached out to reformers of both parties, declaring himself freed from any trammels or affiliations of a partisan character. He even pledged to complete the County Courthouse. Addressing himself to the Common Council, he said toward the end of the address:
The question of rapid transit between the extremes of the City has long occupied the public attention. Various plans have been proposed by private enterprise to secure this desirable result, and for this purpose several charters have been granted by the Legislature of this State, all of which have failed to command public support. In view of these facts, and the increasing necessity for the work, the aid of the City to secure its execution will probably be invoked. In such an event it will be your duty to see that any plan submitted for your co-operation is adequate to provide for the end desired, and that the City is properly secured for the payment of interest on the outlay and the reimbursement of the principal when due.3
The idea of financial assistance from the city, associated with corruption only two years earlier with the Viaduct plan, was now being considered by reformers as very possibly a necessity to get the job done. But it was not a subsidy: the money was to be paid back.
More revised history of Beach Pneumatic Transit
The editor of Scientific American had provided his opinion just days earlier. It is only by an elevated or underground railway that rapid transit can be realized in New York … The elevated road is inevitably an obstruction, in whatever street it is built, for it is simply an immense bridge, which no one wants before his doors. On the other hand the underground railway is entirely out of sight, and disturbs no one …
There seems to be no great obstacle to the procuring of charters for New York railways. The grand difficulty is to secure the right route. Of the various plans for fast railways in this city, that of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, for an atmospheric railway under Broadway, has been the most carefully examined and the most widely approved by the public. It has been shown that, for a cost of about one million dollars per mile, a double track railway can be built from the City Hall to Harlem which, with certain lateral branches, will give to our citizens the luxury of rapid transit all through the county. At the inception of this enterprise, the trustees of the corporation caused the most careful investigations to be made in respect to route and the method of building, and the unanimous conclusion was that the Broadway route was not only the most economical for construction, but afforded promise of accommodating a larger number of people than any other line that could be selected.
Beach praised the demonstration line that was still operating after three years. The works of the Transit Company on Broadway form one of the most interesting attractions in New York. He repeated the same tack he took a year earlier, blaming opposition on the Tammany Ring, in even stronger terms. Surely the reformers would not vote the same way. Ignoring the 1870 bill as usual, Beach began the story with 1871. He claimed the vote in 1872 was by ‘increased majorities’ over 1871 which was not true.
The notorious Sweeny & Co were then in the zenith of their power, and the Governor was the pliant tool of their wishes. At their solicitation, he vetoed the bill and then promptly gave his approval to the abortion known as the Viaduct bill, of which the public disapproved, and in which Peter B Sweeny and his immediate confederates figured as chief incorporators. Last year the legislature again passed the Beach Transit bill by increased majorities in both houses, but Governor Hoffman repeated his veto. A new governor, General John A Dix, a man of much higher capacity, takes his seat in the gubernatorial chair on the 1st of January, and the many friends of this excellent enterprise believe that he will be glad to give it his approval.4
A city railway for rapid transit
The editor of the Times wrote in December 1872, Unless the City is prepared to go into the business of railroad building at an expense of $25,000,000, all further talk about underground quick transit through Manhattan Island might as well cease. Some less expensive means of rapid locomotion must be resorted to, or our citizens may make up their minds to rest content with the horse railroads, and stop grumbling. We have got to accept elevated roads, or give up the idea of quick transit altogether for some time to come.5
The words would prove prophetic. But Havemeyer mentioned the idea of city investment in his inaugural address, and a bill was introduced to the Assembly on the first day to create a Board of Commissioners to construct a City railway for rapid transit, with a budget of twenty million dollars. Among the proposed members would be the mayor, the president of the Board of Aldermen, the Commissioner of Public Works, and certain individuals including William B Ogden, at one time the president of the New York City Central Underground, and Simeon Church, who would continue to be active in rapid transit planning. However the Times’s correspondent concluded, if there was any chance for this bill becoming a law it would merit a much more extensive publication of its provisions.6
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At a meeting of interested parties on January 13, a Rapid Transit Association was formed, to promote the building of a railroad by the City authorities, the commissioner and engineers to be appointed by Governor Dix and approved of by the Senate. The line is to extend from the Battery to Harlem Bridge, and the fare at the outset is not to exceed seven cents, and below Seventy-second-street, five cents. President was Randolph Witthaus; Vice President, J W Drexel; Secretary, James F Ruggles; Treasurer, Charles Cossett. They planned to work with the Committee of Seventy, the Reform Democratic group.7
In a letter to the Times, association spokesman Simeon Church likened the project to the city-financed Croton Aqueduct. The lengthy travel times were limiting the growth of the city, and places more quickly reached, like Hudson County, New Jersey, were growing much faster in population. We shall get no railroad until the City builds one. He expected that both Vanderbilt and Gilbert would soon be asking for city money, and they will do the work and charge our people forever after a higher price for riding through their own City, upon roads built with their own money, than is charged annually for travel between New-York and New-Haven. He was ashamed that people would call the plan a job, an opportunity for corruption, now that leaders like Havemeyer and Dix were in office.8
The association soon reported that the mayor, the Board of Aldermen, and the Committee of Seventy all favored the plan, and the association now planned to hold a mass meeting in New York and to send members to lobby in Albany.9
Following this, Republican Assemblyman George Opdyke, a former mayor (1862-1863), introduced a bill to create the commission. The railway was to be four tracks, for through and way travel, express and local. The road was to be a public highway for rapid transit.10 The rights to operate trains would be leased to one or more private companies. It was left open to the commission to determine what combination of tunnel and viaduct was appropriate. Senator Tiemann introduced the same bill into the Senate.
The association spent the next few meetings planning the mass meeting at the Cooper Institute on February 18, which was to be followed by sending as many as 200 representatives to Albany to speak to the legislative committees. The German-born Franz Sigel, a Civil War general and now collector of internal revenue for the City, became an important addition to the group.11
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The Freest Circulation of the People at the Lowest Fares, read the publicity. The people of New-York who indorse these sentiments, and who believe the time has come when the City of New-York should provide for her own wants and the wants of her people in the matter of rapid transit, as she provided for them in the matter of the Croton water, are invited to assemble in MASS-MEETING …12 At the meeting, the banner over the platform read, Rapid transit for the people, without monopoly. The issue was immediately tied in with the lack of home rule in the city and how that forced the people to go to Albany to ask for a solution to local problems. A long list of prominent New Yorkers was given who supported the plan. Many spoke. One hundred were chosen to go to Albany.13
A bill was introduced, An Act to Create a Board of Commissioners of City Railways and to Provide Means of Rapid Transit in the City of New York. Historian James Blaine Walker recorded that the time was not yet ripe, and the Opdyke bill failed to pass.14 Historian Wallace B Katz suggests that many people still did not trust the city government, since the Tammany faction might regain control at the next elections.15 But the Times said in May less grandly, The Legislature did not pass the bill for the City rapid transit railroad, because the horse railroads had sent up large sums of money to defeat the measure.16
The Beach Pneumatic bill, for the fourth time
Senator Tiemann introduced a bill in January providing for the transmission of letters and transportation of passengers. This is the Beach Pneumatic Road scheme, with some trifling amendments. Another bill for an underground railway headed by Origen Vandenbergh was also introduced, but not heard from again.17
This year, the Beach bill had no significant rivals, and generated little discussion in the papers. The presence of lobbyists or friends of the bill was noted only in passing.18
The Senate passed the Beach Pneumatic on February 26, by 19 to 3. Curiously Tiemann was one of the three against it.19 The Times editor wondered, The passage of the Beach Pneumatic Transit bill in the Senate, brings to mind the existence of ‘the bore’ from Murray to Warren-street, along, or rather under, Broadway. Does Mr BEACH now intend to extend ‘the bore’ under the great thoroughfare, and run a race with Mr GILBERT?20 (The Gilbert Elevated had been granted Broadway south of Chambers St.)
A forthcoming Westside Association document was printed in the World. It may be the work of William R Martin. Beach’s tunnel, of which there is a sample in Broadway at Warren street, would pay. It would meet the wants of the people on their own thoroughfare. It has hitherto been defeated by absurd and needless restrictions, and by the great enemy of rapid transit. He has two down-town stores, is interested in customers from New Jersey, and in increasing the population of Long Island as far off as Hempstead. Besides, his vaults extend so far out under the carriage-way that there would not be room for Mr Beach’s tunnel. Mr Stewart ought to draw in his vaults and give Mr Beach and the people a chance.21
The Assembly passed the Beach Pneumatic on March 20.22
The Board of Aldermen voted to send three members to Albany to urge Governor Dix to sign the bill.23 The resolution from the Board remains as evidence that Stewart almost stopped it again. It read as follows.
Whereas, The bill authorizing the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company to construct an underground railway from the Battery to the Harlem River having passed both branches of the Legislature, and being on the point of becoming a law, the Governor at the last moment withheld his signature in consequence of an offer said to have been made by A T Stewart, to pay $2,000,000 for the franchise, and said bill has been withdrawn for amendment ; and
Whereas, This offer is only calculated to cause confusion and delay, and may result in defeating the enterprise ; …
Resolved, That committee of three be appointed to wait on the Governor and respectfully request him to give his immediate approval to the Beach Pneumatic Transit Bill as it stands, without requiring any amendments in the interest of the said A T Stewart.24
By offering a very large sum, Stewart was making the point that the franchise was worth a great deal, and hoping to stir up indignation about giving it away. He was right about the value, but the Common Council knew what they were doing. They chose to grant this form of subsidy for the sake of rapid transit. The public wanted rapid transit, and omitting a franchise fee went down more easily than direct municipal spending on construction or stock. The conversation between the delegation and the governor went unrecorded, but they convinced him.
The governor signs the Beach Pneumatic bill
On April 9, 1873, Governor Dix signed the Beach Pneumatic Transit bill. On his fourth try, Beach had his charter. He was free to build the Broadway Underground Railroad and carry passengers.
Asked by reporters what he would do now, Beach, seemingly taken by surprise, told them that it was premature to give a definite reply! This was a man rarely at a loss for words. But, he added, under the bill the Governor would now appoint commissioners to arrange and direct the work, within thirty days.25
This company is alone in proving its faith by its works, said the editor of the Times taking a Protestant tone. The new law designates the natural route for an underground road. The new bill required the tunnel to keep two feet away from the curb line and eighteen feet from the building line. The commission would determine among other things whether to operate by pneumatic power, as Beach continued to promote in Scientific American, or by steam locomotives. A lower fare of eight cents was required during rush hours, namely 5 to 7 o’clock morning and evening.25
The Tribune editors praised the plan, provided it is carried out.26 Likewise the World asked, is it to die out as the successive projects have died— alive only during the session?27 By now, too many projects had been approved and never built. As the Daily Graphic put it, Now that the Beach Pneumatic Tunnel bill has been signed by the Governor, let us hope that it will not be buried with the Central Underground and Vanderbilt projects. The public interest demands a road through the backbone of the island … The pluck manifested by the projectors of the Pneumatic Railway enterprise gives good omen of earnestness and action. Nothing but foul play can delay the immediate opening of work on the line, and conspirators will move against it at the peril of popular indigation.28
The editor of Scientific American found his voice two weeks later. The wonder is, in a community like this, so noted for the number of its intelligent, active, and vigorous men, that such an important enterprise should have been so long postponed. No city in the world has more pressingly needed the facilities for rapid transit than New York. It has always been conceded that the best route for a fast railway was under the surface of Broadway. The peculiar formation of the metropolis, very narrow, surrounded on two sides by deep rivers, permits the movement of its population along one general line only— towards the north. The splendid thoroughfare of Broadway, seventy-five feet in width … Its peculiarly central position, the ease of its grades, the firmness of its soil, to say nothing of its enormous traffic, have always marked it as the natural route … The property owners on the street, comprising many of our most wealthy and influential citizens, have always, until recently, opposed the railway, and nobody appears to have had wit or power enough to overcome their opposition.
The editor went on to gently rewrite the historical record. About the demonstration tunnel: The public had no knowledge of the work until it was finished. About his struggle for permission to carry passengers: For three years the company have pressed their enterprise upon the attention of the legislature, and have at last succeeded. He even fails to mention in the text that he the editor is the same Alfred E Beach, modestly asking that all communication should be addressed to the Secretary, Joseph Dixon, Esq.29
The company directors at this time were Alfred E Beach, his brother Moses S Beach, Frederick H Bates, Bernard Kelly, and Joseph Dixon.24
The New York Elevated Railroad
The New York Elevated Railroad continued small improvements to the only operating rapid transit line in the city. Engines Pioneer and Manhattan were joined by Battery in January and Greenwich in February, both similar in design to Manhattan and built by the William Harris Iron Company. Three more shad-belly cars brought the total to eight, two cars per engine. Neither the engines nor the structure could handle longer trains.30
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The New York Elevated at number 7 Broadway
A new southern terminal was opened on January 4 in property acquired from Vanderbilt’s Hudson River Railroad that had been a small freight yard from 1860 to 1866.31 It was in the middle of the first block above Battery Place and ran through from Greenwich St to Broadway facing Bowling Green. The only substantial building was a four-story stone-faced brick building at number 7 Broadway and the rest was mostly open with a wall around the whole property and some wooden sheds. Over this property the company built a small terminal station with five tracks and a repair shop,32 finally providing a place to store engines and cars other than the ends of the main track. The building at 7 Broadway became the company offices and a passenger station right on Broadway. The Morris St station, located at the north end of the block, was closed when 7 Broadway opened.33
Railroad Gazette wrote of the elevated railway that a visit to their diminutive shop opposite the Bowling Green is quite amusing, as everything is on such a small scale as to seem like playing at railroading.34
(7 Broadway was the oldest building associated with New York transit history. A history of 1860 calls it ‘a modern-built residence’ but it was at least a few decades old since the same house with one less story appears in an aquatint dated variously from 1826 to 1844. Its neighbors dating to the colonial period were torn down in 1860 when the Hudson River Railroad depot was built.35)
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New York Elevated extended to 34th St
The elevated structure was extended north to a new terminal at 34th St, opened July 30. This continued the one-track structure along the west curb line of Ninth Ave.36 The columns for the extension had been raised only a month earlier, which is known because of an accident on June 21, when the derrick employed for placing in position the iron columns for the support of the Elevated Railroad at Thirty-fourth-street and Ninth-avenue fell, and two men were seriously injured.37
The new structure used a different type of column designed by David W Wyman, who had also designed the engines and cars, and who brought order out of chaos. The new design consists of columns formed out of four round, solid wrought-iron bars 4¼ inches in diameter each bent outward at the top and tied together with wrought-iron bands at the neck of the columns.38 The same type was used for the further extension to 59th St in 1875 and for the second track built up to 1877.
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Two more way stations opened in 1873, Franklin St on January 21 and Houston St on November 3. The original terminal at 29th St was replaced by a new station called 30th St on December 10. The full list was then 7 Broadway, Dey St, Franklin St, Canal St (Watts St), Houston St, Little West 12th St, 21st St, 30th St, and 34th St.39 It was still single track.
The company also sought legislation in April for construction of a branch line to Grand Central. A special train was run on April 19 to show off the line to a number of Senators, members of the Assembly, and several prominent citizens of New-York. It made two round trips, leaving ‘Broadway’ at 1:05, 29th St at 1:25, Broadway at 1:45, and 29th St at 2:00. The first round trip paused at intermediate stations and the second did not. The group were then taken to Delmonico’s restaurant, not far from 7 Broadway, and treated to a fine lunch.40 The bill however did not pass either house. While reaching Grand Central was a reasonable move in itself, the branch would have also thrown an obstacle in the path of the Gilbert Elevated, if the New York Elevated could have crossed the intersection of 42nd St and Sixth Ave first.
Another bill was introduced for an extension to South Ferry, which passed the Senate but did not reach a vote in the Assembly owing, it is said, to the want of time. There are, however, good reasons to believe that certain individuals were not sufficiently ‘persuaded’ of the necessity for the passage of the bill.24 South Ferry proper was the ferry to Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, leaving from the foot of Whitehall St, from which ferries also ran to Hamilton Ave, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.41 The engine Battery was named in honor of the possible extension.
The New York Elevated Railroad carried 723,253 passengers in 1873, greatly increased from 242,190 the year before.42
Existing and approved routes, 1873
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The Gilbert Elevated Railway
The route of the Gilbert Elevated Railway had been established in the report of its commissioners in November 1872. The company then reorganized, the object in doing this being to bring all interested in the idea of rapid transit, especially railway capitalists, under one head. William Foster Jr was named as president; John Q Hoyt, vice president; Andrew McKinney, treasurer; E F Bacon, secretary; and Rufus H Gilbert, engineer.43
Hoyt and McKinney were both involved with the New York, Boston and Montreal Railroad project. After trying to secure entrance to Manhattan via the New York City Central Underground in 1872, now they saw the Gilbert Elevated as their way in. Hoyt was Vice President of both the N Y B & M and the Gilbert Elevated. Interviewed in March, he said that he viewed the routes not as running from the Battery to Harlem but as running from High Bridge down both sides of Manhattan. This interest explains why the Second Ave route was designated to continue alongside the Harlem River to Eighth Ave, namely to connect with the N Y B & M. The road is built in the interest of, and, to a great extent, for the benefit of the consolidated New York, Boston, and Montreal Railway, Hoyt explained. Passengers can get into the Pullman Palace cars, or the ordinary day cars, at West Broadway and Chambers street, and go directly through without change to Boston, Portland, Halifax, St Albans, Rutland, the White Mountains, Burlington, or Montreal in the north, and over the proposed bridge at Peekskill, in connection with the Erie (when the gauge is reduced), to Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St Louis, and so on, to San Francisco. Not only this, he added, it would serve as a rapid transit line, and will give visiting strangers an excellent opportunity of seeing New York … affording excellent views of the city.44
Edward Tracy, formerly of the Department of Public Works, the man who had called the Beach Pneumatic Transit impractical, was appointed one of the three consulting engineers. The others were an army man, General Q A Gilmore, and the Chief Engineer of the New York, Boston and Montreal, Henry St John. The structure will be entirely of the best wrought iron : it is graceful in form : of admirable architectural design : and of a strength far beyond all strain that is likely to be produced in working the road, Hoyt said. He estimated the cost as a million dollars a mile.44
The West Side Association, possibly William R Martin, commented on the Gilbert Elevated routing, especially the routing on the east side. The statement is notable for suggesting outside influences on the commission that determined the route.
This plan, properly constructed, would be adapted to any secondary avenue, that is, any except Fifth avenue or Broadway. It is economical compared with other plans ; it would serve and accommodate the public. It would improve and not injure the value of any secondary avenue by increasing the travel on it and increasing the settlement of population along its borders. But this road is cursed and impeded with a poor route. Mr Vanderbilt, to free the Fourth avenue from its competition, had its route fixed in its charter as far east as the Second avenue. The owners on the Second avenue have turned it out by four sharp right angles into the First avenue below Twenty-third street. In other places along its route the private owners have forced it into sharp turns. These owners are the enemies of rapid transit and of the people.21
By February, the company were somewhat at odds with the Rapid Transit Association. The fare was one sticking point; the association claimed it would cost as much as 22 cents to ride to Harlem on the Gilbert. The idea of rapid transit for the working man and a reduction in the inhumane crowding on the lower east side depended on a low fare. The Tribune reported at length:
The officers also say that the ability of the Company to fulfill their promises is no longer in doubt. The route has been located by the commissioners, one of whom is now Governor of the State. Plans have been designed which meet the approval of eminent engineers. The viaduct will be light, airy, and no impediment to the streets through which it passes. The light to buildings will not be obstructed, but the road will be built so strong that trains can be run on it with safety at 30 miles an hour. Stations will be located every half mile along the entire route, on both the east and west sides of the city. The road will have double tracks, so that down trains on one side will be up trains on the other, and can follow each other at intervals of about five minutes, with as many cars as may be necessary for the accommodation of the public.45
Contracts have already been made by the Company with three of the best iron establishments in the country for the building of the first 10 miles, from Bowling-green to High Bridge, upon the west side, and it is intended as soon as this is completed, or when well under way, to also put the line on the east side under contract. The spans of the structure are to be 66 feet in length, 64 in the ‘clear’ and capable of sustaining a weight of 400 tons to each span. The heaviest weight that can come upon each span will be two 30 ton locomotives passing each other . 45
The capital stock, the officers say, is already taken by about 30 of the most prominent capitalists and business men of New-York, and the first $5,500,000 of the bonds have been negotiated in London with an English company, whose standing and position is such that prudent capitalists have entire confidence in their ability to fulfill the contract to the letter in furnishing money upon the bonds.45
The remarks about double tracks and the strength of the structure were directed at the New York Elevated, which had to run four ton locomotives at a lower speed. The strength of the Gilbert plan itself however was called into question, delaying construction while its plans were modified.
The charter of this company has been granted, and a contract made with the New England Iron Company to have the road ready from Chambers to Forty-second street by October 15th. However, some English bondholders had the plans and specifications inspected by an expert engineer, Mr A P Boller, who reported adversely, as he considered the iron-work, as described in the specifications, too light. At the same time some of the most eminent road-builders refused, for the same reason, to have anything to do with it.46
An inquiry is also being instituted as to whether the Gilbert Company has really commenced work, as reported, at the Boston Iron Works. A prominent manufacturer of iron-works yesterday informed the writer that he had good authority for stating that although the Gilbert Company had entered into a contract with the New-England Iron-work Company for supplying the iron work, yet the contract was a conditional one, and work would not proceed until a certain sum of money had been put down, which was yet forthcoming.47
Property owners along Sixth Ave organized in March to oppose the road.48 The company responded that the legislature set the route and only the legislature could change it.49 The property owners in turn sought compensation for damage to the value of their property, which was not provided for in the legislation.50 As the Times noted, by emphasizing the superior class of their street, they seemed to be arguing that the elevated railway would have a contrary effect if run through some other streets.51 John Jacob Astor and William B Astor, both of whom had extensive property on Sixth and Seventh avenues, particularly the latter … both think that the line ought not to go up Sixth but Seventh avenue, as neither trade nor property would be affected so much, the Seventh avenue having now by far the most manufactories.47
The commissioners who had determined the route belatedly sent their report on the route to the Senate on April 22.52 This seems to have been a prelude to action. A bill appeared in the senate to change the route from what the duly appointed commissioners had reported. There were objections primarily to Sixth Ave and to Broadway south of Chambers St. The Sixth Ave change was dropped, but the Broadway routing faced the usual objections. Senator Lewis said he had never heard of any opposition to the commission’s routing until this bill came along. He was told, but did not know, that the bill was instigated by the Beach Pneumatic Company. He remembered well when the Legislature gave a franchise to another company to use Broadway over the ground used by the Beach Pneumatic Company, how strenuously the latter company fought against said company taking an inch of the ground unless paid dollar for dollar for their expenditure … The only reason why the Beach Company desire to push the Gilbert Elevated Railway from Broadway was because it promised to be a rival. Senator Madden, long a Beach proponent, insisted the idea was simply, There being one road under Broadway, there should not be any on top.53 Officers of the Gilbert company said that the change had been instigated by the street railways.54
The possibility of change after all had been decided weakened the company’s bargaining position with investors at a critical time. Negotiations were at this time being carried on in London for capital to build the road, and were nearly completed, but the agitation concerning the change of route interrupted these, and it was found impossible to carry them to a conclusion until the parties advancing the money could be satisfied that the proposed route was as good as that first given.54
A bill was passed that changed the route from Fourth St to Amity St (now known as Third St) and prohibited the company from building any portion of its route in Broadway south of 34th St. The governor was to appoint a new commission to change the portion of the route set by the previous commissioners in Chambers St and Broadway. The governor signed the bill on June 26, and the new commissioners reported on August 27. The downtown end of the route now ran from West Broadway via Murray St, Church St, and Trinity Place. At Morris St, Trinity Place runs into Greenwich St, so from there the route continued alongside the New York Elevated Railroad, by running in private property and turning into a terminal facing Bowling Green.55 The new route was just one short block west of Broadway, and getting off Broadway reduced the likelihood of further interference, so all in all it was at least as good as the original route. But the company’s fund raising had been set back about four months, which turned out to be critical.
The Fourth Ave Improvement
In January, work was about to begin on the first real underground railway project in New York, namely the New York and Harlem north of Grand Central. The contractors’ bids from late 1872 had not been accepted, because the securities offered for the faithful performance of the work were not, it is understood, satisfactory, and new proposals were about to be opened, and if satisfactory, the work will be commenced at once … The contemplated changes to be made in Fourth-avenue, between Forty-ninth and Seventy-ninth streets, under what is known as the ‘Board of Engineers of the Fourth-avenue Improvement’, will probably be commenced next week.56
From 49th St to 56th St, the road would be open cut, with an iron foot and road bridge between 52nd and 53rd Sts, and with wrought-iron plate-girder foot-bridges at 50th St, 51st St, 54th St, and 55th St with double stairways at each end. The steps up to the platforms of the bridges will be of North River blue stone. Drinking fountains of chaste design will be placed on the abutments at the head of each bridge. The cut was to be bordered by parapet walls of granite. The track was to be lowered two feet from its existing grade in this area. New road and foot bridges were also to be built at 45th St and 48th St over the station yard area at its existing grade.
The new grade was as follows: at 56th St, 13 ft 6 in below street grade; at 57th St, 16 ft 7 in; at 66th St, 17 ft; at 67th St, 25 ft; at 68th St, 33 ft; at 69th St and 70th St, 31 ft; at 71st St, 28 ft; at 72nd St, 16 ft 8 in. From there the grade would be 12 to 15 feet below the street grade. After the cutting has been made and the track lowered to the level described the cutting from Fifty-sixth-street upward will be covered over. Retaining walls will be built of first-class gneiss rubble masonry, laid in hydraulic cement … So soon as the cutting has been made and the retaining walls and central supports constructed, the cutting will be covered over, the grades of the avenue and cross streets remaining precisely as they are at present, except for five or six streets starting at 59th St, which were being regraded by the city, nominally as a separate project.56
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By the middle of February, the project was now well under way, and the New York and Harlem’s chief engineer Buckhout predicted completion by the end of 1874. The abutments of the bridges from 45th to 48th Sts were finished, and blasting had begun at the upper end of the route and in the area between 70th and 80th Sts. The planned grade was now slightly lower, the start of the cut at 56th St now to be 18 ft 7 in below street grade,
From 57th St to 67th Sts, there will be a beam tunnel, so named from the fact that roof is supported by iron beams which span the track-beds. It will be divided into three compartments, the middle one 25 feet in width, to contain the tracks of the present road, and a narrow one on each side for the upward and downward tracks of the Rapid Transit Railway. The retaining walls will be seven feet thick at the bottom and three at the top, and the center walls will be three feet thick. The beams spanning the track beds will be covered with brick arches, over which four inches of concrete will be placed and be covered with three-ply roofing felt and cement. At least three feet of earth will be placed over the whole. The surface above the tunnel will be laid out between the streets in grass plats enclosed by iron fences, and in the center of each there will be a circular opening for ventilation.
From 67th to 71st Sts, there will be a tunnel, the roof of which will be sustained by arches of hard-burned brick resting on stone abutments. The whole will be covered and finished externally in the same manner as the preceding section. This was high ground where there was an existing tunnel at a higher level. It was to be removed and replaced by open cut construction that would be roofed over.
From 71st to 79th Sts, it was a beam tunnel again as described, and then from 79th to 91st Sts, another brick arch tunnel as described. Here the rock tunnel begins, and side tunnels will be cut through parallel to the one now in use, which will remain substantially as it is. The Mount Prospect Tunnel dated to 1837, and it was not replaced. One-track tunnels were built on each side of it leaving enough rock between to support the old tunnel.
Where the high ground falls away to the Harlem flats, the new road emerged from tunnel at 95th St, and onto an arched stone viaduct of solid masonry, four tracks wide and thus reminiscent of the Viaduct plan of 1871. This extended to 113th St where it went back into open cut through Harlem with stone walls and iron railings, with road bridges at 117th St, 119th St and 125th St and foot bridges at 130th St and 131st St. There the project ended. The new iron truss Harlem River bridge of 1867 was kept in use even though it carried only two tracks.
Depots are provided for, with recessed landings and iron stairways leading from street level to the platforms at Fifty-ninth, Seventy-second, Eighty-sixth, One-hundred-and-tenth, and One-hundred-twenty-fifth-sts. Of these 110th St was on the stone viaduct and 125th St in open cut.
No progress has been made with the proposed rapid transit road below the Grand Central Depot, which the officers are willing to make public. It is reported that Mr Buckhout has found engineering difficulties in the way which can be overcome only at a cost greatly exceeding the original estimates. This may or may not be the case ; but it is evident that no immediate relief is to be given by Mr Vanderbilt to the overcrowded travel of lower New-York, and that the sunken track has preference to through rather than local travel. The depots are too far apart to afford proper accommodation to the public, there being in one instance an interval of 25 blocks. The Tribune, almost foreseeing the later subway station spacing, suggested additional stations at 66th St, 79th St, 97th St, 118th St, and 132nd St.57
Work was slowed during the terribly cold and disagreeable weather of March.58 But as early as that, people began to complain about the cut. The cut around 125th St was so close to the old track as to undermine it and make traveling at that point exceedingly dangerous, it was charged.59 Judging by the publicly documented payments of the city’s share, work increased significantly in June.60
In July, a man was run over and killed at 60th St by a train running on temporary tracks close to the sidewalk while the cut was being dug in the center of the street. The train engineer did not see the man until he stepped out. The track is in a dangerous condition, wrote the Times. The jury at the inquest recommended that flagmen be placed at each street to protect against trains by raising a chain blocking the street.61
[ 10-26 ]
[ 10-27 ]
A tour of the works on Fourth Ave
The bridges near Grand Central, over unchanged track level, were done by August, but the rest was only beginning, cautioned the Times, in a series of articles that ran in August. It would be difficult to overestimate the danger and inconvenience … not one intersecting street in four is open over the avenue. Safety was as little thought of as convenience.
Deep pits are dug and left unguarded day and night, and trains are continually running at a rapid rate of speed day and night. It is easy to see how accidents happen with this condition of affairs … Crossing the track is running the gauntlet with all the chances against one. But people submit to it rather than travel miles out of their way in order to be sure and avoid the danger. There are flagmen, of course, on every street-corner, but they have long since been noted for carelessness …
But the greatest danger is in trying to cross the tracks at night. The excavations are made so irregularly, holes sunk here and there, and the place is so completely unguarded, that a stranger trying to dodge a train will be more than likely to fall into a deep pit with rocks and slush at the bottom.60
The reporter endeavored to continue his investigation of the condition of the excavation at the upper end of the avenue ; but the drenching rain and the high wind made it almost impossible to find a foothold in the slippery mud along the brink of the trench ; and after scrambling on for about half a mile, he was compelled to forego such a difficult and dangerous journey until a more favorable time, having fully made up his mind that, to one troubled with a passion for exciting adventure and hairbreadth escapes, a scramble along the edge of Mr Vanderbilt’s precipice, say at about midnight on a moonless night, would afford abundant scope for the gratification of such an insane desire.62
The description as ultimately given is enjoyable, and valuable since photographs and engravings are scarce. It is the worst nightmare of disruption that Alexander T Stewart and associates could imagine.
Our reporter resumed his explorations along the brink of the chasm on the Fourth-avenue Railroad, yesterday, having said farewell to his friends, made his will, bequeathing large amounts of his property for the foundation of various charities, and having stationed aides at several points to receive his notes, so that should the daring explorer fall into the abyss and lose his life, the information obtained at such a sacrifice might not be lost to the world. Beginning at Eightieth-street— carefully adjusting the life-line around his waist, and planting his alpen stock firmly in front of him— the explorer ventured near the edge of the precipice, which was once upon a time solid earth, and called Fourth-avenue …
The cutting extended nearly to the sidewalk on both sides of the avenue, even where the roadway of Eightieth-street should have crossed ; and not only was there no temporary bridge to permit of ‘the free use of the street by the public’, which the law expressly provides for, but no measures seem to have been taken to prevent passers-by from falling into the trench. On the west side of the avenue, at Eightieth-street, there were irregular piles of stone and earth which might serve as a rude barricade, but at the easterly crossing, by far the more important, there were absolutely no barriers whatever, and no pretense of any, neither on the sidewalks nor the roadway. What is left of the sidewalks on this portion of the avenue, as well as for some distance above and below, is full of holes from being undermined and washed away ; and even supposing that one might succeed in keeping at an apparently safe distance from the excavation, in walking along the avenue at night, he would be in constant danger of falling into these traps, which seem small only by comparison with the deeper trench, so that in avoiding Scylla one would be almost certain to come upon Charybdis.
At Eighty-first street there was no bridge. A partial protection on the east crossing might prevent vehicles from being driven into the hole, but on the west side there was nothing at all to save the lives of unfortunates who might find themselves there after dark. The railroad is some distance below the street level along this part of the avenue, so that the residents here have the small comfort of knowing that they, at least, unlike their neighbors living further down, do not incur the double dangers of being run over on the railroad as well as being crushed in the trench.
At Eighty-second street one of the old bridges over the old cutting for the railroad in the middle of the street still remains, but at this point it is possible to cross the avenue ; but the earth on the sides of the wall of the cut has been removed close up to the roadway of the street leading to the bridge, so there is a steep descent on either side. On the eastern side of the avenue logs have been placed so as partially to protect those approaching the bridge, but on the west this has been neglected.
At Eighty-third street the cutting extends to the curbing, and a few stones in the middle of the street are the only ’barriers’, but as one would be apt to fall into the excavation before he reached the stones, it is very apparent that they are not of much use as a precaution.
At Eighty-fourth street, one of the old bridges still stands, and the contractors have left enough of the avenue to approach it, with much jolting and considerable danger.
Another crossing remains unmolested at Eight-fifth street, and there are a few rocks piled up at the brink of the trench at one side. The whole forms a very incomplete guard, but even this much has not been done on the other side, and the place is dangerous.
The best of the barriers seen along the whole line of yesterday’s investigations was at the intersection of Eighty-sixth street. Whether the close proximity of the Police Station-house to this corner had anything to do with the fact can only be surmised ; but certain it is that rusty rails, telegraph-poles, heavy timbers, and piles of rocks have been so arranged as to barricade the street pretty effectually on the east side, stopping a little too short and too close to the trench on the west crossing.
Eighty-seventh street is impassable at the crossing, and the barricade was altogether too close and a very feeble affair.
At Eighty-eighth street the road runs under a tunnel, coming out again in a very deep open cutting, about 100 feet below the street level, at Ninety-fourth street. At the former street the crossing is very bad, the excavations being continued along both sides of the walls of the tunnel ; and if there is not quite so much danger along its edges as there is farther down, it is only because the work has not progressed quite so far.
There is a crossing over the tunnel at Eighty-ninth street, but it is very dangerous. There are deep holes on both sides, and no guards whatever. The sidewalks, also, are full of holes and in a disgraceful condition.
At the Ninetieth-street intersection affairs are but little better, a deep and dangerous hole on the east side of the avenue at the crossing guaranteeing certain and speedy death to whoever falls into it. A plank protruded from the hole yesterday, as though the place were a capacious grave to receive the remains, with a headstone capable of recording the names of a great many people.
Approaching Ninety-second street, the reporter saw a novel and unprecedented sight— something which he had not before seen on the whole line of the Fourth-avenue improvement. Drawing near, doubting his own eyesight, he actually saw, inclosing a circular hole in the street, just beyond the excavation— a fence, a good stout wooden fence, with the sections hooked together at the corners, and strong enough to prevent people exercising ordinary caution from falling into the hole.
North of Ninety-second street was a similar fence, inclosing a like hole. Both openings were very deep, being shafts leading to the mine and to the old railroad tunnel under the street. But even these solitary fences may have been put there, as a resident suggested, not to keep people from killing themselves by falling into the holes, but to keep the miners from being interfered with by such accidents.
The reporter saw one streetlamp left standing in the twelve blocks, and police and residents agreed there were no danger lanterns hung at night.63
For some reason, Harlem fared better. The excavation did not extend all the way to the sidewalk, the streetlamps had been left standing, and proper barriers had been erected at the cross streets, although not in between them along the side of the cut. The cut was being trenched down the west side of the avenue first, and the two tracks carrying 115 trains a day had been relocated along the east side of the avenue, where they had to be crossed at grade, as they had been before. There were no flagmen at some of the crossings, and a resident suggested that the reporter return to view it in the dark of night for he will find danger dire and dreadful if he lives to tell the tale.64
The financial market crashed in September 1873. A railroad mania had come over the investment community. Railroads were now the nation’s largest industrial employer, and people speculated in bonds and stocks of existing and proposed railroads and manufacturing companies, building paper wealth on borrowed money. But many of the companies could not hope to return the amounts invested in them. On September 18, the trusted investment firm of Jay Cooke and Company, financiers of the Northern Pacific, declared bankruptcy. This led banks and others to call in loans, and more firms went down the next day. In the New York Stock Exchange those in need of cash sold wildly; only a few bought. Trading was halted for ten days from September 20. The panic spread. Credit became scarce, and all debtors were pressed for payment. Factories and merchants who had bought on credit had to cut back operations or close. Many workers were left jobless. The crash was fast; recovery was slow. Unemployment bottomed out at 14 per cent in 1876.64
Vanderbilt saw it through. Somehow, so did the New York Elevated Railroad, which was operating and collecting income, but it did not expand again for over a year. The Gilbert Elevated Railway’s plans were at a standstill. Their final route downtown had been set just a few weeks before the Panic.
The impact on the Beach Pneumatic is less certain. In March 1874, Senator Tobey of the Railroad Committee reported that the Beach project was failing well before the Panic began. The last bill became a law on the 9th day of April, 1873, but since that time not one dollar has been subscribed and paid in, so far as the undersigned has been able to learn, nor has one step been taken toward building said road by said company, except that, it is alleged, several hundred thousand dollars of the bonds of said company have been issued and put afloat by said company ; and said company has now no property or assets of any considerable value, unless it be the franchises heretofore mentioned …65
Rapid transit plans to date
The Times reviewed the situation at the start of November.
The Arcade, the Central Underground, the Beach Pneumatic, and, in fact, every plan proposed, has met with violent opposition at the capital from interested parties. The success of the projectors of the Gilbert Elevated Railroad and of the Vanderbilt Underground in obtaining charters is not perhaps erroneously ascribed to their having ‘fixed’ the right parties. Any project especially which contemplated using Broadway, was certain to encounter violent and determined opposition from the merchants having stores on that thoroughfare, and each successive session of the Legislature was certain to witness the arrival of a delegation at Albany prepared to oppose the enactment of any such bill, and if possible to prevent its signature by the Governor, should it by any chance have passed the Assembly and Senate …
The projectors of the Arcade succeeded in obtaining a charter from the Legislature, but before the bill could be signed by the Governor the inevitable delegation of Broadway property-owners went before his Excellency and urged that the road, if ever constructed, would ruin the principal thoroughfare and the City. Gov Hoffman, whether convinced by their arguments, or for reasons best known to himself and his advisers, vetoed the bill, thus giving the Arcade Railway its coup de grace.24
Of the Beach Pneumatic, up to the present time but little has been done toward carrying out the enterprise, beyond the making of surveys, drawing of maps and plans, and obtaining and preparing estimates. It is, however, asserted by the executive officers of the company that operations will be, without doubt, commenced during next Spring, and they, at the same time, claim that the principle of an underground railway is the only solution to the problem of quick transit … The capital of the company is placed at $10,000,000, and before proceeding with the construction of the work they are required to prove that the full amount of the capital stock has been subscribed for, and ten per cent of the amoint paid in cash. The delay that has occurred up to the present time has, in a great measure, been the difficulty of meeting this requirement, for although some short time since it was thought that the whole of the capital had been taken— one-half here and the other in London— yet, from the recent developments in Erie and other railroad matters, the parties in London who had agreed to take the one-half interest, have since hesitated about completing the arrangements before agreed upon, except they are to some extent allowed a voice in the control and management of the road. This alone can be done by obtaining a special act from the Legislature allowing foreigners and aliens to hold office in the directorate, which is now prevented by the operation of the Railroad law of this State.24
Of the Gilbert Elevated: The company has an office on Broadway, but scarcely anything else, and beyond the preparation of some plans by their engineers, have, so far as our reporter could ascertain, accomplished nothing toward the solution of the rapid-transit problem … The charter of the company was obtained some two years ago, and by its provisions they are required to complete the road to Forty-second street by next Fall. Up to this time, however, they have not commenced the execution of the project. One reason assigned for this is the recent failure of the New-England Iron Company, with which the Gilbert Elevated Railway Company had contracted to supply them with iron for the building of the road. The company, it is but right to state, claim that the amount of capital required for the construction of the road has been subscribed, and that work will soon be commenced.24
Of the New York Elevated: The construction of this road is considered to be a step in the right direction … It rapidly grew in public favor, and so numerous were the passengers that it was found impossible to accommodate them, and hundreds were daily turned away, it being the policy of the company never to admit more people into the cars than could be provided with seats … Trains, of two cars each, are run throughout the day at frequent intervals between the Battery and Thirty-fourth street, the track having been extended to that station during the Summer. The cars now in use are most comfortable and roomy, and stand out in bold relief when compared to the miserable boxes on the street railroads, and they even are a considerable improvement on those employed by some of the largest and richest railroads of the country. The journey from the Battery to Thirty-fourth street, including stoppages at the different way stations, and vice versa, is made in twenty-five minutes, which effects a considerable saving in time … At first this road was looked upon generally as unsafe, but the passenger, when once he has summed up courage to make a trip on the road, is at once convinced of its security, and does not fail to patronize it in future … Arrangements had been made to continue the present line from Thirty-fourth street to Central Park during the present season, but the financial crisis has put a stop to this, and it is thought that this operation will not be commenced until the Spring in consequence.24
Of the New York City Rapid Transit: The Times now considered the charter a sham of some sort. Vanderbilt had achieved the object he sought, and was now resolved to ‘rest and be thankful’. He had the route surveyed, and there stopped, assigning as his reason for not attempting to carry out the project that the outlay of capital it involved was much in excess of what he had contemplated, and that the difficulties of all kinds in the way of building the road were too vast for a man at his advanced time of life to encounter. The public has never since heard aught about the Vanderbilt road, and it safe to say it never will.24
The idea was that Vanderbilt had used the New York City Rapid Transit purely to gain public favor to outweigh the dissatisfaction about trains on Fourth Ave, and so gain good will in negotiating. A later historian describes it as for the express purpose, not of building a subway, but of preventing anyone else from building one66 referring perhaps to the underfinanced and otherwise incredible New York, Boston and Montreal plan to use the New York City Central Underground, but it is hard to imagine Vanderbilt worrying much about that. The underground would have strengthened the New York and Harlem’s position as the main line of Manhattan, which perhaps Vanderbilt did not see as needing strengthening. But in competition for those seeking suburban homes, travel to Long Island and New Jersey points was faster than travel to Harlem; and in competition for long distance service, the main lines terminating on the Hudson shore in New Jersey were more quickly reached from lower Manhattan. It is not altogether clear what was in Vanderbilt’s mind at the start of 1873.
The future of rapid transit
Work continued on the Fourth Ave Improvement. A steam boiler powering construction machinery exploded at 128th St on November 11, killing seven and wounding many. Since the beginning of this railroad improvement thirty-nine lives have been sacrificed, either by passing trains, by blasting accidents, or from other causes, and the terrible calamity of yesterday brings the death-toll up to forty-six victims of carelessness on the part of the management of the work. The two tracks were still temporarily on the east side of the avenue while the cut was dug on the west. The boiler, then under forty pounds pressure, had shown no signs of trouble but suddenly exploded at 4:20 in the afternoon while many people were on the streets. Two of the seven dead were children. The force broke windows and knocked down ceilings, and scraps of metal were found a block away.
Late in December, the Gilbert Elevated company let word that they had contracted for the erection of eight piers, on which the pillars are to rest, in West Broadway, between Worth and Leonard streets.67 This seemed to be all the progress the company could manage. Their corporate sponsor the New York, Boston and Montreal was mostly unfinished and heavily dependent on the credit of its investors. For a time the company kept construction crews on the job laying rail north from High Bridge, but it was two years more before the company’s receiver managed to open a pathetic short line from High Bridge to North Yonkers, and even that did not last long.68
At about the same time, Simeon Church announced that the New-York Rapid Transit Association would again lobby for a bill that would be as perfect as their wisdom can make it for a city-owned railway. If approved, New York would find that the agony of twenty years is ended ; the incubus which has rested upon and paralyzed her energies and enterprise and impeded her growth is lifted ; New-York enters upon a new epoch.69
But the editor of the Times seemed almost to lose hope about rapid transit. It is related of the eels that they become so accustomed to being skinned that they rather like the operation ; and New-Yorkers seem to be so used to the discomforts of street railways that they cannot do without them. They appear to delight in being swung to a strap for an hour while going a couple of miles. They must find it pleasant to be packed in a street car with a closeness that occasions a forceful suggestion of the Black Hole of Calcutta. They must enjoy rude conductors, noxious exhalations, long detentions, insufficient accommodations. Certainly, they do not find these things unendurable or they would not be endured …
Until we bring the Battery within half an hour of Harlem River, the exodus of our people will continue, and the City suffer great detriment in consequence. Unless we have rapid transit, New-York will become a City of the very rich and very poor, of those who can afford to stay, and those who cannot leave.70