“THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY, NEW YORK CITY”
The New York and Harlem as a Rapid Transit route
Scientific American ran a nine-part series in the winter of 1874-1875 called THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY, NEW YORK CITY.
The subject was the Fourth Ave Improvement, the New York and Harlem Railroad’s tunnel under what is now Park Ave together with the viaduct and open cut to the north. By this work the railway was removed from street level and also in Alfred Beach’s view demonstrated the practicality of underground railways.
Later developments in the United States caused a legal and notional separation between mainline and rapid transit railways, and under this paradigm the Park Ave tunnel is not a subway. But in 1875 the principal distinction was between horse and steam railways, and rapid transit lines were classed with the latter. Although the Park Ave tunnel is now part of the Metro North regional railway, a case can be made for it being the first subway in New York, almost thirty years before the nominal first subway opened in 1904.
The Fourth Ave Improvement
The Grand Central Depot of the nineteenth century together with its large station yard was replaced by the present Grand Central Terminal constructed from 1903 to 1913. The twentieth century work extends to 57th St where it meets the grade of the Fourth Ave Improvement. From that point north the rest of the tunnel built in 1873-1875 remains essentially as built. In 1928-1930 the iron beams on the roof were replaced by steel and the large openings in the Park Ave mall were closed off. An extensive maintenance project was carried out by Metro North in 1986-1990, repairing many problem areas in the iron and masonry.
The Improvement was designed by the New York and Harlem Railroad under chief engineer Isaac C Buckhout and paid for half by the railway and half by the City of New York. A Board of Engineers supervised the work consisting of Alfred W Craven, Allan Campbell of the city’s Department of Public Works, Edward H Tracy (formerly of the Department of Public Works), and Isaac C Buckhout. The contractor was Dillon, Clyde and Co, who estimated the cost as $6,395,070, which is $285 per linear foot. Work began at the very end of 1872.1
The Fourth Ave Improvement is a four-track railway conceived originally as a local rapid transit railway on the outer tracks and a mainline railway for through services on the middle two tracks. The stations were all on the outer tracks only, at 59th St, 72nd St, 86th St, 110th St and 125th St. The first three were in tunnel, 110th St on a viaduct, and 125th St in an open cut that no longer exists. None of these stations is in use today; the modern 125th St Harlem station was officially opened on October 15, 1897 after being in use in some form since February 1897.
The city's part of the project included the creation of a small park in each block forming a center mall. The parks partially screened the tunnel openings and brought an attractive touch of greenery to the streetscape. That they were planned early on is clear from the Scientific American illustration made in 1874 when the tunnel was in fact still under construction. But the city lagged, proposing in early 1876 to build parks for only two blocks from 67th St to 69th St and leaving the rest for later, to the annoyance of property-owners.2 The parks were not fully installed for many years more.
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As originally built the grade dropped from 49th St on the surface through an open cut and into the tunnel levelling off at 57th St. Today the tracks leaving Grand Central Terminal are below street level so they run down a much lesser grade to meet the Improvement at 57th St.
The tunnel grade generally rises from 57th St to 86th St, in cut and cover construction not far from street level except where the street goes up over a hill from 67th to 81st St. 86th St is the high point of the railway, but the street surface rises to a peak at 93rd St before dropping away sharply to the Harlem Flats at 103rd St. To reduce the slope of the railway grade the tunnel starts to drop at 86th St, causing it to be very deep under the hill around 94th St where there was a tunnel from the earliest days of the railway. The railway then runs out onto a viaduct as it continues to drop in elevation toward the open cut at Harlem village.
59th St station
The first ‘rapid transit’ station was 59th St. It was never used as a station. The first of these underground landings occurs in the beam tunnel, midway between 58th and 59th streets. It consists of two waiting rooms and two landings, one of each for each side tunnel, placed immediately beneath one of the rectangular openings of the central tunnel. The platforms are 150 feet long, 12 feet broad, and 3 feet 6 inches above railroad grade. Along its entire length the outside rubble retaining wall of the tunnel is removed and set back 11 feet nearer the house line, its place being supplied by a row of cast iron columns 10 inches in diameter at the base of the shaft, 10 feet 6 inches high, and of ½ inch metal. They are placed 11 feet 9 inches apart and 3 feet from the inner edge of the platform. About the center of the platform the retaining wall is again interrupted for a distance of 59 feet, and set back 20 feet nearer the house line, thus forming a recess 20 feet by 59 feet, which contains the waiting room, ticket office, water closet and vaults. The waiting room is 36 feet long, 10 feet wide and 11 feet 6 inches high. From the north end of this room rise iron steps which lead to the sidewalk. These steps are 8 feet broad, have iron frames and rises, with wooden treads, and are divided down the center by an iron railing 3 feet high, which also extends from the foot of the stairs to the ticket office, thus separating the steps into two flights, one to be used by passengers ascending from the station to the street, and the other by those descending. At the exit on the sidewalk, these steps are covered by a neat wooden house 8 feet x 12 feet, and lighted by patent lights placed in the roof.4 The illustration, reproduced below, shows the house, but it may never have been built. At the time the preceding description was written, the tunnel was under construction and the tracks were temporarily laid along the edge of the street. The ‘lights’ mentioned are skylights.
The roof of the station, like that of the tunnel, is composed of H iron beams and turned arches between them … The lighting of the station is derived from eleven patent lights, 3 feet in diameter, placed in the sidewalk immediately over the waiting room, from the lights placed in the roof of the house covering the stairs, and from the rectangular opening in the roof of the central tunnel. The ventilation is also largely derived from this latter opening, but also through the ventilators in the side of the house over the stairs.4
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The beam tunnels
There were two general types of tunnel construction. The shallow cut and cover sections are called ‘beam tunnels’. This iron beam tunneling is only resorted to where sufficient headway could not be obtained for the arched brick tunnels … it has been found expedient to use this latter kind of tunnel only where the difference of railroad and avenue grade is greater than 19 feet, while the beam tunnel is used, with a slight alteration of the street grade, at points where the difference is as small as 11 feet, and, as a consequence, more than five thousand feet, of what would otherwise have been open cut, has been covered in with beam tunnels.5
Like most of the other tunnels used on the work, the beam tunnels are divided into three separate tunnels, contained within four walls, two outer and two inner, upholding the roof, which is composed of wrought iron beams with turned brick arches between them ; the roof, in its turn, sustains the earth and paving of the street. The two outside walls are a continuation of the retaining walls of the open cut … and are built of gneiss rubble masonry of the same class … seven feet thick at railroad grade, and sloping off thence with a batter, on the inside face, of one inch to the foot, to a thickness of three feet at top of the wall, which, in general, is fifteen feet above grade. The top course of this masonry is composed of stones fourteen inches thick, two feet wide, and three feet long, with pointed beds and joints.5
Between the two outer walls and thirteen feet distant from them in the clear, are placed the two inner walls of brick, resting on a stone or gneiss rubble foundation, three feet thick and three feet wide below railroad grade. The walls which rise from these foundations are built of brick without batter, are twenty inches thick and high enough to receive the roof beams, and are tied with fine courses of North River blue stone, five inches thick and well dressed.5
As built the beam tunnels had large rectangular openings over the center two tracks, as seen in the old illustrations here. These openings were rebuilt starting in 1928 into the much smaller ventilation grates still there today. (More on this reconstruction is at the end of this chapter.)
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The southern brick arch tunnel
The second type of tunnel construction was brick arch, found at two deeper sections. The first runs from 24 feet 9 inches south of 67th St to 20 feet 2 inches north of 71st St, under a pretty high ridge with a maximum difference of street and tunnel grade of 33 feet at 69th St.6 These are still cut and cover construction, but there is earth fill above the completed tunnel.
Like the beam tunnels, the brick tunnels consist of three parallel tunnels, a large central one and on either side a small single track tunnel, having no connection with the central tunnel save by an occasional manhole and the ventilators to be hereafter described. The roofs of the tunnel are semi-circular brick arches, resting on four stone abutments. The two outer abutments, which form a continuation of the outer rubble walls of the beam tunnel, are founded 3 feet below railroad grade, and are 6 feet in thickness up to grade, where an offset 6 inches back and front occurs, giving a thickness of 5 feet … From this point the wall rises 8 feet and 6 inches to the springing line of the arch, vertical in the latter face but battered on the back ¾ of an inch to the foot, which gives the wall a thickness at the springing line of 6 feet 6 inches.4
The two inner abutments, which form a continuation of the two inner brick walls of the beam tunnel, are also founded 3 feet below railroad grade, but with a thickness below grade of 5 feet 6 inches. At the grade line, the offset of 6 inches, back and front, again occurs, giving them a thickness of 4 feet 6 inches. From this breadth of bottom, they taper off, with a batter on each face of about ½ of an inch to the foot, to a thickness of 4 feet 2 inches at the springing line, which is also 8 feet 67 inches above the railroad grade. These abutments are also constructed of gneiss rubble masonry, of the same class as that used in the outer abutments and retaining walls.6
Each of the arches of the two side tunnels has a span of 16 feet in the clear, from abutment to abutment, and 8 feet rise. These tunnels thus have a width 3 feet greater in the clear than that of the corresponding tunnels in the beam tunneling. Their hight from grade to the crown of the arch is 16 feet 6 inches in the clear. The arch is formed of brick, laid in the usual way and keyed with stretchers, well laid, and has an uniform thickness of 20 inches. The arch spanning the large central tunnel has a span of 25 feet and a rise of 12 feet 6 inches. It is also of brick, laid in the usual manner, but of varying thickness. Its general thickness is 20 inches, but for a distance of 8 feet north and south of the ventilating shafts, its thickness is increased 4 inches, thus forming a kind of rib, 16 feet broad by 4 inches thick.6
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72nd St station
The beam tunnel resumes at 71st St and the second way station is at 72nd St. The station at 72nd street is precisely similar to that at 59th street, and needs no description.4 Like 59th St it was not used in regular service, but an employee timetable of 1895 shows one train stopping in each direction ‘for the accommodation of Normal College students’, referring to what was later Hunter College.7
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The northern brick arch tunnel
Brick arch tunnel resumes from 80th St to 92nd St where the only section of rock tunnel begins. This northern section of brick arch tunnel has a higher arch.
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86th St station
In this section is the third way station, 86th St. The side tracks are here well separated from the center track tunnel, by about 23 feet.
There are two stations, one for each of the side tunnels ; but unlike the 59th street station, they are placed on the inner side of the small tunnel, or the side nearest the central tunnel, and do not have a waiting room. They consist really of a covered platform, 172 feet long, 18 feet 8 inches wide, and 3 feet 10 inches above the railroad bed. Along the inner side, and separating the side from the center tunnel, runs a rubble wall, 4 feet thick, with vertical faces and lined on the side of the platform with brick. Three feet six inches from the inner edge of the landing is a long row of cast iron columns, 10 inches in diameter at the base, 11 feet 4½ inches high, of 7/8 inch metal. These columns support two 15-inch heavy girders placed side by side, their flanges touching.4
At the south end of these platforms is the ticket office. A flight of four steps leads from the street to the platform on which the ticket office stands ; and from this landing go off, to the east and west, two other flights which lead to a platform below the street grade, and from these latter landings a final flight, at right angles to the latter, leads to the platform beside the track. At the north end of each platform is a small waiting room 35 feet by 8 feet.4
The 86th St station opened on May 15, 1876, and it was a regular stop for Harlem Division local trains for the first few years. The initial service in 1876 had 16 trains each way at irregular intervals with the longest gap 90 minutes. Service dropped after the elevated railways opened: timetables of 1893 and 1900 show 5 trains northbound and 7 or 8 southbound, and the station was closed by 1910, most likely when the electric service caused major schedule revisions.9
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The Mount Prospect Tunnel
From 92nd St to 95th St the railway is in rock tunnel, except that because of bad rock, the last block from 94th St is partly brick tunnel. The center two-track tunnel includes in it the Mount Prospect Tunnel of 1837, and the side tunnels were built well away from it to avoid disturbing its side walls. From 95th St to 96th St the tunnel is one very large arch, called the ‘tapering tunnel’, in which the side tracks curve back alongside the center tracks to emerge together at the original portal at 96th St. Later construction covered the next block with a flat roof and the present portal is at 97th St.
The rock tunnels commence at 92nd street and extend to the north side of 94th street, a distance of some 550 feet. It will be remembered that at this point on the road was the old rock tunnel. This tunnel now forms the large central tunnel, and on each side of it was excavated a single tunnel … The two single tunnels are 18 feet high from the railroad grade to the top of the arched roof, and 18 feet 8 inches wide at the bottom : or, allowing 32 inches for the thickness of the two side linings, the span becomes 16 feet in the clear, and the hight 16 feet 8 inches. The arches are semi-circular. Their center is 36 feet east and west from the center of the central tunnel. This latter has a span in the clear of 27 feet l and as the side tunnels have a span of 16 feet, we have, for the thickness of the rock walls separating side and central tunnels, 14 feet 8 inches. The middle tunnel is unlined, but the face of the rock is trimmed off to a very fair degree of smoothness. The two side tunnels, however, are each of them lined with brick 16 inches thick, and the space between the rock and the brick filled in with concrete.8
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The stone viaduct
North of 96th St the Improvement took the form of a stone viaduct. It crosses each street on three arches, small ones over the sidewalks flanking a larger center arch. The piers are 8 feet by 5 feet by 56 feet, and the abutments 8 feet by 6 feet by 56 feet. The faces of the abutments, spandrels, wing walls, piers, and arches, are built of freestone well dressed, and (with the exception of the arch stones, which are cut to long 3/8 inch joints) are all cut to lay half inch joint. The backing of the walls, abutments, and hearting of the piers is first class gneiss rubble masonry, well tied to the face with face headers. The abutments are carried up five feet above the springing line of the arches on the outside ; and from the top of this backing to the crown of the main arch, the spandrels are filled with concrete, plastered with half an inch of cement. At 106th St, a wider street, there are four arches, with an extra middle pier in the roadway. The land here was wet at the time and not yet much built on. Some of the foundations were laid below water level.10
The retaining walls from 98th St to 115th St are surmounted by a parapet wall (rock faced on the outside) 2 feet 6 inches in hight, 2 feet at the bottom by 18 inches at the top. Upon this is placed the coping of pene-hammered granite, 10 inches by 3 feet four inches. The coping and parapet are anchored to the retaining walls by wrought iron galvanized rods, 1½ inches in diameter and 6 feet long, with a head and washer on the bottom and a nut and cast iron washer on the top.10
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110th St station
The next way station was at 110th St, which is not one of the wide streets laid out for crosstown traffic but is the north line of Central Park. It consists of a waiting room built in the north abutment of 110th St bridge, and two iron stairways which rise, on the outside of the east and west retaining walls of the viaduct, from the waiting room to two covered landings on top of the viaduct. The waiting room is on a level with the street grade, and consists of a vaulted room 10 feet broad, 3 feet 6 inches long, and 12 feet 7 inches from floor to the crown of the roof, and running parallel to the axis of the north archway of the bridge, into which it opens through a groined archway of freestone, 12 feet broad by 5 feet thick, and placed 22 feet from the outside of either retaining wall. The arch is semi-circular, and of brick, 20 inches thick. This room is lined with brick and plastered, and closed at the east end by a large semi-circular arched window … Two flights of steps rise from this room through two brick-lined segmental arched ways, 6 feet broad by 8 feet high, to points on the outsides of the retaining walls 17 feet above street grade, from which iron stairways lead to the covered platform on top of the viaduct. Of these passage ways, the one leading to the west side of the viaduct passes out from the west end of the waiting room and forms almost a continuation of it. That leading to the east side of the viaduct is placed to the north of the waiting room, and parallel to it, but separated from it by a masonry wall 4 feet 6 inches in thickness.10
At the outside of the retaining walls, at each end of the openings of the arched stairways, just mentioned, is placed a wooden platform, 3 feet by 6 feet, from which there are two flights of iron steps, one to the north and one to the south. These steps are 3 feet wide, with yellow pine steps, cast iron rises and string, supported by 9 inch heavy H beams built into the solid masonry of the retaining wall. They lead to the covered landing beside the track. These landings consist of wooden platforms resting on six rows of longitudinal wooden beams, suppprted in turn, by iron beams, 8 feet long, placed transversely on the parapet walls, 7 feet 3 inches apart, and anchored by iron rods extending 6 feet downward through the masonry. The platforms are 130 feet 6 inches long and 8 feet 3 inches broad, thus projecting 2 feet 3 inches beyond the parapet wall on the inside and 3 feet on the outside.10
110th St station opened at the same time as 86th St, May 15, 1876, and had the same train service of 16 a day in each direction. It held on to good service longer: in 1900 it still had 22 and 23 trains in each direction. Notably, this means the railway took the trouble to rebuild the entire platform level of the station in 1896-1897 when the railway grade was raised onto the iron girders, only to close it within the next few years. The station is gone in the 1910 timetables.9
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The Harlem cut and the later steel viaduct
The viaduct as originally built began to approach street level north of 110th St. At 112th St and 113th St there was not enough clearance for arches, and iron truss bridges were used instead to span the streets. There was no bridge at 114th St and 115th St, and the railroad grade passed below street level within the block between 115th St and 116th St.
The change of grade made in 1893-1897 begins at 106th St. For the first few blocks the stone viaduct was raised in height with the parapet seemingly reinstalled at the top of the new work. Just south of 110th St, this work ends and the tracks are carried on a low iron viaduct resting on the stone viaduct. The stone viaduct now ends completely at the south side of 111th St, an an iron viaduct with open space below runs from that point to the new Harlem River bridge.
To make the changes under traffic, the railway built wooden trestles to carry the tracks around the work from 106th St to 114th St, and from there the tracks continued to run in the cut for a time as the viaduct was constructed over it.11 At the end of 1895 the tracks were partly or completely relocated to the street surface as work was completed. After the viaduct opened in February 1897, the cut was filled in and paved over. A portion of the cut at 125th St station however was not filled in and still exists as a basement level of the modern street-level station that stands below the viaduct.12
The entire reason for the change was the new higher-level Harlem River bridge forced by the designation of the river as a navigable channel. A grade down from the bridge to the cut would have brought the railway near street level for a few blocks around the business center of Harlem at 125th St, either blocking cross streets or forcing many changes of street grade. It made more sense to maintain a higher grade from 106th St to the bridge on a viaduct. In any other respect a cut was preferable to a viaduct, and lawsuits were brought and won over the next few years for ‘the impairment of easements of light and air’.13 The new bridge finally eliminated the two-track bottleneck between 131st St and the Hudson and Harlem junction a half mile north.
The new 125th St station on the viaduct has two island platforms. A consolation for the viaduct was that when the station opened, most of the through trains of the New York Central and New Haven systems began to stop at the station for the first time. Until this date, passengers using any of the Improvement stations had to go down to Grand Central to get those trains.12
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Electric operation and Park Ave
Electrification of the lines of the New York Central system in and near New York was proposed in 1899 by William J Wilgus, the railway’s chief engineer and later a vice president. The idea languished even after a grand jury in 1901 found criminal negligence to passengers’ health on the part of the railway because of the heat and smoke in the tunnels. The agent that forced change was a rear-end collision in the tunnel on January 8, 1902, that killed fifteen passengers as the engine of the second train destroyed the rear car of the first. The second train had passed two signals at danger, but testimony brought to public attention the horror of how engineers and conductors coped daily with the very poor visibility caused by smoke in the tunnel. The New York state legislature passed an act in 1903 requiring the end of steam operation in the Park Avenue Improvement by July 1, 1908.
The first electric trains ran to High Bridge on the Hudson Division on September 30, 1906, and to Wakefield on the Harlem Division on January 29, 1907. Most trains changed engines at those points but as the electrification was extended to Croton and White Plains respectively the New York Central began to use electric multiple-unit trains on local runs. The New Haven began its hybrid electric service— AC overhead north of Woodlawn Junction— in July 1907 with both multiple-unit and locomotive trains.14
The ventilation openings in Park Ave were now excess to requirements. As automobile traffic increased it was actually proposed in 1922 that the center mall be eliminated to provide for more traffic lanes! But Manhattan borough president Julius Miller told the city’s Board of Estimate that the mall provided a special beauty to the thoroughfare and recommended only a ‘widening’ of Park Ave, meaning a narrowing of the mall, up to 96th St.15 The matter was negotiated between the city and the New York Central Railroad for another five years. The plan was to close up the old ventilation openings and rebuild the malls. The Park Avenue Association wrote in 1928, These ventilators, through which great passenger trains roar incessantly morning and night, with bells clanging and wheels rumbling, have been a festering grievance with Park Avenue residents for many years, being destructive to sleep and quiet.16 Once again there were calls for removing the mall entirely for the benefit of automobile traffic, but Miller fought to keep it.
Finally in June 1928, the New York Central Railroad agreed to close the openings from 57th St to 72nd St, roofing them over with concrete and steel replacing the iron beams, at a cost of $162,000 to be paid by the company. Only a few small openings with gratings would remain for ventilation and emergency access. The city in turn would landscape and plant the malls. The grass plots in the centre of Park Avenue now are two to three feet above the roadway and are surmounted by a three-foot fence, interfering with vision at cross streets.17 They were also 40 feet wide, and were narrowed to only 23 feet. Work began in August 1928.18 The next section from 72nd St to 96th St was started in the Depression year of 1930 to the same plans.19
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The only other major program of work on the tunnel was done by Metro North following the first-ever comprehensive engineering survey of the tunnel in 1983. In the Improvement from 57th St to 96th St, the main problem areas identified were weaknesses in the jack-arch roof construction at some of the street crossings in the beam tunnel and ‘extremely significant deterioration’ in the Mount Prospect Tunnel at 93rd St. Mined through solid granite, 26 feet below street level, this 596-foot tunnel can only be repaired from underground. While the rock walls and ceiling of the tunnel are still sound, water has infiltrated portions of the brick lining, which was added to the 148-year-old tunnel at an unknown date. Over the years, leakage has created holes in the brick lining of two short sections of the walls and ceiling. Metro North contractors will install rock bolts and apply mesh and special sealant (gunite) to the brick linings to prevent further deterioration. Drains will also be installed below the tunnel wall to allow water to run out from behind the brick lining. The Mount Prospect repairs were done in 1986. Otherwise the Park Avenue Railroad Tunnel Restoration began in 1987 and continued for the next few years.20
Well into its second century, New York’s first underground railway continues to play a vital role in the city’s transporation network.