Beach logo


1866— 1868

Atmospheric railways in England

The idea of pneumatic tubes and railways can be traced back to the English inventor George Medhurst.  He proposed using pneumatic tubes to carry letters and packages in a pamphlet published in 1810, and two years later he proposed details of larger railway tubes to carry passengers and freight.  In the mid 1820s another English inventor, John Vallance, built a tube on his property at Brighton, 8 feet in diameter and 150 feet long, in which a passenger car ran at two miles per hour.  Medhurst had realized as early as 1812 that passengers might not want to ride inside a tube.  The darkness and the exposure to tube pressure would make a journey unpleasant.  In a last pamphlet in 1827 he proposed what would become known as the atmospheric railway.  In this system a small pneumatic tube was built along an ordinary railway track, and a piston inside the tube would pull an attached train running on the rails.1  The ultimately successful alternative of pulling trains behind steam locomotives was under development during the same years by many inventors, culminating in George Stephenson’s engine Rocket, which proved its worth at the Rainhill Trials in 1829, two years after Medhurst proposed the atmospheric railway.2

Four atmospheric railways were constructed in the 1840s, before the use of steam locomotives was fully established.  Two of them, in Ireland (1844-1854) and France (1847-1860), were short railways on inclines under two miles in length and used pneumatic power only uphill, coasting by gravity in the other direction.  The two others, both in England, attempted to use pneumatic power for longer distance operation.3

The London and Croydon Railway operated atmospherically at its greatest extent from New Cross to Croydon, seven and a half miles. A trial run in September 1845 achieved 70 miles per hour, an astonishing speed for the time.  A pneumatic tube of about seven inches diameter was located between the rails, with a two-inch slot on top kept closed by leather and iron flaps to maintain pressure.  The trains had pistons extending below and fitting tightly in the tube.  The stationary steam engines pumped out air ahead of the train, creating a partial vacuum, and air rushing in from behind pushed the train along.  Problems with the flaps and the impossibility of running trains through to further sections of conventional railway caused the end of the system in May 1847.3  

The other English line was the South Devon Railway, similarly short lived, running from Exeter to Newton Abbott in 1847-1848.  The South Devon was part of the Great Western system.  Chief engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel chose the atmospheric system because he thought it would be better suited to the relatively steep grades and sharp curves in the hilly region along the coast.  The decision was of course made before the abandonment of atmospheric working on the London and Croydon.  The South Devon was the last and longest atmospheric railway built, intended to run 52 miles from Exeter to Plymouth, and completed and operated for about fifteen miles.  The railway used much larger tubes than the London and Croydon, fifteen inches, requiring more powerful pumping engines, which however managed to convey trains at similar speeds over 60 miles per hour.  The tubes were once again the principal problem.  The salt air hardened the leather flaps, and the tallow applied to soften the leather only attracted rats to gnaw on it.  Altogether the atmospheric system proved to be more than twice as expensive to operate as steam locomotives.3


[ 2-1 ]

Detail of Nicholas Condy’s watercolor The Atmospheric Railway at Dawlish, on the South Devon Railway, painted in 1848.  The track in the foreground runs to a tunnel in the distance, seen to the left of the signal tower.  Condy has provided a good view of the broad gauge track (7 ft 0¼ in) and the pneumatic tube between the rails with the many small flaps along its top.  Another solid tube, possibly a feeder, lies to the left of the track, and another short section, capped at the end, is seen on the right.  The building with the tower is one of the engine houses, and white-roofed Dawlish station can be seen beyond.  The original painting is at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.


[ 2-2 ]

Section of South Devon Railway atmospheric track, preserved at Didcot Railway Centre.  The section of original pneumatic tube was recovered in 1993 from under beach sand, and mounted as shown in 2000.  (Photo by ‘chowell’, from Wikimedia Commons,


[ 2-3 ]

Diagrams of an atmospheric railway tube, showing the piston and how it connects through a flap with the train.  From the article describing the Beach Pneumatic Transit line, Scientific American, March 5, 1870.


Pneumatic railways in England

The Electric and International Telegraph Company began experiments with pneumatic tubes in 1853.  Telegrams were transmitted electrically between telegraph offices, but on arrival they were transcribed to paper.  The company wanted to speed up the final delivery to the customer.  Josiah Latimer Clark designed a tube that ran 675 feet between a telegraph office and the London stock exchange.  It was a modest 1½ inches in diameter but proved the concept.  More such tubes were built to a 2¼ inch diameter.4  The General Post Office commissioned engineers in 1855 to consider a similar system to connect post offices in London.  The projected cost however was considered too high.5  Neither this nor the telegraph tubes were railways, but the telegraph system was successful and gradually expanded, demonstrating that pneumatic propulsion was practical at least for small tubes.

In 1859 Latimer Clark joined with another inventor, Thomas Webster Rammell, to form the London Pneumatic Despatch Company and develop true pneumatic railways.  The next year Rammell patented a pneumatic railway or tube in which the carriages are placed inside the the tunnel or tube, but are independent of the tunnel or tube and are wholly supported and in their motion are guided and directed by two or more rails, grooves, or trams, and in which the pneumatic pressure is applied over the whole or transverse area of the carriage.6

The London Pneumatic Despatch Company constructed a prototype with thirty-inch tubes on open ground at Battersea in 1861.  An underground tube of similar size was put into service at Euston in 1863, followed in 1865 by a tube four feet in diameter.  The stationary engines both pushed and pulled the cars.  The Post Office was the prime customer and was charged below-cost rates to get the business started.  The company ultimately found that their costs exceeded what they could reasonably charge for parcel delivery, and they went out of business in 1874.5  (The later electrically operated Post Office Railway tubes in London ran in completely different tunnels.)


[ 2-4 ]

The public demonstration of Rammell’s concept, at Battersea, London, 1861.  The tube was simply laid on the ground.  Rammell wanted to show that it worked around curves.  From Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch, and originally from Scientific American, October 5, 1861.


[ 2-5 ]

One of the Pneumatic Despatch cars from the small original tube survived and can be seen at the National Railway Museum, York.  Reference to the Battersea illustration will show where rubber bumpers and sealing strips are missing.  The exhibit label is blurred to suggest speed.  Photo by Joseph Brennan, 2001.


[ 2-6 ]

The Pneumatic Despatch opens at Holborn, 1865, through the larger tubes of the second phase of the system.  Some of the staff put themselves into the cars for the occasion.  From Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch, from an English source.


The second pneumatic railway was a demonstration passenger railway in a 600 yard tunnel at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1864, at Sydenham, south London.  It used much larger tubes than the Despatch system and was far more visible to the public, arousing great interest.  The elliptical tube was nine feet by eight, and was neither level nor straight, but had a grade of one in fifteen and curves of eight chains (528 feet) radius.  The blower, powered by a rented steam locomotive, was able to move the car the distance in 50 seconds with an air pressure of only two and a half ounces per square inch.  It pushed the car to the end, and then reversed creating a vacuum to pull it back.  Its promoters began building a Thames crossing for passenger travel called the Waterloo and Whitehall Pneumatic Railway, but the company failed in 1868.7 


[ 2-7 ]

The demonstration railway at Sydenham, 1864.  The car has a collar of bristles to reduce air flow past it.  Seen at the left is the locomotive power source, under cover, and beyond it the blower.  From Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch, from an English source.


Elias P Needham’s pneumatic railway

The first bill for a pneumatic underground railway in New York, or anywhere in the Americas, was introduced in the New York legislature in 1865, at about the same time as Willson’s Metropolitan Railway.  The company was headed by inventor Elias P Needham.  The Times described it:  The incorporation of Pneumatic Railway and Express Company is also contemplated, who are authorized to operate a Pneumatic Railway to be constructed in a tunnel running under the following streets:  Commencing near the Post-office, under Nassau and Chatham streets and the Bowery, Fourth-avenue, Thirty-second and Twenty-seventh streets to Tenth-avenue; Tenth-avenue, Washington or Greenwich streets and the Battery, to South Ferry, and thence under Broad and Nassau streets to place of beginning, for the purpose of conveying goods, merchandise and mails, in pursuance of the patent granted to E P Needham.8

The plan was inspired by the London Pneumatic Despatch lines.  The tubes would have been three or four feet in diameter.  A few years later the Times described Needham and his invention. Mr NEEDHAM is a melodeon manufacturer of this City.  The advantage of his invention over the pneumatic tube used in London is, that he uses but one engine for forcing the air, whereas the English process uses an additional engine at every station.  He employs an endless tube, through which there is a continuous current of air.  The article goes on about the patent system of gates and doors that made this possible.  The system provided for more than one car to run at once between stations.9

The Needham bill was passed by the Senate on March 21 and by the Assembly three days later.  Governor Fenton vetoed it on May 20, because of all the objections I have urged against the bill last-named, which was the Metropolitan Railway.  Once again, it was the ‘private use’ of the streets.  Fenton also objected that I see nothing to prevent this corporation from constructing and operating a passenger railroad, because it was to be incorporated under the Railroad Law of 1850.8  Needham tried once more in 1866, also without success.11 

Alfred E Beach and pneumatic transit in New York

Needham’s idea was immediately followed up by Alfred E Beach, who wrote in 1873, The original projectors of the present enterprise began their labors in 1865, formed a preliminary private association in 1866, and applied to the Legislature at the session commencing January, 1867, for an act of incorporation.  The bill passed the Senate but did not reach the Assembly in time for action …12

Alfred Ely Beach was best known as the editor of Scientific American.  Born in 1826 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Beach grew up in New York, where his father Moses Yale Beach had taken ownership of The Sun, a very popular ‘penny paper’, from 1837.  Young Beach worked briefly at The Sun.  Then he and his friend from school, Orson D Munn, purchased in 1846 a floundering new journal called Scientific American and quickly turned it around by concentrating on patents and inventions.  They established an agency, Munn and Company, to assist inventors in filing patents, which became the most successful patent agency in history, filing more than three thousand a year during the 11160s.  Beach spent his life among inventors.10


[ 2-8 ]

Ads in an 1869 issue of Scientific American promote the magazine itself and the Munn patent agency.  Holske, who asks to be contacted at the magazine office, not only made models but was the contractor for Beach’s exhibits at the American Institute Fair and later for Beach Pneumatic Transit.  The notice from John Roebling may have interested readers building cable powered elevated railways or bridges to Brooklyn.


In January 1867, Scientific American ran a page 1 article describing the London parcel tube system and proposing the same thing for New York.14  This was still for small tubes, for mail and packages.  It was later that month that the Senate Select Committee reported in favor of underground passenger railways, if the problem of motive power could be solved.  It took until July for Scientific American to weigh in on the question with another page 1 article that reviewed the state of pneumatic passenger railways. 

At a recent meeting of the Association for the advancement of Science and Art, in the Cooper Institute, New York City, Dr Gilbert delivered a lecture on atmospheric railways …

In principle, an atmospheric railroad consists of an exhausted tube or tunnel through which the car or carriage is forced by expansion of the air.  The idea of employing air as a motive power in this manner is not new.  Many years ago it was proposed, but owing to numerous difficulties arising from the unprepared state of the public mind, and from other causes, the project was not carried into effect.  Later still, atmospheric railways were constructed in England.  Of these there are two forms. In one the carriage runs in a tunnel the entire way from one station to another.  At one end of this tunnel there is an engine that exhausts the air, and produces thereby the motion of the carriage.  To make the carriage fit into the tunnel as closely as possible, there is attached to it a diaphragm made of india-rubber, with bristles appended.  An example of this kind of railroad is exhibited in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Another form is that in which the cars move in the open air, and are drawn by a piston passing into a tube which lies by the side of the track.  This is the plan of the Dalkey and Kingstown railroad, near Dublin.  It long since proved a failure, as owing to the arrangement of the valves in the tube, considerable leakage occurs.

On the former plan, Mr Needham, an American, has improved.  He arranges the tunnel in the form of an irregular ellipse, and placing in the circumference a powerful air-pump he exhausts the air from one arm, when that in the other arm rushing in, forces the car forward.  It was shown how, by valves and a connecting pipe, the carriage might be stopped at any point without interrupting the action of the air.  To prove the necessity of this railroad as a means of locomotion in cities, the lecturer showed how desirable it was as a sanitary measure that hard working men should have the means of going out into the country after their day’s work, without losing time by travel in inconvenient street cars.  By means of this railway they could pass from the Battery to the Central Park in about four minutes.  In fact the rate of speed attainable without inconvenience was at least twice that of the English express trains, which run at the rate of sixty miles an hour.15

The lecturer, Dr Gilbert, was Rufus H Gilbert, machinist, surgeon, social reformer, Civil War veteran, and most recently superintendant of the Central Railroad of New Jersey— a dazzlingly eclectic career.  But it all fit together as Gilbert began working on the problem of rapid transit.  He worked on pneumatic power systems, and would, in 1872, form a company to build an elevated pneumatic railway.16

The American Institute Fair of 1867

For the upcoming exhibition of the American Institute, Beach financed two demonstrations of pneumatic dispatch, one of which was large enough for passengers to ride in.17  The fair ran from September 12 to October 26, 1867. Shortly before the start of the fair, the Times predicted some startling novelties, among them a great pneumatic tube, through which the adventurous will be carried north and south according to the fancy or advice of their physicians.18

Scientific American announced in September, The first practical example of the Pneumatic Railroad ever constructed in this country has just been completed by the Holske Machine Company, No, 528 Water street, and will form one of the most prominent features at the exhibition … The pneumatic tube is six feet in diameter, composed of fifteen thicknesses of wood veneers, wound and cemented one upon the other in alternate spirals.  This makes a tube of remarkable strength and rigidity, although the total thickness of wood is only an inch and a quarter.  The tube is made under J K Mayo’s patent.  The blowing apparatus consists of a wheel 10 feet in diameter, made on the principle of a screw propeller.  The pneumatic car consists of an open vehicle with a valve or disk at one end, which fits the tube.  The car seats twelve passengers.  The tube is over 100 feet long.

Messrs Holske have also built a Pneumatic Postal Dispatch for the exhibition.  It consists of a pneumatic tube 24 feet in length and two feet square, having a lamp-post letterbox arrangement upon it, and a pneumatic car within.  The construction is such that when the car, which is driven by air pressure, passes through the tube, it collects the letters from the lamp-post … The above railroad and postal devices are made from designs by Mr A E Beach, of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN …19

A month later, a followup article related that the exhibition may now be said to have reached its full glory … The most novel and attractive feature of the exhibition is by general consent conceded to be the Pneumatic Railway, erected by Mr A E Beach, of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and everyone visiting the Fair seems to consider himself specially called upon to visit, and, after actual experience, to pronounce his verdict upon this mode of traveling.20

The Times ran an informative article reviewing the English predecessor lines and then praising Beach’s exhibit at the fair.  The tube of the passenger railway at the Fair is suspended along the eastern wall and runs from gallery to gallery, a distance of 107 feet.  It is six feet in diameter and is constructed of wood.  The shell is but 1½ inches thick, yet it is claimed to be capable of immense resistance … The carriage for passenger conveyance is long enough to seat on either side, like the ordinary street car, ten persons.  It is open at the top and sides, the latter rising sufficiently high only to the protect the passengers’ backs from the friction against the sides of the tube.  The door is placed in the centre of the O shaped end, which forms the valve or piston when the door is closed.  The wheels of the car, four in number, rest on rails laid along the bottom of the tube and project through the bottom a few inches only, being all that is necessary.  The wheel-attachments and, with this exception, the wheels themselves, are immediately beneath the seats.  This permits full use of the space within the tube, so that the carriage is just as freed from touching the bottom as the sides … This fan is unlike any yet used.  It is in fact a screw propeller with eight blades, so constructed that the pitch of the blades is not more than twelve inches.  This fan is driven by an engine placed near by, and will make, if necessary, two hundred revolutions per minute.  Turning in one direction it produces a vacuum by exhausting the air from the tube … When its motion is reversed, the opposite result is of course produced …  21

Harper’s Weekly ran an illustration of the tube on page 1 of an October issue, but amusingly the accompanying article calls the tube Mr Needham’s Pneumatic Railway and reminds readers that it was really only an improvement on the Pneumatic Railway which has been in successful use for some years in London.22  The article never mentions Beach’s name, nor the pneumatic mail dispatch.  The pneumatic passenger railway was the story. 


[ 2-9 ]

[ 2-10 ]

Two artists’ renditions of the American Institute tube may raise questions about high it was off the floor, but the general impression is the same.


At the end of the fair, Beach was awarded ‘first premium’ prizes both for the exhibition of a working section of Pneumatic Railway and for a Pneumatic Postal Dispatch.23

Beach’s plans to tunnel New York

Articles on Beach’s exhibit speculate on the future of the pneumatic passenger railway in the city and the concept of sub-tubing the North and East Rivers and thus uniting Jersey City and Brooklyn with New-York.  Not mentioning Beach by name for some reason, they reported that it is estimated that a double-track underground pneumatic railway would cost $500,000 per mile, less than an ordinary steam railway, because the tubes could be smaller and the curves and grades greater.  An East River crossing was given as $600,000, pointedly compared to $7,000,000 for the bridge then being proposed.  It is further estimated that passengers by a through city tube could be carried from the City Hall to Madison-square in five minutes, to Central Park in eight minutes, to Harlem and Manhattanville in fourteen minutes, to Washington Heights in twenty minutes, and by sub-river to Jersey City or Hoboken in five minutes, and to the City Hall, Brooklyn, in two minutes.21

But besides the passenger railway, it is proposed to build an extensive system of postal dispatch tubes within the city and across the rivers.21  Beach and others incorporated a Postal Dispatch Company in New Jersey in 1867 to construct the western portion of a Hudson River dispatch tube and to continue the tubes to other points such as Newark and Elizabeth.24  Some said later that Beach’s sole interest was always the passenger railway, but at this time he put a great deal of effort into the dispatch tube venture. 

Beach wanted to sink prefabricated tunnels in trenches dredged in the river bottom, the method used in the Waterloo and Whitehall project.  This method was actually used many years later for the Harlem River subway tunnels.  Scientific American reported that it would seem to be no very difficult or expensive work to connect these great cities by a single tunnel, which, although of small dimensions, would have an immense carrying capacity for passengers.  Indeed, through the proposed eight-foot tunnel it is stated that twice as many passengers can be conveyed as are now carried on all the combined Brooklyn ferries, and there would never be any interruption of travel by snow, ice, fog, or collision … It is well known that the beds of the North and East rivers are of such a nature to present no serious obstacle to the laying down of tunnels.25

As far as tunnels under land, Scientific American reported on the plan recently patented by Mr Joseph Dixon, of New-York City which will undoubtedly meet with the success its simplicity, economy, and adaptabilty for the underground and pneumatic systems deserve.26  Dixon was an English engineer27 living in the United States who had like Beach been awarded a first premium prize at the American Institute Fair.  Dixon had exhibited ‘Cast Iron Plates for Underground Railway’.23  This was a year and a half after he had been involved with one of Origen Vandenburgh’s Broadway tunnel proposals. 

In applying Mr Dixon’s method to underground railways, the excavation is made as usual, with the exception that a much narrower trench will be needed to accommodate the iron plates forming the sides in place of stone or brickwork.  A foundation of stone is then placed, to which the side plates are bolted, and plates forming the arch are first placed on a movable framework and bolted to each other … the ease with which the parts are put together, their comparative cheapness of cost, the facility with which they may be handled and transported to the place required, render it incomparably superior to every other method of tubing hitherto employed … In the construction of tunnels, where the engineer is forced to drift through a loose soil, the advantages of arches formed of these iron plates, with the joint inside, are too apparent to require any thing more than a mere mention.26


[ 2-11 ]

Dixon’s cast iron tunnel.  Above it is a cast iron front building, an innovation of the 1860s.  From Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch.


The Pneumatic Dispatch

Beach published a promotional booklet in January 1868 called The Pneumatic Dispatch.  Despite the title it covered both small dispatch tubes and larger passenger railways.  The two English pneumatic railways were the models from which he was working.  He credited Rammell for the concept of the entire car running in a pneumatic tube.  This was what Beach wanted to do.  The Rammell patents left many details of design and machinery to be developed, improved, and patented, by Beach and others.

Most of the book is reprinted articles, but Beach opened it with his own enthusiastic praise of pneumatic transit.  A tube, a car, a revolving fan!  Little more is required.  The ponderous locomotive, with its various appurtenances, is dispensed with, and the light aerial fluid that we breathe is the substituted motor.28

The cars could be much lighter and cheaper, he explained, since they do not need to resist the wrenchings of the locomotive and the rough usages of the track.  Freight could be carried on platform cars, since the tube protects cars from the elements.  The cars would run with the celerity of Æolus, the silence of Somnus.  A pneumatic tube railway would not need the expensive bridges, culverts, trestle-works, cuts, and embankments, required upon common railroads … The tube forms the bridge.  There would of course be no level crossings with roads, no running down of the helpless, no mangling of passengers, no burnings from sparks.  Beach did not give the cost to be paid for these benefits, namely the cost of a tube wholly or partly buried in the earth.28  He also mentioned the idea of pneumatic railways that would be elevated instead of underground, an idea proposed by Rammell in 1857.


[ 2-12 ]

[ 2-13 ]

[ 2-14 ]

Illustrations of a ‘supposed’ Pneumatic Dispatch system in use in New York, with cars very similar to those of the Rammell’s London system, from Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch.  There is a trunk in the office for artist Stanley Fox.  The bottom picture also shows tubes for an elevated railway on posts along the curb line, similar to those holding up Charles Harvey’s experiment on Greenwich St.


The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company

Before the end of January, Scientific American reported plans by unidentified persons that sound much like Beach’s plans, but this group had not settled on the matter of pneumatic propulsion, according to the description.  An organization has been made for the purpose of obtaining legislative authority for the laying down of tunnels upon the general plan just described (the Waterloo and Whitehall) between the cities of New York, Brooklyn, and Jersey City.  The proposed tunnel will be cheap in construction and have an interior diameter of about eight feet.  The New York termini are intended to be at or near City Hall Park, the terminus in Brooklyn being at or near the City Hall or the junction of Fulton and Court streets— a distance of less than two miles.  Trains of passenger cars will pass through this tunnel from end to end in one minute and may be propelled by atmospheric pressure.  The cars will be of about the same dimensions as the ordinary street passenger cars, will be brilliantly lighted, and run with very little noise or vibration.  Experience has shown that air pressure is preferred as a motor to locomotive or horse power, as all jerking is avoided and the atmospheric car glides along with a smoothness resembling that of a vessel on the water.29

This appears to be the same organization for whom a bill was introduced in the New York state Senate on February 7.  Mr CREAMER introduced a bill to incorporate the New-Jersey, New-York and Brooklyn Pneumatic Transit Company.  It authorizes the construction of a tube, with tracks for the conveyance of passengers and baggage, from a point at low water mark on the Jersey shore (opposite Chambers-street) across the Hudson River, and thence under Chambers-street and the East River to the Brooklyn shore.  A capital of $5,000,000 is thought to be sufficient for this job.30  Probably this was the bill that eventually led to the formation of the New York and Brooklyn Iron Tubular Tunnel Company, incorporated May 2 by Silas C Herring, George Hazell, and others.  This company is confused in the newspaper record with Beach’s similar plan.  They never constructed their route.  After a change of name to New York Tunnel Company and two extensions, they ran out of time to complete in 1884.31

Also seeking a bill for an underground railway at this session was the Metropolitan Iron Plate Tunnel and Vault Company.  Alfred E Beach subscribed for $2,000 of stock in it, paying $1,000 on February 11 and agreeing to pay the other $1,000 when the bill passed, which never happened.  The company secretary was Joseph Dixon.32

On February 13, another different bill was introduced to provide for the transmission of letters and packages of merchandise across the North and East Rivers by means of pneumatic tubes.33  As the Times reporter described it, Senator THAYER introduced a bill authorizing Alfred E Beach, Robert G Hatfield, Horace T Caswell, Nathan Kellogg, Moses S Beach, S H Wales, Peter B Sweeney, (he is evidently the carrying point) Isaac Van Arden, and such associates as policy may dictate should be let in, to construct, lay, or put down a pneumatic tube not less than 48 inches diameter, from a point on the New-York shore to another point on the shore of Jarseys.  The points of departure and arrival are not very definitely stated.  The Company can start where it d—n pleases (so a page boy says) and bring up anywhere.33  The indefinite routing became an issue later.  The naming of Peter B Sweeney here is surprising, because he did not appear in the list when the bill passed.  He was an associate of Jacob Sharp and William M Tweed, and was involved in many street railway proposals throughout this period. 

The Senate passed the Beach bill on May 4,34 followed by the Assembly.  Governor Fenton signed the bill into law on June 2.35  The text of Chapter 842, Laws of 1868, began:  An act to provide for the transmission of letters, packages and merchandise in the cities of New York and Brooklyn, and across the North and East rivers, by means of pneumatic tubes, to be constructed beneath the surface of the streets, squares and public places in said cities, and under the waters of said rivers. As described in the Documentary History, In the city of New York the tubes were to be laid under the supervision of the Croton aqueduct department, and in the city of Brooklyn under the supervision of the board of water commissioners.36  Those were the officials most familiar with underground construction.  The tubes were restricted to a maximum of 54 inches in diameter, too small for a passenger railway. 

In accordance with this act, Beach, Horace T Caswell, Joseph Dixon, and Moses S Beach (brother of Alfred) filed a certificate of incorporation on June 18, 1868 for the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company.12  State records give the date as August 28, 1868.36  The directors were:  Alfred E Beach, Robert G Hatfield, Horace T Caswell, Nathan Kellogg, Moses S Beach, Salem H Wales, R H McClellan, Julius H Pratt, Frederick H Betts, Charles H Neill, Thomas Graham, T G Ford, John E Ashe, John Leonard, J Netto Burns, Charles H Whiley, and Samuel Marsh Jr.37

The company was not incorporated under the Railroad Law of 1850, so it was not technically a railroad company, but a manufacturing or business company.  Possibly Beach did this in response to the veto of Needham’s bill in 1865, in case incorporation as a railroad company would raise the same fears of the company transporting passengers.  Beach never mentioned the reason in his many writings on the company’s plans.  But it meant he really could not transport passengers, since nothing in his incorporation implied that right, and later he would have to go back to the legislature. 

The New York City Central Underground Railroad

A true underground railroad company was approved during the same session, on April 17, 1868.  The New York City Central Underground Railroad Company was formed by a group headed by industrialist William E Dodge and western railroad entrepeneur William B Ogden, formerly Mayor of Chicago and currently President of the Chicago and North Western Railroad.  They wisely chose a route off Broadway, proposing to build from City Hall to Harlem by way of Mulberry St, Lafayette Place, Madison Ave and the proposed continuation of Madison Ave north of 96th St.  The route could be elevated north of 99th St, and it could connect with the New York and Harlem at 42nd St, with through running.  The charter required completion to 42nd St within two years.38  It was to be a double-track steam railroad modelled after the Metropolitan Railway in London.  The Times said in 1869 that the incorporators are reported to have spent $100,000 cash in getting the charter through the Legislature, besides pledging stock to the amount of $400,000 more.39  The company did little during their first year.  Later on they were to compete with the Beach company for a Broadway franchise. 

Charles T Harvey and the cable elevated railway

While Beach worked on the problems of pneumatic transit, another engineer and entrepeneur, Charles T Harvey, took a different approach.  Harvey made his reputation a dozen years earlier when he undertook the project of a one-mile ship canal to connect Lake Superior with the lower lakes, bypassing St Mary’s Falls.  He first worked with Michigan legislators to draft a bill to his desired specifications, and then went and found investors to support a construction company to build it for the state.  Erastus Corning, President of the New York Central Railroad, was one of the investors.  Harvey had been a salesman and accountant, and learned civil engineering in the course of the project.  When the excavation unexpectedly hit solid rock, Harvey found a way to break it up with available equipment, saving the day and earning praise from Corning.  The work was completed in two years and the canal opened in June 1855.  It was known later as the United States Sault Ste Marie Canal.40  There is today a state-owned Charles T Harvey Marina at Sault Ste Marie. 

As soon as the canal was completed, Harvey went to Washington to lobby for railroad grants to develop the area northwest of Chicago.  He settled for a time in the upper peninsula of Michigan, possibly to exploit some of the land awarded by the federal government as a prize for building the canal.  He surveyed and promoted the Peninsula Railroad from 1859 onwards and got federal and state land grants of more than one million acres, but could not raise enough funding and sold the project in 1863 to a group of investors led by Samuel J Tilden, a director of and counsel to the Chicago and North Western Railroad, to which it was sold after its completion in 1865.  In 1860 Harvey founded a village still called Harvey, near Marquette on Lake Superior, where the Northern Iron Company built a blast furnace.41

Harvey relocated to Westchester County in 1865, and became interested in the rapid transit problem in New York.  Like Beach, he rejected steam locomotives as power.  Harvey developed and patented a system something like a funicular cable railway but where cars could grip or release a continuously running cable.  As a company pamplet put it in 1866, During the past year one of the most successful practical engineers in this country devised a new method of attaching and propelling cars upon Railways by means of the well-known system of cables or wire rope attached to stationary engines.  Hitherto no practical plan has been invented, by which cars could be stopped or started without changing the motion of the stationary engine.  Harvey’s first step was to lobby a bill through the legislature providing for the formation of companies to introduce that peculiar mode of locomotion within this State or elsewhere, which passed on April 20, 1866.42

Under the amendment to the Railroad Law, Harvey and investors formed three companies on the same day in July 1866:  the Broadway and Yonkers Patent Railway Company, the East Side and New Rochelle Patent Railway Company, and the West Side and Yonkers Patented Railway Company.43  The names were probably chosen to avoid classification as a street railway entirely within the city.  Of these, the Broadway and Yonkers was the favored route.  In the same year that Willson’s Metropolitan Railway Company were fighting Stewart over the temporary disruption of tunnel construction on Broadway, Harvey and company somehow thought that he might support the permanent presence of an elevated railway along the curb line.  These terms were first proposed to the richest merchant in the city, who declined to become identified in any way with the experiment ; but said that he would have no objection to its being made anywhere outside Broadway.42


[ 2-15 ]

A rare view of the Broadway and Yonkers Patent Railway, from the company’s booklet Exposé of the facts, 1866.  At this stage of development, the one-legged structure was to be stabilized by a second line of posts as shown on the left, or by rods running to buildings answering to the purpose of an ornamental awning frame as shown on the right.  The building in outline is Mr A T Stewart’s store, and the height of the first story is shown to be eighteen and a half feet, which affords proper slope for an awning-frame as shown.  The diagram also shows a stationary engine in a vault connected to winding pulleys, with the cable returning underground, similar to what was built in Greenwich St the next year.  The unit in the center reverses the motion of the shaft, to pull the other cable in the opposite direction.


The West Side and Yonkers Patented Railway

Without Stewart’s involvement, the company raised money elsewhere.  The money was at once paid in sufficient to warrant proceeding with the erection of the proposed experimental section of half a mile in length, of the west side line, on Greenwich street. If this went well, they would try to get permission to build the Broadway route.  The Common Council voted two to one to permit construction in Greenwich St, but the mayor vetoed it and said that he would never approve it.  The council had to wait ten days to override a veto, and during that time, A T Stewart applied for an obtained a temporary injunction from Judge Barnard, of the Supreme Court, to restrain the Council from acting on the veto, or from taking any further action toward permiting even a harmless experimental section to be erected to test the feasibility of the invention, independent of any actual erection on Broadway.  The judge refused to lift the injunction before the General Term of the court started in November.42  The issue was whether the council or the legislature had the right to grant permission. 

During this time, in September, one ‘C L N’ issued a pamphlet called Facts and documents as the basis of estimating what the prejudices of a New-York millionaire may cost its citizens, compiled by an old resident, a 74-page rant quoting newspapers, laws, court decisions, letters, and statistics.  He ended with, CONCLUSION. There are evidently but two sides to the question involved in Stewart’s injunction.  FIRST. The Inventor and Promoter of the Patent Railways, as the only practical means of relief to the masses in the city of New-York.  SECOND. Those who can afford and indulge in twenty-five thousand dollar dinners, and propose to leave the ‘tenement-house rot’ to take care of itself!  Reader, which do you favor?43

It was into this state of affairs that the Senate Select Committee reported in January 1867 in favor of Harvey’s proposed experiment in Greenwich St.  The subsequent legislative grant of April 1867 to the West Side and Yonkers company (chapter 489, Laws of 1867) permitted the trial segment of a half mile from Battery Place north, the line to be put in practical operation with a car on the track loaded to a weight equal to at least three times the ordinary weight of a passenger car within one year from the start of construction.  Three commissioners were to be appointed, two by the governor and one by the Croton Aqueduct board, who had to approve the experimental section before any more work could be done.44

The initial quarter-mile of the authorized half-mile section was erected on the easterly curb line of Greenwich Street, between Battery Place and Morris Street, and afterwards extended to Cortlandt Street, wrote William Fullerton Reeves in 1937.  Field work began on July first, 1867, and contracts were then made … Vaults were built, machinery to operate the cables was installed, and excavations were made for column foundations.  The first column was erected October 7, 1867.  On the seventh day of December, 1867, this structure was tried out, using a car truck instead of a car, with the inventor, Mr Harvey, himself, at the control.  The method of operation was by an endless chain or cable wound around a drum a couple of times, to prevent slipping, and then passing overhead to the level of the structure.  The drum was driven by a stationary steam engine, placed in a vault beneath the sidewalk under the elevated structure. The company directors were happy with the test run and authorized Harvey to continue building to Cortlandt St, which he did in March and April 1868.45


[ 2-16 ]

One of the most familiar images in New York transit history depicts Harvey making a test run in December 1867.  He is holding reins attached to a traveler (see below), which can just be seen peeking up from the track.  To accommodate the long exposure time of photography of the day, he may not have been moving at just this moment.  Morris St, at the corner of 39 Greenwich St, was the end of the line at this date according to Reeves.  The cable return is under the sidewalk rather than directly under the track as it would be later.  The type of column used here would have had to be replaced or modified to make space for a return under the track, and regular cable service never ran on this segment of the line.

The left side of the image is damaged and usually cropped out, but as seen below it helps give an idea of the size of the buildings.  Seen here in the book New York, the World’s Metropolis, the left, top, and right are more complete but the retouching makes the image less satisfactory.  The buildings to the left of Morris St were torn down about a year later when Trinity Place was extended from a dead end in the middle of the block behind them.

[ 2-17 ]


In February 1868, a bill was introduced into the Senate, presumably lobbied by Stewart, to repeal the act under which what is generally known as the Experimental Railroad is being constructed in Greenwich-street. The Times reporter observed, It went to that Tomb of the Capulets which the Journal calls the Railroad Committee33 and it was not heard of again. 

Later in the session another bill was passed, chapter 855, Laws of 1868, that extended the time for construction of the experimental section by six months, and allowed the company to experiment with other forms of propulsion and adopt the form that the commissioners would recommend.  This bill was unfortunately titled ‘An act supplementary to chapter 489 of the laws of 1867, and to provide for the collection and application of revenue in the county of New York in certain cases’, an odd designation that was to cause trouble later.46  At the time, it was significant that consideration was already being given to other forms of motive power.

Harvey’s patented cable system pre-dates that used on the San Francisco cable cars by about five years.  The cable was supported by small four-wheeled ‘travelers’ attached to the cable every 150 feet, which ran on a little track of their own in the center of the main track.  Each traveler had a ‘horn’ projecting up.  When the car grip was turned so that it ran crosswise, the next horn that came long would strike it and begin to pull the car.  When the grip was turned ninety degrees, horns would slip past it.  A rotating arm on the end platform of the car worked the grip.  To ease what would be a very sudden start, the grip mechanism was attached with a patented spring system intended to absorb the impact when a car took the grip, and store the energy to start the car moving next time.  The cable speed was a relatively fast 10 to 15 miles per hour, moved by a steam engine in a vault under the sidewalk at 107 Greenwich St, near Cortlandt Street.46  In the first section built, the cable ran one way on the structure and then back in a channel under the sidewalk, but because water got in and froze up the cable during the winter, sections built after 1868 were designed to return the cable directly below itself on the structure.47


[ 2-18 ]

A ‘traveler’.  These were permanently attached to the cable.


The cable cars ran not on rails but on thin metal strips, mounted on rubber strips to reduce vibration, placed right on top of the beams of the structure.  It saved weight.  The ‘track’ gauge was four foot ten inches, an inch and a half wider than what was becoming standard for American railroads.48

A ‘trial car’ was put on the structure about May 1, and the directors took their first ride on the railway.  On June 6, the commissioners were given an inspection trip.  During the month, Governor Fenton and other invited guests were given rides:  Mayor Hoffman, the governor of Minnesota, city officials of Boston, and many eminent engineers and civilians.  The commissioners formally approved it on the deadline, July 1, and the governor authorized its continuation to the end of the city at Spuyten Duyvil.49  On July 10, the company changed its name to West Side Elevated (Patented) Railway Company of New York City, probably because the authorized route extended only as far north as the Harlem River.50  The company spent the next year raising funds, improving the cable system, and extending the structure and powerhouses north up Greenwich St and Ninth Ave. 


[ 2-19 ]

Stanley Fox drew the elevated railway for Harper’s Weekly of July 21, 1868, as seen from the end of the line at Battery Place.  The cable with the travelers on it ran down through the extra-thick column at the end to the underground return channel.  The walled open lot behind the car was the former Hudson River Railroad freight yard that was later acquired by the elevated railway.

The trial car (detail below) looked similar to the later production models except that, based on this drawing, the only known evidence, it did not have side doors.

[ 2-20 ]


[ 2-21 ]

The car stands at the north end of the experimental section at Cortlandt St, 1868.  Slightly heavier beams span Liberty St, and mysteriously there appears to be another elevated column around the corner.  From a stereo card.


William Fullerton Reeves, long-time civil engineer for the elevated railway companies, wrote of Harvey, To his extensive vision, engineering skill, and indefatigable efforts the present generation should give all the credit for the first elevated railroad in the world, and the only means of rapid transit that New York City had for thirty-seven years.51

1 Howgego, ‘Early Developments’.  See also Hadfield, Atmospheric Railways.
2 Hamilton Ellis, Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways, 24-30.
3 Davies and Grant, London and its Railways, 25, 28-30.  Brader, Atmospheric and Pneumatic Railways.  See also Hadfield, Atmospheric Railways.
4 McGregor, J, ‘Pneumatic Dispatch’, in Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1957.  Howgego, ‘Pneumatic Despatch&rsquo.
5 Howgego, ‘Pneumatic Despatch’.  Scientific American, 1867 Jan 5.  Brader, Atmospheric and Pneumatic Railways.
6 English patent of Feb 10, 1860, reported in The Railroad and Insurance Almanac for 1865..
7 Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch, 18-23, quoting Mechanics’ Magazine (London), 1864 Sep and London Illustrated News, 1864 Sep 10.  Scientific American, 1866 Dec 1, 1867 Mar 16.
8 Times, 1865 Feb 9.  See also Times, 1865 Feb 18, Mar 11, Mar 20.
9 Times, 1869 Jan 30.
10 Times, 1865 Mar 21, Mar 22, Mar 23, Mar 24, May 20, May21.
11 Times, 1866 Feb 3.
12 Beach, Beach Pneumatic Transit Company’s Broadway Underground Railway, 12.
13 Dobyns, Patent Office Pony, 129.
14 Scientific American, 1867 Jan 5.
15 Scientific American, 1867 Jun 22.
16 Reed, New York Elevated, 53-54.
17 Holske to Beach, bill for $7,092.  Museum of the City of New York.
18 Times, 1867 Sep 10.
19 Scientific American, 1867 Sep 21.
20 Scientific American, 1867 Oct 19.
21 Times, 1867 Sep 16.
22 Harper’s Weekly, 1867 Oct 19.
23 Times, 1867 Oct 27, Oct 28.
24 Scientific American, 1868 Jan 11.  Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch, 45.  Papers, Museum of the City of New York.
25 Scientific American, 1868 Jan 11.
26 Scientific American, 1867 Oct 5.
27 Times, 1915 May 26.
28 Beach, Pneumatic Dispatch, 5-7
29 Scientific American, 1868 Jan 25.
30 Times, 1868 Feb 9.
31 Documentary History, 757-758, 1005.
32 letter, Alfred E Beach to Metropolitan Iron Plate Tunnel and Vault Company, Feb 11, 1868. Museum of the City of New York.
33 Times, 1868 Feb 14.
34 Times, 1868 May 5.
35 Times, 1868 Jun 3.
36 Documentary History, 20-21.
37 Walker, Fifty Years, 88.
38 Times, 1868 Apr 18.
39 Times, 1869 Oct 16.  In this article the Times said that the Arcade Railway, which it favored, had passed the Assembly ‘unanimously, on its merits alone without the aid of money, and only failed in the Senate by one vote’.
40 Mansfield, History of the Great Lakes, chapter 19.  Thompson, Who was important in the history of the cable car?.  Ratigan, Young Mr Big.
41 Reed, New York Elevated, 34-35.  Times, 1876 Oct 5, 16.  Walter Romig, Michigan Place Names, cited at  Harvey is in Chocolay Township.
42 Exposé of the facts.
43 Facts and documents.
44 Chapter 489, Laws of 1867. Documentary History, 1389-1391, 51, 390-391.
45 Reeves, First Elevated Railroads, 6.  Times, 1867 Aug 6, 1868 Jul 4.
46 Horn, Manhattan Railway Company Track Map.
47 Documentary History, 1390. Reports of cases decided in the Court of Appeals, v70, 335-336.
48 Reed, New York Elevated, 33-38.
49 Times, 1868 Jul 4.
50 Documentary History, 1390-1392.
51 Reeves, First Elevated Railroads, 5.

home page next