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Dixon v Beach

Alfred E Beach resigned as president of the Broadway Underground Railway Company in September 1878.  At that date the company had no franchise and no property other than the tunnel under Broadway.  It never had income.  The admission fees from the popular demonstration tunnel had gone to charity, Beach being very careful not to charge a fare while he did not have a franchise.  Because the company was privately held, its financing was not published, but it appears that Beach personally contributed most or all of its costs. A company memorandum states that ‘advances’ from A E Beach from 1868 to 1877 totalled the enormous sum of $232,436.14, of which $105,545 was paid to Joseph Dixon, $48,411.54 to the company, and $78,479.60 bills to ‘sundry persons’.1

The only surviving record of shares, a handwritten paper from January 1877, shows A E Beach owning 42,935 of the 50,000 shares, Dixon 5,295, Bernard Kelly 1,765, and F C Beach, M S Beach, Frederick N Betts, William F Holske, and R B McMaster 1 share each.2 

Early in 1879, Dixon and a man called William Reynolds sued Beach over a matter of 1,765 shares supposedly owned by Dixon.  The complaint states that in May, 1870, a certificate, and two others for like amounts of stock, were issued to Dixon in payment for property sold by him to the company— three times 1,765 matches the total 5,295 listed in the 1877 memorandum— and that in June, 1870, after the Legislature had authorized the construction of the Underground Railway, thus increasing the value of the stock 100 per cent, he delivered the certificate to the defendant for safe keeping.  In June, 1878, he sold a share in the stock represented by the certificate to the plaintiff [Reynolds], but did not apply to the defendant for return of the instrument until November 23, 1878.  Beach then refused to give it back to him.  Hence the suit.3  The dates do not entirely make sense, since the date when the company was authorized to build was April of 1873. 

The court issued an order early in March 1879 to have Beach arrested on the complaint if he could not show cause.  In his answer to the complaint, Beach denies that Dixon gave him the certificate for safe keeping, denies that the Broadway Underground Railway Company ever issued stock, and claims that the stock alloted to persons entitled to shares was recorded on certificates which have never been detached from the stockbook of the corporation.  The stock of the company, he says, therefore has no market value.3 

Beach’s reply was enough to have the arrest order vacated, sparing him debtor’s prison.  The General Term of the same court gave the case a full hearing in June and ruled against Dixon.  The court at that time described a different version of the events. 

The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company was authorized at its incorporation in 1868 to issue five million dollars in stock.  The president, however, retained the certificates which were made out in the names of the corporators.  Among these was one for 1,765 shares in the name of the secretary of the company, Joseph Dixon ; 1,665 of these were assigned to the company in 1872 by Mr Dixon.  Mr Beach, acting as Mr Dixon’s attorney by written authority, indorsed the certificate, and the word ‘cancelled’ was written across its face by the secretary who succeeded Mr Dixon.4  That is, Dixon had given Beach ‘power of attorney’ to act on his behalf.  Quoting the court’s decision, Dixon is estopped by his own authorization from claiming that the instrument signed in accord with the power delegated by him imposed a personal responsibility upon that official, and also from questioning the power to do an act, the performance of which he himself authorized and requested.4  But he appealed. 

Dixon finally dropped the suit against Beach in December 1880.5  But he still did not let go of his claim against the company, and challenged its directors when they sold more stock in July 1881.6  The Supreme Court finally decided in March 27, 1882, that Dixon had no claim.7  Dixon’s series of suits were by that time hampering the company’s efforts to construct an underground railway.6  A scribbled company statement headed ‘List of Stockholders Jan 1882’ lists A E Beach as still owning 4,197 of the total 5,000 shares outstanding.8 

New underground railway plans

Elevated railways met the need for rapid transit, but the noise and dirt and disruption to the street were so bad that before the system was even completed in 1880 public sentiment was firmly against building any more of them.  When the Rapid Transit Commission of April 1879 proposed one more elevated railway in Manhattan, the mayor and the Common Council were against it.  One thing the elevated railways did prove was how much demand there was for transportation and how much money there was to be made.  The cost of building underground railways now looked reasonable in terms of the return on investment. 

Beach wrote in Scientific American in December 1880 about the success of the London underground railways.  The system of 25 miles on the surface or in shallow tunnels was carrying more than 60 million passengers a year with only 53 engines and 195 passenger cars.  In New York, the elevated system of 27 miles carried the similar total of 61 million passengers but with 175 engines and 500 cars, a terrible nuisance and less efficient at that.9 

The Broadway Underground Connecting Railway

Long-time underground railway advocate Origen Vandenburgh had purchased the rights and property of the New York City Central Underground Railway at foreclosure in 1876.  Its charter of 1868 seemed to most observers to have expired long before, but Vandenburgh mysteriously maintained that it had years to run.  A few years after he bought it, he came forward in August 1879 saying that he had interested the Banque Parisienne in financing construction of the road,10 and over the next year he began assembling the necessary corporate structure and engineering studies to build. 

First, on May 27, 1880, Vandenburgh incorporated the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway, with stock of only one million dollars.  The route was short, Broadway from Park Place to Union Square.11  The authority to build in Broadway was supposed to come from the Tunnel Bill of 1880, which provided for excavating and tunneling and bridging for transportation purposes within villages and cities of this State.12  The Tunnel Bill was ostensibly passed to permit construction of the Hudson Tunnel, but it was written so broadly that it appeared to some to permit any tunnel. 

A few months later on September 6, Vandenburgh incorporated another company, the New York Underground Railway, as a reorganization of the New York City Central Underground Railway, with stock of ten million dollars, to run from City Hall to Kingsbridge by an unstated route.13  Among the directors was George McClellan, an engineer and Civil War veteran who advised on various projects including the Beach Pneumatic in 1870.14  He was elected president days later.15  Others included Erie Railway directors Hugh J Jewett and George K Blanchard.  Some of the directors were also involved in the Hudson Tunnel company incorporated in New York, but the two projects were considered to be separate.16 

You may rest assured that in less than three years, cars will be running from South Ferry to Central Park through a tunnel under Broadway, Vandenburgh told reporters.  The undertaking is an immense one and will no doubt cost three times as much as the elevated roads have cost, but the result will be great for New-York City.  He said that the tunnels would run under the east side of Broadway along City Hall Park, to avoid disturbing the old Beach Pneumatic tube.  The initial route would be from the Battery via Broadway, Union Square, Madison Square and Madison Ave to 52nd St, with later plans to continue up Broadway to 59th St.  This first portion avoided the less populated territory to the north that cost the elevated railways so much.  Stations were to be at South Ferry, Wall St, City Hall, Leonard St, Prince St, Astor Place, Union Square, Madison Square, 34th St, 42nd St and 59th St.  The road would be built as two separate one-track tunnels, the plan long advocated by Vandenburgh.17  It would be operated by 60-ton steam locomotives that consume their own smoke like those on the Metropolitan Railway in London.18 

It should be recalled that the New York City Central Underground had failed in its bid for a Broadway franchise in 1872, and that its only franchise route started at the Post Office and ran up a route east of Broadway principally in Mulberry St, Lafayette Place and Fourth Ave, and then up the length of Madison Ave to the Harlem River.  The new route of 1880 was that of the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway up to Union Square and then into the old charter.  The authority for the portion from the Battery to City Hall is unknown, because it is in neither charter, but no issue was made of it. 

The companies attempted to get the consent of the owners of half the value of property along Broadway but admitted by March 1881 that they had failed to do so.  They proposed then to ask the Supreme Court to appoint a commission to determine whether the road should be built.  The city’s Assistant Corporation Counsel stated his opinion that the New York City Central Underground charter had expired years before.19 


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Diagrams of the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway, from the Daily Graphic, September 7, 1880. 


The Central Tunnel Railroad

At about the time the Vandenburgh companies were asking for a commission, in March 1881, a different group of investors incorporated a company called the Central Tunnel Railroad under the Tunnel Bill of 1880.  The route was to run from City Hall mostly via Elm St, Lafayette Place and Fourth Ave.  This company proposed to connect with the New York Central’s Fourth Ave tunnel to form a rapid transit route to Harlem.20  The tunnel will be patterned after that of the Underground Railroad of London.  The sides will consist of stone abutments seven feet high, on which the arch will be built of brick.  From the roadbed to the keystone of the arch the distance will be seventeen feet …  It would be a two-track tunnel up to 17th St but then four tracks.  There would be compressed-air engines, and compartment cars with sliding doors.21  This was the first proposal to build a subway along the ‘Elm St Route’ that was eventually used for the first completed subway in New York, constructed by the city and opened in 1904.  The company’s successor, the Underground Railroad Company of the City of New York, sued the city over its prior right to the route, but in a case that went to the United States Supreme Court, it was ruled that the company had lost its right by never obtaining the consent of property owners along the route.22  The suits and the long life of the project suggest that there was money behind it, but little was actually done. 

Late in 1883, the company was reported taking soundings in the Hudson River for an extension from lower Manhattan to Jersey City.  The main line in Manhattan was said to have the backing of Henry Hilton and the widow of A T Stewart, as ever in favor of a route off Broadway.23 

Revival of the Broadway Underground Railway

With Dixon’s suit against Beach settled, the Broadway Underground Railway was reorganized in December 1880 with the following directors:  John Cummins, president; Benjamin F Dunning, treasurer; Alfred R Baker, secretary; Joseph Dixon; and Melville C Smith.5  Smith was none other than the promoter of the Arcade Railway, a plan even older than the Beach Pneumatic. 

This group lobbied a bill at Albany to ‘extend’ the time to complete the road (on the model of the New York Elevated Railroad bill of 1875 that extended a franchise that had expired).  The bill also provided for more changes in the type of structure.  Governor Cornell signed it on June 5, 1881.4  The company now had until July 1, 1886, to build a route from the Battery to Harlem via Broadway and Madison Ave, with a branch continuing up Broadway.  It was the same route being sought by Vandenburgh’s companies. 

President Cummins announced, The plan is for four tracks— the two inner for rapid transit with stops not less than a mile apart, and the two outer for local travel with stations much nearer together than those of the elevated roads.5  Express and local trains had been advocated by the Senate Commission in 1866, but Harvey, Gilbert, Beach, Vanderbilt, and Vandenburgh all later proposed two-track elevated or underground railways.  Melville C Smith’s Arcade Railway was one of the few proposals for a four-track main line. 

Cummins was well aware of the powers granted the original Beach company, which Beach himself never emphasized, but which must have been the reason Beach kept modifying the pneumatic dispatch charter instead of incorporating a railway company.  The original act of incorporation of the Beach company, of which we own all the rights, gives the power to go under any street in the city or under the North and East Rivers, and we have preempted Broadway by the work done there.  The charter is perfectly safe and cannot be questioned especially since the passage of the last act.  Pneumatic tubes will not be used.5  Smith added that our company is the only one having a charter from the Legislature to build under Broadway and the avenues east and west, and therefore is the one the public will have to look to for an underground or arcade railway.5

The Broadway Underground Connecting Railway Commission

On June 8, 1881 (four days after the Broadway Underground Railway bill was signed into law), was the first meeting of the commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court to determine whether Vandenburgh’s Broadway Underground Connecting Railway should be built without the consent of the property owners.5  The conflict with its near-namesake arose immediately: Joseph Dixon appeared before the commissioners in June and July to protest that the Broadway Underground Railway had an older and exclusive right to Broadway.  President Robert Sewell of the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway disputed Dixon’s right to appear.24 

At the July 13 meeting Walter J Morris, engineer for the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway, provided more detail on their plan of two separate tunnels, and explained how the piston action of the trains and ventilators along the curbs at street level would drive out the foul air.  The stations would be 560 feet long to permit operating trains of ten to twelve cars.  During construction a wooden deck would be built over a section of Broadway to maintain traffic, and access to the works would be from side streets.24


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How the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway would be constructed, from the Daily Graphic, September 7, 1880. 


The commissioners decided to determine first whether the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway plan was practical at all, and then hear objections.  Perhaps they hoped that this would shorten the proceedings.  The Chief Engineer of the Croton Water Bureau, amazingly named Isaac Newton, approved the plan, and so did the Chief Engineer of the Bureau of Sewers and an engineer appearing for the city’s Controller’s Office.  An experienced mechanical engineer endorsed the idea of compressed air engines for a short railway like the one being proposed, and thought that the gradual release of air from the engines would even help keep the atmosphere of the tunnel pure.25 

The property owners on Broadway were still opposed to rapid transit, inevitably led by the widow of A T Stewart and Henry Hilton, but including many other wealthy landowners and corporations.  The main objection they stated once again was danger to building foundations.26  However some including Hilton still found it possible to favor underground railways like the Central Tunnel Railroad that endangered buildings on other streets.  The Broadway companies’ elaborate plans to avoid disturbing the street surface and their emphasis on leaving vaults untouched suggest that those were always the real concerns. 

The question was whether property-owners would consent to having Broadway scooped out and have their valuable property endangered for the benefit of a few unmoneyed and irresponsible persons.27  A committee of the owners met to determine a strategy to stop the road.  It was officially resolved, that there is no demand for such a road, as the public is already well accommodated with means of transit and that an underground railway is not a desirable mode of conveyance, owing to the ascent and descent of stairs necessary to reach it, and the foulness of the atmosphere, which science cannot devise means to remedy and seven other points.  The promise to use compressed air is only a pretense on the part of the company.  The resolution was brought to the commissioners in October.27 

Counsel for the property owners brought in engineers who had worked on construction along Broadway to testify about problems they had had with quicksand and ground water, and damage that had been caused to adjacent buildings from excavating foundations much less deep than the underground railway would be.28  An engineer named Robert Darragh thought that the underground railway could be built although some buildings would shift on their foundations and some few might have to be torn down.  He predicted that there would be much more disturbance to the surface during construction than the company claimed, and explained at length how certain sewers would have to be permanently rerouted, something he considered an improvement, and other mains temporarily shifted.29  Alfred Mullett, an engineer and architect who had worked on large federal buildings in several cities, called the company’s plans ‘indefinite’ since there had not been enough data collected on the ground conditions along the route, which were known from building construction to vary greatly from block to block.30  This completed the property owners’ presentation. 

The company answered the objections with a modified plan; the property owners made new objections; and as the company came in with a third version of the plan in December, the commissioners began to object to the seemingly endless nature of this method of proceeding.31  The latest plan was now called ‘dangerous’ by the Superintendant of the Building Department.32  William Sooy Smith however called it safe and practical, and less difficult than constructing a tunnel under the Hudson River, which was what Smith was supervising at the time, and other engineers testified in favor.33 

This series of hearings ended December 3, 1881.  The next day one of the three Commissioners (Henry E Davies) took ill, and he died on December 17.34  This stopped the Commission.  The Supreme Court was asked sometime in early 1882 to fill the vacancy,35 and between one thing and another the Commission did not resume until in December 1882.  The year’s delay gave the Broadway Underground Railway an opening to claim Broadway by starting work, but they failed to take advantage of it.

Revival of the Metropolitan Transit Company

If the revival of the Beach Pneumatic Transit charter was surprising, even more so was the revival a month later of Swain’s Three Tier plan, the Metropolitan Transit Company.  Under its charter of May 1872, the company was to start construction within six months and complete one route within a year, so it should have been long dead, except that the time limits were not to count delays caused by legal proceedings.  The company’s owners were somehow able to lobby through a law effective in July 1881, which authorized the company to file maps and plans within one year, and reset the time limits to start at the time of that filing.36  The interest in all these old companies was of course the old charters that pre-dated the Rapid Transit Act of 1875 and gave rights beyond what could now be obtained. 

The company’s annual reports for 1883, 1884 and 1885 all stated that nothing was done because of legal proceedings.36  Its authorized route through private property, not streets, would have been prohibitively expensive, and it must have been hard to say why the company was making any effort at all.  Probably the real plan was already hatched in 1881, but the company did not come to life and reveal it until 1886. 

Plans for the Broadway Underground Railway

Melville C Smith became president of the Broadway Underground Railway in October 1881.  The Arcade Railway had triumphed over the Beach Pneumatic, using Beach’s company to do so.  Former president John Cummins now became Secretary.6  Joseph Dixon’s lawsuit was finally decided against him in March 1882, and he was out of the company.  The directors of the Broadway Underground Railway were now able to sell some securities and get the company moving. 

In June 1882, the company filed with the city controller’s office the necessary bond for $100,000, guaranteed personally by Smith and two other company directors, George D Roberts and Bayard Clark.  The bond was to be forfeit if the railway were not completed from the Battery to 42nd St within four years.37 

Smith told reporters that the company’s estimate of the cost was one and a half million dollars a mile, requiring a total $17,250,000 for the main line to Union Square and the east side and west side branches to the Harlem River.  He said, Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to get any American capitalist to put money into any scheme of quick transit for this City.  They could not be made to believe that it would pay.  But the elevated railroads have exploded that fallacy, if they have done nothing else.  There would be no ‘construction company’ or watering of stock, Smith said pointedly (the elevated railway manipulations were by now well known).  The company had stock subscriptions for a million dollars, of which $350,000 had been paid in.  They were now having engineering drawings made, and would then contract for materials.  Without a shadow of a doubt it would be complete in 1886.37 

It is not going to be, as many people might infer because it is under ground, a tunnel road— a dark, damp, close, smoke-suffocating horizontal hole in the ground, like the circuitous London underground road, which American tourists remember with such horror.  It is to be a spacious, airy, well-lighted, well-ventilated arcade railroad, as light, as airy, as healthy, and as comfortable as two-thirds of the basement offices on Broadway are to-day … It is to built on what may be called a basement street, of the same width as the present Broadway, with ample sidewalks, and in all respects as comfortable as the upper Broadway, while in very cold, very warm, or stormy weather it will far more comfortable.37 

Smith even believed that the property owners would favor it.  There is a marked change in the views of Broadway property-owners since the time that A T Stewart used to oppose all means of transit over or under the street except by stages or private carriages.  As one of the largest property-owners on the street said the other day, ‘We have nursed Broadway until we have killed it.’ Business has been driven off the street below Union-square simply from lack of facilities for public transit through it.37 

Most remarkably, here on June 25, 1882, Smith proposed the motive power of the future.  The trains of the Broadway Underground Railroad will be propelled by electricity.  I suppose you are aware that this motive power, as applied to railroad travel, is no longer a matter of experiment.  It is an established fact in several cities in Europe, as well as in this country, and it would not surprise me if, before our road is completed, it should be in practical use in half the railroads in the United States.37  This was in reality exceedingly early for electric railway operation.  Siemens, Field and Edison had demonstrated small engines in 1879-1880, but no one had yet perfected a large engine to pull trains.  It was not until 1885 that an electric locomotive designed by Leo Daft was tested on the Ninth Ave El between 14th St and 53rd St.  The 75-horsepower Benjamin Franklin was able to pull four wooden elevated cars at 30 miles per hour.  But the Forney steam engines outperformed it and the other electrics tested over the next few years.38 

The Broadway Underground Connecting Railway denied

Vandenburgh’s companies waited all of 1882 for the commissioners to resume work.  Vandenburgh himself had a rocky time of it.  In March he formally assigned the rights of the New York City Central Underground to the New York Underground Railway in exchange for two million dollars in bonds and one million in stocks.39  However in the first company election in June 1882, Vandenburgh’s ticket lost, and he began a dispute over the voting rights of the other stockholders.40  He took the case to the Supreme Court but they ruled against him.41  Vandenburgh was still a force in the company but he did not control it. 

The Commissioners finally met on December 9, 1882, and held hearings in January and February, where more engineers spoke in favor.42  But when they submitted their long-awaited report on February 20, 1883, it was adverse to the project.  They found that construction would disrupt Broadway for at least two and a half years, and expressed doubt whether the two-track railway that was proposed would meet the need for rapid transit.  They concluded unanimously that the road should not be built.43 

Plans for the New York Arcade Railway

By March 1883 the Broadway Underground Railway had half a dozen engineers at work drawing maps and plans preparatory to commencing the construction of its road.  President Smith claimed to have had little interest in the work of the Commissioners for the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway, and yet he found it a sensible report … I fully concur with the Commissioners that such a road, simply intended to ‘squirt’ people through a dark hole from the lower end of New-York up into Westchester County, would be of doubtful utility to the traveling public, of no advantage whatever to the City or to property-owners on the route, that it would not compensate for the inconvenience attending its construction, and that it ought not to be built.  Smith said that what his company had in mind could be built for half the cost and give much greater benefits.  Many people are startled at the proposition to excavate the entire length and width of Broadway to the depth of 20 feet, and they appear to think it would be an endless job.  But they forget that our fathers more than 60 years ago built the Erie Canal and excavated the earth for a distance of 450 miles.  He admitted now that to carry out all the details of our plan, as now perfected, our lawyers think we will need a slight modification of our charter.44 


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The Broadway Underground Railway, from Manufacturer and Builder, June 1883.  The local train was made up of open cars with no visible means of propulsion; the express train has what may be a compressed air engine.  The underground sidewalk is well shown.


The company promptly started lobbying at Albany, with a hearing on March 27 at which the Arcade plan was explained to the Assembly.  The company had the right to build a dark tunnel, the Assembly was told, but they asked to build a spacious, well-lighted, and well-ventilated arcade road.45 

Whenever, in past years, any proposition was made for a railway in Broadway, tunnel, surface, or elevated, one of its strongest opponents was A T Stewart.  It is probable, also, that his antagonism has much to do with the failure of former schemes.  Ex-Judge Hilton, then Mr Stewart’s confidential adviser, is now, as then, decidedly hostile to such enterprises, reported the Times.  Hilton was in fine form when asked about it.  I have fought these Broadway underground schemes ever since 1851, and I am just as much opposed to them now as ever.  They never ought to be permitted to exist.  Broadway should be let alone.  The main point I have against this scheme is that it aims particularly at Broadway.  Why should they want to go through Broadway when they can go through some other street for less money, with less trouble, and in less time? … What are they going to do about all the vaults and underground machinery that lies under the pavements?46  There Hilton inadvertently conceded the taking of space under public streets for private use without compensation, as long as it was for Broadway property owners’ vaults. 

We might long ago have built a tunnel under Broadway, but I opposed it, and insisted upon the arcade, Smith countered.  The pavement over the arcade would not rut and settle, he said, and the lower level would double the space for shop fronts.  Engineer Egbert Viele, who had worked on the arcade plan in the late 1860s, reiterated his support for the idea as a grand improvement for the City.46  The company planned to support the surface of Broadway during construction on temporary bridges about four feet above the usual level, moving along as work progressed.  The cost was now given as two million dollars a mile. 

The Assembly passed the bill47  but it did not progress in the Senate, so the company tried again the next year. 

Smith visited London for a few months the second half of 1883 and studied the operations of the underground railways.  The road passes under streets, squares, blocks of buildings, churches, immense breweries filled with grain, and in one case directly under a monument weighing nearly 200 tons without damage to any of them, he told reporters on his return.  They claim to run at a rate of about twenty-five miles per hour on the London underground road, but they have to make frequent stops, as they accommodate way and through travel on the same track.48 

The bill on the arcade railway came up again in March 1884.  The Assembly and the Senate heard from Melville C Smith and the new chief engineer William J McAlpine, a long-time advocate of underground railways.  Representatives of the property owners appeared in opposition, but both houses passed the bill.49  Other property owners, business associations, social, charitable, and hygienic clubs and organizations asked the governor to sign it.  All the prominent hotels on Broadway except three petition for the signature as well as 13,000 citizens.  The impression is almost universal here, wrote the Times’s Albany reporter, that the bill will be signed.50 


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The Broadway Underground Railway, from Harper’s Weekly, March 29, 1884.  The switch on one track hints at one of the freight sidings mentioned in the plans.


The governor however vetoed the bill in May. 

As Smith told reporters, a few misguided property-owners have seen fit to contend against the better plan— by that I mean the arcade plan.51  He suggested that the company’s lawyers and engineers would see how close to it they could come under the old charter. 

In August, Smith told reporters that work would probably be commenced within a few weeks.  The company had determined that the old charter allowed a tunnel 35 feet wide, enough for four narrow-gauge tracks, not as good as the arcade running the full width of Broadway but still better than a two-track tunnel.  The trains would be run by electricity, compressed air, or fireless engines.  The delay since the veto in May was caused by the need to make new plans and drawings for the narrower tunnels.  The road from the Battery to 42nd St would be finished in eighteen months.52 

On January 6, 1885, the company filed its second change of name, the Broadway Underground Railway now becoming the New York Arcade Railway.53  Another bill on behalf of the company went before the legislature, intended to permit a width of 44 feet, enough for four tracks of standard gauge and standard cars.54  There was a new twist:  the Broadway Surface Railroad was beginning construction.  This was the long-sought franchise won by Jacob Sharp through bribery.55  The New York Arcade Railway would now have to maintain service on a horsecar line above it while it dug out Broadway.  Smith was sure it could be done. 

For reasons not now clear, the bill was delayed in committee and seemed to have less support than before.  Then suddenly it was pushed through.  The Albany reporter for the Times remarked on the outrageous conduct of those who were forcing the Arcade Railroad bill through the House on the last day of the session.  The Senate was calmly and dignifiedly stupid in passing it two days earlier.  The mayor had come to Albany to speak against the bill to the Assembly’s Railroad Committee, but they did not meet.  Instead, on the last day those in favor voted to take the House into a Committee of the Whole, the bill was jumped, without the opportunity being allowed to discuss it, and the committee dissolved like smoke … The gag was applied, and, under the operations of the previous question, the bill was ordered to a third reading.  A representative called Walter Howe asked for amendments limiting the fare to five cents, requiring the company to pay the city one per cent of the gross receipts, and requiring the company to get the consent of property owners, but as he was speaking the bill was already being read aloud for the last time at the direction of the Speaker.  The bill passed 78 to 38.  The bill had enough support to pass easily.  Some of the members voted against to protest the handling and not out of opposition to the Arcade itself.56 

The arguments continued before the governor, who was holding hearings on various bills now before him.  The Arcade Railway was scheduled for June 5. 

Arguments from the company revealed more detail on its proposed construction.  The platforms of the stations, which for the way trains will be only four or five blocks apart and each one block in length, will be 12 feet below the level of the street.  The surface entrances to the stations are intended to be either from the sidewalks or from private buildings where the latter can be made available.  The sidewalk entrance will be under a small kiosk-shaped57 covering, which will be arranged so as not to obstruct the light or the free circulation of air.  It is by means of these openings principally that the arcade will be ventilated.58 

The roof of the arcade is to be of solid masonry or buckle iron, and is to be supported on iron girders which will rest on rows of iron columns.  Above the roof will rest a layer of asphaltum, above this a layer of concrete, and on this a layer of sand, in which the paving stones forming the surface of the street will then be fixed.  The surface bed of Broadway would then be three feet thick, which the engineers claim is thick enough for any road.  The roadbed of the arcade is to be laid in concrete.58 

The bill for constructing the arcade railway, should it be signed by the Governor, will authorize the company the excavate into side streets, not more than 300 feet, for the purpose of providing storage room for cars or for general storage purposes.  These side excavations it is designed to make useful in the handling of freight, the object of the company being to do a general freight as well as passenger traffic.  It is proposed to make the arcade road a distributing line for all the houses within reach of it and its 300-foot lateral branches.58  The freight trains would run mainly at night, and they might reduce the number of trucks and wagons on Broadway. 

An unnamed engineer was quoted as saying, We intend to run our express train at 30 miles an hour, making one stop in each mile.  At this rate we shall go from the foot of Whitehall-street to Thirtieth-street in 6 minutes, to Central Park in 10 minutes, to One Hundredth-street in 15 minutes, to High Bridge in 23 minutes, or to the northern line of the city in 34 minutes.58  The figures cited are for an average speed of 30 miles per hour including time stopped, requiring a much faster maximum speed, but the engineer did not say so. 

The bill would require completion from Bowling Green to a connection with the New York and Harlem at or above 42nd St within four years from July 1, 1885.58 

The governor vetoed the bill on June 11.  He said he did so because the bill had not been submitted to the Board of Railroad Commissioners for their advice, and because of the offensive and ill-advised methods involved in its passage.59 

The company’s deadline of July 1, 1886, set in the law of 1881, was now impossible to meet.  To keep the project alive, the company would have to get a bill passed in the 1886 session.

The New York District Railway

Rowland R Hazard, president of the Gramme Electrical Company, became interested in the idea of utility subways in 1883.  Passages called subways would be built under major streets within which pipes and wires could be run, to eliminate the need for continually tearing up the street surface.  With support from many businessmen in Broadway, he created the New York Scientific Street Company in May 1884.60 

This inevitably led him to look into the Arcade Railway project.  Hazard was one of the important businessmen who signed the petition for the Arcade in May 1884.50  He also was one of the incorporators of the Broadway Railroad in June 1884, one of the unsuccessful competitors to Jacob Sharp’s Broadway Surface Railroad plan.61 

In November 1884 Hazard proposed that the Brooklyn Bridge railway be operated by electricity instead of cable, with through running from one city hall to the other by way of short electric street railways on each side.  He also proposed that the Manhattan Railway, the New York Arcade Railway, and the Brooklyn Elevated Railroad (then being built) should form a junction or combination for working the trains over the bridge, by some system having a common centre, such as the terminus of the New-York Arcade Railway Company, at the Battery, whence all trains of all systems for both cities could be dispatched.62 

Hazard wanted to bring electric power to the Arcade Railway, and he financed the research needed to solve some of the problems.  But Melville C Smith would not buy his patents, and Smith said that this was why Hazard had joined the critics of the Arcade by May 1885.63 

Denied a part in the Arcade Railway, Hazard and others incorporated the New York District Railway on December 28, 1885, under the Tunnel Bill of 1880.64  The route was the same as the Arcade, namely Broadway to 59th St, and a branch up Madison Ave to the Harlem River.  The company only had to wait until July 1, 1886, for the Arcade charter to expire, and they could take over the route.  The type of construction would be like the Arcade, a shallow tunnel four tracks wide with express trains in the center.  Hazard added an outer passageway on each side for pipe and cable galleries, instead of Smith’s lower sidewalk level.60 

Hazard announced that he had secured the rights to an electric motor that could pull trains at fifty miles an hour, and that he would also light and heat the cars with electricity.  To this he added his own invention, something called fer flaxIn this, interwoven steel wire and hemp prepared in linseed oil are used to form a framework which he says is non-resonant, wonderfully strong, and cannot well be broken.  He obtained five patents using fer flax:  a ‘scientific street’, an underground railway with galleries along the side, a non-resonant fer flax and vegetable fibre and solidified oil compressed into panels by hydraulic pressure, a railway station that would prevent vibrations into nearby buildings, and an unbreakable railway carriage built of steel frame and fer flax.  The walls of the tunnels would be of fer flax between the iron columns.60 

He incorporated two other companies a day after the New York District Railway for crosstown routes, the Fourteenth Street District Railway and the Twenty-third Street District Railway, both running from Second Ave to Ninth Ave.65  Why they were separate is unknown. 

The company began getting the consent of propery owners in February 1886.66  By March the company claimed that consent of those they had asked was almost unanimous in Broadway and in 23rd St.67  They must not have asked Hilton, Stewart, or the Astors.

The Arcade and the District

A new bill for the New York Arcade Railway was introduced in the Senate on March 4, 1886.  Under its terms the company would have to build either to 59th St and Broadway or 42nd St and Madison Ave within five years, less any time lost in litigation.  The arcade structure could be 44 feet wide, and a wider structure could be built for turnouts and switches.68  It was almost the same bill as the one proposed in 1884 and 1885.69  It now provided for payment of three per cent of gross receipts to the city.70 

Proponents of the rival Arcade and District plans began lobbying at Albany.  A young William Barclay Parsons, later chief engineer for the Interborough Rapid Transit, was among those working for the District.71  Rowland R Hazard was now saying that the arcade scheme was impractical and in many respects absurd72 despite his own plan being almost the same thing with fer flax. 

The Arcade bill once again passed both houses.  This time the governor signed it, on May 11, saying that it had received careful consideration in the legislature.  He wrote, Neither the Broadway Surface road nor the elevated railroads, nor any other present means of travel, solve the problems of rapid transit.  Every channel of communication from one end of Manhattan to the other is uncomfortably crowded with passengers, and the people demand some relief.70 

Alfred E Beach reviewed the situation at this time in Scientific AmericanIn March, 1870, the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN published illustrations of an underground railway which had then been built, for a distance of one block, under Broadway, New York.  It was known as the Beach pneumatic tunnel road, the cars to be propelled by compressed air, but was never completed, except for a distance of about two hundred feet.  He described the Arcade Railway and the latest cost estimate, three to four million a mile.  The only work in the world at all similar to this proposed arcade system under Broadway is the underground railway system of London, by which that city is belted by a nearly complete double circle of subterranean roadway, though with many open cuttings within high walls.  These underground roads cost from two and a half to four million dollars per mile, and pay from three to four per cent. interest in the capital invested.73 

A group of property owners led by John Jacob Astor got an injunction in July against the New York Arcade Railway, claiming that the act did not provide sufficient safeguards for property.74  The group also claimed that the new bill was unconstitutional.  The company countered that all of the protestors owned less than 17 million of the 137 million dollars of property on Broadway.75  The Astor suit was to continue until it reached the Court of Appeals in March 1889, and in the meantime uncertainty put a damper on the Arcade’s effort to raise capital. 

Undeterred by the passage of the Arcade bill, representatives of the New York District Railway petitioned the Supreme Court in October to appoint commissioners to determine whether their road should be built, since they had been unable to obtain consent from the owners of one half the value of property.  Counsel for the New York Arcade Railway, the Vandenburgh companies, and the City of New York all opposed the petition.76  In the hearings Counsel for the city argued that the Tunnel Bill of 1880 was unconstitutional, and counsel for the New York Arcade Railway agreed and added that his company had an older charter for the same route.77 

On December 31, 1886, the Supreme Court ruled the Tunnel Bill unconstitutional because it violated the constitutional amendment effective January 1, 1875, which had led to the Rapid Transit Act and the appointment of commissioners to approve rapid transit railways.78  The decision ended the claims of the New York District Railway and also those of the Broadway Underground Connecting Railway and the Central Tunnel Railroad. 

The Broadway Elevated

The Vandenburgh companies had been quiet since the defeat of the Broadway route in 1883.  In the later part of 1885 it was intimated that Jay Gould had become interested in the project79 but there is little evidence for it.  After the defeat of the New York District Railway the New York Underground Railway came to life again.  Edward Lauterbach, a director of the Brooklyn Elevated Railroad and the Third Avenue Railroad, began buying up stock80 and went to work raising funds.  He claimed on January 27 to have three million dollars paid in.  Among the directors was Rowland R Hazard from the District and Origen Vandenburgh.  The tunnel was to be built by the United States Subway Company, of which Rowland R Hazard was president, a company said to be connected, though not identical, with the New-York District Railway Company.81 

The route was the old New York City Central Underground route that Vandenburgh still claimed to be a valid charter.  It ran from City Hall by various streets including Mulberry St, Lafayette Place and Fourth Ave to Union Square, private property to Madison Square, and then one route up Madison Ave to the Harlem River and another up Broadway to 59th St.81  In January 1887 the New York Underground Railway asked the Commissioner of Public Works for a permit to build.82 

While the Vandenburgh companies were stirring, the statutory fifty citizens petitioned for a Rapid Transit Commission in March 1887, in the interests of the Manhattan Railway, which wanted extensions and branches and additional tracks.83  This commission held hearings but in the end did not lay out routes.  Toward the end of their term the Commissioners heard a presentation by Melville C Smith about the New York Arcade Railway, but they reminded him that under the Rapid Transit Act they were not allowed by law to designate any routes in Broadway.84 

But the big news of 1887 was the Broadway Elevated proposed by the Metropolitan Transit Company. 

The long-dormant Metropolitan Transit requested the Supreme Court to appoint commissioners for their project in October 1886 (the same week as the New York District Railway).  At that time the company revealed its plan to build an elevated railway in Broadway from Chambers St to 43rd St, and railways of other kinds forming a route from the Battery to Kingsbridge.  They said that a motion for commissioners had been originally made in 1875 but that it had been adjourned for various reasons for eleven years.85  The commissioners were only to determine the compensation for property to be taken, not whether it should be built, because they already had the right to build from the charter.86  For this they were willing to wait for a certain Judge Donahue, who had heard all of their cases since 1881.87  Thus the hearing was delayed until April 1887. 

The basis for the Broadway Elevated charter was ridiculous.  The Metropolitan Transit franchise of 1872 was for a road in private right of way west of Broadway and up the west side of Manhattan, with branches.  The claim now was that the description of a branch from a point south of 42nd St … to the Grand Central Depot88 could be read to mean a road from a point as far south as Chambers St or Bowling Green, and that since no route was prohibited, any route might be used, such as Broadway. 

The company pushed hard for the Broadway Elevated.  In March they had a bill introduced at Albany to secure their ‘right’ to build an elevated railway in Broadway from Bowling Green to 67th St.89  Passage was said to be based on payment of $10,000 to each senator who voted for it.90  They also went before the Rapid Transit Commission the same month in an unsuccessful quest for a second elevated main line up West St.91 

Metropolitan Transit president Robert Bliss spoke blithely of the two main lines in early April, even though the West St route had just been denied.  He claimed that almost all the property owners in Broadway favored the elevated railway,92 which could not possibly have been true. 

In the middle of April the Times pointed to José F de Navarro as being behind the plan, the company intending to make a fortune by selling out a good franchise to the elevated railway management, and by having a little Crédit Mobilier concern like the New-York Loan and Improvement Company in building the proposed structure.  In a manner reminiscent of Navarro’s financing of the Sixth Ave El, a company called the Municipal Construction Company had been formed to build the line and was buying up shares of Metropolitan Transit.93 

The property owners began a counterattack aimed squarely at the company’s charter, lobbying at Albany,94 attempting to be heard at the Supreme Court before commissioners were appointed,95 and bringing a civil suit.93  The city’s Corporation Counsel had objected on similar grounds during the company’s delaying tactics ever since 1878.87 

Judge Donahue began proceedings to appoint commissioners on April 28, hearing from James Swain, the originator of the three-tier plan, and from Charles T Harvey, originator of the West Side Elevated and at this time one of the Metropolitan Transit company directors.97  But in the civil suit, the company stated on May 13 that they would not build until after the court of last resort has passed upon all questions in litigation … the company will not attempt to build its road along Broadway until after it has reached an agreement with these property holders as to the amount of compensation which shall be paid to them.98  This it was believed would stop the plan for at least two years. 


[ 23-10 ]

The southern terminal of the Broadway Elevated as predicted by Harper’s Weekly, May 28, 1887. 


Once the November election was over, Judge Donahue, who lost his bid to remain in office, continued to make himself a friend of Metropolitan Transit by appointing three commissioners to decide what the company should pay the City— but not any property owners— for the use of Broadway for an elevated railway.  An unnamed person connected in the company told a reporter, We can get out now with some money in our pockets.  We offered the Manhattan Elevated people some time ago an option on our charter and franchise for $40,000.  They took it with the condition that Judge Donahue should give us Commissioners of Appraisal.  If they step up to the scratch now our connection with the enterprise will be ended, and the public will have to contend with an enemy who has never yet been defeated.102 

The election also delayed the Attorney General from acting in the matter of dissolving Metropolitan Transit.  He finally heard testimony on November 29, 1887.103  After further delay he announced on December 29 that he would ask the Supreme Court to bring an action to dissolve the company.104 

The Broadway Elevated was given the ‘death blow’ by the General Term of the Supreme Court on May 18, 1888.  The court found, In no sense can the Broadway portion of the streets covered by the map of the petitioner be deemed a branch of the main line which it was authorized to construct.  The meaning of the clause above referred to by which the first branch running to the Grand Central Station might be situated south of Forty-second-street is that it should connect with the main line, and it could not be construed to permit a different main line from the Battery.105  The company appealed, but the decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals on January 15, 1889.106  The company was dead.  Its last known creditor managed to find a buyer for 45,000 shares of its stock in October 1889, getting a total of $25 toward the $25,924 the company owed him.107 

The underground companies were heard from after the Broadway Elevated controversy died down.

The second Rapid Transit Commission of the year was appointed in July to modify the route of the New York Underground Railway east of Broadway.99  Rowland R Hazard was at the first meeting to testify about electric operation and a four-track main line, and Origen Vandenburgh was there to insist on double tunnels.  Among those named as interested in the company was August Belmont Jr, later the financier of the first subway that opened in 1904.  The New York Underground Railway asked for an amended route from City Hall via Park Row, Centre St and Elm St into the old route at Lafayette Place— the route eventually used by the subway in 1904.100  But this Commission inexplicably concluded by recommending a viaduct railway from South Ferry to 42nd St, east of Broadway, to be built of masonry in the blocks and of steel girders across the streets.101 

The New York Underground Railway’s court case to get a permit to build on the old charter route was still pending since January.82  Since the City did not respond, the company went to court in September asking for a writ of mandamus forcing the City to grant the permit.102 

During the Broadway Elevated controversy the Broadway property owners’ lobbyists at Albany worked against the underground plan too.108  Two of the owners, unnamed, asked the Attorney General to take action to dissolve the company.  In an opinion dated April 13 he stated, I believe such an action to be useless and unnecessary for the reason that the company has already forfeited its charter, in that it has failed to comply with the provisions of the General Railroad Act, which he believed it was subject to once it had been granted a charter to build a passenger railway in 1873.  The opinion cites many previous cases.109  After all the legal research however the Attorney General deferred action just as he did in the Metropolitan Transit case. 

In December Melville C Smith said optimistically that nearly all the obstacles at the beginning of the work had been overcome, and that there were fair prospects of the necessary capital being soon placed at the company’s disposal for the building of the first six miles, or main section, of the proposed line.  John O’Brien, an engineer on the New Croton Aqueduct, approved the estimated costs, $1,800,000 per mile for the main line and $1,200,000 per mile average for stations, rolling stock and other equipment, or $3,000,000 per mile total.  Smith said that work could be completed in two years.110 

An unnamed source called ‘one of the organizers’ of the New York Underground Railway told a reporter later on that when the New York Arcade Railway had admitted the cost of three million dollars a mile, I know that earnest efforts made about that time to enlist capital in its furtherance ended in failure.  Against the Broadway scheme opposition from interested persons will never end.  Against our project no opposition has yet appeared.111  The problem of Broadway continued. 

Hewitt proposes the Elm St route and city construction

Near the end of 1887 it was rumored that the Vanderbilts, the Astors and others had been organizing the financial backing for a four-track underground railway along the Elm St route.  The city was planning to cut through a new main street parallel to Broadway, running from Fourth Ave at Astor Place though Lafayette Place, private property, a widened Elm St, and private property to Centre St near Chambers St.  Some proposed that it continue through the blocks between Nassau St and William St to Maiden Lane. 


[ 23-11 ]

The Elm St Route.  At the southern end, the Central Tunnel Railroad was to start from City Hall Park as shown in red.  The route adopted for the subway in 1897 followed the route in blue from a loop, past the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, a few blocks of Centre St, and then over to Elm St and continuing by the red route.  The route involved cutting a new street through the blocks from the end of Elm St to Lafayette Place.


An underground railway could be built along the route of the new street before it was opened to traffic.  Against the Broadway scheme it was said there would be a never-ending opposition from the property owners, besides which it would be 50 per cent. more expensive than a line either side of and parallel with Broadway.  And, furthermore, the contemplated Elm-street improvement would afford the most favorable opportunity for the building of such a road without delay to or interference with the great tide of traffic daily pouring through the main thoroughfares that the city could ever hope to see.113  This is exactly what was done beginning in 1900 when the first subway was built. 

The whole route is, furthermore, to be made bright as day by electric lights.  As a motive power, it is said that either electricity or fireless steam engines will be employed.  The preference will be given to electricity if by the time the road is ready to be put in operation the electric engine shall have become practical and reliable.113  According to the uncredited report the unincorporated company had already obtained the consent of seven eighths of the property owners. 

In February 1888, the new mayor, Abraham Hewitt, a respected businessman in the iron industry, sent a long proposal to the Common Council about civic improvements.  Among other things he proposed a four-track rapid transit railway along the Elm St route from 54th St to City Hall.  One pair of tracks would come off the ‘rapid transit’ tracks of the Fourth Ave Improvement, and the other pair from 59th St via Broadway and 46th St.  On the combined route express trains would stop only at Grand St, and local trains at 42nd St, 33rd St, 23rd St, 14th St, Astor Place, Bleecker St and Grand St.  He proposed this route in order to avoid Broadway, in deference to the strong public opinion which has heretofore prevailed against the appropriation of that thoroughfare to railway purposes.  But he also suggested that the route from 59th St might well continue down Broadway instead, with transfer stations at Union Square and City Hall, and if so only two tracks need be built in each of the Broadway and Elm St routes.  Stations on Broadway south of Union Square would be Astor Place, Grand St, Walker St (Canal St), the Post Office, Wall St and Bowling Green.  A two-track line will endanger no property and will tend to preserve the availability of Broadway for the kind of business which has heretofore given value to the property on that great thoroughfare.114 

Most importantly, Hewitt proposed that the City finance the proposed underground railway and lease it to a private company, probably the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.  The city can build the roads at less cost than any private company,114 he wrote.  As transit historian James Blaine Walker wrote in 1918, His plan, which was practically that later incorporated in the Rapid Transit Act of 1894, provided for construction by a contracting company, which should lease the road for operation for a term of years, give a sufficient bond, pay for the equipment of the line but give the City a lien on such equipment and guarantee to pay the City an annual interest and one per cent. for a sinking fund on the bonds issued for construction.115 

The Common Council did not approve the plan, and their opposition prevented the state legislature from acting.  The plan seemed a failure at the time but it would later be recognized as the origin of the idea behind the New York subway system. 

Last battles for the underground companies

Even as Mayor Hewitt was proposing an underground railway, the two companies that wanted to construct such railways were awaiting the outcome of civil suits. 

The New York Underground Railway was still waiting for the court to decide on the writ of mandamus to compel the City to grant a permit to open the streets.  In May 1888 the court finally ordered the City to issue the New York Underground Railway a permit to open streets or show cause why it should not do so.116 

It may have been only at this point that the city’s Corporation Counsel realized the basis for Vandenburgh’s claims.  At the foreclosure of the New York City Central Underground in 1876, to which the City was a party, Vandenburgh purchased the company’s franchise rights.  The decision of the court referred to the charter as if it was still valid, and from this language Vandenburgh construed the decision to state that it was valid, and that he could therefore build under its terms with no payment to the City.117  That is, the court may have inadvertently extended the charter in the course of ruling on the foreclosure.  The City’s response in June 1888 was to challenge the validity of the charter118 and to ask the court to vacate the judgement of 1876.  This added much complication to the case, and decision was delayed into 1889. 

At about the same time the New York Arcade Railway showed its last signs of life.  In June Melville C Smith named the contractors who would construct the road, and announced some new trustees.  When Mr Smith was asked yesterday when the company was going to file the necessary bond he was not prepared to say.119  Among the company officers were Chester A Arthur, former United States president, Levi P Morton, once a director of the Viaduct plan and currently Vice President of the United States, and William Windom, currently Secretary of the Treasury, as well as prominent bankers and brokers.120 

It was made public later that the company had obtained financing at this time for $25,000,000, enough to build and equip the road, from a French syndicate called the Comptoir d’Escompte.  These investors had paid off all the company’s debt and were now paying for the ongoing litigation.121  Only the Astor suit stood in the way of moving forward with the Arcade. 

The end of the New York Arcade Railway

Elaborate surveys of Broadway and Madison-avenue showing upon a uniform scale the location and dimensions of every vault, sewer, gas, water, steam, and pneumatic pipe and tube under the street surface, their depth and arrangements, have been prepared, and plans and specifications for a four-track sub-surface rapid transit road were in readiness for practical operations as soon as the legal obstacles to the building of the road should have been cleared away.  In the course of its 20 years’ existence the company has spent over $500,000 in preparation for the building of the road and in contesting litigation.120 

The New York Arcade Railway ended on March 12, 1889, when the Court of Appeals ruled that the 1873 charter of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company was unconstitutional. 

The court thought little of Beach’s experimental tunnel and the years of planning, writing in the decision that nothing whatever was done by the corporation, except to change its name several times, and procure acts of the legislature purporting to enlarge its powers and extend its corporate life.122 

The court found that the title of the act of 1873 did not give an ‘adequate description of its purposes’ as required by the constitution.  The court even stated that the title was well calculated to deceive any persons to whose attention it came while the act was under consideration in the Legislature.122  The title of the act was extremely long, beginning An Act supplemental to and amendatory of Chapter eight hundred and forty-two of the Laws of eighteen hundred and sixty-eight, an act entitled ‘An Act to provide for the transmission of letters, packages and merchandise in the cities of New York and Brooklyn …  ’ and mentioning also the act of 1869, but not mentioning anything of what new powers the amendment provided for. 

Comparing the act of 1873 with the company’s original purpose, wrote the court, Here we find nothing of pneumatic tubes or of propulsion by atmospheric pressure, or even of pneumatic railways.  We read of passenger tubes, but we must not be deceived by the juggle of words.  We find authorized a grand underground railway not less than 15 miles long, with two or more tracks, turnouts, platforms, stations, buildings and other appurtenances, with power to connect with certain steam railroads to be operated through passageways called tubes, 18 feet in height and 31 feet in width, exterior measurement, in fact, tunnels which could not be operated with atmospheric pressure.  What was before a manufacturing corporation was converted into a railroad corporation, or at least had superadded the powers, privileges, duties and liabilities of railroad corporations under the general laws of the state, with authority, by consent of the engineer-commissioners, to use for the movement of its cars, horses, steam or any other motive power.  The construction of such a railway by such a corporation is certainly a subject not expressed in the title of the act.  The only subject there indicated is the transportation of passengers and property through pneumatic tubes by atmospheric pressure.  A title purporting that an act provides for pneumatic transportation would not be sufficient for an act authorizing the construction and operation of a horse railway or a steam railway, as a title purporting that an act authorizes a line of omnibuses for the transportation of passengers would not be sufficient for an act authorizing the construction of a railway for the same purpose.122 

This decision took down not only the Act of 1873 but necessarily the extensions of it in 1881 and 1886.  Four of the seven judges took the trouble to add an opinion that the Act of 1886 was unconstitutional in itself, for violating the constitutional amendment effective in 1875 that prohibited the legislature from passing a private or local bill granting permission to lay tracks.  They did not see the bill as an extension of the old charter but as a new grant of rights.122 

This was almost the end of both Alfred E Beach’s company and Melville C Smith’s dream of an arcade railway, but not completely. 

The next week, Melville C Smith told reporters, The Mayor’s Rapid Transit bill is the thing of importance now.  One page of that bill is worth a great many pneumatic tubes.  I am willing to say that I believe an underground railway will yet be built along the line of Broadway, but whether it will be built by this company is another matter.123  He was referring not to Mayor Hewitt’s bill of 1888, but to Mayor Grant’s bill of 1889 for an amendment to the Rapid Transit Act giving the city more control over appointing the commission and building the routes.124  The bill would prohibit an elevated railway in Broadway but not prohibit an underground one.125  It would be killed by arguments over Broadway, opposition by Jay Gould intended to maintain the Manhattan Railway monopoly, and Mayor Grant’s refusal to grant political patronage in exchange for support.126 

The end of the New York Underground Railway

The only old charter now left was that of the New York City Central Underground, and its validity was the subject of the court case still under appeal.  On March 22, 1889, Superior Court granted an order requiring the New York Underground Railway to show why the judgement of 1876 should not be vacated.  This action would invalidate the old charter.  The company’s argument was heard in October.117  The court ruled in March 1890 that the charter had been forfeited ‘by non-user’ and that the company had neither secured the consent of property owners nor the consent of commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court.  The company’s status was so doubtful, the court ruled, that the writ of mandamus for a permit to open streets should be denied.127  In December 1891 the Court of Appeals dismissed the company’s appeal of the Superior Court decision.128 

The Attorney General followed up the Superior Court’s decision in June 1890 by bringing action to dissolve the company.129  The action was heard in November 1892 in the Supreme Court130 and went against the company.  The case was heard in the Court of Appeals in February 1893.131  Finally at long last the charter was killed on March 14, 1893, when the appeal was dismissed.132 

The Rapid Transit Board of 1891

The origins of the first subway constructed in New York are usually traced to Mayor Hewitt’s proposal in 1888 for city construction and a lease to a private operator.  Mayor Hugh J Grant bid unsuccessfully for amendments to the Rapid Transit Act in 1889 and 1890.  But in December 1890 he appointed Rapid Transit Commissioners under the 1875 act, a group led by William Steinway and so sometimes known as the Steinway Commission.  They organized in January 1891 and began holding hearings.  At one of them, Rowland R Hazard appeared representing the New York Underground Railway, which he himself called the sole remaining relic of the extreme past.  Not forgetting his own past, he also made a pitch for a new charter for the New York District Railway plan.  Melville C Smith was in attendance as well with the ghost of … the Broadway arcade railroad scheme.  Louis Sterne, a representative of English engineer James H Greathead, was on hand to suggest deep tunnels along the lines of the Hudson Tunnel then under construction by Pearson and of the City and South London tube railway built by Greathead and just recently opened.  A man called Louis Chittenden proposed a viaduct railway through the blocks that would run all the way to Tarrytown, though why it terminated there was not made to appear, commented a reporter.  Alfred Speer once again proposed his perennial idea of elevated moving endless moving platforms on each side of Broadway.  Several others had wilder ideas than these.133 

Before the end of January 1891 Grant’s rapid transit bill was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, so Grant reappointed the same five men as the first Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, effective in February.  At one memorable meeting on March 13, banker Jacob H Schiff advocated municipal construction and Frank J Sprague advocated electric operation.  Historian James Blaine Walker wrote, Mr Schiff’s theory was that an underground railroad would be a very expensive undertaking and it was doubtful whether its operation would pay a sufficient return on the money invested to make it an attractive investment for private capital.  The City, however, could borrow money at three per cent., a much lower rate than private capital could command, and therefore better afford such an investment. Schiff’s advice was however ignored for the time being.  Frank J Sprague, inventor and entrepeneur, had in the previous few years developed improved traction motors and power distribution, and had installed the landmark electric streetcar line in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888.  But despite his testimony and the much-publicized example of the City and South London tube railway, the idea of electrification was still so new that the Board’s engineers were not willing to make electric operation a requirement.134 

The board also heard from the Manhattan Railway.  Jay Gould appeared before them on May 12 to request eighteen miles of extensions, and brought extensive maps and drawings to show them a network of downtown branches and lengthy uptown routings including Broadway and the Boulevard from 34th St to Kingsbridge, all of the routes to be built with three, four or even five tracks.135  He had reason to augment the system:  the Manhattan Railway carried 75 million passengers the first year it was fully complete, 1881, but that had risen to 103 million in 1885, and 185 million in 1890.136  Trains had increased to five cars, but that was the limit of locomotives light enough to run on the old viaducts.  There were fears that Gould had influence over two or three of the five comissioners, and that he would get more routes for the elevated system and block any other routes.

Flying in the face of thirty years of opposition, the Steinway Commission on May 27 designated a four-track underground railway to run under Broadway and the Boulevard (the name for Broadway north of 59th St) from South Ferry to some point beyond Spuyten Duyvil Creek.  Up to 42nd St, it was to be either on one level or two, deep enough not to disturb the surface or building foundations, possibly built along the lines of the City and South London, but the northern section was to be on one level and as close to the street surface as possible, along the lines of the Arcade and District plans for lower Broadway.137  The northern part of the route would run partly on viaducts, starting with one across Manhattan Valley (125th St), and the need for a deep tunnel under Fort George was foreseen.  Under the direction of William Barclay Parsons, engineers spent the month of June taking cores down to bedrock along the Broadway route from Front St to 14th St, the first comprehensive series ever done.138 

The commission designated a second route on July 22, a branch starting at 14th St, running in Fourth Ave to 42nd St and Madison Ave to 96th St, then by viaduct on private property between Madison Ave and Fourth Ave to the Harlem River, and on by an undesignated route into the Annexed District.139  A third route on the east side was expected next but it was never proposed. 

The plan for Broadway south of 42d St gradually evolved to one in which it would be close to the surface and on one level, something like the Arcade Railway.  In September it was proposed that only two tracks should run to South Ferry and that the other pair should loop back under City Hall Park, with a station close to the Brooklyn Bridge.140 

The commissioners formally reported their plan to the Common Council on October 20, 1891.  They still would not require operation by electricity but excluded only ‘open combustion’.  Some detail was left to the construction company, such as the provision of sidings for mail at the Post Office, but others were specified, such as grade separation where tracks turn off to the City Hall loop and at the 14th St junction of the east and west side lines.141 


The daily papers of October 21, 1891, all carried similar images of the proposed underground railway, based on material from the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners.  The following are from the World and the Herald, which had the most extensive set of images.


[ 23-12 ]

An express station north of City Hall, from the World.  Separate entrances on each side, because of the pipes and conduits under the street.


[ 23-13 ]

A local station north of City Hall, from the Herald.  Extremely similar to the express station.


[ 23-14 ]

Cross section north of City Hall, showing four tracks, from the World.


[ 23-15 ]

Cross section south of City Hall, showing a station with three tracks, from the Herald.  The board proposed a third track without station platforms between the City Hall and South Ferry loops.


[ 23-16 ]

The grade-separated junction at Union Square, from the World.  These are sharp curves.  The space between the outer and inner tracks on the left appears to be for the 14th St station.


[ 23-17 ]

The City Hall loop, from the Herald.  The track connections at Broadway are puzzling.  The written plan required grade separation, so the the track indicated as entering the loop near the Post Office presumably has ramped down to a lower level, but where it returns it seems to come in at grade.  Once again these are sharp curves.


[ 23-18 ]

The South Ferry loop, from the World.  The two-track loop has an island platform judging by the separation of the tracks, but the platform would have been fairly short.


[ 23-19 ]

Viaduct, probably the east side route between Madison Ave and Fourth Ave in upper Manhattan, from the Herald.


[ 23-20 ]

Bridge over the Harlem River, probably the east side route, from the Herald.


[ 23-21 ]

Half-section in the Boulevard, showing that the plan would be two separate two-track structures on each side of the center mall, from the Herald.


Not deep enough, said Simon Sterne, representing the Greathead company.  It seems to me that the roof of the Worthen tunnel is not far enough below the surface to clear the sewer pipes.  At all events in many places it must come very close to them.  Under the system of construction proposed the tunnel must inevitably become impregnated with sewage and other offensive matter, which will make it dangerous to health.  Besides it is an open question whether the method of construction employed is safe …  The work has to be done dangerously close to buildings.  Damage suits are among the contigencies that must be allowed for.142

Too deep, said Rowland R Hazard.  Why should the roof of the tunnel be made to support nine or ten thousand tons of dead weight?  It is absurd.  It greatly increases the cost of construction and increases the danger.  The pipes and the conglomeration of nastiness that surrounds them should not be above the roof of the tunnel.  It will inevitably produce foul leakage and be a constant source of menace to health.  The pipes should be placed in subways on either side of the tunnel, and the roof of the tunnel should be close to the surface of the street.  By that plan, instead of having to tread twenty steps to reach a platform you have only fourteen.142

Chief Engineer William E Worthen said he could have the road built in eighteen months.141  He also proposed, separately from the Commissioners’ report, continuous sidewalks along the tunnel, just as in the Arcade Railway plan.  The report required stations long enough for ten car trains, which Worthen said would mean 520 feet, the length of two blocks and two streets, and with stations every quarter mile in lower Broadway, this was already more than a third of the distance.  Electric power would keep the tunnels clean, Worthen said, and passengers might prefer to avoid climbing stairs and instead patronize businesses on the basement level.143

The commissioners began the process of obtaining consent from owners of half the value of property along the line.  The courts had already held in previous cases that consent need not be found per block but per route, and it was thought possible that the usual opposition in lower Broadway might be outweighed by strong majorities in the more northern parts of the routes.144  But unexpected opposition in Madison Ave blocked this strategy, and in January 1892 the commission turned to the Supreme Court to appoint three commissioners to determine whether the road should be built.145  The court appointed them in April over the objections of property owners in Broadway and Madison Ave, but the latter managed to lobby through a bill at Albany prohibiting construction of a tunnel in Madison Ave, forcing the abandonment of the east side branch north of Grand Central.146 

The Supreme Court’s commissioners heard from Melville C Smith in June 1892.  He told them that the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners had acted with ‘unusual wisdom’ in selecting an underground railway instead of a viaduct or elevated railway, and that Broadway was the best route.  The cost, he estimated, was $3,000,000 per mile south of 59th St, the same figure the New York Arcade Railway Company had given a few years before, and he was sure that the money could be raised.  He even told them that he would willingly give his life if that would assure the building of the road.147 

The court’s commissioners reported favorably on June 17.  The underground railway should be built.148 

The Rapid Transit Commissioners now assigned the engineers to prepare detailed drawings so that they could put the franchise out to bid.  The one change that was required by the court’s commissioners was to avoid interference with the street railway cables coming out of the powerhouse near Houston St, and this required lowering the grade of the tunnel for some distance on each side.  The other great difficulty was the rearrangement of sewer drainage in the area around Canal St, the same problem that every Broadway underground railway plan had solved on paper a few times over.  The plans took longer than expected to be ready.149 

The stations were named in November.  This is the main line, with express stations marked by a star:  Battery Park* (at South Ferry), Wall St (uptown) and Rector St (downtown), Maiden Lane (uptown) and Cortlandt St (downtown), Brooklyn Bridge (on the loop), Chambers St*, White St, Grand St, Bleecker St, 8th St, 14th St*, 23rd St*, 29th St, 34th St, 42nd St*, 50th St, 60th St*, 72nd St, 79th St, 86th St*, 97th St, 110th St, 122nd St, Manhattan St*, 135th St, 145th St, 156th St, 169th St*, 181st St, Fort George*, Isham St, 220th St, Riverdale Ave, Spuyten Duyvil Parkway, Riverdale Lane, Stuart’s Lane.  This is the branch to Grand Central from 14th St:  23rd St, 32nd St, 43rd St.150 

Several groups of investors were expected to bid on the franchise:  Melville C Smith and others from the New York Arcade Railway, Austin Corbin from the Long Island Railroad, Rowland R Hazard and some from the New York District and New York Underground companies, and some other groups who had not previously sought charters.144  Corbin however withdrew during 1892 to a separate project intended to connect the Long Island Railroad terminal in Brooklyn to the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal at Jersey City by means of a tunnel under the East River, lower Manhattan, and the Hudson River, for mainline passenger and freight trains.151  Among those not expected to bid were the three major rail carriers in the city:  the Manhattan Railway, the New York Central system, and the Metropolitan Street Railway. 

After all of this preparation came the climax. The Rapid Transit Commission took bids on December 29, 1892, before an enormous crowd that included Melville C Smith, Rowland R Hazard, John D Crimmins and William C Whitney of the Metropolitan Street Railway, Mayor Grant, Mayor-elect Gilroy, the city controller, the parks commissioner, property owners and other members of the public, so many that the venue of the sale was moved from the rotunda of City Hall to the steps. 

There was one bidder.  W Nowland Amory of 78 West 94th St offered a thousand dollars. 

The Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, rejecting Mr Amory’s absurdly low offer after a quick conference, said that they would now abandon underground railway plans and devise a plan for elevated railways.152  It was within the next few weeks that the Manhattan Railway proposed a system of additional routes, and almost acquired the New York and Northern Railway, but dropped it all over the board’s insistence on a five cent fare (see chapter 20). 

It turned out that Amory worked for the board.  He had been employed to collect consents of property owners, which was his peculiar specialty.  He had worked previously for the New York Arcade Railway and other companies doing the same thing.  His purpose in bidding remained a mystery, but reporters said that he enjoyed what would now be called his fifteen minutes of fame.152 

The legacy of the nineteenth century projects

The start of 1893 was the punctuation mark at the end of the first great era of New York rapid transit history.  The last of the old underground charters was denied, and the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners proposed without success to build the Arcade Railway that had been sought for so long.  The Manhattan Railway too made its last bid for expansion and then turned it aside.  Even the Hudson Tunnel project was abandoned.

The new beginning was the Rapid Transit Act of 1894, under which the present subway system of New York was started.  The new Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners once again proposed the traditional route up Broadway with the branch up Fourth Ave to Grand Central, this time to be financed by the city as Hewitt had proposed.  When commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court denied the plan as too expensive, beyond the City’s debt limit, the board in 1897 adopted instead the Elm St route to Grand Central and then a route across 42nd St and north up Broadway and the Boulevard.  This route, at long last, was put under construction in 1900 and the first segment was opened to the public in 1904. 

All of the route of the first subway can be traced to the earlier plans.  The City Hall loop dates from the ideas of the 1891 board.  The Elm St route dates from the Central Tunnel in 1881, and was proposed by others afterwards.  The Lafayette Place route and the concept of avoiding lower Broadway dates from the New York City Central Underground in 1868.  The Fourth Ave route dates from 1872 as the logical connection from lower Manhattan to Grand Central.  The crossing to the west side at 42nd St is reminiscent of Hewitt’s plan of 1888.  The route to northern Manhattan is like that of the 1891 board. 

The type of construction too was nurtured by years of planning.  Writers and promoters repeatedly urged underground railways on the model of the London Underground.  Willson’s Metropolitan Railway was a close copy, and so was Beach’s non-pneumatic plan.  Vandenburgh’s two-tunnel system was not so different.  It was Melville C Smith and the other originators of the Arcade Railway who came up with a really different plan, providing for the four-track express and local service that was needed for Manhattan’s peculiar geography of a long and narrow island. 

The part played by the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company in subway history is less obvious.  The construction in 1869 proved that a tunnel could be built without destroying the street or buildings, and the popularity of the demonstration line for three years proved that people would go down into a tunnel, at a time when both propositions were in doubt.  It brought all underground proposals a little closer to realization.  Many New Yorkers remembered the Beach tunnel. 

The death of Vandenburgh and Smith

Origen Vandenburgh died on September 11, 1892, age 73, while the lawsuit over the New York City Central Underground franchise was still pending.  His obituary noted that for his insistence about being the first to promote an underground railway (with Willson, 1865), he was called by some ‘Original’ Vandenburgh.153 

Melville C Smith died on January 12, 1898, age 64.  The Arcade Railway project had consumed the second half of his life, and it was recognized at the time of his death that the subway then being planned was in many essentials the project that he had advocated for so long.154 

1 Undated memorandum.  Museum of the City of New York.
2 Memorandum.  Museum of the City of New York.
3 Times, 1879 Mar 8.
4 Tribune, 1879 Jun 17.
5 Tribune, 1881 Jun 10.
6 Tribune, 1882 Mar 8.
7 Times, 1882 Mar 28.
8 Memorandum.  Museum of the City of New York.
9 Scientific American, 1880 Dec 18.
10 Tribune, 1879 Aug 1.
11 Documentary History, 68.
12 Times, 1880 May 25.
13 Documentary History, 1006.
14 Tribune, 1880 Sep 5.
15 Tribune, 1880 Sep 15.
16 Tribune, 1880 Sep 7.
17 Tribune, 1880 Sep 6.
18 Times, 1880 Sep 6.
19 Tribune, 1881 Mar 3.
20 Documentary History, 282-283.
21 Tribune, 1881 May 22.
22 Documentary History, 1334-1335; Wall Street Journal, 1902 Jun 20.
23 Times, 1883 Dec 12.
24 Times, 1881 Jul 14.
25 Times, 1881 Jul 21.
26 Tribune, 1881 Sep 23.
27 Tribune, 1881 Oct 16.
28 Tribune, 1881 Nov 13.
29 Tribune, 1881 Nov 26.
30 Tribune, 1881 Nov 27.
31 Times, 1881 Dec 3.
32 Tribune, 1881 Dec 3.
33 Times, 1881 Dec 4.
34 Times, 1881 Dec 18.
35 Times, 1882 Feb 14.
36 Documentary History, 707-708.
37 Times, 1882 Jun 26.
38 Middleton, Metropolitan Railways, 33-34.
39 Tribune, 1882 Mar 26.
40 Tribune, 1882 Jun 24.
41 Times, 1882 Jul 6, Jul 11.
42 Tribune, 1882 Dec 10, 1883 Feb 11.
43 Tribune, 1883 Feb 21.
44 Times, 1883 Mar 5.
45 Times, 1883 Mar 28.
46 Times, 1883 Apr 20.
47 Tribune, 1883 Apr 23.
48 Tribune, 1883 Dec 10.
49 Times, 1884 Mar 6, Mar 12, Mar 20.
50 Times, 1884 May 11.
51 Times, 1884 May 21.
52 Times, 1884 Aug 17.
53 Documentary History, 22.
54 Times, 1885 May 14, May 27.
55 see chapter 1.
56 Times, 1885 May 14, May 16.
57 The word ‘kiosk’, of Turkish derivation, was used for the covered entrances to the New York subway opened in 1904, and is sometimes traced back to the Budapest subway opened in 1897, but here it is being used without comment in 1885.
58 Times, 1885 May 25.
59 Times, 1885 Jun 12.
60 Tribune, 1885 Dec 29.
61 Times, 1884 Jun 14.
62 Times, 1884 Nov 20.
63 Times, 1885 May 30.
64 Documentary History, 935.
65 Documentary History, 440, 1331.
66 Times, 1886 Feb 7.
67 Times, 1886 Mar 4.
68 Times, 1886 Mar 5.
69 Tribune, 1886 May 5.
70 Tribune, 1886 May 12.
71 Times, 1886 Mar 26.
72 Times, 1886 Apr 21.
73 Scientific American, 1886 May 22.
74 Times, 1886 Jul 27.
75 Tribune, 1886 Jul 26.
76 Times, 1886 Oct 16.
77 Times, 1886 Oct 28.
78 Times, 1887 Jan 1.
79 Times, 1885 Aug 28.
80 Tribune, 1887 Jan 10.
81 Times, 1887 Jan 28.
82 Times, 1887 Aug 24.
83 Times, 1887 Mar 1, Mar 23.
84 Times, 1887 May 1.
85 Times, 1886 Oct 20.
86 Times, 1887 Apr 10.
87 Times, 1887 Apr 28.
88 Documentary History, 706-708.
89 Times, 1887 Mar 9.
90 Times, 1887 Apr 11.
91 Times, 1887 Mar 30.
92 Times, 1887 Apr 7.
93 Times, 1887 Apr 15.
94 Tribune, 1887 Apr 17, 20. Times, 1887 Apr 18.
95 Times, 1887 Apr 24.
96 Times, 1887 Apr 27.
97 Times, 1887 Apr 29.
98 Times, 1887 May 14.
99 Times, 1887 Jul 2.
100 Times, 1887 Jul 27.
101 Times, 1887 Sep 20.
102 Times, 1887 Sep 11.
102 Times, 1887 Nov 5.
103 Times, 1887 Nov 27, Nov 30.
104 Times, 1887 Dec 30.
105 Times, 1888 May 19.
106 Times, 1889 Jan 16.
107 Times, 1889 Oct 30.
108 Tribune, 1887 Apr 17.
109 Tribune, 1887 Apr 20. Full text of opinion.
110 Times, 1887 Dec 4.
111 Times, 1887 Dec 8.
113 Times, 1887 Dec 7.
114 Times, 1888 Feb 1.
115 Walker, Fifty Years, 129.
116 Times, 1888 May 29.
117 Times, 1889 Oct 6.
118 Times, 1888 Jun 28.
119 Times, 1888 Jun 2.
120 Times, 1889 Mar 13.
121 Times, 1889 Mar 14.
122 Documentary History, 24-25.
123 Times, 1889 Mar 23.
124 Times, 1889 Mar 15.
125 Times, 1889 Apr 6.
126 Times, 1889 Apr 18, Apr 24, May 10.
127 Times, 1890 Mar 22.
128 Times, 1891 Dec 2.
129 Documentary History, 1006-1007.
130 Times, 1892 Nov 9.
131 Times, 1893 Feb 28.
132 Times, 1893 Mar 15.
133 Times, 1891 Jan 16.
134 Walker, Fifty Years, 131-135. Times, 1891 Mar 14.
135 Times, 1891 May 13.
136 Times, 1891 Jun 7.
137 Times, 1891 May 28.
138 Times, 1891 Jun 14.
139 Times, 1891 Jul 21.
140 Times, 1891 Sep 18.
141 Times, 1891 Oct 21, much detail.
142 Herald, 1891 Oct 21.
143 Times, 1891 Oct 28.
144 Times, 1891 Nov 22, 1892 Nov 17.
145 Legal notice, Times, 1891 Feb 15.
146 Times, 1892 May 1.
147 Times, 1892 Jun 4, Jun 8.
148 Times, 1892 Jun 18.
149 Times, 1892 Oct 5.
150 Times, 1892 Nov 13.
151 Times, 1892 Dec 9.
152 Times, 1892 Dec 30.
153 Times, 1892 Sep 12.
154 Times, 1898 Jan 13.

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