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The legend

The preceding chapters described the history of the Beach Pneumatic Transit tunnel from beginning to end.  But there is another history, that of legend. 

Beach’s spin on the story

Alfred E Beach himself created the myth that the Tweed Ring opposed the project.  The story first appears in 1872 in Beach’s Broadway Underground Railway, the limited edition book for influential people (quoted at length in chapter 9), and in the 1872 edition of his Illustrated Description guidebook.  To shape public opinion the way he wanted, Beach glossed over William M Tweed’s assistance at Albany in 1870 by not even mentioning the charter attempt that year.  Instead he started with the second attempt in 1871 and blamed its defeat on the Viaduct railway plan.  He said nothing of the opposition to the tunnel by Broadway property owners led by A T Stewart or of Stewart’s involvement in the Viaduct plan. 

Similarly Beach blamed Governor Hoffman’s vetoes in 1871 and 1872 on Hoffman’s Tammany affiliations.  He could not afford to bring any attention to the primary reason for the vetoes, that the bills allowed the company to build under any street in the city with no franchise fee.  To do so would also bring attention to the way the broad powers were obscured by drafting the bills as amendments to Beach’s earlier charter, which contained the language permitting the company to lay tubes in any street in New York and Brooklyn.  The bills’ titles did not even mention that the object was a passenger railway.  In 1870 this looked like Tweed obfuscation.  The later bills were worse:  a new clause seemed to meet objections by restricting the passenger railway to certain streets, but another clause said that nothing in the amendment should be construed to limit the earlier charter. 

It may seem incredible that people believed Beach’s revisionism in 1872, so soon after the fact, but they did, and Beach’s story quickly became the favored version.  The fable of the sly fox who wins out against powerful enemies was alluring.  In the end his strategy did not pay:  in 1889 the Court of Appeals ruled all the amendments to be invalid precisely because their titles did not state their purpose as required by the constitution. 

‘Oldtime Tunnels’

By the twentieth century, the Beach Pneumatic Transit tunnel was a relic of old New York, mentioned in the more thorough history books and remembered by old residents.  By 1903, it was as far in the past as the United States Bicentennial celebrations are today— within the memory of many people, but the details were fading.  The story behind the tunnel was being forgotten. 

The first good capsule history was part of a Tribune feature in 1903 called ‘Oldtime Tunnels in This Borough and Brooklyn’.1  This was the article that made much of the City Hall Park grate as surviving evidence. 

The reporter did a good job.  People knew that something was being done down under the street.  Earth was being brought up at night from the building at No 260 Broadway.  This would be from the December 1869 articles in the Tribune.  He then continued with details from the Tribune exposé of 1870 and quoted some of the clippings about opening day that were used in Beach’s Illustrated Description

The reporter even interviewed Frederick C Beach, who would confuse later writers by remarking, Nothing was known of the construction of the tunnel until it was nearly finished. He also described the Tribune reporter who got in as being disguised as a workman.  This may be true, but no earlier account mentions it. 

Brooklyn also has a sealed tunnel with a history, the article continued, a tunnel that produce dealers at this time wanted to have reopened to provide an easier grade for their wagons.  This is the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel from Court St to Hicks St that was finally reopened by Robert Diamond in 1980.  There is much mystery about this old tunnel.  There are stories that it was once used for growing mushrooms, and that saloonkeepers doing business on either side of it had underground connections with it, and that within its damp and clammy precincts they stored contraband liquors and operated illicit stills.  The ideas of mushroom growing and liquor storage would migrate into the legend of the Beach tunnel, most likely suggested by this article. 

Stories from 1912

Short historical notes on the Beach tunnel were published around the time it was inspected and destroyed in 1912.  Many of them relied on the article ‘New York’s First Subway’ by Waldemar Kaempffert in Scientific American for February 24, 1912.  Even Kaempffert’s two quotes from older issues were often repeated:  The plan is to tunnel Broadway through the whole length from 1849, and Let the reader imagine a cylindrical tube from 1870. 

Because of this article’s influence on later writing it is worth summarizing the points it made.  It notes the American Institute Fair, the charter obtained, and the amended charter permitting a larger tube.  The work was begun in a quiet way but under supervision of George S Greene of the Croton Aqueduct Board.  Beach invented the hydraulically powered tunnel shield.  The tunnel curves on a 50 foot radius and then runs down the center of Broadway to Murray St.  During construction the wall of a Dutch fort was encountered.  The Tribune reporter once again was disguised as a workman.  Operation of the car began ‘later’ than opening day, and it ran for about a year.  Kaempffert’s only errors in describing the tunnel are minor ones:  the length of the tunnel was closer to 300 feet than 400 as stated, and the tunnel was actually operated for three years. 

Unfortunately, if understandably, Kaempffert followed Beach’s revisionism as to the passenger charter.  He described the ‘elevated railroad’ favored by Tammany as a rival project and the veto as that of a Tammany governor.  The article gives the impression that Beach tried only once, a year after the tunnel opened.  But the true public opposition is also mentioned:  It seems ridiculous now to learn that the chief objection was the fear that buildings would topple.2

The article was followed two months later by a letter from G Sheffield of Providence.  I distinctly remember as a young man the inception of the Broadway tunnel … and of having been in the tube, but do not recall any operating phases of the same, nor of seeing any car.  Some years later I also recall that the excavation was utilized for a beer cellar or saloon, the entrance to which I am not positive about, being either from the street or from some adjoining building or saloon.  If the memories of fifty years ago could be called up for an accurate statement of facts relating to this most interesting episode, it would go far to arrive at historical facts pertaining to the same.  Letters were not normally commented upon but in this case the editor noted that we have no definite information that it was ever utilized as a storage place for beverages of various kinds.  It, however, has been used as an outlet for exhaust steam.3 The steam pipe was noticed during the official visit in February 1912 but was described as a leak rather than a deliberate use of the tunnel. 

Deaths of the last Beach Pneumatic officials

Joseph Dixon died in May 1915 in London where he had been a resident for the last twenty years.  The Times noted, With the late Alfred E Beach he organized the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company … when it built 200 feet of underground on Broadway near Warren Street, more than forty years ago.  He finally lost control of the enterprise and went to England.  Mr Dixon was born in England but became an American and lived here for thirty years.4 

Frederick Converse Beach, inventor of the photo-lithic process of copying and one-time editor of The American Photographer, died at his home here tonight, reported the Times under a dateline of Stratford, Connecticut, June 8, 1918.  He was 71, born in New York in 1848.  In 1877 he entered the office of The Scientific American.  He was editor in chief of The Encyclopaedia Americana  …5 

Considering the typical lifespan of laborers of that day, Frederick C Beach was probably the last of the Beach Pneumatic Transit men.  From this time forward, the story of the tunnel was known only by historical records, not human memory. 

Fifty Years of Rapid Transit

The first history of the New York subway and elevated system was James Blaine Walker’s Fifty Years of Rapid Transit, published in 1918.  The book lacks a bibliography and notes, although many of the sources are named as they are cited.  Walker worked for the Public Service Commission, so he was in a good position to use archives and to interview some of the people involved in the story.  He gave eight pages to the story of Beach Pneumatic Transit.6 

Walker characterized the tunnel Beach built as a huge practical joke, supposing that Beach had always intended to construct a large tube for a passenger railway.  Without official or public knowledge, however, the company actually built a tunnel nine feet in diameter, he stated incorrectly, since Beach built the large tunnel only after obtaining the 1869 charter amendment, and since the work was always supervised by the Croton Aqueduct Department. 

Walker accurately described the construction of the tunnel and noted the first use of a shield in America.  The work was carried on without opening the surface of Broadway, and few persons who walked over it daily knew what was going on beneath their feet.  But by this he clearly meant only that no one knew exactly the location or extent of the tunnel.  He quoted a Times article from February 1869 to the effect that a tunnel was being built. 

Nothing was said of the Tweed Ring, although characteristically he mentioned the city objections in early 1870 to the state legislature’s power to authorize tunnels under city streets.  Walker tended to emphasize legislative and legal aspects of the transit story.  He blames the failure of the company to progress with the work in 1873 on the success of the elevated railway by that date. 

From there Walker skipped ahead to 1912, quoting the New York Parcel Dispatch Company’s letter of protest, and mentioning the preservation of the shield at Cornell and of part of the car in the offices of the Public Service Commission. 

This was a good account, free of the more fantastic elements that would appear later.  He did not mention anything of Beach’s maneuvers with the charter, but he did not cast Beach as an innocent fighting Tammany either. 

‘Broadway Tube Proposed in ’49’

The completion of the Holland Tunnel in 1926, the first automobile crossing of the Hudson south of Albany, caused someone at the Times rediscover the inventor of the tunnel shield and to remark on it being the centenary of his birth.  The unnamed writer did more than summarize the February 1912 Scientific American.  He mentioned the Post Office pneumatic tube for example, and gave more detail about the Beach tunnel.  The new information, not in print for many decades, may be from an edition of Beach’s Illustrated DescriptionThe tube had been completed without public knowledge, the earth having been removed at night, the article states, somewhat ambiguously as to whether the entire project was a secret.  Like Walker the writer blamed the company’s failure in 1873 on the success of the elevated railway.  He concluded by mentioning that the car and shield were found intact when the Broadway subway was built in 1912.7 

Underneath New York

The first book about all things under Manhattan was Harry Granick’s Underneath New York, published in 1947.  Granick was a playwright, but he proved to be a good nonfiction writer as well, getting the cooperation of a large number of city and company officials in the project.  He ended the book with an optimistic call for better city planning and a rallying cry against war and racism.  In the chapter on subways, he gives only a few paragraphs to Beach, choosing rather to concentrate on more recent tunnel construction.  In this small space he mentions the Post Office tube in London (like the Times article in 1926) and uses the quote, Let the reader imagine a cylindrical tube (like the Scientific American article in 1912).  Granick’s opinion was that electric power was needed to make subways practical.8 

The New-York Historical Society exhibit in 1950


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Illustration from the World Telegram and the Sun, February 25, 1950.


On February 26, 1950, the New-York Historical Society opened an exhibition of photographs, drawings and literary exclamations about New York’s first subway to mark its eightieth anniversary.  The material  … is in a case in the main north-south corridor of the society’s museum.  Stanley Yale Beach was present at the opening and told reporters that his father Frederick C Beach had been the conductor and brakeman on the car.9  It may have been only one exhibit case but it attracted some small attention in the press.  The Herald Tribune emphasized the enlarged reproduction of the Tribune exposé story. 

The article in the Times carried more information on the Beach tunnel, which seems to have come from Stanley Y Beach.  Someone provided a new reason for the tunnel’s closing:  The ride became as popular with the public as Coney Island’s shoot-the-chutes.  But three years later the Governor of New York told Mr Beach that he had not lived up to the franchise.  Although no one wanted to stand in the way of progress, the Governor asserted, he was forced to close the subway.10  In reality the passenger charter was only finally signed by the governor in 1873, and Beach closed the demonstration then because it had served its purpose. 

The last paragraph reads:  A circle of metal at the base of the Nathan Hale statue at Warren Street and Broadway shows where the exhaust and intake for this pneumatic railway had its opening.  There was once a grating there.10  The Nathan Hale statue did then stand on the site of the grate, but the sentence implies that the ‘circle of metal’ might actually be there to close off the top of the vent.  A moment’s thought will suggest that something as heavy as a large bronze statue on a stone pedestal would not have been placed directly over a hole.  Instead the placing of the statue proves conclusively that the vent had been completely filled in.11

The coverage in the World Telegram and the Sun added one more bit:  For a while it was used as a vintners’ cellar.12  This is not in the written sources, so it was probably from Stanley Y Beach. 

Incredible New York

Cultural historian Lloyd Morris reviewed the high life and low life of the last hundred years in his book Incredible New York, published in 1951.  While commenting on the construction boom after the Civil War he gave a few pages to the civic obsession with rapid transit.  In a single paragraph he mentioned both the Beach Pneumatic and Arcade plans, and wrote that underground railway plans were stopped because John Jacob Astor III and other great landlords asserted that their buildings would collapse if digging were permitted.  He did not overlook A T Stewart in saying this, for just a few pages earlier he had noted that next to Astor, Stewart was the largest landowner in New York, the world’s most successful merchant.  Morris then went on to say that New York, forbidden to burrow underground for rapid transit, went up into the air, again correctly presenting the elevated railways as an alternative adopted because underground plans were blocked for political rather than technological reasons.  Morris’s account therefore shows that historians as late as 1951 still had the story straight.13

The World Beneath the City


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Advertisements, from theTimes , January 12 and January 27, 1960. 


A book called The World Beneath the City reached the public at the start of 1960.  Could a book be written on what was under New York?  I was frankly skeptical, wrote author Robert Daley in the last chapter, as if the idea had been proposed to him by someone unfamiliar with Underneath New York, published just twelve years earlier.  Daley worked for the New York Giants football team when he started work on it, and covered European sports for the Times by the time he completed it.  His chapter on the Beach Pneumatic has strongly influenced all later accounts.  He wrote, one stumbles upon vague references to dramatic tales— the Beach Pneumatic Subway, for instance.  It is mentioned in all the early books on New York transportation, but is dismissed quickly as a wild scheme which didn’t work.  Discovering to his professed amazement that the New York Public Library had ‘back issues’ of Scientific American, I read through volumes brittle with age and, at length, had the whole story.14 

If only he had the entire story— but he did not.  Instead his chapter ‘Mr Beach’s Marvelous Pneumatic Subway’, while enthusiastically written, is full of misstatements, some of them totally original to his version of the story.  As a story told round the fire it is undeniably entertaining.  But incredibly it was later used as a source by serious historians.  Because of that its main points of interest require some comment.  Below, each is listed with its page number and some remarks.15

Tweed ignored the original charter in 1868 (75):  There is no particular basis for saying so, and probably the opposite is true.  An early report mentioned Tweed’s associate Peter B Sweeny as involved with the company, and whether that was right or not, the jobs it would create would have been of interest to Tweed for patronage.  For that reason he might well have favored the bill if Beach would allow him to supply laborers from the immigrants in his district. 

‘I won’t pay political blackmail,’ he told his brother.  ‘I say, let’s build the subway furtively.’ (75):  There are some other imagined quotes like this one, which should tip off readers that they are in the presence of a good story-teller. 

Beach had received permission to construct a small tube only (68):  Possibly misunderstood from the comment in Walker’s Fifty Years.  Beach definitely did not build the large tube until after he got the charter amendment that permitted it in 1869. 

It was built only at night (67), and Beach’s son Fred was foreman (76):  Frederick C Beach told the Tribune in 1903 that he was the foreman of the night crew.  Daley seems to have translated this into his being the only foreman and work being done only at night. 

Then, as the tunnel lengthened, some of the men became frightened by the eerie depths and did not return to work.  The air was close in the tunnel, the lantern light cast flickering shadows on the wall, and the horses clip-clopping overhead made a weirdly hollow sound.  If a man was not careful, all testified, he could easily be spooked down there. (76):  Dramatic scene imagined by Daley.  No previous source has a word of this.  (The last sentence was dropped in American Heritage; see below.)

When the stone wall was encountered, Young Beach swallowed hard.  ‘Better get Pop down here right away,’ he said.  A cab was sent galloping through the night to rout Alfred Beach from his bed.  Half-dressed, worried, Beach rushed from his house just as dawn was beginning to lighten the streets and buildings of Manhattan. (76):  Dramatic embellishment, with another manufactured quote. 

Beach installed the elaborate waiting room over the objections of his partners (77):  Why would they object?  It was all Beach’s money anyway, as Daley himself noted two paragraphs earlier.  (Perhaps noticing this, American Heritage added and with his own money; see below.)

Frescoes on the wall of the waiting room (66):  The exterior of the Roots blower had frescoes.  The walls of the waiting room were divided by a horizontal wood molding about halfway up.  The lower part of the wall had vertical strips of walnut and white pine and the upper part appears to be whitewashed plaster. 

Goldfish in a tank (66):  The goldfish were in the fountain. 

No one even suspected it was there (67):  Contradicted by newspaper stories printed months before it opened. 

Equipment was brought in secretly (67):  Newspaper reports described Warren St half blocked by construction materials. 

City politicians were enraged when they learned of the tunnel (68):  True, but the reasons were the sinking of pavement in Broadway, which proved to have been the paving contractor’s fault, and the political battle between the city and state over who might approve tunnels under city streets.  Beach did have the legally required state approval.

White with rage, official New York looked on as the subway opened. (77):  Actually, all the officials were invited guests at the opening. 

Beach willfully defied Tammany by building the subway, and, No one had ever stood up to Tweed in this way before, and furious, he swore to stop Beach no matter what it cost him (68):  Embellished from Beach’s revisionist history of 1872.  Like Beach, Daley omitted the Tweed-sponsored bill of 1870 and the rumors in 1871 that Tweed was even then not so much against the Beach project as he was in the pay of the Viaduct promoters.  A search of the New York Times Index, which Daley mentioned using, would have turned up the ‘whole story’. 

The Viaduct railway was Tweed’s idea (70):  From Beach, 1872.  This interpretation fails to recognize the role of A T Stewart and his wealthy friends in protecting Broadway, as they saw it, from any kind of rail transit, and so distorts what was going on.  It makes writers like Walker marvel at how so many financially astute men became involved.  In other words, it does not make sense on the face of it, and overlooks the idea that Tweed’s cooperation could have been bought by the wealthy men.

The ‘Black Horse Cavalry’, that is the legislators allied with Tammany, forced through the Viaduct bill (70):  Partly from Beach.  Historians before and after Daley have described the power of the Black Horse Cavalry, but it begs the question why the Beach and Viaduct bills passed by almost the same vote, if an all-powerful boss favored the one and not the other. 

Police lines had to be used to control the ‘mobs’ waiting to see the tunnel in 1870 (79-80):  No source says so. 

A fountain stood close to the grating, its bubbling water blown into a spray two stories high every time the giant fan underground went into reverse.  The fan’s intake was just as dramatic— letters, parcels, handkerchiefs were yanked from people’s hands, hats were pulled from their heads, and all the refuse of the neighborhood was sucked against the grate.  A moment later it would all be blown sky-high again as the little car below made its return journey. (80):  Highly exaggerated.  Witnesses called it only a ‘delightful breeze’ or ‘readily perceived’.  The pressure was only one quarter of an ounce per square inch.  There is a description of hats and handkerchiefs sucked away in the 1870 edition of the Illustrated Description, but it was describing what happened when visitors stood directly in front of the blower itself on a tour of the works.  Nothing about a fountain is documented, except that one had been installed next to the grate by 1912. 

That night Beach wept his defeat.  But in the morning he was himself again. (80):  An imagined scene following the second veto in 1872. 

Beach closed the subway after the veto of 1872 (81):  No source says so, and there is evidence of it being open until April 1873, when the passenger charter was signed into law. 

Hoffman, Tammany, and the second veto (81):  Extrapolated from Beach 1872.  Daley got himself into a logical hole here, and to wriggle out he described the second veto before mentioning Tweed’s indictment and the disgrace of Tammany, which took place in 1871 well before the second veto.  Interestingly, after this he finally mentioned the practical objections, namely doubts about pneumatic power and shield tunnelling, and the property owners’ concerns about damage to buildings. 

Beach’s fortune gone by 1873 (82):  No source says so.  In 1874 the company, meaning Beach personally as usual, had enough funds to contract an engineer to draw up plans, pay for Dixon to go to England to seek investors, and lobby at Albany.  Of course all stock investors lost a great deal of money in the Panic late in 1873. 

Late in 1873, with the ‘greatest reluctance’, Governor Dix withdrew the charter. (82):  This is certainly false.  The only previous mention of this idea is the Times story of February 1950, where it may come from Stanley Beach.  Even there the words placed in quotes by Daley, greatest reluctance, do not appear. 

Beach was depressed for years after 1873 (82):  Imagined by Daley.  There is no sign of it in his continued work on the Broadway Underground Railway over the next few years. 

The Beach Institute. (83):  Daley called Beach an easy touch for charities after 1873, and mentioned the Beach Institute as if it was an example.  But the institute opened in 1867, dating it completely before the Beach Pneumatic project. 

There is a small postscript to the story.  In February, 1912, workers cutting the new BMT subway broke suddenly, unexpectedly into Beach’s tunnel.  All was as it had been forty years before, when Beach had ordered it sealed up.  Some of the wooden fixtures had rotted, but the air was dry and warm and the tunnel was in good condition.  Alongside the once-elegant station the little car stood on its rails, as if waiting patiently for its next load of passengers.  The tunneling bore still plugged one end of the tunnel, waiting to be driven forward— toward the end of the island. (83):  No paragraph in Daley has caused so much mischief as this one.  This is the very first description of workers breaking into the tunnel by surprise, and the first to claim that the station still existed in 1912.  It is hard to see what Daley could have read that led him to this conclusion.  The newspaper and Scientific American stories from February 1912 make it quite clear that the tunnel was known to exist before the contract was awarded that month.  None make any mention whatever of the station. 

Today Beach’s tube is part of the BMT’s City Hall Station, and there is a small plaque on one wall which acknowledges Beach as the father of New York’s 726 thundering miles of subway. (83):  It is hard to know now what to make of this claim.  The plaque is not there now, and there is no mark on any wall to suggest that it had ever been there. 

Daley misspelled Beach’s middle name as ‘Eli’ every time he used it. 

American Heritage

Daley’s chapter about Beach was reprinted almost word for word in American Heritage, a popular magazine for history buffs, in 1961.16  The editor made many minor changes, combining the newspaper man’s short paragraphs into longer ones and altering some conjunctions. Two textual changes are noted above.  Beach’s middle name is spelled correctly.  The most significant change is that Daley’s imaginary quotes are converted into narrative:  for example, now Young Beach could only suggest that they send for his father rather than ‘Better get Pop’.  The just-so quotes however served to tip off the reader to the story-telling nature of the whole narrative.  Dropping them made it a little less obvious and seems to have misled historians.  Therefore the change was not an improvement. 

Poison in the academic well

Seymour J Mandelbaum, Professor of Urban History at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a book published in 1965 called Boss Tweed’s New York.  He had a just a few lines on pneumatic transit.  Beach could not get up enough wind to counteract the influence of the city’s political leaders who backed an elevated line in which they had a personal financial interest, he wrote, citing Daley in American Heritage and thus legitimatizing the article as history.17 

The next year, Alexander B Callow, Professor of History at the University of California, fell into the trap.  His book The Tweed Ring devoted four pages to essentially a summary of Daley, citing the American History piece and also the book (as if the book had anything additional on the subject).18  Beach realized that the Tweed Ring was the critical roadblock, Callow wrote, and emphasized how the ‘Ring’ could destroy the project.  The astonishing thing about Callow’s summary of Daley is that his footnote for all this includes a cite of the Times of March 18, 1870, a story that clearly describes Tweed’s sponsorship of the first Beach Pneumatic bill and takes the bill to task for the unreasonably broad powers it would have given.  This completely contradicts Callow’s main text.  Instead Callow described Beach working in absolute secrecy, at night to avoid Tammany scrutiny, and so forth. 

Following Daley, and Beach’s revisionist account, Callow’s book describes the rivalry with the Viaduct in 1871 as the first Beach bill.  As to the Viaduct, Callow also cited Gustavus Myers’s Tammany Hall, which considered Tweed the main force behind the project.  New Yorkers waited with acute apprehension for the outcome in 1871, wrote Callow; Daley said they waited impatiently.  The game little inventor tried again, using the last of his fortune, as Daley claimed.  And following Daley and no one else, Callow wrote, Dix was forced to withdraw the charter.  He even concluded by mentioning the legendary plaque in City Hall station. 

With this, the Daley version became the standard version.  The easy transition of the legend from pop history to academic scholarship is a wonderful and sad thing. 

Uptown Downtown

Stan Fischler put together the first widely available modern book on the subways in 1976, Uptown Downtown.  His nine pages on Beach are so closely based on Daley that there is little reason to review them.19  However he added something near the end, after the subway construction crew break unexpectedly into Beach’s tunnel.  Daley had only said that the car stood in the station.  Fischler expanded on this.  With the exception of some rotted wooden fixtures, the salon retained its original splendor.  The magnificent station arrested the sandhogs’ attention.  Not only did they delight in the vision of an underground fountain but in the discovery that there had been a subway operating under Manhattan years before they began digging.  And then Fischler mentioned the legendary plaque. 

Fischler’s book appealed to every subway buff in New York and everywhere else.  Anyone who had missed Daley’s book— which was still popular in libraries— got the story from Fischler. 

Under the Sidewalks of New York

Another general book on the subways appeared in 1979, Under the Sidewalks of New York.20  It provided a more complete history than Fischler’s book and had many more illustrations.  Author Brian Cudahy was at the time an official in the U S Department of Transportation and he had previously written about the Boston subway (Change at Park Street Under) and the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad (Rails under the Mighty Hudson).  Cudahy set off the Beach Pneumatic story into a two-page prologue before chapter 1, since it was out of the main story.  ‘The Secret Subway’ is a quick summary of the Daley version that adds no new embellishments.  It is accompanied by one of the photographs taken in 1912, and it may or may not be significant that Cudahy did not mention workers being surprised when they broke into it.  Otherwise he described nineteenth century rapid transit mainly to discuss steam power on the elevated railways and the development of electric train operation, a key factor in making the subway practical. 

Labyrinths of Iron

The first well-researched review of early New York subway plans since Walker’s Fifty Years of Rapid Transit was published in 1981 as part of Benson Bobrick’s unusual Labyrinths of Iron, subtitled a history of the world’s subways.  A graduate student of philosophy and literature, Bobrick started his history of subways in the ancient world.  He emphasized for the first time in a subway history that the very act of going underground had a mystery to it that frightened some prospective passengers. 

The chapter ‘The Lamp and the Ring’21 starts with the cries for rapid transit and Willson’s Metropolitan Railway proposal, and then goes on to early pneumatic railways and the development of Beach’s plan.  Inevitably he relied on Walker for some of this (unfortunately not noted specifically despite his reusing certain quotes from it). 

Bobrick must have read Daley.  He set up Tweed and Beach as opposites, the one ‘palpably corrupt’, the other ‘almost proverbially upright’.  This view follows not only Daley but Beach’s own revisionist writings, which Bobrick cited.  The agreement between the two must have made the facts look pretty solid.  Tweed, who had expected Beach to begin campaigning for a pneumatic el, was delighted to see him so diverted by pneumatic dispatch, Bobrick wrote, extrapolating from a bad premise, and agreeing with Walker that it was a ruse.  Now following Daley and Callow, he wrote of work done only at night and with Frederick in charge of it all.  Joseph Dixon had been firmly cut out of the story by this time.  When the car ran, now following Daley, the vent blew away hats and other objects, and once again the ‘circle of metal at the base of the Nathan Hale statue’ marks the site, the first appearance of this bit in book form. 

Tweed was flabbergasted.  Bobrick’s account of the legislative fight passes over 1870 as usual and starts with the vote count from March 1871 and Hoffman’s first veto, of which he wrote that Hoffman was concerned about engineering practicality.  That was true, but Hoffman’s remarks on the broadness of the charter are missed.  Bobrick unaccountably put the Viaduct bill following this, and the vote on the rival plans in 1872, a year late.  He used Gustavus Myers’s description of it as an unparalleled steal, also quoted in Callow’s book, which has the year right.  Bobrick blamed the failure of the Beach plan after getting a charter in 1873 only on the Panic. 

So thoroughly did oblivion befall it that when in February 1912 astounded BMT workers broke in upon it while building their own line— forty-two years after it was first revealed to the public— it was like an archaeological find.  The station was still largely intact.  The fountain, long dry, still stood; the car was on its tracks.  This now follows Fischler— not cited— for details of the station, although the station itself had been mentioned by Daley.22  The supposed plaque was mentioned once more. 

Bobrick’s notes and bibliography indicate how much time he spent researching the story.  What the errors really show is how distorted the story was becoming in the secondary sources. 

722 Miles

Clifton Hood began to write an excellent history of the New York transit system as a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, and completed it as the book 722 Miles, published in 1993.23  The main coverage starts with the Rapid Transit Act of 1891, which led to the construction of the first subway.  It is only a minor criticism to say that more on the nineteenth century elevated railways might have illustrated how the lessons learned there served as a useful first draft of how to build a rapid transit system for New York.  722 Miles is especially strong on the political and institutional factors in planning and construction, and the way the city was shaped by subway lines. 

Hood’s section on the Beach Pneumatic is based partly on Bobrick and Callow and the 1872 edition of Beach’s Illustrated Description.  Like Bobrick he laid the foundation with Willson’s Metropolitan Railway proposal and the early pneumatic railway work in England.  Once again Tweed is opposed to Beach, although Hood mentions it only in passing, and once again the subway is built in absolute secrecy.  But to his credit Hood was the first in a very long time to state that A T Stewart’s group of Broadway property owners were the main opposition to Willson and Beach and any others who wanted to build an underground railway in Broadway. 

Although The World Beneath the City is not referenced, Hood paraphrased Daley’s imagined story about construction.  The tunnel measured only eight feet wide and did not contain nearly enough room for the people who had to toil there.  For the eight-man crews, the tube was a living hell of hot, stinking air and dim, flickering lantern light.  The sound of the horse cars and omnibuses clattering along Broadway, twelve feet above the roof of the tunnel, heightened the claustrophobia.  But even Daley did not say that it was hot, only poorly ventilated.  It was winter after all, and Beach and others would go on to believe that tunnels stayed cool all year, as if this had been their experience. 

Economics, not technology, was the primary obstacle, Hood wrote.  He praised Beach’s willingness to consider steam power, authorized in the bill that passed in 1873, calling pneumatic power the last significant technological roadblock standing in the way of his dream.  Like Walker, Hood argued that steam underground railways would have been workable if built.  But the money could not be raised, because it was an expensive and risky project.  This was a theme Hood continued into the 1890s when the subway could not be built until the city loaned money to the project.  Hood considered the Panic of 1873 to have been the end of whatever hopes Beach had.  He wrote that Beach admitted defeat in 1874, not noting the continued efforts of Beach and Melville C Smith to build an underground railway in Broadway. 

The tunnel was finally abandoned, sealed, and completely forgotten until February 1912 when construction workers from the Degnon Construction Company rediscovered it.  Hood stops short of saying that they were surprised to find it.  He cited the Times of February 1912, so he knew that officials had gone down the vent specifically to inspect the tunnel.  But he also embellished the tradition received via Bobrick as follows.  Using candles to light the way, these laborers saw that Beach’s showcase remained in surprisingly good shape; although the wooden car had almost completely rotted away, the hydraulic shield and the waiting room were well preserved.  Why they used candles instead of lanterns or flashlights was not explained. 

At least Hood did not claim that there is a plaque in City Hall station. 

Mole People

Jennifer Toth’s 1993 book on people living in the subway, Mole People, makes it sound like they had simply chosen an alternative lifestyle, but it did open public discourse on a growing problem that subway riders had observed for years.  By not recognizing her subjects’ mental illness and substance abuse, she took far too much at face value and lost the opportunity to investigate the origins of the stories they told her.  Some of them had clearly read Daley’s book or his followers like Fischler and Bobrick, and they told her that they had been in Beach’s subway. 

She wrote for example that most of the homeless find their homes far enough away from operating tracks where they hear only a slight tremor when trains pass. Still others live in relative splendor— in the frescoed waiting rooms of a few long-abandoned subway stations, at least one of which is said to contain a piano, a fountain, and mirrored walls.  The frescoes are from Daley, or Fischler, but the mirrored walls are a further embellishment.  It’s not as if Toth had never heard of Beach’s subway, for she wrote a few pages farther on, Beach’s is the only one of several experimental subway lines uncovered, as far as is known (why she thought there were any more is inexplicable).  One of its features, a waiting room furnished with a crystal chandelier and grand piano, was found intact when the line was rediscovered,  Toth wrote as narration.  A man she called Jamall told her about the huge underground room ‘with a piano and tiled floor and mirrors all around’ and an elderly woman told her of a room with a fountain. 

A reasonable conclusion from Toth’s reports is that some number of people living in the subway had been subway buffs at one time.  But whether socialization problems typically associated with this, such as Asperger’s syndrome, had any role in their isolated lives underground was totally lost on Toth.  Were their memories now badly confused between reading and experience, or were they consciously embellishing the story of their lives?  Either way it has implications for other things they told her. 

Workers digging the subway tunnels early in this century are said to have found a ten-thousand-year old standing forest buried deep under the Upper West Side, wrote Toth, apparently quoting a mole person who was telling her another story from The World Beneath the City, the book that some of her underground acquaintances had practically memorized.24 

The legend continues

Several books were published on the occasion of the centennial of the subway in 2004.  Lorraine Diehl’s Subways / the tracks that built New York followed the Daley text down to the imaginary quotes.  Courtesy a brief discussion with this writer, she noted the destruction of the station in 1899 and the unsurprising inspection of the tunnel in 1912, but the Tweed story remained.25 

The Transit Museum’s The City Beneath Us informs readers that the Beach tunnel was later rented out as a shooting gallery and a wine cellar.  On some nights, a lone figure could be seen in the vault, strangely boyish despite his white hair, perched on a wine crate, staring into the dark.  It was Beach, still dreaming of achieving the impossible.26 

He might have been dreaming of his story being told accurately. 

‘Sub Rosa Subway’

A Canadian band called Klaatu recorded a song in 1973 called Sub Rosa Subway that is the only known musical tribute to the Beach Pneumatic Transit tunnel.  It was written by John Woloschuk and Dino Tome.27  They based it on Daley; note the frescoed walls. 

Back in 1870 just beneath the Great White Way
Alfred Beach worked secretly
Risking all to ride a dream
His wind-machine
His wind-machine

New York City and the morning sun
Were awoken by the strangest sound
Reportedly as far as Washington
The tremors shook the earth as Alfie
Blew underground
Blew underground
He blew underground, yeah

Ahh All aboard sub-rosa subway
Had you wondered who’s been digging under Broadway?
It’s Alfred
It’s Alfred
It’s Alfred
Poor Al, woh no Al

As for America’s first subway
The public scoffed, ‘It’s far too rude’
One station filled with Victoria’s age
From frescoed walls and goldfish fountains … 
To Brahmsian tunes


1 Tribune, 1903 Oct 4.
2 Scientific American, 1912 Feb 24.
3 Scientific American, 1912 Apr 20.
4 Times, 1915 May 26.
5 Times, 1918 Jun 9.
6 Walker, Fifty years, 87-94.
7 Times, 1926 Sep 12.
8 Granick, Underneath New York, 176-177.
9 Herald Tribune, 1950 Feb 27.
10 Times, 1950 Feb 25.
11 The statue by Frederick MacMonnies was unveiled in 1893 at a location one block south near the corner of Broadway and Mail St, but set back enough to be seen clearly (Times, 1893 Nov 19, Nov 25).  It was moved to a temporary location about 1912 because of construction on the Broadway subway (Times, 1914 Jun 28).  It was finally put in a new permanent location in 1922 at Murray St as described (Times, 1922 Jun 11, Jun 15).  It was moved once again in 1999 to its present location facing the southeast corner of City Hall (Times, 1999 Oct 31), where unfortunately ordinary citizens of New York cannot get a good look at it.  Only the city’s elite are now permitted access to the walkway in front of City Hall.
12 World Telegram and the Sun, 1950 Feb 25.
13 Morris, Incredible New York, 102, 104-107.
14 Daley, World beneath, 222.
15 Daley, World beneath, 66-83.
16 American Heritage, 1961 Jun.
17 Mandelbaum, Boss Tweed’s New York, 65.  Not only that, but by contrast Harvey’s project ‘got off the ground’.
18 Callow, Tweed Ring, 185-188.
19 Fischler, Uptown downtown, 19-27
20 Cudahy, Under the sidewalks of New York.
21 Bobrick, Labyrinths of iron, 169-194.
22 Also here, another common error, that the older lines of the New York subway were built by private interests.  All of the subways were built by contractors paid out of city funds under the direction of a series of public agencies.  Only the nineteenth-century elevated railways were built and owned by for-profit companies.  The Public Service Commission for the First District was the agency in charge during construction of the Broadway subway.
23 Hood, 722 miles, 42-48.
24 Toth, Mole people, 41, 45-46, 234-235.
25 Diehl, Subways, 10-15.
26 New York Transit Museum, City beneath us, 14-15.
27 John Woloschuk and Dino Tome, ‘Sub Rosa Subway’. See for more, including a reprint of Fischler’s chapter on Beach.

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