“THE WORLD BENEATH THE CITY”
The preceding chapters described the history of the Beach Pneumatic
Transit tunnel from beginning to end. But there is another history, that
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.
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
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
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
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 Description. The 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
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
The New-York Historical Society exhibit in 1950
[ 26-1 ]
Illustration from the World Telegram and the Sun, February 25,
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
The World Beneath the City
[ 26-2 ]
[ 26-3 ]
Advertisements, from theTimes , January 12 and January 27,
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
‘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
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
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
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
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.
Daley’s chapter about Beach was reprinted almost word for word
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Back in 1870 just beneath the Great White Way
Alfred Beach worked secretly
Risking all to ride a dream
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
He blew underground, yeah
Ahh All aboard sub-rosa subway
Had you wondered who’s been digging under Broadway?
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
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
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 http://www.klaatu.org for more, including a reprint of Fischler’s
chapter on Beach.