“TO EXCAVATE THE EARTH”
The Post Office and Devlin’s store
The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company were required by the law, chapter 842, laws of 1868, to first construct one line of pneumatic tubes from the main Post Office north to a point no farther than 14th St, and operate it for three months before laying any more tubes. The Post Office at that time was located on Nassau St between Liberty and Cedar Sts.1 No specific route was stated, but Broadway was a reasonable choice. A new and much larger Post Office was planned for the site at the point of City Hall Park where Park Row meets Broadway. The tubes should run past the new site on the way uptown.
The Post Office however turned down the proposal. In a letter of September 23, 1868, the Postmaster informed the company that he had no authority under the law to grant the use of space under the sidewalk on Cedar St.2 No contemporary reports mention this correspondence.
[ 3-1 ]
At some date in 1868, Beach brought in Joseph Dixon, the engineer whose cast iron plate tunnel invention was so praised in Scientific American. Dixon was styled the Secretary of the company, and it was apparently he who supervised the works.
The company took a five-year lease of the basement of Devlin’s clothing store starting December 1, 1868. For $1,250 a quarter, the Beach company had use of the two basement levels and the vaults under the sidewalk.3 The store was located at 258 and 260 Broadway, the southwest corner of Warren St. The new Post Office site was across Broadway three blocks south.
[ 3-2 ]
[ 3-3 ]
[ 3-4 ]
[ 3-5 ]
The small tube
Beach had been promoting both pneumatic passenger railways and dispatch systems. What was the true purpose of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company? James Blaine Walker in 1918 called it a huge practical joke.4 Clifton Hood in 1993 called it a false and flagrantly illegal prospectus.5 Both assume that it had always been Beach’s intention to build a passenger railway.
However the company began construction with a small tube that would not have been suitable for passengers. The company’s booklet Illustrated Description of the Broadway Underground Railway states, regarding the tunnelling shield, The first machine of this kind, of smaller dimensions, was put in operation under Broadway in 1868, and with it a tunnel of some 5½ feet in diameter was constructed. Its success was so complete that the company determined to construct the large machine shown in our engravings.6
This may sound like a cover story, but the small tube was really built. It is mentioned in the famous Tribune story of January 1870, written by a reporter who had made his way down into the company’s work site. He went down the stairway to the tunnel. Almost in front of these steps is an opening about five feet in diameter, which is evidently an abandoned work, the first experimental effort of the Company. The mouth of this small tunnel is now partially covered with debris, and a machinist’s bench with a huge vise attached stands nearly in front of it.7 The reports from the official opening do not mention the smaller tunnel at all, and it seems to have been walled up in the tidying for the public. The Tribune reporter says the larger tube was but a few feet from it.
Beach had experience with pneumatic power, but not with tunnel construction. It is possible that he was exercising great caution about subsidence endangering the street surface or building foundations, any amount of which for any reason would be used to fuel arguments against underground railroads. His later boasting about no damage whatsoever suggests his great relief. He may also have had doubts about the shield. If all he could do was show the practicality of underground pneumatic dispatch, that was still something.
The romantic popular story is that the tunnel was built in total secrecy. In reality the project was in the newspapers almost as soon as construction began. The Times noted in January 1869 that a pneumatic dispatch company was being established, and, The details of the project are carefully withheld by the Company for the present, but it is understood that they have leased the basement of Messrs Devlin & Co’s building … Thence a tube will be extended to the vicinity of the Nassau-street Post Office, and will be laid at once.8
In February the paper added, The work of tunneling beneath Broadway then begun has been slowly but steadily progressing, and will be pushed forward to completion as rapidly as possible. The details of these operations have been carefully withheld by them from the public, in order to avoid the otherwise inevitable annoyance of injunctions from stage-line proprietors and property-owners on the route.9 The public were to become increasingly curious what a pneumatic tube would look like, but the project itself was not a secret.
The large tube
The law chartering the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company was amended in May 1869 by chapter 512, laws of 1869, to provide that if the postmaster should neglect or refuse to give consent to connect with the Post Office, the company might instead of the original routing construct the line from Warren St down Broadway to Cedar St or a point within 200 feet of Cedar St.1 This amendment was of course very friendly to the company, since the postmaster had already refused many months earlier and the premises at Warren St were already rented.
Most importantly, the amendment also provided for a larger tube. The original charter provided for two tubes 54 inches in diameter, four and half feet, which meets more or less the description of the five foot tube the company had begun to build. The amendment permitted the company to build one large tube within which the two smaller tubes could be laid. This allowed for a tube large enough for a passenger car although of course that was not explicitly stated. The company later explained it as follows.
It was also ascertained that the quickest and best method of construction for the two tubes was to bore under the streets, below the water pipes and sewers, and erect a masonry shell or tunnel large enough inclose both of the fifty-four inch tubes. It is a portion of this larger tunnel that has been erected; and as it proved to be strong enough and large enough for the transit of passengers, the company laid down therein a railway track and provided a passenger car, for the purpose of temporarily illustrating, by an actual demonstration, the feasability of placing a railway under Broadway, without disturbance of the street surface or injury to adjacent property.6
Here Beach was taking care to make legal what he now wanted to do. He had gained confidence about building a larger tunnel. Now the workmen would be able to stand up and the job would go faster. And there was the chance of using it to demonstrate passenger service, with the goal of getting a charter for a passenger railway.
[ 3-6 ]
A very large blower would be needed. Beach dispatched William Holske, who had built Beach’s pneumatic tubes at the American Institute, to the Roots company in Indiana. On Holske’s return, Beach wrote to the Roots brothers on June 2:
Mr Holske returned yesterday from Connersville, and has made an interesting and satisfactory report concerning the Blower, more than confirming all you have said about it. He speaks of it as an admirable piece of workmanship, reflecting the highest credit upon your skill and ability. His report gives me much satisfaction. When the machine is set up here, it will be presented to the scrutiny of all the best engineers and mechanics in the country, and I shall take the greatest pleasure in doing all I can to promote your interests, believing that you have faithfully done all that you could do for me.10
On June 24, Joseph Dixon wrote to Beach about preparing the new shield for the larger tunnel. He wrote about a contractor called Lyon who was making something, possibly the hydraulic rams. Holske said they would have to fit their work to the shield in his shop. Lyon’s man says they can do it just as well in our vault after the shield is placed in position … I shall tell Holske to send the shield down as soon as it is ready and fit up, so that Lyon’s men will have but one handling and one cartage of their part of the work.11 Clearly the shield for the large tunnel was not yet on site. The company had waited for authorization to build the larger tube.
The Times got hold of the story within weeks. It has been stated that our New-York company had commenced operations; that tunnels had been dug, and that, in fact, the portion of the city in the vicinity of the City Hall Park and the TIMES Office had been literally honeycombed by the main tunnel and its ramifications. Yesterday another rumor was started that the iron arches intended to support the tunnel were being put in … On inquiry, however, in the proper quarter it appears that the Pneumatic Dispatch Company have not, as yet, taken a single step toward the practical realization of their plans. No tunnel has been dug, not one spade full of earth has been removed …12 But the rumors about iron arches were nearly right. It sounds as if someone passing Devlin’s had seen iron sections of the shield, or sections of the tunnel lining based on Dixon’s plans of 1867.
The Post Office again denied Beach the right to connect. Perhaps this time the company’s request was pro forma, to satisfy the charter amendment of 1869. The letter addressed to Dixon states, Your application of the date for permission to connect your Pneumatic Tubes with the Post Office … is hereby denied for the reason that the Post Master General has already decided that no authority exists under the law to grant such permission.13 But now it didn’t matter. The large tube was under construction from Warren Street south under the terms of the amendment.
Dixon, an accomplished engineer, did not take easily to Beach’s total control of the project. By late summer he offered his resignation in a four page handwritten note, following an argument between them. Dixon described his work as a labor of love, but objected to being treated as a mere machine to be started and stopped at the will of another.14 The resignation was not accepted. Two months later Dixon repeated the offer, reminding Beach of his previous letter, and asking Beach to admit his error in stating to someone that recently Dixon went into the tunnel at my own pleasure boasting greatly how splendidly I was going to do things.15 Again Beach somehow patched things up. In the company’s Illustrated Description, Beach took care to mention, This method of erecting iron tunnels is the invention of Mr Joseph Dixon, secretary of the company, long known for his persevering efforts to establish the underground railway in New-York.6
The tunnel shield
The tunnel was dug out using a shield. The concept dates from 1818, and the English engineer Marc Isambard Brunel used one in 1825 the Thames Tunnel (now part of the East London Line of the Underground). Beach patented some improvements. The shield provides both protection at the working face of a tunnel and a means to force the tunnel forward through the ground. Below is a diagram and description by Beach from Scientific American of March 5, 1870.
[ 3-7 ]
The body of the shield is shown at A, and is simply a short tube of timberwork, backed by a heavy wrought iron ring, against which the hydraulic rams, D, act to advance the entire machine. The front part of the shield is a heavy chilled iron ring, B, brought to a cutting edge, and crossed on the interior by shelves, C, also sharpened. Bearing blocks, E, of timber, are placed against the masonry, as shown, on which the rams press when the shield is advanced. F is the pump from which the water is carried to the rams by pipes G. H is a hood of thin sheet steel within which the masonry is built, in rings of 16 inches in length, the bricks interlocked.
The operation of this machine is as follows : The pump is worked by one man, and the rams press with a force of 126 tuns against the end of the masonry. This forces the cutting edge and the shelves into the earth to a distance corresponding to the length of the stroke in the hydraulic cylinders and the earth being removed the masonry is again advanced, and so on step by step.16
[ 3-8 ]
For the Illustrated Description book Beach described it again, with some additional details:
The shield consists of a large cylinder, open at both ends, with shelves arranged within the front end to receive the earth and prevent it from falling back too rapidly into the shield ; at the rear of the latter, placed around its periphery, is a series of powerful hydraulic rams, eighteen in number, all connected with a single water-pump. From the rear of the shield, and passing entirely around it, extends a hoop or band of sheet steel, two feet wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, termed the hood. The brick tunnel is erected within this hood, which at all times covers one end of the masonry, and prevents the earth above from falling upon the workmen. After a section of the tunnel sixteen inches long has been erected within the hood, the pump is operated, which causes the rams to slide out from the shield, and push with great force against the front edge of the tunnel, driving the shield forward into the earth. As the shield advances, the earth presses through between the shelves, and falls down upon the bottom of the shield, whence it is removed in barrows and cars. As soon as the shield has been advanced sixteen inches, its movement is stopped, and a new section of the masonry tunnel is erected within the hood …6
By means of this machine tunnels of all kinds and sizes may be quickly constructed under the streets, without disturbing the travel of vehicles over the surface. The shield may be readily moved around curves or on grades. Where tunneling at any considerable depth below the surface is required, the use of this machine saves a large amount of labor. Eight men, working with two of these machines, are enabled to excavate the earth and erect within the excavation, eight running feet of completed tunnel per day.6
This machine was designed by Mr A E Beach, of the Scientific American, and was built by the Holske Machine Company, 528 Water street, under the personal superintendance of Mr William F Holske. The splendid hydraulic rams and pump were made at the celebrated hydraulic engineering establishment of E Lyon, 470 Grand street, New-York, from the drawings and under the special superintendance of Mr Thomas G Watson, mechanical engineer. The system of hydraulic rams used in this tunneling machine is worthy of special note for its novelty and success. It reflects the highest credit upon the constructor and engineer.6 Beach was always generous in praising inventors and engineers for their work. It was part of his business and it carried over into his own project.
Digging the Beach Pneumatic tunnel
By means of the present machine, this railway tunnel was constructed and turned on a radius of fifty feet ; the exterior diameter of the tunnel is 9 feet 4 inches … The shield was steered around the curve and down Broadway by turning the stop-cocks of the water-pipes belonging to the hydraulic rams, thus changing the pressure from side to side as occasion required. During the progress of the work under Broadway, the exact course traveled by the machine was determined by compass and survey in the usual manner, and the lines were from time to time verified by driving jointed rods of iron up through the roof of the tunnel to the pavement … . This was done in the night-time after the stages had ceased running.6
[ 3-9 ]
Describing the work in 1870, Dixon (most likely) told a story reported only in the Herald. In the course of the travels of this cylinder, it came upon the remains of an old Dutch powder-magazine. The stones were not too large to come through the shelves, and they were carted away with the earth.17 When the present-day Broadway subway was constructed in 1912, more of the same stones were found, but they proved to be part of a cistern, a water storage tank, old but of more recent vintage than the Dutch colonial period.18
The curved part of the tunnel was lined with iron plates, while the straight portion was lined with brick as described. It is possible that the inclusion of a curve and two kinds of lining were intended as demonstrations, but if so Beach’s booklet does not make the point.
The Tower Subway, London
Writing in 1870, Beach mentioned that a similar shield was being used to construct the Tower Subway under the River Thames in London. A patent design of Peter Barlow from 1864, the shield was used to drive a nine foot diameter tunnel for a length of about 1400 feet in only five months. The tube was lined with iron plates something like Dixon’s design, rather than brick, and the shield was pushed forward by screw jacks rather than hydraulic rams. London clay was to prove a very favorable material for tube tunnels. When the Tower Subway opened in August 1870 it contained a narrow gauge cable railway with one car permanently attached, something like a horizontal elevator. The stations at each end were reached by elevators in fifty-foot shafts. Although it opened after Beach’s subway, it must be given its due as the first tube railway that provided useful transportation from one place to another. But mechanical and economic problems forced it to close within a few months. In December it reopened as a foot tunnel with both the railway and the elevators removed, challenging the public’s fitness until 1894 when Tower Bridge opened close by, resulting in the subway being closed. The tunnel still exists and is now used to carry utilities across the river.19
[ 3-10 ]
Installing the blower
Near the end of 1869, with the tube moving along well, Beach began bringing in some of the blower machinery. The Tribune reported on the activity two days running.
A gang of men were very busily engaged yesterday at the south-west corner of Broadway and Warren-st, lowering machinery for the Pneumatic Railway into the basement under Devlin’s clothing store. The railway has been in the process of construction for a year or more, and is said to already extend down the east side of Broadway from Warren-st to Trinity Church … It is said that the tunnel is cylindrical, about ten feet in diameter, walled with brick and lined with iron, and provided with a track, and that it runs entirely below the sewers and gas pipes. It is further asserted that two gangs of men are employed in the excavation, one by day and one by night, and that the earth is stored in the sub-cellar of Devlin’s store, and finally hoisted out and carried off from the rear of the same building. The machinery which obstructed the south side of Warren-st yesterday consisted of six or eight ‘fans’ or ‘blowers’, which resembled quarter-sections of a huge cylinder 12 or 15 feet long, and 8 or 10 in diameter.20
Warren-st, as stated yesterday, is strewn with huge pieces of machinery. Laborers are tugging at them, the while looking as wise as owls, but dumb as sphinxes regarding their work. This bulky machinery has evidently been wrought at some other place, for each piece is marked ‘A E B, N Y’ which indicates its consignment to Alfred E Beach, New-York, that gentleman being the President of the Company. All means of communicating with the engineer are cut off, or so guarded that one cannot get through, or rather down them.21
The unnamed Tribune reporter had spoken with someone amongst the ‘sphinxes’. The articles are fairly accurate. The length of the tunnel is exaggerated and its position under Broadway is offset, but that might be expected of information from a workman who could not take measurements of what he was seeing. Notably too, the story calls it the Pneumatic Railway without comment, although it was still, officially and legally, a tube for mail and package delivery.
Alfred Beach’s son Frederick said in 1903 that he had been the night superintendant in charge of the construction work, and recalled, The only evidence was an occasional pile of sand in Warren-st at the extreme rear of the building. There was a very large cellar which we hired, and the earth which had been excavated was dumped into the cellar. The surplus was removed at night. The public thought the earth was from some building operation if they thought of it at all.22
The staging of dirt in the basement and removal at night is exactly as reported in the Tribune in 1869. Frederick Beach has confused later writers by introducing this recollection with the words nothing was known of the construction of the tunnel. The construction was certainly no secret. Removal at night simply avoided traffic. It also of course helped maintain the company’s low profile. But the Tribune had begun to take note.
The West Side Elevated Railroad
During 1869, the West Side Elevated Railroad was under construction on Greenwich St and Ninth Ave. The goal was to get a single track working as far as the Hudson River Railroad terminal at 29th Street, to open the line and generate some income. The authorized second track and intermediate stations would follow. By the start of the year, the company had laid foundations for columns all the way from Cortlandt St to 30th St. The new structure would have the cable returning directly under itself instead of underground.23 The defects in its original construction have been obviated, the Times noted hopefully.24 Scientific American reported in February on the new propelling machinery and that it seems to work easily.25
The factory of the Company in Harrison-street employs 130 men in making iron columns for the support of the track, and fifteen or twenty are turned out every twenty-four hours. Thirty men are also constructing four engine vaults below the pavements, at different points upon the route, reported the Times in April. The Cortlandt St engine vault was already in use to power the first demonstration segment south to Battery Place. The others would be at Franklin St, Bethune St, and 22nd St, to be completed in June. Somewhat optimistically, twenty cars were reported to be on the way.26
The first car was raised to its place on the track of the Elevated Railway in Greenwich-street, reported the Times on August 31. This car is the first of ten which are in process of construction for the company, and it is a fair sample of the whole. In appearance it is not unlike those in use on our street roads, except that it is longer and more handsomely furnished. It is 27 feet long by 7 feet 9 inches wide, and is calculated to seat from forty to forty-five persons. It is elegantly finished in black walnut and maple, the contrast between the two woods having a very fine effect. The seats are plainly but neatly upholstered with carpeting. The bodies of the cars are being built by ISAAC KEITH, of West Sandwich, Mass, and the iron work is made and fitted at the Bethune-street yards, near Ninth-avenue, and the Harrison-street foundry. The wheels are placed under the front and rear platforms, instead of being under the body of the car, which is hung on elliptical springs, so arranged as to lessen both lateral and perpendicular motion.27 The cars came with large wheel flanges, one and a half inches, to assure safety.28
The first public trips from Cortlandt St to Battery Place were to be held on Saturday, September 4. The columns were up to 30th St but the vaults for the engines were not yet finished. Opening day was set as December 1 but it did not happen.27
[ 3-11 ]
[ 3-12 ]
With the line thus almost completed, the company faced difficulty raising additional capital after ‘Black Friday’, September 26, 1869, the stock and banking collapse brought on by Jay Gould’s attempt to corner the gold market. They made a show of continuing work, but only a small force could be paid, and progress slowed. Speculative new investors came aboard, shocking Harvey with a proposal to make the line appear to be a failure for a time in order to buy up the old stock cheaply only to re-sell it later at a large profit. They required stock-voting control as security. Harvey would have profited along with them, but he would not participate in the plan, and the new investors began to push him out. They obstructed him from working on improvements but leaked comments about difficulties. At the end of 1869, the line was still not in operation.29 To the public it was still just the peculiar lamp-post arrangement along Greenwich-street.30 The Times reported the anti-Harvey view being expressed.
This enterprise, which has now been before the public for about three years, and in the prosecution of which nearly half a million of dollars is reported to have been expended, appears to be no nearer to completion than it was a year ago. The report that the failure of LOCKWOOD & Co, the bankers of the Company, had entailed losses upon the enterprise, is not correct. The loan of $300,000 which LOCKWOOD & Co negotiated for the Company in 1868 had all been expended before that house failed. Since then the Company has endeavored to raise $200,000 to complete the road to Thirtieth-street, and, in order to get the money, they proposed to the original subscribers to abate fifty per cent on their original subscriptions and payments— all parties who contributed to the first $200,000 being allowed to receive fifty per cent of their subscriptions in additional stock. In this way $100,000 has been subscribed and is partly paid in, which is thought sufficient to complete the road to Canal-street. With this money the work is now being prosecuted, but in a very slow manner, the number of workmen actually employed being small. Subscribers to the road complain that the enterprise has been mismanaged, and that more than $100,000 has been squandered in useless experiments through the incompetency of the engineers. Even if the money were ready to complete the road the practicability of the plan is regarded by many as exceedingly problematic. The motive power for propelling the cars has not yet been fully demonstrated as a mechanical success, and many think it will prove abortive in practice. On the whole there does not appear to be much prospect that the public will get any relief at present in the way of speedy transit up town from the long talked of Greenwich-street Elevated Railway.31
But in fact a great deal had been constructed in the year since November 1868, and the portion of the road open for demonstration had worked. The original stockholders were now to worry about the additional stock, the useless completion only to Canal St, and the ‘incompetency of the engineers’, a slur aimed at Harvey.
The New York City Central Underground Railroad
The only other significant competitor was the New York City Central Underground Railroad, the steam railroad chartered in 1868 that had done little for a year. The Times, always looking for a scandal, charged that the company had hawked their charter of 1868 all over Europe, without finding a purchaser, and that they had made money speculating in real estate in Harlem and Westchester (what is now the Bronx) by claiming the road was about to built.32
A law passed in May 1869 amended the charter, modifying the route to
permit open cut in private right of way where desired instead of
tunnel, and extending the time for completion to 42nd St to be three
years from the amendment, therefore May 1872. It was still
substantially the same routing via Mulberry St, Lafayette Place, and
Madison Ave to the Harlem River. It could now be entirely on surface
or viaduct north of 99th St. New directors were added including
Origen Vandenburgh and William Whitbeck, veterans of previous
underground railway plans.33
Engineers completed a report to the company in October 1869.34 By the end of November the company predicted the start of construction in February 1870. The cost was to be ten to twelve million dollars, and they would not start until ten million was subscribed. The principal depot will be at the lower terminus, between the old City Hall and the new Post Office. This depot will be five hundred feet long, and will be a splendid architectural work, well lighted and ventilated. It is proposed to have stations at intervals of about one-fourth of a mile along the route, to be reached by ornamental stairways from the sidewalk. The largest sub-stations between the City Hall and Harlem will be in Union and Madison squares.35
The future of rapid transit in New York was still cloudy at the end of 1869. The partly-built elevated railway had mechanical problems and the company were in difficulty, so whether it would succeed was hard to say. At least more had been done than with any of the underground proposals. The Central Underground company had a franchise but had built nothing. Beach was building pneumatic tubes for packages and writing about larger tubes for passengers, but would anything come of that? Things were about to happen.