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Sinking pavement

Concern over possible damage to building foundations and to water and sewer mains had been a major part of the argument against Willson’s Metropolitan Railway in 1866.  The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company had secured the right to build a tube under the supervision of the Croton Aqueduct Department, and they shared details with no one else.  For a year, the secrecy paid off, and they had been able to construct the small and large tubes without interference and without causing any damage. 

But the Tribune articles at the end of 1869 not only speculated on the extent of the ‘Pneumatic Railway’ but stirred up the idea that the tunnel was undermining the east side of the street.  The citizen of New York was unconscious of what is going on beneath him.  It is observable to every pedestrian, however, that the street pavement has sunk on that side in some places to as great a depth as six inches ; but, the cause not being observable, he thinks perhaps little of it.  The cause is the burrowing of the agents of the Pneumatic Railway Company.  The condition of Broadway at the place alluded to was discovered by our reporter in his efforts to gain some knowledge of the work going on.  Inquiry as to how far the tunnel had progressed was met with a hint from one of the men that the surface of the street would possibly indicate it.  Acting upon this, he followed the sunken portion as far down as the southern extremity of the park.1

This was wrong, although only the company engineers knew it.  The tunnel was really near the center of the street and extended only one block south from Warren St.  It was not the cause of the subsidence of the pavement.  The ‘hint from one of the men’ poses questions.  It might have referred to something completely different but not yet made public, that the alignment was being tested from time to time by thrusting a rod up through the tunnel roof to the street.  But it may simply be more bad information from the same informant who misstated the location and length of the tunnel. 

The Tribune followed up the next week, contacting Mr Charles Guidet, the contractor who lately laid the pavement in that street.  Its condition was such as to fill that gentleman with apprehension for the public safety ; and as he is also responsible for the preservation of the pavement for some years to come, he felt the necessity of laying the particulars before Mayor Hall.  Prompt to ascertain the truth, Mr Hall also surveyed the street, and, sharing the views of Mr Guidet, he empowered that gentleman on behalf of the Commonality, to enter the subterranean cavity and explore it.2  The company however denied him access. 

Mr Beach walked over to the Mayor’s office also, and read him the law in the case, which is that the Mayor has no control of the matter, but that the Croton Aqueduct Department has, and intimated that while an order from that Department might be respected, one from him might not … Mr Beach was respectful, and informed the Mayor that the tunnel had not advanced farther than Murray-st, a condescension that the Mayor failed not to appreciate, for so much information was never before vouchsafed to any ‘outsider.’ Mr Beach also said that but three men were engaged in boring, and that the work went on but slowly.

It has been given out— and it is here mentioned because Mayor Hall shares in the belief— that this tunneling of Broadway is not exclusively for a pneumatic tube which shall convey packages of merchandise, but that it is also an experiment looking to an underground passenger railway.2

It was a stand-off.  Guidet the paving contractor naturally wanted to blame someone else for the sinking that he would have to repair.  Mayor A Oakey Hall had only Beach’s word for it that the tunnel had not caused the damage.  The chief engineer of the Croton Aqueduct Department had inspected the work, but oddly enough he did not report to the mayor.  At this time many department heads were directly elected or were appointed by the governor. 

The Mayor has not yet decided what action he will take, but he will in all probability report the matter to the Legislature, reported the TimesAs the street in which the Company have commenced operations is partially blocked up with wooden scaffolding and iron tubes, it is likely that the mayor will at least compel them to remove these, amd leave the thoroughfare unobstructed, even if he cannot prevent them from undermining the principal street in the City.3 

The very next day the Times reported, A motion has been made in the Legislature for the repeal of the bill authorizing the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company to run an underground tube from the corner of Warren-street and Broadway, beneath Broadway, to within 200 feet of Cedar-street … Yesterday Mayor HALL had a conference with the Deputy Corporation Counsel in regard to the rights of the City in the matter.  The Mayor has some doubts as to whether the Legislature can give a company the right to excavate beneath a street, and thus, in some measure, to place both public and private property in danger.  In addition to the bill before the legislature, the city sought an injunction against the company.4 

The Beach Pneumatic Transit prepares to go public

City politicians, and others, had carried a grudge for years about what they saw as the state legislature meddling in city affairs.  The city’s powerlessness over street railway franchises had been a sore point since the law of 1860 that gave the franchise power to the legislature in Albany.5  Now it looked as if the legislature was going to give grants for railways to be built under the streets.  The Tribune of course had stirred the pot with the repeated hints at the Beach Pneumatic being a railway instead instead of a parcel tube system.  But Hall’s reaction was not just ‘Tammany Ring’ obstructionism.  The Times suggested that the company should have taken the public a little more into their confidence and given them some cheerful, occasional glimpses of the work.6  That approach went against the grain with Beach.  He liked to prepare everything privately and then display the finished product.  He was an editor.  But now he had to make a move. 

Joseph Dixon addressed the public concern in a letter he sent to the newspapers.  In it he reviewed the original plan to construct the line from the Post Office, the rejection of that plan on the ground of want of authority, and the expenses the company had gone to up to that point. 

We finally leased the premises corner Warren-street and Broadway, and in 1869 obtained an amendment to our charter, by which we were permitted to build the experimental line from Warren-street down Broadway to Cedar-street.  Governor HOFFMAN signed this bill May 3, 1869.  We at once set to work, determined to build the line without flourish of trumpets, leaving the press and the public to decide by an inspection of our work as to its merits.  Our original intention was to construct the entire line of tunnel from Warren to Cedar-street, before opening it to inspection, but we have concluded to yield to the strong desire manifested by the Press for earlier examination.  We have, therefore, stopped work on the tunnel, and are now fitting up the blowing machinery, engines, boilers, waiting rooms, &c, with a view of inviting public inspection.  In reference to the ridiculous stories that have been circulated about our men being sworn to secrecy, and the doors being closed to all persons, there is no truth in them.  Our work has been carried on under the constant supervision of the officers of the Croton Aqueduct Department, where all our plans have been matters of public record.

Our tunnel commences at the southwest corner of Broadway and Warren-street, curving out to the centre of Broadway and continuing down to a little below Murray-street.  It has an interior diameter of eight feet, but when finished will have a dividing wall in the centre so as to form a double line of tubes, each a little less than fifty-four inches in diameter, as provided by law.  The top of the tunnel comes within twelve feet of the pavement, so that the walls of adjoining buildings can in no way be affected.  We should have preferred to keep silent until our work could speak for us ; as it is, we beg the Press and the public to have a little patience, and in three or four weeks at furthest we will cheerfully afford them an opportunity of inspecting our premises and forming their own judgment as to its merits.7

From this date the company began to prepare the line for public viewing.  There was still the matter of the pesky Tribune reporter who had brought to the public so much information about the tube.  Three days after Dixon’s letter was printed, the Tribune had a big story. 

The Broadway Tunnel Explored

On January 11, the Tribune ran the famous exposé under the heading PNEUMATIC TRANSIT.  /  THE BROADWAY TUNNEL EXPLORED BY A TRIBUNE REPORTER — THE FIRST BONA FIDE DESCRIPTION.  It took a prominent position on page 8, the back page, where it would be noticed in the hands of people reading the paper, especially because it had several illustrations, at a time when few newspaper stories had any at all.8

[ 4-1 ]

It is unnecessary to state how, when, or through what influence it was accomplished, but it is a fact that a TRIBUNE reporter has been in the tunnel of the Pneumatic Transit Company.  He has been in the Company’s office, the engine-room, the depot, the mouth of the tunnel, the whole length of the tunnel, to the shield or cutting-machine— in fact, in, around, about, through, and all over the whole concern ; and from all that he has seen, he is satisfied that the accounts heretofore published were written from the merest hearsay, or perhaps from some drawings or sketches prepared for the purpose of misleading the writers.  It would be improper, at this time to write the details of our reporter’s experience preliminary to gaining access to this underground undertaking, so he simply says that he received orders to inspect it, and lay the facts before the readers of the TRIBUNE

It was unnecessary to state how it was accomplished, because secrets exposed by an intrepid reporter would sell the most papers, and a story supporting the company’s position on the sinking pavement would carry the most weight if it were written by a disinterested third party.  It is hard to read the story without getting a hint that the company had cooperated in allowing the reporter inside.  As if returning the favor, the article sets out in the first paragraph to mute the Tribune’s own previous charges against the company, and states more explicitly later on, The workmanship throughout appears first-class, with no signs by which any one could imagine the probability of its caving in or doing any damage to Broadway.

Even more amazingly, the article repudiates the paper’s previous references to the project as a pneumatic railway, even though the reporter describes what he calls a passenger depot and sees rails ready to be laid.  After mentioning Dixon’s letter and the plan to divide the tube in two with a wall, the reporter states, This is probably the fact, but at the present time there is no sign of the wall.  A lot of small railroad iron lies in one of the rooms, evidently to be used to construct a track in the tunnel, probably to enable the workmen to remove the dirt with more facility than with the present wheelbarrow system.  The sight-seeing public will be sadly disappointed when they come to view this work.  A visit to a whitewashed sewer would be equally interesting ; in fact the sewers of Paris are a hundred-fold more attractive, and but for the fact that the tunnel is to demonstrate the pneumatic system on a large scale it would scarce be worth more than a simple item even in the most sensational newspaper.

Nonetheless, the Tribune article is valuable, because it provides a description of the state of the works about seven weeks earlier than the many better known descriptions of it at its ceremonial opening. 

Everything but the tube itself was in the two basement levels of Devlin’s building.  The building was a common type in New York, with outer load-bearing walls of brick and masonry and an inner structure of wood beams.  The outer walls of course continued down to a solid foundation, but they were penetrated by openings.  The basement levels extended outward into a strip called an ‘area’ used for access directly from outside, and continuing into ‘vaults’ under the public sidewalk extending to the curb line.  Photographs show that there was a stairway in the area near the corner on the Warren St side, giving direct access to the basement levels. 

He entered by the basement door of Devlin’s store, the reporter begins in the third person. He went down the steps into the area, and turned to enter a door into the main part of the basement.  This would be the public entrance later.  The door also was on the Warren St side.  Later visitors say that the blower is on the far side, as if they are looking south, and they turn to the right and walk farther from Broadway. 

This door was guarded by a faithful-looking man, but our reporter entered, and felt a relief when he had passed over the space between the entrance and the door to the company’s office.  In the office, filled with draughtsman’s tables, a safe and a few articles of furniture, were Messrs Beach, Dixon, and Graham— the first the President, the second the Superintendent, and the last named the Engineer of the works.  In addition to these were a small boy and a couple of men, evidently foremen.  The office, for lack of space, seems ‘cluttered up,’ and the partition wall being down to allow the blowing machinery to be put in, gives this part of the establishment a very confused and uninviting look.

This room was later the first place the public entered.  The wall was to be restored, but the top of the Roots blower would still obtrude into this space.  The Roots blower, delivered in December, was still being installed a few weeks later. 

Our reporter had no conversation with any one in the office, but turning abruptly, saw a door facing toward Broadway.  On opening this a flight of steps was discovered, which were descended and he was in what had been the lower vaults of Devlin’s store.

The reporter turned left, and went down all the way to the floor of the second basement level.  The public never took this route.  It may have remained open to staff.  The steps passed through the foundation wall and into the vault under the Broadway sidewalk, ending a short distance from the corner. 

Almost directly 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.  Carpenters, blacksmiths, plumbers, and masons seem to make common use of this bench.  From this point the entrance to the grand tunnel is plainly visible— in fact, it is but a few feet from it.  Almost in the direct westerly line, and back of the abandoned tunnel, is a breach in the supporting foundation of the store, large enough for a wheel-barrow to comfortably pass through.

[ 4-2 ]

Therefore while the large tube faced the vault under Warren St, the small one was to its south and faced the foundation wall.  The breach in the wall was at the second basement level, opening into space under the offices described earlier.  Later the opening would be used for the shaft from the engine in the Broadway vault to the Roots blower in the main basement.  Therefore, the blower was visible through it straight ahead.  The reporter refers to the main basement as the engine room, but the only machinery the company was to keep there was the Roots blower. 

This passage leads into the engine room, which is a space equal to more than half the size of Devlin’s ground floor, and contains a large blower engine, partially erected, but not sufficiently developed to justify an accurate description.  The machinery lies parallel to Warren-st, and its covering extends below the surface of the engine room, and upward a considerable distance into the space used for the office.  A large proportion of the engine room space is at present filled with dirt excavated from the tunnel, which was stored until a fitting opportunity presented itself for its removal.  This is being accomplished now, and several laborers are wheeling it out to a space in the walk, where it is hoisted up and carted off.  Some few masons are also at work in the engine room.

The staging of dirt in the basement and its removal at night had been reported in the Tribune in December.  There should have been only a few days’ worth of dirt at the time the reporter visited, since Dixon had reported the end of construction a few days earlier. 

The reporter comes back to the machinery at the end of the article, where he says, The machinery to work the blower engine is not yet received, but it is said two fifty-horse boilers will supply the steam, one of them being a reserve boiler …  Near the steps leading down to the first room described, a sluice-way is being laid in cement, which inclines one to the belief that it will be through this passage that air will be forced into the tunnel.  The fact is, the tunnel is not sufficiently advanced or the machinery in condition to warrant a full description …

This further supports the idea that the steps from the street were on the Warren St side, because the blower vents were along that side.  Not enough was finished to say more than he did about them.  But although he spoke to no one, someone told him about the boilers that were not there yet.  The reporter now returned to the Broadway vault. 

Returning to the first subterranean space visited, a few steps to the northward lead to the vault directly underneath the Warren-st sidewalk.  With your back to the tunnel you go westward, and stand in the space intended to be used as the depot.  This space is in equal confusion with other parts of the work thus far described.  A bedwork of brick is being constructed, and the floor leveled.  This room may be 20 feet in length and it is very lofty.  It is proper to state here that all the distances given are merely estimated, it being impracticable to use either a rule or a tape measure, both of which our reporter was provided with.  But exact distances are immaterial to this narrative.  Nothing of interest is visible in this room.

The vault was open clear from second basement floor level to the underside of the sidewalk.  This first space of only some twenty feet in length would become the space where the pneumatic car stood outside the tunnel.  The floor may have been dirt before the Beach project, since here it was being levelled and paved. 

Still further to the westward is another room, several feet above the passenger room, and to reach which our reporter climbed a pile of bricks, dirt, mortar and carpenter’s stuff.  Having gained this upper room, he found a carpenter’s bench with a man at work ‘dressing up’ stuff.  This room will be used as a ladies’ reception room, with retiring-rooms, &c.  It is in a rough state, but dry, light and airy.

Actually this space would be not a side room for the ladies but the main entrance through which the public came down to see the tunnel.  Presumably the connecting doorway was not yet opened, but as completed the public would enter the very first room the reporter described, the office, and find a stairway from it that opened to this space at a level between the two basement floors. 

In all these rooms there were no objects of interest — nothing to indicate that the debris before us was the chips from the workshops of a new system of transportation which, if successfully developed, may result in incalculable benefits to the public of New-York and perhaps the world.

Beach could not have overstated it better.  Now finally the reporter had completed the tour of Devlin’s basement, and came to what everyone wanted to know about, the tunnel. 

Thus far our reporter had penetrated unchallenged into the mysteries of the Broadway Bore, which Mayor Hall had tried in vain to see, and which the press and the public have been so anxious to know about.  Would his luck continue until he had gone the length of the tunnel?  Putting on a bold front, he clambered down the debris of the Ladies’ room, through the passenger depot, and stood facing the tunnel.

[ 4-3 ]

Its exterior rim is constructed of finished brick built in panels, the upper space, corresponding to the place usually occupied by the keystone in an arch, being left in an unfinished state to allow of an inscriptive stone being inserted.  Entering the tunnel you find that the circumference is lined with boiler iron, strengthened by ribs of iron.  These ribs are less than a foot in horizontal length, and about two feet in vertical length, forming a strong framework of iron, with an iron lining.  The iron lining extends 82 paces, and is the entire length of the graceful curve which sweeps from Warren-st to the center of Broadway.  A gas-pipe extends along the left hand side of this tunnel, having jets about seven feet apart, all of which were lighted when our reporter entered.  Two or three men were busy laying boards across the lower end of the lining preparatory to giving it a coat of whitewash.

[ 4-4 ]

The brick work of the tunnel begins as soon as the tunnel loses its curve, and runs parallel with Broadway.  The brick is flush with the iron work, and extends eighty paces southward.  The entire circumference has recently been whitewashed, and presents a very clean appearance.  The gas burns very dimly, and the rumbling noise of the travel on Broadway is plainly heard, strange and a trifling unpleasant.  The further our reporter penetrated the louder the noise became, as the sound vibrating against the lower end of the tunnel came back and swelled the original sound until it became like the rumbling of distant thunder.

It took but a brief space of time to reach the extremity of the tunnel, and when there, there was but little to see.  A circular shield, a trifle larger than the tunnel, was pressed up close against the earth, standing on its edge.  It is impossible to judge of its thickness.  It is divided into, or rather perforated with lateral spaces through which wedges are driven, and thus the dirt is loosened and falls down to the base of the shield, which is cut off sufficiently to allow a shovel to be inserted and the earth removed.  The shield is forced forward by means of two hydraulic pumps.  When the shield has accomplished an advance of a few inches, its operations are suspended, and the masons step in and complete the circumference prepared by putting in the brick work.

It is hard to realize that this account of the shield pre-dates all of Beach’s published descriptions.  The reporter must have got information from one of the company officials or workmen. 

[ 4-5 ]

At the time of our reporter’s visit there was no one at work at or near the shield.  It is probable that it will not be put into operation until the tunnel is thrown open to the press and the public.  The workmanship throughout appears first-class, with no signs by which anyone could imagine the probability of its caving in or doing any damage to Broadway … Of the ultimate plans of the Company much has been said, but nothing is definitely known excepting what is revealed in the card of the Superintendant, already alluded to.  Our reporter came out of the tunnel by the same route which he entered, and no one molested him or made him afraid.8

By the time the tunnel opened, there was a vent running from the end of the tunnel up to a grating in City Hall Park, near the sidewalk, on the south side of the line of Murray St.  Precisely when it was built is a small mystery.  It needed to be at the end of the tunnel, so it would not make sense to build it there until it had been settled that the tunnel would end at that point.  The reporter failed to remark on an opening in the tunnel roof about three feet in diameter, as if it was not there yet.  But he did say that the street noises were louder near the end of the tunnel, and that was because of the vent, not vibration on the shield. 

Later accounts say that the Tribune reporter had entered disguised as a workman.  Frederick Beach probably started it with his recollections in 1903.  Then a representative of the Tribune got in, dressed as a workman, and published an account of it, he said.9  But Frederick must have been told this by someone else, since he worked the night shift, and the reporter went in during the day, seeing Frederick’s father and Dixon in the office.  Moreover the reporter said that no one paid him any attention, so how would they know how he was dressed?

Official visitors

More visitors arrived a few days later.  In response to the mayor’s appeal to the legislature, two members of the Railroad Committee of the Assembly came to see the tunnel.  The Times reported, They were courteously received by Mr DIXON, the Secretary of the Company and Superintendant of the work, and shown through the tunnel … The Committee expressed much astonishment at the magnitude of the enterprise, as it was explained to them by Mr DIXON, as well as at the extent of the subterranean work already accomplished.  They traversed, with Mr DIXON, the entire length of the tunnel thus far completed, and made a minute examination of its construction.  The ponderous machinery erected at the entrance to the tunnel— to be used as the blowing apparatus for propeling the cars through the tunnel— excited much curiosity and surprise … The slight depression in the pavement on Broadway at one point over the tunnel, is evidently caused by the defective manner in which the pavement was laid, and not by the tunnel, as similar depressions are visible in the street, beneath which there is no tunnel … There is a bill before the Senate, introduced by Mr TWEED, at the request of Mayor HALL, for a repeal of the charter …10

Senator William M Tweed is now infamous as the head of the Tweed Ring, a vast conspiracy of political corruption.  Mayor A Oakey Hall was considered one of the central figures.11  But in the matter of Beach, there was every good reason for Hall’s action and Tweed’s cooperation with it.  The Broadway pavement subsidence was exactly the outcome predicted for years by opponents of tunnels.  Beach’s attitude did not help.  Hall’s political instincts would give weight to the concerns of A T Stewart and his wealthy friends, the opponents of all railways in Broadway, but the risk of collapse was enough in itself.  Hall took the two legal steps open to him to stop the damage:  seek an injunction, and ask the Senate to repeal the charter.  The suit came before Judge Albert Cardozo, supposedly in the pay of the Tweed Ring, and the bill was introduced by Tweed himself.  But on February 17, Cardozo denied the city’s injunction, ruling that the state charter was sufficient authorization.12  And Tweed’s bill was not heard of again after the Assembly committee confirmed that the tunnel was not the cause of the pavement sinking.  In fact Tweed, far from opposing Beach, was about to do him a favor. 

Beach still faced an obstacle.  The company’s existing charter did not include the right to run a passenger railway.  Beach had to raise support, and he planned to do so by demonstrating what a pneumatic railway would be like.  Beach Pneumatic Transit was ready to go public. 


[ 4-6 ]

Editorial from the same issue of the Tribune as the exposé, January 11, 1870.


1 Tribune, 1869 Dec 29.
2 Tribune, 1870 Jan 4.
3 Times, 1870 Jan 4.
4 Times, 1870 Jan 5.
5 Documentary History, 1410.
6 Times, 1870 Jan 6.
7 Times, 1870 Jan 8.  Tribune, 1870 Jan 8.
8 Tribune, 1870 Jan 11.
9 Tribune, 1903 Oct 4.
10 Times, 1870 Jan 16.
11  Some modern historians have raised doubt about the extent and power of the conspiracy.  Tweed was the lightning rod for charges of corruption by a group of reform politicians, and the poorly presented legal cases against him do little to clarify what crimes Tweed actually committed.  Money was being pocketed, but who got what was never proved.  See for example Hershkowitz, Tweed’s New York.
12 Times, 1870 Feb 18.

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