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“RECEPTION HELD IN THE BOWELS OF THE EARTH”

1870


The Grand Opening

The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company completed preparations for public viewing by the last week of February, 1870.  On Saturday, February 26, there was a reception for invited state and city officials and the press, and starting Tuesday, March 1, the public were allowed in, for a donation to charity.  The invited guests received a card reading: 

UNDER BROADWAY RECEPTION

To State Officers, Members of the Legislature, City Officials, and Members of the Press:

You are respectfully invited to be present on Saturday, February 26, 1870, from two to six o’clock P M, at the office of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, 260 Broadway, corner of Warren street.

Joseph Dixon, Secretary            A E Beach, President
1

After so much anticipation and mystery, it was a big story.  All the papers carried descriptions of the lavish reception and of the tunnel in the Saturday evening or Sunday morning editions.  The Herald’s subhead was, PROPOSED UNDERGROUND RAILROAD — A FASHIONABLE RECEPTION HELD IN THE BOWELS OF THE EARTH — THE GREAT BORE EXPLORED.2  A treatment like ‘fashionable reception held in a basement’ would not do.  Beach had prepared well.  He impressed the guests not only with pneumatic tubes as such but with the company’s manner and competence and with the significance of the occasion. 

The Sunday Mercury wrote, Different papers have given different accounts of the enterprise, but the opening yesterday must have convinced them all of the powers of human imagination.3

The Times gave extensive coverage of the event itself, in the Sunday morning paper: 

Certainly the most novel, if not the most successful, enterprise that New-York has seen for many a day is the Pneumatic Tunnel under Broadway.  A myth or humbug it has been called by every body who has been excluded from its interior ; but hereafter the incredulous public can have the opportunity of examining and judging its merits.  Yesterday the tunnel was thrown open to the inspection of visitors for the first time, and it must be said that every one of them came away surprised and gratified.  Such as expected a dismal and cavernous retreat under Broadway, opened their eyes at the elegant reception-room, the light, airy tunnel, and the general appearance of taste and comfort in all the apartments ; and those who entered to pick out some scientific flaw in the project, were silenced by the completeness of the machinery, the solidity of the work, and the safety of the running apparatus …

The opening yesterday afternoon was a very pleasant ‘occasion’.  It was intended specially for dignitaries, legislators, Aldermen, scientific men, and members of the Press, and scores of them were present.  Mr Beach himself was conspicuous, making his visitors explanations, and entertaining them like princes … In the ‘depot’, or reception-room, a first-class subterranean lunch was served continuously from two o’clock until six o’clock, and was continuously appreciated.  The ‘health’ of the tunnel was not forgotten.  At nightfall, the unique occasion was over, but the ‘Transit Company’ had made a host of friends and supporters.4 

The Evening Mail was even stronger in its praise, all the more interesting because the text was prepared for the Saturday edition while the event was still going on: 

The problem of tunneling Broadway has been solved.  There is no mistake about it … the work has been pushed vigorously on by competent workmen, under a thoroughly competent superintendant, whose name is Dixon.  May his shadow increase for evermore! This afternoon, pursuant to invitation, the completed section of the work will be prospected by the mayor, and other members of the city government, and the leading capitalists of the city ; and that this visit will be followed by a general hallelujah no sane man doubts … It is truly most gratifying to see how admirably successful the affair has been carried out so far … 5

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper called it a remarkable work, planned and executed in a remarkable manner.6  The Herald said it was the opening-day of the first underground railway in America.2

So, what did visitors see?

The World said, Any description of the Pneumatic Railway must necessarily be imperfect ; the work must be inspected to be thoroughly appreciated.7

But since there is no way to see it today, this chapter collates descriptions from those who were there, from newspapers, magazines, and three editions of Beach’s Illustrated Description souvenir booklet.  Together they form a comprehensive picture.  The newspapers describe conditions on opening day, February 26.  The car was not running that day.  Details of the operation of the blower and car will be found in the next chapter. 

 

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A detailed plan of the lower level appeared in Scientific American of March 5, 1870.  It appeared in this orientation and not turned with north at the top as it is usually reproduced.  The entrance from the street was over the ‘air flue’.  From it, visitors went into an office within the heavy lines indicating the building’s main walls, where they could see the top of the blower, and thence they went down half a level to the ‘waiting room’, which, according to the written descriptions, was was longer than shown here.  The tunnel starts right at the curb line, and the track begins to curve before it enters the tunnel.

 


The entrance

First, visitors went down directly from the sidewalk to the basement door, just as the Tribune reporter did in January.  In what had been the construction office, the open walls were now closed and the Roots blower fully assembled, and the place was all cleaned up for guests. 

Descending an ordinary basement ‘dive’, under Devlin’s clothing store, the visitors found themselves in a comfortable office …2

The present entrance to the Underground Railway is at the south-west corner of Broadway and Warren street, through the basement portions of the large and splended marble edifice known as the Devlin’s building.8

A sign over the basement door— ‘Broadway Pneumatic Transit Co’— pointed the way to the new wonder ; but energetic policemen refused admission to all who were not provided with the necessary invitation ticket … Passing through the basement door, we enter the office, which is more than half occupied by the blower.3

THE OUTER OFFICE.  Entering from the steps on Broadway, under the clothing store of Devlin & Co, the visitor finds himself in a light, airy apartment 45 feet long and 12 wide, carpeted and fitted up in all respects like a first-class merchant’s office ; a part divided off for the residence of the presiding deity, and fitted with desk, office-stools, etc, the other part being for those having business with the officers of the company.  At the further end of this room is seen the upper part of an immense cylinder, about 12 feet long by 8 in diameter, and faced by a prettily painted cog-wheel ; and the visitor at once supposes that he sees the roof of the tunnel, and wonders how he shall get in ; but this afterwards he discovers is a mistake, and that the cylinder that he sees is only the casing to a large fan or blower, which is the motive power of the cars.7

On descending the steps at the corner of Warren street and Broadway, the visitor finds himself in a neatly oil-clothed room, on the left of which appears the top of the rotary blower neatly painted.1

At the bottom of the steps is the entrance to an office, and the apartment of the rotary blower, a huge paddle-box-like affair, neatly frescoed on the outside.4

ENTRANCE AND TICKET OFFICE.  Descending a few steps from the sidewalk, the visitor enters the ticket-office, where the attention is at once arrested by the æolor or blowing-engine, which generates the air-blast by which the pneumatic cars are propelled … The upper portion of the æolor, as seen in the ticket-office, is beautifully decorated, and presents no outward indication of being the great reservoir of power just described.9

Down we went into a basement, where we faced at once the greatest blower ever yet seen on this continent … this paddle-box affair, with its prettily frescoed woodwork … The depot office, a large room forty-five feet long and twelve feet wide, comes first, and is completed and fitted up in every way like a first-class businessman’s office.10

The door was on the Warren St side.  Two reporters specifically stated that the blower was on the ‘further end’ of the room and that ‘we faced’ it, that is, across the width of the narrow room, and others said that the blower immediately took their attention.  One said that the blower was on the left, but that was also true because the path led visitors down the long narrow room away from Broadway.  Beach wanted them to enter the station some distance down Warren St, so that they would see the waiting room first and the tunnel off in the distance, almost below where they first entered.

Here tickets were sold under the charge of Mrs Judge DALY and Mrs HOYT, for the benefit of the Union Home and School for Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans, the charge for admission being twenty-five cents, the hours 10 A M to 4 P M.11 … This being an unsectarian institution, and also a national one, was considered most deserving.12

This excellent charitable institution was the first to receive benefit by the opening of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company’s works to the public.  The Union Home is designed for the education and maintenance of the children of volunteer soldiers and sailors who may be left unprovided for.  The Home is located at the corner of Eleventh avenue and One Hundred and Fifty-first street … Here they are cared for by the generous-hearted and patriotic ladies of New-York, who look after their welfare with maternal solicitude, and befriend the poor orphans as much as possible … The Union Home is now under the especial protection and patronage of the Grand Army of the Republic of the Department of New-York.8

As the company can not appropriate these fees to its own use, they will be given in aid of the Union Home for the Children of Soldiers and Sailors.3

Ticket sales brought the home $2,805 in just the first two weeks.12  On Monday, March 21, closing time was made an hour later, it then remained 10 to 5 for at least a year.13

 

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Classified ads.  Left:  the first ad to appear, from the Herald, March 5, 1870.  Right:  the longer hours to 5 pm first announced, the Tribune, March 21, 1870.  Beach’s ads were always placed in the Amusements sections.  In the March 21 paper, the ad just below for an organ exhibition promises ‘Patent Pneumatic Compositions’.

 


The waiting room

From the office, visitors passed to the waiting room in the vault under Warren St.  One reporter said he went ‘to the right’, meaning from the doorway, along the length of the office, and also down a ‘long hall’.  From there, as far as a hundred feet from Broadway, visitors went to the right again, and down.  In entering the Warren St vault, the visitors passed through a small room between two doors, an airlock, not well noted on opening day since its function was not apparent. 

 

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This detail of an image from Appleton’s Journal is the only depiction of the waiting room.  The right hand wall has paintings, but the piano and fountain are not in sight.  Daylight comes in through round openings in the ceiling, under the sidewalk on Warren St.  The opening at left leads to the blower.

 

To the right a door leads into a long hall, down a few more steps, and directly under the Warren-street sidewalk, which is the depot of the establishment, and is handsomely fitted up with a fountain, paintings and seats.4

Advancing a few steps, the visitor turns to the right and descends three more steps, when he finds himself in a handsome and brilliantly-lighted saloon.  In the centre is a fountain with jetting water and gold-fishes swimming in the basin.  The ceilings and side walls are hard-finished, and with neat striping about the gas-brackets, present an attractive appearance.  The floor is covered by oil-cloth, and the windows are hung with damask curtains and cornices.  The surbase is of alternate stripes of walnut and white-pine, and about the room are arranged settees and easy-chairs.  A piano also adds to the attractiveness of the apartment.1

… and a few steps lower, there was a kind of Aladdin’s cave opened to view, in which there was more to be seen than the eye could take in at once …2

THE SALOON.  Turning to the right, through a pair of handsome folding doors, he finds himself in an elegant saloon, 120 feet long by 14 in width, the floor covered with oil-cloth of a pretty pattern, the walls hung with pictures, an expensive clock in the center, elaborate chandeliers along the walls, comfortable settees at each side, and at the further end a space railed off for the occupancy of the ladies, with one of Chickering’s grand pianos for their amusement while waiting for the train.7

Leaving the ticket-office, and passing the æolor on the left, we enter the WAITING ROOM OF THE BROADWAY UNDERGROUND RAILWAY. This is a large and elegantly furnished apartment, commencing at Broadway and extending down Warren street for a distance of 120 feet, being wholly under ground.  The walls are adorned with interesting pictures, while comfortable settees, looking-glasses, saloons for ladies and gentlemen, and other furnishings, render the place at once cheerful and attractive.9

…look into the depot, directly under the sidewalk of Warren Street, reached by a long hall, which is entered in turn from a flight of steps from Broadway … Then comes the main saloon, one hundred and twenty feet by fourteen ; pictures on the walls, a fountain, and flowers, grand piano and expensive clock.10 

The mouth of the tunnel opens directly into a large underground apartment, one hundred and twenty feet in length, fitted up in good style, for the purposes of a waiting room and reception station.  This apartment is lighted from the pavement, and occupies the entire space under the Warren street sidewalk.14

There is the capacious waiting-room, 120 feet long, for passengers, as perfect in its appropriateness as if it had been the starting-place for up-town for a dozen years.5

The whole arrangement is as comfortable and cozy as the front basement dining-room of a first-class city residence.15


The tunnel entrance

 

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This little sketch from Harper’s Weekly of March 12, 1870, and also in Beach’s Illustrated Description, shows the view down from the waiting room to the car.  The window at right is otherwise undocumented.  The area on the Broadway side, between the building and the vault, must have had some daylight.  A window, rather than an opening, was required to maintain pressure in the station.  The detail of the right hand wall matches the wall shown in the previous image above.  Although it omits many details, it is a fairly accurate sketch.  It shows that the car had to start the turn to enter the tunnel.

 

From the waiting room, visitors went again down steps toward Broadway, to reach the floor level of the tube itself, into a space where the car stood when not operating into the tunnel.  This was under the sidewalk corner of Broadway and Warren St. 

…the guest turns toward the City Hall Park, and descending another flight of steps, finds himself at the entrance of the tube, in full view of the vast machinery to be used for propelling the cars.  The top of the tunnel is surmounted by a keystone of pressed brick, over which are the letters in German text, ‘Pneumatic (1870) Transit’, and encircling this a row of gas-jets, covered by alternate globes of red, white, and blue.  At either side, on a pedestal, are bronze figures holding a cluster of gas-lights.1

…we face the tunnel itself— a perfectly round opening, 8 feet in diameter, bearing off toward Broadway at an angle of about seventy degrees.  The opening is arched, and neatly faced with bricks, and is surrounded with a circle of colored gas-jets.3

 

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Photographs of the Beach Pneumatic Transit premises while it was in operation were taken in the first half of March 1870 by Rockwood & Co.  The one shown above was one of a series of stereoscopic and other photographs of the pneumatic railway under Broadway.  As the works are entirely below the surface of the street, artificial light was employed … The illumination was obtained by means of two large and powerful oxy-hydrogen calcium lights.  Photography has been brought to such perfection that even the bowels of the earth yield to it their mysteries, and Broadway has proved no exception.16 

The Evening Post, quoted just above, mentions the figures holding light globes, and the keystone inscription.  The blurred projections around the top of the arch are the colored gas jets.  The stereo image reveals that the arched opening is out about one foot from the wall.  The car is just in sight inside the whitewashed tunnel.  The wall of the vault follows the curb line so precisely that the curved corner seen on the left corresponds to the curved corner of Warren St (left) and Broadway (ahead).  The wall pattern again matches the previous illustrations.

From the Rockwood stereo view.

 


The car

At one end of this saloon is a flight of steps by which the passenger descends about six feet further under ground, and here is the platform of the depot, and THE CAR on the track.  This car is cylindrical, made to fit the tunnel and about 18 feet long, with seats nicely cushioned, and is lit with the oxygen light.7

At the east end of the waiting-room we descend a half-dozen steps, and find ourselves upon the railway platform, near the portal of the tunnel, and at the door of the PNEUMATIC PASSENGER-CAR … It is of circular form, brilliantly lighted, and very comfortable, with seats for 22 persons.  The wheels of the pneumatic car are provided with separate axles and springs.  The general construction is such that the floor of the car stands below the axle centres, an arrangement which tends to produce steadiness of motion and security from accident … THE TUNNEL UNDER BROADWAY, the portal of which, massive and ornamental, of circular form, stands before us as we face east.9

At the east end of the room, a few steps descend to the railway-platform, by which stands the pneumatic passenger car.  This is circular, of course, with floor of oiled wood, and handsomely upholstered seats for twenty persons.  The car is lighted by oxy-hydrogen gas, and the waiting-rooms in the same way.10

There is the snugly upholstered passenger-car, illuminated with the brilliant lime light …5

 

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The interior of the car shows the two zircon lights and the comfortable seating.  It fits very snugly in the tunnel, with indentations for the running rails and the center brake rail.  The wheels are mounted individually, not on axles.  Originally from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 19, 1870, and shown here from Scientific American, March 5, 1870.

 

This carriage is admirably constructed and was lighted with the new oxygen light, which is considerably cleaner, purer, and more brilliant than the ordinary gaslight.  The flame burns on a little pencil of ‘zircon’ about a quarter of an inch long and the eighth of an inch in diameter.  The oxygen and the hydrogen enter in separate tubes and impinge on the burner, producing the beautiful light described.  It is likely to be of general use, and is now made by the New York Oxygen Company, corner of Eleventh avenue and Forty-first street.2

The car is of circular form, richly upholstered, and very comfortable, with seats for eighteen persons.  Its interior height is greater than the cars of the London underground railways.  When the pneumatic tunnel is further extended, luxurious cars, 100 feet in length, will be used.  The car is brilliantly illuminated by means of a single zircon light … The portal of the tunnel … is a massive ornamental structure, of circular form, nine feet in diameter, its bed twenty-one and a half feet below the surface of Broadway.14

THE ZIRCON LIGHTS.  The pneumatic car is brilliantly lighted with the new oxygen or zirconia light, the chemical power of which is such that all the colors may be perfectly distinguished.  Two small cylinders of compressed oxygen and hydrogen are carried on the car, from which pipes extend to a small burner that supports a piece of zircon, not more than one fourth of an inch long and one eight of an inch in diameter.  Against this little pencil of zircon the two gases impinge, and heat it so intensely as to make it glow with a clear and steady light … The light carried on the car before mentioned burns steadily for seven hours without being touched.  The zircon pencil lasts for three months, and is, in effect the wick of the light … The tunnel and other portions of the Pneumatic Company’s premises are lighted by the above method.8


The tunnel

When the car was not running, visitors could walk into the tunnel.  This was the only new construction by the company, all the rest being within existing basement space.  The company emphasized the depth to the bottom of the tunnel, not the distance from the top to the street surface. 

 

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This view of the tunnel entrance without the elaborate lighting and statuary originally appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 19, 1870, and is taken here from its later appearance in Scientific American, March 5, 1870.  In its other appearances, this drawing has the wording ‘PNEUMATIC / 1870 / TRANSIT’ set in type in the keystone.  It shows in great detail the short brick section through the basement wall and the Dixon patent iron plates on the curve, as well as the track construction.  The tunnel floor is better covered for walking in other slightly later depictions including the photograph.

 

Just in front of the car is the entrance to the tunnel.  This is a round tube of iron 8 feet in diameter and 57.6 long.  It starts out from under the sidewalk, and curves to the middle of the street, and then is of brick, and straight for the rest of its length, The brick part is 257 feet long, making a total length of 294 feet, which is as far as the company have yet gone with their work, wishing merely to show a working section for the approval of the public … The thickness of the masonry composing the tube is 16 inches.7

The tunnel, so far as completed, is 294 feet 6 inches long, of which 57 feet 6 inches are lined with iron, and the rest with brick.  After the first 70 feet it becomes perfectly straight, and bears directly down Broadway.3

The next feature which strikes the spectator is the graceful curve of the tube into Broadway.  The curved arch is supported by iron plates, and after a straight line is reached, the tunnel is continued down Broadway by arches of brick.  The interior is painted white, and the entire length is lighted by gas.  The track is supported by a bracing of hard wood.  The present length of the tunnel is 294 feet 6 inches, and fifty-eight days and ten hours were consumed in constructing it.  The track is 21 feet under the surface of Broadway, and the only circumstances which would indicate the visitor is under a busy thoroughfare is the constant rumbling of vehicles overhead.1

Let the reader imagine a cylindrical tube eight feet in the clear, bricked up and white-washed, neat, clean, dry, and quiet.  Along the bottom of this tube is laid a railway track, and on this track runs a spacious car, richly upholstered, well lighted, with plenty of space for entrance and exit.15

We will follow the railway track into the tunnel, and explore the underground mysteries of Broadway.  The rumbling noise of the vehicles which pass in endless procession, directly over our heads, can be distinctly heard.9

 

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This view looking back to the station shows the car where it stood when the tunnel was open for walking.  There seems to be a cover over the brake rail.  Drawn by A C Warren for Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science, and Art for June 25, 1870.

 

The tunnel commences at the curb-line of Broadway, and sweeps on a graceful curve a little beyond the centre line of the street ; thence on a straight line down Broadway to a point a little beyond the south side of Murray street.  The bed of the tunnel is twenty-one and a half feet below the pavement.  The interior is painted white ; it is lighted with gas and the brilliant zircon lights ; the atmosphere is pure ; and a walk through it will be found interesting and instructive.  The length of the tunnel is three hundred and twelve feet, of which the curved portion, sixty feet is built of iron plates, the interior diameter being nine feet. Standing upon the track platform, at a little distance from the tunnel, and looking within the portal, the iron walls, with their net-work of gracefully curved ribs, present a very pleasing appearance.  This method of erecting iron tunnels is the invention of Mr Joseph Dixon, the secretary of the company, long known for his persevering efforts to establish the underground railway in New-York.9

Following the track down the tunnel, we come to the masonry portion, which at present is 252 feet in length and eight feet interior diameter.8  The iron track, of the usual T pattern, rests upon longitudinal beams of wood, secured to the brick-walls, and fastened cross-wise at intervals by flat girders of cast-iron.9

 

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This view down the tunnel appeared in Harper’s Weekly of March 12, 1870 and also in the Illustrated Description.  It shows most clearly that the brake rail was covered around the curve when the car was not running.  This is at the end of the iron plate curve, looking down Broadway to the end of the tunnel.  The stance of the man in the distance shows nicely the uneven floor level.

 

In summer time, the tunnel is the coolest place in the city.  When the thermometer stands at 95° at the surface of the street, it indicates only 65° in the tunnel.  In winter, the temperature in the tunnel is usually warmer than the external air.9

Proceeding down Broadway to the end of the tunnel at Murray street, we come to the GREAT TUNNELING-MACHINE OR SHIELD, by which Broadway was bored without any body knowing it, with all the omnibuses and other vehicles traveling directly above the heads of the workmen.9

The length of the tunnel already open is 294 feet ; the iron portion is 57 feet ; the brick, 237 feet.  It is whitewashed and lighted with gas, has telegraphic poles running along the wall, is about 12 feet high, and formed a very pleasant promenade.  The roar of Broadway traffic was plainly heard overhead, and, until the ear got familiar with it, sounded very strangely.  This 294 feet takes the tunnel to Murray street, on the south side, nearly flush to the post-office fence.  The visitor to the tunnel is shown very clearly how this tunnel has been made, and how it is that the work has been carried on in a mole-like manner without attracting the observation of the Broadway pedestrians, and without interfering in any degree with the traffic.2

The tunnel-way itself, how it looks, how it is bored out, has been so often described in the various daily journals that only a brief account of it need be given here.  The tube is 8 feet in diameter, arched all the way round with brick painted white.  From the bottom of it to the surface of Broadway is 21 feet, and it is therefore below all pipes and sewers.  After curving around the corner of Warren street, the tube is perfectly straight.  On the bottom is a track about 4 feet wide.  The car which runs on this isn about half as large as a street-car, cushioned, lighted, ventilated, and elegant in all its appointments. The contrivance that bores out the tube is a huge iron cylinder, sharp at the end penetrating the earth, and is forced along by hydraulic pressure.  The dirt is then shoveled out.  So far— the tube now being complete 120 feet [sic], or as far as the south side of Murray street— the excavation has been through sand only, and not a difficult matter.  Yesterday, the gentlemanly engineer of the company explained the whole construction of the tunnel, over and over again, to the visitors that kept coming and going.4 

At present there is an air-hole overhead at the Murray street end, and the car is moved by forcing air against it down the tunnel which escapes up this air-hole.  Then the blower is reversed, and the air is exhausted in front, and rushing down the air-hole, propels the car on its return.7


No rides

The car failed to run on reception day because of a slight accident with the engine.2  The next chapter covers the operation of the car. 

The World said, Everyone should invest a quarter in the inspection of this work, and they will be well repaid for the outlay.  Owing to the breaking of an eccentric on the engine, it was impossible to show the working of the railway yesterday ; but that will be remedied this week, and then all who visit the place may take a ride if they choose.7


Sponsors

 

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Ads inside the back cover of the 1870 edition of the Illustrated Description.  Holske’s last line is intriguing, but it may be only the railway tubes that were pneumatic.

 


1 Evening Post, 1870 Feb 26.
2 Herald, 1870 Feb 27.
3 Sunday Mercury, 1870 Feb 27.
4 Times, 1870 Feb 27.
5 Evening Mail, 1870 Feb 26.
6 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1870 Feb 19.
7 World, 1870 Feb 27.
8 Beach, Illustrated Description 1870 only.
9 Beach, Illustrated Description, text common to 1870, 1871, 1872 editions (with slight variation).
10 The Youth’s Companion, 1871 Feb 2.  This is almost a year after opening.
11 Times, 1870 Mar 8.
12 Times, 1870 Mar 13.
13 Classified ads appeared in the Herald starting March 5, every other day, showing closing time at 4 through Saturday, March 19.  The tunnel was probably closed on Sunday.  An ad in the Tribune on March 21 is the first to show closing at 5, and ads in the various papers continue to show 10 to 5 hours until the last ad on April 3, 1871.  Hours after that are not known.
14 Scientific American, 1870 Mar 5.
15 Scientific American, 1870 Feb 19.
16 Scientific American, 1870 Mar 19.


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