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Boss Tweed introduces a Beach Pneumatic bill

Almost as soon as the Beach Pneumatic Transit tunnel opened to the public on March 1, 1870, the company began the campaign to build an underground railroad.  It was presented from the beginning as a matter of popular demand.  The Times reported, At the request of numerous visitors the officers of the Company have had memorials prepared asking the Legislature to grant to the Company the right to carry passengers ; several thousand signatures have already been procured, and a great many of the visitors have taken memorials away to get signatures, and return them when filled to the Company.1

By the end of the first week, Joseph Dixon was in Albany, papers in hand, to talk to the lawmakers, who were in session for only the first four or five months of each year.  William M Tweed, elected from a district in the lower East Side, introduced the bill into the Senate. 

THE BROADWAY BLOW PIPE, or pneumatic tunnel, is to have additional powers conferred on it, in accordance with a bill introduced to-day by Senator Tweed.  Mr Dixon, who is manager of the concern, and which, no doubt, will be known as Dixon’s line, has been here during the past few days, and to-day seems quite happy.2 … Dixon and an assistant are struggling along under a package said to be a petition signed by 5,703 citizens of New York, in favor of allowing the pneumatic folks to blow passengers through their tube.3

It was ‘An act supplemental to, and amendatory of’ the act incorporating the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company.  Not everyone understood what it was for.  As it appeared at a glance, An important bill, amendatory of the law concerning Pneumatic operations, was presented to-day by Senator Tweed.  It aims to facilitate the transmission of letters, packages, and merchandise in New-York and Brooklyn, and across the North and East Rivers, by means of pneumatic tubes …4  Carrying passengers seemed almost incidental.

It shall be lawful for the ‘Beach Pneumatic Transit Company’ … to construct and operate and lay under the streets, avenues, and other places named in the said act permitting them to lay pneumatic tubes of enlarged interior diameter, and of size sufficient for the construction of a railway or railways therein, and for the running of cars thereon and the carrying of passengers therein, and also to construct, in connection with said tubes, two or more tracks of railways therein, with the necessary turn-outs and stations, with flues, openings, and stair-ways, both for ventilation and for the ingress and egress, and for the accommodation of passengers, and for the receipt and discharge of packages and freight.5  The streets to be used were not stated except by reference to the original act, which one would have to go see to realize that the franchise was unlimited. 

The company could acquire title to property using the same powers of eminent domain as described in the Railroad Act of 1850, except that it shall not be necessary that the petition to the Court shall make any allegation of, or reference to, any incorporation, capital stock, surveys, maps, or to the filing of any certificate of location, or in other words no evidence that the land is needed for a railway need be presented.  The company could just say that certain land was needed.  The company’s railway was declared to be a ‘public use’, no doubt a reference to Governor Fenton’s objection to Willson’s subway a few years before. 

The fare was limited to ten cents for the first three miles and two cents per mile additional.  The public might also pay part of the cost through their taxes.  It shall be lawful for the Mayor, Aldermen and Commonality of the Cities of New-York and Brooklyn, and for the Supervisors of the County of Westchester, respectively, to subscribe for the stock or indorse the bonds of said corporation to an amount not exceeding in the aggregate $750,000 for each completed mile of said underground pneumatic railroad.5

The city officials or official bodies are forbidden to do any act that may improperly impede the prosecution of the work.6  The company’s only stated obligation was to construct sewers when it built in a street that did not already have them.  Across the East River the Brooklyn Eagle was critical of the project and the invitation for the City of Brooklyn to invest in it after already investing in the East River Bridge.  They have said all along that while the bridge was so costly as to need public aid, the tunnel was so cheap as to be easily made by private investment. … To come now to the city, for aid toward an enterprise which was chartered only upon the allegation that it needed no public help, is unfair on the part of the tunnel projectors.7

Joseph Dixon was indignant. The only difference between our present charter and the proposed amendment is, that we are restricted at present to operating tubes of fifty-four inches interior diameter, for the carrying of packages and freight ; the proposed amendment provides that we may carry passengers, and enlarge our tubes sufficiently for this purpose ; the other provisions of the bill are the usual clauses in all railroad bills, the only difference being that the counties of New York, Kings, and Westchester are allowed the privilege of subscribing to the capital stock.8


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Proposed Beach Pneumatic Transit station, from Scientific American of March 5, 1870.  The short station illustrates the concept of single cars run at very frequent intervals, but Beach had proposed much longer cars than this.  This one is barely adequate for the crowd shown.  The top-hatted man in a hurry may have to catch the next car.


It was a week before Senator Henry W Genet raised objections to the Pneumatic bill.  At that point the newspapers woke up.  The Tribune, checking the original bill, noted that it authorized the company to roam anywhere and everywhere under land and water, in and between and around those cities, in making tunnels for transmitting letters, packages, and merchandise … and Tweed’s bill would simply add passengers to the list.9  The same day the Times headlined, An Extraordinary Pneumatic Tunnel Bill.  /  All Underground in New-York and Brooklyn Given Away.  /  A Perpetual and Exclusive Franchise to the Beach Company. Details were as follows. 

People who go down under Broadway to look at that gas-illuminated, whitewashed tube called the ‘Beach Pneumatic Transit Company’, and are asked to register their names as they pass out, will do well to scrutinize the paper to which they attach their names.  They are represented as petitioners for the passage of a bill now before the Legislature whose character and contents they are probably totally ignorant of.  This bill was introduced by Senator TWEED, who got it reported ‘for consideration’ the next day after its introduction, and who is reported to have taken the contract to put it through the Legislature. 

… it should be stated that the original bill gave to the Company the privilege of constructing pneumatic tubes in any or all of the streets and avenues of New-York and Brooklyn.  Thus it will be seen that the present bill turns over to the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company the entire underground of both cities, including all the streets, avenues, public parks, &c, for their exclusive use.  It cuts off all other projects, present or prospective, for constructing sub-surface transit for passengers, freight, mails, packages, or anything else, and gives to the Pneumatic Company a perpetual and exclusive purchase in the whole of Manhattan Island and Brooklyn below the surface of the ground.  It does more.  It not only gives the Company the exclusive privilege of constructing underground railroads, but permits them to build just such roads as they please, to be worked by air, steam or any other power, and authorizes the Cities of New-York and Brooklyn to pay for the same …  Certainly no man with less experience than Grand Sachem TWEED in robbing New-York above ground could have concocted such a gigantic scheme for absorbing all there is left below ground.5

The Brooklyn Eagle, which had criticized the invitation for city investment already, reported now that this feature was the least obnoxious of the scheme, compared to the entire monopoly of the underground railroad business in both cities, for all time to come and the unlimited power of eminent domain. In other words, the company is forever to monopolize all of the streets underground, and so much of the land aboveground, as they please ; and the public taxes are to pay them two dollars for each one dollar their work costs ; and the projectors are to get the whole control and management, and profits, of the work for which the public are to pay the cost twice over.  Mr Tweed is, we need hardly add, the introducer of this bill.10

These remarks are especially interesting because of the legend that has grown up that Beach and Tweed were totally at odds.  Historian Alexander B Callow devotes ample space to Beach Pneumatic in his book The Tweed Ring for example, and totally omits this bill of 1870.11  In the legendary version of the story, Beach the wily inventor finds a way to build without Tweed’s knowledge.  This of course ignores the very visible construction works in 1869. Much more seriously though, Tweed’s introduction of the bill for Beach, and its deceptive and abusive nature, make it almost certain that Beach and Tweed were plotting together.  Beach was not politically naive when he plotted with Tweed, nor was he when he created the falsified version of the story two years later.  In his 1872 promotional book The Broadway Underground Railway, he omits all mention of the Tweed-sponsored bill in 1870, writing: 

On the opening of the company’s working section of railway under Broadway, in 1870, their premises were for many months thronged with citizens, who gave their enthusiastic approval to the work that had been done, and gladly joined in the company’s memorial to the Legislature asking authority to enlarge and extend their works on the routes and plans above indicated.  This memorial received the signatures of many thousands of the best citizens of New-York, and the enterprise became established in the public mind as the best system for rapid transit that had ever been proposed.  In January 1871, on the assembling of the Legislature, the company presented their memorial, accompanied with the form of a bill granting the necessary authority to proceed with the construction of the work.12

Here in 1872 Beach’s essay intended to turn public indignation at the Tweed Ring to his advantage.  Since he was blaming the Ring for the governor’s veto in 1871, he could not mention Tweed’s having introduced a bill for the company the previous year.  Beach also stated that the petitions were for the routes and plans above indicated in the booklet, namely Broadway from the Battery to Manhattanville (125th St) and a branch at Union Square along Fourth Avenue to the Harlem River.  But contemporary evidence is that the petition supported the very broad powers of the bill of 1870.  No copy of the petition is known to exist.  (See chapter 9 for more on Beach’s 1872 writing.)

Tweed had introduced the bill to the full senate, but normally bills were reviewed first in a relevant committee.  Genet moved to send the Beach bill to the Committee on Municipal Affairs, because the people desired to be heard on so important a bill as this.  Genet was also the first to raise the ultimately fatal objection that the company would have transcended its charter by building a railway.  Tweed countered that the plan was sufficiently understood by the public already.  But Genet’s move passed, and the bill went to committee on March 17.13

Joseph Dixon protested, The rough draft of our bill was drawn by Mr A E Beach and myself  it was perfected in Albany by a Republican senator of unimpeachable integrity  no other person saw it, nor knew anything about it, except the copyist, until it was presented to Mr Tweed for introduction.  No promise or intimation of any kind has been made to him, either directly or indirectly.8  Dixon was not helping matters by saying so.  In trying to distance the company from Tweed, he credited Beach and himself with the concept of hiding the significance of the bill by making it out to be just an amendment to something previously approved.

The Arcade Railway

Senator Genet was at this time sponsoring another underground railway bill, the Arcade railway.  This plan proposes to excavate Broadway from house to house, to the depth of 25 feet, replacing the present sidewalks and roadways by others of iron, while the space below would be occupied by a four-track railway.  The cellars of the buildings thus exposed, to be finished architecturally, and furnished with sidewalks, so as to give a new range of stores below the present ones, which, with the railway, could be lighted through a continuous opening of five or ten feet to be left between the upper roadway and the sidewalks.14


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The proposed Arcade Railway looking up Broadway from Wall St, with the Bank of the Republic on the right and trees in front of Trinity Church on the left.  From a full-page illustration in Scientific American, February 9, 1867, the first year the Arcade Railway was proposed.  Amazingly in this version they proposed six tracks and one line of columns to fit in the space between the curb lines.  On the right, pedestrians look in shop windows at arcade level, and the interior of a shop is shown, strange to see directly under the bank.  Above the railway the larger tubes are lettered WATER and the smaller ones GAS.  Below the railway, the large oval is SEWERAGE and the square ducts below it are PNEU MATIC.  There seems to be no room for lateral branches off any of these.  Below the railway, arched tunnels are provided for horse-drawn railcars and roadways.  Narrow spiral stairways connect the arcade and street levels, within the fenced openings for light and air.  The plan in 1870 was for four tracks but was otherwise essentially the same.


The ambitious and expensive Arcade plan had failed to pass the legislature in 1868 and 1869, but the Times opined that its day was coming.  Though it was generally denounced at first as visionary, there is no concealing the fact that it has constantly grown in popular favor, and to-day commands a larger share of public confidence than any other scheme for an underground railroad in this City ever offered to the public.  Its entire practicality is vouched for, after full examination, by the first engineers in the country …15

This time around it was attracting a very powerful company … composed of men whose wealth and standing cannot fail to insure success to any enterprise they may undertake.16  Its chief promoter was Melville C Smith.  One of the fifty-six others was Origen Vanderburgh, who had been in on the original Willson plan in 1864, and who was currently a director of the New York City Central Underground Railroad.  The engineer was Egbert L Viele.  Other well known names involved in the project were Peter Cooper, William J McAlpine, George B McClellan, and industrialist and former mayor George Opdyke. 

Senator Genet introduced the Arcade bill the day after Tweed introduced the Pneumatic amendment bill.  At the same time Assemblyman Kiernan introduced an Arcade bill into the Assembly.  This is the most popular scheme with the members of the Legislature that was ever introduced for a steam railroad in New-York City, and had not the pneumatic project diverted attention to what many consider a still better scheme, the Arcade bill would pass the Legislature with scarcely a dissenting vote.17

The Arcade plan was endorsed by an ad hoc Board of Engineers who met on February 26— the very day of the Pneumatic subway’s grand opening— to determine some means by which the people of the City of New-York may have a rapid, safe and pleasant mode of travel by steam through Manhattan Island.  They were led by General McClellan, an engineer Beach respected, and included Egbert L Viele of the Arcade project.18 

The Board’s findings, publicized on March 14, were for a four-track railroad with express and local trains, running up lower Broadway and then branching to the east and west sides.  It is impossible to maintain a great speed and at the same time to stop often.  It is clear from this that the railway must consist of four tracks— the two inside tracks for the accommodation of the through, and the outside tracks for the accommodation of the way travel.  The cars running at a high rate of speed should start at the Battery, stop at the City Hall, and again at the Union-square, where those containing passengers for the east and west side respectively, would separate— the west side keeping the line of Broadway, the east side that of Fourth-ave. 

The Arcade plan met this need.  The Board calculated the cost to be two million dollars a mile in Broadway below Union Square.  They included excavation, relocation of sewers and mains, upper and lower sidewalks, road-bed above and below, and so forth.19  A T Stewart of course opposed it.  The people of New York have not the remotest idea as to how their interests are trifled with in these legislative committees.  That some more rapid means of communication is needed no one can deny, and yet a few men— in some cases one man— can block legislation on this subject to suit his own purposes or the wishes of his friends.20

A T Stewart and the failure of both plans

The Arcade and Pneumatic bills were in competition, backed by two Tammany politicians.  Both reached the Senate for a vote in April. 

The leading opponent of the Arcade Road is A T Stewart, who has for years opposed any and every project for a railroad in Broadway, either underground, elevated, or surface.  On the other hand, there are petitions here from … 3,000 others, owners and lessees of property on Broadway …21

Judge Hilton is here in the interest of A T Stewart, to oppose the Arcade or any other bill that interferes with Broadway.  But neither his name nor his money can much longer delay the construction of some kind of steam railroad, which will enable the citizens of New-York to get to and from their homes and places of business in a reasonable time.22

A week later, the Times editorial board turned.  The headline was Arcade Railroad — A Gigantic Scheme of Plunder.  The bill allowed digging to a ‘sufficient’ depth, not specified, and for any distance into cross streets.  The company paid no compensation for use of public streets and parks, and possibly none for private vaults under sidewalks.  A scheme of plunder more gigantic and dangerous has never been proposed.23 (They may have forgotten the Pneumatic bill.) The full text of the bill was printed, and the Albany reporter admitted grudgingly that whether justly or unjustly, it is the most popular City railroad bill that was ever before the Assembly, and if it rested solely on its (supposed) merits it would pass by an overwhelming majority.24

The Pneumatic bill came to a vote on April 25.  It went down in defeat with only eight votes.24  The Arcade bill passed.  The Times editors wrote, As there was money in the Arcade Railroad bill, the Legislature could not of course adjourn without its passage … The act makes a free gift of City property to specified persons under the cloak of a corporate charter.25

On May 2, A T Stewart held a large meeting at his store to take action to stop the Arcade bill from being signed into law.  The Times reported this under the headline THE ARCADE SWINDLE. Stewart planned to see Governor Hoffman personally since, as he considered it, his messages to both houses of the legislature had gone unheeded; and he wanted some gentlemen to come with him.  According to Edward S Jaffray, another leading merchant, They had no selfish motive.  Their only desire was to act as citizens seeking the best good of their City. According to a Mr Solomon, They had not yet been able to fix on any plan, though they had opposed a Broadway railroad for nineteen years.  Their inability to agree on any plan gave the vile publications scattered through the streets the chance to attack them.26

The delegation saw the Governor on May 5.  Stewart and others spoke at length about the damage to their businesses that would be caused by construction.27  They got their wish.  On May 15, Hoffman vetoed the bill.  BROADWAY SAVED, wrote the Times.  The message of veto included thirteen reasons, all printed out.  Hoffman concluded with a strong statement against giving to a railroad company the partial use of streets in New-York, without compensation.28  Here he referred to the long struggle against street railway franchises being granted with little or no fee to the city, first by the corrupt city council and then by the state legislature.  The most recent street railway grant, for the Twenty-Third Street Railway in May 1869, was the first to be auctioned, and it fetched $150,000 to the city.29  Governor Hoffman’s veto was the last gasp of the Arcade plan— or so it seemed. 

The Beach Pneumatic failed in 1870 partly because of public opposition to the overly broad powers it would give the company, and partly because of better promotion by the Arcade promoters who wanted to build in the same street.  But if Beach had somehow overcome the Arcade, the Beach Pneumatic bill would still have been vetoed for the same reason that doomed the Arcade bill:  it was planned to run in Broadway, and the governor was listening to A T Stewart. 

The New York City Central Underground Railroad

While the two companies fought it out for a Broadway franchise, the New York City Central Underground company continued their struggles to build a road from City Hall to Harlem east of Broadway.  They had the charters granted in 1868 and 1869, and engineering studies had been done by the end of 1869.  This was the year they should have started work.  During the second week of March 1870, as Tweed was introducing the Pneumatic bill, Central Underground president William B Ogden contracted with English capitalists for ten million dollars security, and announced the start of construction for June.30

One of the engineers, W W Evans, recalled in 1875 the reasons why the road was not constructed.  I might here state that a contract drawn by Mr Ogden to build this railway was made and executed with a gentleman from London, and that this railway would have been built and in use at the present time but for three reasons :  One was that Mr Ogden was called to the West and was away for some months ; another was that some of the members of the Board of Directors got a ‘crotchet’ in their heads that the contract had enormous profits in it and should be quashed, also that others wished ‘a finger in this pie’ ; the third reason for the failure of this company and the contract was that Tweed was then ‘the King’ and nothing could be done without his assent and concurrence.31  Evans saw the directors as the obstruction, but the directors blamed the company’s managers.

In an interview in 1877 Origen Vandenburgh praised the 1869 study of the board of three engineers but said that they had not been told about the route changes of the charter amendment that year, and that the directors had therefore withheld the report.  Vandenburgh had become a director in May 1869 and the amendment included permission to use his idea of a tunnel for each track rather than the single tunnel the engineers had designed.  Vandenburgh would always be sensitive about credit for this simple concept.  The engineers’ cost estimate was $6,250,000.  The two or three actual managers then made a contract in two parts, whereby $35,000,000 worth of stocks and bonds were to be issued.  Moreover, the contract, which was a voluminous mass of manuscript, provided that the contractor, Francis P Byrne, a man of straw, without resources, should be permitted to pay out bonds for land, so that he could select a site, for instance, to dump out a load of stones, and buy the ground with the company’s paper.  It was an immense scheme to rob the people and get possession of City real estate, Vandenburgh charged.  The double tunnel plan was the one approved by English engineer John Fowler and the basis for the financing that William B Ogden arranged, but Fowler dropped his approval when he learned about the Byrne contract.  Two of the directors took action:  William Whitbeck published a denunciation of the company and Vandenburgh started a lawsuit when he heard that the managers were giving Byrne credit for the double tunnel plan.  Vandenburgh mentioned director Andrew H Green particularly as supporting his claim.32  (Green, a partner of Samuel J Tilden, was later involved in the creation of Greater New York in 1898.)

As a result, many of the directors including Green and engineer Allan Campbell resigned in the later part of 1870, and those remaining nominated among others Tweed and Sweeny, but according to Vandenburgh they never accepted the positions.  He did not comment on the motivation for adding them to the board.  Tweed is listed as a board member in a newspaper story in December 1870.  Other interesting additions included Melville C Smith from the Arcade project and financier Cornelius K Garrison.33  Some time after this the Byrne contract was revoked and early in 1871 more new directors came in, including Oliver W Barnes, who became president in place of the departing William B Ogden.32

Barnes had yet another explanation for the company’s inaction in a letter to the Times in 1872.  He said that the company had had difficulties with Cornelius Vanderbilt, president of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.  Among the original incorporators and first managers, were several of Commodore Vanderbilt’s most intimate associates in railroad affairs.  His own engineer was engineer of the Company ; his own friends and his son-in-law sat in the Board.  He was offered, and refused, participation in the construction of the road ; and when called upon finally by the President of the Company, and invited to undertake the road, his only reply to so serious a proposition was:  ‘No! I shall be underground a d——d sight sooner than this thing.’  This was 1869 or 1870.  Barnes believed that Vanderbilt was holding the charter as long as possible to prevent anyone else building on the route.34  The engineer he referred to was Allan Campbell, who resigned in December 1870.33  Barnes said unbelievably that by some arrangement, the terms of which are unknown to the present owners of the Company, Vanderbilt’s interests were transferred to the Ring.34  Barnes must have known something about the Byrne contract scandal but did not mention it.

William B Ogden spoke before a meeting of the West Side Association on March 8, 1871, at which time he was described as until recently associated with the company.  He blamed the company’s failure to raise money on restrictive provisions in the charter and said that they were about to ask the legislature for changes to allow other railroads to invest in the company— but such investments were in fact allowed under the charter amendments of 1869.  He said that the directors were of the opinion in 1870 that the Arcade project would not be likely to be authorized and had gone ahead with their planning, but they suffered further delays that he blamed not on the disagreements within the company but on the hot weather of the past Summer, followed by the French and Prussian war.  Echoing remarks of William R Martin at the same meeting, Ogden now in 1871 considered Broadway the best route.35

The West Side Elevated Railroad

During the same time as all the underground railway political activity, the West Side Elevated completed the first operable section from a downtown station at Dey St to the Hudson River Railroad terminal at 29th St.  The new investors that had edged out Charles T Harvey failed to meet the December 1869 opening date proposed in September,36 but after their stock manipulations were in order, they completed the line by late March.  As will be recalled, it was a single track operated by cable, with four powerhouses in underground vaults at Cortlandt St, Franklin St, Bethune St, and 22nd St.  The cable was to run at twelve miles per hour, faster than the later cable car street railways in San Francisco and elsewhere.  A very complicated system of telegraphing is required in connection with the various vaults in which the machinery is to work.37

A trial trip ran on April 9 carrying invited guests including Peter Cooper and Daniel Drew.  The company leased premises in the Exchange Bank Building at Dey St for the down-town depot and offices, which were built wrapped around the corner of the building.  The 29th St station was over the street intersection.  It was anticipated that the road will be thrown open to the public in early May38 but the date was missed.39

One of the required tests was to run a car with three times the expected weight.36  This was done on May 16, when a passenger-car was started about 3 o’clock, from the lower terminus, in which were nine persons, employees and officers of the road, which was followed at a distance of twenty feet by a platform car, on which had been placed twelve tons of pig iron as a test of the road.  The two cars proceeded rapidly and safely up town …  At Houston and Greenwich streets one section of the road ends and another begins.  The cars were detached from the chain just below Houston-street, with the expectation that, as usual, the momentum would carry them forward sufficiently far to be grappled by the chain worked by the engine beyond Houston-street … when suddenly, … the track gave way under the platform-car, and it fell bodily to the street, fourteen feet six inches below.  The fall of the track at this point, of course, brought the passenger-car with a terrible thud to the street down the inclined plane caused by the break, terribly jostling all the inmates …39  Some of the employees were injured, and a 150 foot section of line had collapsed to the street— almost a city block.  The company engineers were not daunted.  The bridge supports will be strengthened, and the same tests applied again over the whole line … It will be seen that these tests are applied before it is open for public use, which it is expected will occur within a week …39


[ 7-3 ]

A fine view of the West Side Elevated structure passing Fulton St, one block north of the Dey St terminal, 1870.  The longer span across the street has a turnbuckle and a slightly thicker beam.  The return path for the cable runs just under the track.  The business on the right offers SEGARS, and the Ocean National Bank occupied this corner for some time before moving up to Broadway within the next year or so.  The Ninth Avenue Railroad, the horsecar line, started at Broadway, came down Fulton St and took the curve at the bottom left to go uptown in Greenwich St.  The downtown cars came downtown Washington St and across Fulton.  As can be seen, the company laid additional track in these streets.


[ 7-4 ]

[ 7-5 ]

The greatest curve on the elevated railway was at the crossing of Gansevoort St and Little West 12th St, where it went from Greenwich St into Ninth Ave, seen looking downtown in both views above.  William Fullerton Reeves, displaying an engineer’s wit, remarked, Note … the method of getting around a curve with the cables, namely not to do so at all!  The end of the south 22nd St cable is well seen in the foreground, and beyond in Greenwich St the beginning of the Bethune St cable.  This was one of the places where the cars had to coast across a cable gap and sometimes jolted passengers as they grabbed a traveler on the next cable.


[ 7-6 ]

An illustration by A C Warren from Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science, and Art for June 25, 1870 shows the cable shafts at the 22nd St powerhouse.  Because both upper and lower cables drop to the vault on both sides, probably two separate cables ran from here.  The other end of the south cable, on the left, is in the photograph just above.  The company’s iron works manufactured something very similar to an elevated pillar to support the base of the narrow smokestack in the side street.  Car number 3 differs in design from car number 1, seen in the photograph below.  While it may be artistic license, illustrations like these were often done from photographs, and hand-made wooden cars sometimes did not match.


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Car number 1 stands at 29th St station, 1870.  The station is so small that the car almost totally obscures it, but the stairway is plainly visible and the railing at the end of the platform is just about visible in the overexposed area on the far right.  The lettering on the car reads GREENWICH ST AND NINTH AVENUE above the windows, and on the side is a wonderful circular emblem with WEST SIDE ELEVATED over smaller PATENTED over RAILWAY CO, all around the number 1.  The Hudson River Railroad terminal was in the block on the right, where an omnibus waits to begin its run.


Cable car operation on the West Side Elevated

The elevated finally opened to the public on Saturday, June 11, 1870,40 running with a tolerable regularity, and a full complement of passengers.41  There were only the two stations, Dey Street and 29th Street, but it provided a good service for Hudson River Railroad passengers, much faster than the Ninth Avenue Railroad horsecars or the Broadway omnibus line that ran to the terminal. 

The single track ran on the east curb line of Greenwich St and the west curb line of Ninth Ave, crossing over at Little West 12th St.  The track continued past both terminals.  At the south end was the first section built, a few blocks long from Battery Place to Cortlandt St, not in passenger service, and at the north end the track continued one block to 30th St.42  These were the only places where cars could be stored.  The three cars were not run as a train, but had to run as a fleet, all departing in the same direction within minutes of each other.  After the last car passed out of each section, the cable was stopped and restarted in the opposite direction.  The platforms were only one car length.  The first and second cars to arrive had to discharge passengers and then move on past the station to clear the platform for the next car.  Similarly one car would load at a time. 

There were many problems with the cable operation.  There was a collision at 29th St terminal on June 14, when an arriving car would not detach from the cable, and it rammed another car, snapping the cable.  Since the car overshot the platform and could not be moved, passengers had to go down to street level by ladder.40  On June 22, the machinery was smashed as a car crossed over the cable break at Houston Street, and a wheel (from a traveler?) fell in fragments to the street.  Again the passengers had to escape by ladders.43  On some other occasions, when the cable failed, a rope was then attached to the front of the stalled car and the other end was thrown to the street where a truck with four horses, if they could make it, pulled the train or car.44

Some observers thought little of it.  A forgotten publication called Iron Age said after a month that the line has been opened to business long enough to enable the public to arrive at very correct ideas concerning it … during the semi-occasional intervals between break-downs and accidents in which it has been possible to run cars.  The writer felt that it is constructed with but little apparent regard for scientific or mechanical principles and that the cable propulsion did not work as the motion is uneven and disagreeable, and the gradual loss of impetus in passing over the bridges between the sections, necessitates a succession of sudden and unexpected jerks as the tracks attached to the cables come in contact with the spring affixed to the under part of the car.  The worst feature of the road, however, is the weakness of the structure, sustained by single posts, and possessing no side braces or supports to overcome the lateral motion of the heavy cars balanced on the spreading arms that hold the tracks.  These defects should have been discovered before a hundred feet of the road had been built, if not sooner …45

Service ended about two months after it began.  The Times noted in August, The Elevated Railway in Ninth-avenue has ended its precarious existence. The amusement of running empty cars up and down the road, while it gratified the pride of the inventors, and excited a gentle interest in the minds of the general public, was apparently too expensive to the stockholders to be longer indulged in … So the company has discontinued its operations indefinitely … Only the road itself remains, growing rustier and more forlorn every day, a melancholy monument of ill-digested schemes and unwise ambition … With the failure of this plan, perishes the last immediate hope of relief to up-town and Westchester residents from the tedium of horse-car and omnibus.  An under-ground railroad, even if the design worries its way to an actual beginning, through the manifold obstacles of legislation, intrigue, inertness, and corruption, must necessarily be a work of infinite difficulty, of great time, labor, and expense.46

The company was never more alive than now, protested ‘a director’ in reply.  It was never formally opened to the public but ran for a time to satisfy the Directors and enable them to make needed improvements.  They are satisfied that it will pay well as an investment, and become a popular line for travel when sufficient cars and both tracks are ready for use.47 

The West Side Elevated (Patented) Railway Company reported to the state that it carried 53,912 passengers in 1870.48  Over the course of about 75 days, that averages only 720 a day. 

The company had noticed something that was to remain true for cable street railways later.  The amount of power necessary to carry a rope of this character, was almost, if not quite, equal to that requisite for propelling the car itself, if directly applied, allowing the latter, when filled with passengers, to weigh about eight tons, was the estimate,49 said the Times almost incoherently.  One hundred years later, railway historian George W Hilton wrote about cable street railways, A common estimate was that, for individual companies, 55 to 75 per cent of the energy was typically devoted to moving the cable.  One engineer who studied the question … estimated that for the industry as a whole 84 per cent of the energy was expended on moving the cable and 16 per cent on moving cars and passengers …50

There were too many short cables, and the single track working required the cables to be stopped and restarted many times a day.  At the end of each section the cable passed through one of the hollow columns underground in the cellar of one of the adjoining buildings, which had been hired to place the stationary engine in, the engineer of which started it at a given signal when a train approached his section. As there were several such stationary engines placed from distance to distance, each requiring attendants, the wastefulness of this plan is evident, and it is surprising that this was not seen at the outset, before this great expense was indulged in.51

The cable grip had a patented spring arrangement intended to lessen the impact when it grabbed hold.52  The car would otherwise jump without acceleration from a standstill to cable speed.  The spring was made to compress when the car braked, and was able to stretch out when it started.  However this did not help when the car had to pass from one cable to another, losing speed until it could take hold of a horn on the next cable. 

Experience soon showed another very objectionable feature, namely, when a train passed from one section to another, the pull of the wire rope, when this moved faster than the train, often caused such a jerk at the moment it became attached, as to throw the passengers from their seats. We ourselves experienced this on a trial trip to which the editors of the various New York papers were invited, and as the seats are placed lengthwise, the whole editorial corps were thrown in a heap to the rear end of the car.  However no one was injured.51

Seeking an alternative the company tested Ransom’s Pneumatic Engine in September.  It was charged with compressed air as its power, and was said to be capable of running thirty to fifty miles an hour.  The tanks and mechanism could be fitted into a passenger car rather than an engine, and there was talk of applying it to streetcars as well.49  It ran, but nothing more was heard of it. 


[ 7-8 ]



The elevated reopened on November 14 still using cable power.  A surviving handbill states that the cars ran hourly, on the hour from Dey St and on the half hour from 29 St, taking 20 minutes for the trip.  One car will leave five minutes in advance of time if all seats are occupied, and the last car will leave five minutes after time, if vacant seats then remain.  Each train of three cars has accommodation for 120 passengers.  Although the three cars are called a train, it is clear from the description that they ran separately.  The cars were made to stop during the trip at Franklin St, Houston St, and Bethune St, even though the platforms are not yet provided.53

The Tribune marked the event with one sentence:  The Elevated Railway was reopened yesterday, and was patronized by a number of passengers, including about a dozen ladies.54

The Times reported more fully, But a single car is in use, and only a limited number of passengers— thirty-five at each trip— were carried.  The fare is ten cents, and the time of transit about fifteen minutes.  There has been no change, and none is contemplated, in the motive power … The company deny that they have failed in any sense, and say that the temporary suspension of operations was for prudent and financial reasons ; and that they now expect to continue the running of cars uninterruptedly … They explain the cause of the last accident not to have been any defects in the supports of the span, but in the unexpected lateral pressure of the car (loaded with 40,000 pounds of iron), against the outer rail, on the curve, over the street-crossing ; that five ordinary passenger car-loads could not have broken the beam as the freight-car did ; that the endless wire cable has never broken or failed ; nor has any essential portion of the work proved unequal to their expectations and requirements.55

Under REMARKS the handbill noted, Its safety having been unquestionably proven, its certainty and celerity only remain to be perfected by regular use. Every fare paid encourages improvement in these regards, and all who desire quick transit in New York City are now invited to aid in the rapid perfection and certain success of this pioneer enterprise.53

It did not last long at all.  The opening of the elevated railroad on the west side of the city was announced to take place yesterday morning.  A HERALD reporter called at the starting point of the road, ready to risk life and limb in order to test its safety, but he found that ‘the old thing didn’t work’ and was prevented from carrying his hazardous enterprise into operation.  He was, however, informed by one of the officials of the line that four round trips had been performed during the morning when the boiler of the engine was found to be in an unsatisfactory condition, and, to avoid any accidents, travel was stopped in order to make the necessary repairs.  He also explained that there are many difficulties experienced in operating this new mode of transit, as it is the first of its kind, but no further interruptions are apprehended, and the line will run to-morrow morning.56  The next day the Tribune reported laconically, The Elevated Railway has again closed for repairs.57

In December, a grand jury indicted the company as a nuisance, for placing five hundred posts and one thousand iron and wooden rails … for the pretended purposes of a railroad for the pretended travel over said posts and on such rails of cars then and there expected to contain men, women, and children as passengers … to the evil example of others in like case offending.58  The elevated was dead, or so it seemed at the end of 1870. 

Elevated or tunnel?

Tunnel roads might be the only hope, according to Scientific American, in one last article before they promised to drop the present discussion of the subject

First, in regards to the Pneumatic Tunnel, we would say that its projectors regard the question of the practicability of pneumatic propulsion as settled.  If, however, they should be able to obtain a charter, and upon completion of the work the pneumatic system should fail, as some predict, the main thing, an avenue for transit, the tunnel, will be secured, and it can be worked by locomotives, or any other motive power found most desirable …

We do not regard with favor elevated railways of any kind.  The Arcade plan is, we think, a wildly visionary scheme, one that never can and never will be carried to completion …

So long as Broadway remains untunneled, so long will capitalists hesitate about building parallel lines, liable to be subsequently placed in competition with that more popular route.  So either by some legislative enactment (which seems impossible) any tunnel under Broadway must be prohibited forever, or it were best to grant some good company a charter to push such a tunnel to speedy completion.59

The rapid transit question remained unsolved. 

1 Times, 1870 Mar 8.
2 Herald, 1870 Mar 11
3 Herald, 1870 Mar 18.
4 Tribune, 1870 Mar 11.
5 Times, 1870 Mar 18.
6 Eagle, 1870 Mar 11.
7 Eagle, 1870 Mar 14.
8 Eagle, 1870 Mar 24.
9 Tribune, 1870 Mar 18.
10 Eagle, 1870 Mar 19.
11 Callow, Tweed Ring, 184-188.  In this version, Beach fears Tweed’s interference from the start, and Tweed is in favor of the Viaduct plan, confusing 1870 and 1871.
12 Beach, Broadway Underground Railway, 1.
13 Times, Herald, Tribune, World, 1870 Mar 18.
14 Putnam’s Magazine, Jan 1869.
15 Times, 1869 Oct 18.
16 Times, 1870 Jan 22.
17 Times, 1870 Mar 12.
18 Times, 1870 Feb 27.
19 Times, 1870 Mar 14.  Tribune, 1872 Jan 27.
20 World, 1870 Mar 18.
21 Times, 1870 Apr 13.
22 Times, 1870 Apr 14.
23 Times, 1870 Apr 21.
24 Times, 1870 Apr 26.
25 Times, 1870 Apr 28.
26 Times, 1870 May 3.
27 Times, 1870 May 6.
28 Times, 1870 May 16.
29 Carman, Street Surface Railway Franchises, 130.
30 Times, 1870 Mar 13.
31 Herald, 1870 Feb, quoted in Walker, Fifty Years, 97.
32 Times, 1877 Dec 29.
33 Times, 1870 Dec 24.
34 Times, 1872 Apr 30.
35 Tribune, 1871 Mar 9.
36 Times, 1869 Sep 7.
37 Times, 1870 Mar 26.
38 Times, 1870 Apr 10.
39 Times 1870 May 17.
40 Times, 1870 Jun 15.  This article states the line opened ‘last Saturday’, making the date June 11.  The opening date is given in modern sources as April 9, the date of the test run, or simply as ‘spring 1870’.
41 Times, 1870 Jun 10.
42 Reeves, First Elevated Railroads.
43 Times, 1870 Jun 23.
44 Reeves, First Elevated Railroads.
45 Railroad Gazette, 1870 Jul 30, quoting Iron Age.
46 Times, 1870 Aug 25.
47 Times, 1870 Aug 27.
48 Documentary History, 1393.
49 Times, 1870 Sep 19.
50 Hilton, Cable Car in America, 151.
51 Manufacturer and Builder, 1875 May.
52 Better grips made cable street railways possible, beginning with the Clay St line in San Francisco in 1873.  These grips grabbed on the cable itself, not a projecting horn, and had rollers that gradually stopped moving as the grip tightened, thus bringing the car up to speed smoothly.  This system is still in use in San Francisco today.  See Hilton, Cable Car in America.
53 Handbill, from Reed, New York Elevated, 42.
54 Tribune, 1870 Nov 15.
55 Times 1870 Nov 15.
56 Herald, 1870 Nov 15.
57 Tribune, 1870 Nov 16.
58 Times 1870 Dec 28.
59 Scientific American, 1870 Jun 11.

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