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The need for rapid transit

Beach’s campaign for a charter in 1870 was necessarily rushed, since the demonstration line opened only about a month before the legislative session was planned to end for the year.  With the collapse of the Arcade plan, and continued public agitation for rapid transit, 1871 dawned with greater promise. 

The Senate Railroad Committee took up a bill on February 10, reported with some confusion as amending the New-York and Brooklyn Beach Pneumatic Transportation Company, to allow it to build an underground railway from Bowling-Green, under Broadway, to Central Park and Eighth-avenue, and under Fourth-avenue to and under the Harlem River.1  The bill this time defined the route of the underground railway, unlike the failed bill of 1870.  To satisfy doubters about the utility of pneumatic power, Beach was now ready to consider steam locomotives, and proposed a commission study the question of power.  Nothing further was heard for a time, but on March 7, the Railroad Committee reported it out, something of a surprise, so dead was it considered.2  Senator Genet, who had sponsored the Arcade bill in 1870, introduced the Beach bill to the floor.3

The West Side Association, a group of property owners dedicated to real estate development, held a mass meeting on March 8 on the rapid transit question.  They were of course all in favor, since the existing slow transportation made it impractical to travel to work from their landholdings to lower Manhattan.  The head of the association and principal speaker was William R Martin, who was also one of the Commissioners of Central Park.  (The Commission’s jurisdiction included mapping the city north of 155th St.  Their plans broke free from the old city grid, following the contour of the land and providing for city parks in choice locations.  It was Martin who had proposed Riverside Park in a pamphlet of 1865.)4

Martin began by asserting to general agreement that the necessity of rapid transit is immediate and imperative and that a route should be constructed on or near Broadway down town, and up town branching and running one line east and the other west of the Central Park.  He agreed with most that if Broadway be the route, the underground plan is the best, but asked his audience to question the proposition and pointed out that if a route be chosen on one side of Broadway, the underground or the viaduct may either be adopted.  He called himself a friend of the viaduct plan, although he was fiercely against A T Stewart’s obstructionism of underground railways in Broadway.  Martin above all wanted some form of rapid transit.

The true plan for the relief of Broadway, is very simple ; and this ought to be framed, printed in letters of gold, and hung up over every counter along Broadway :  the true plan of relief is to divert from it the travel that does not belong to it.  Practically, the question is narrowed down between the viaduct and the Broadway underground … The vast preponderance [of public sentiment] is in favor of the underground … Can a bill authorizing the underground on Broadway possibly be passed against the opposition of the property-owners?  The gentleman who is the leader of this opposition has taken a position, over and over again, of direct antagonism to an underground road on Broadway.  He opposes it on the ground that it shall not pass by his property nor interrupt his use of it ; but, with a magnanimity … he lends his favor to the road provided it does the injury, as he calls it, to some other street and some other men. 

A T Stewart was busy building a new town on Long Island. He had acquired ten thousand acres of unwanted public land from the Town of Hempstead in 1869, offering a better price than his competitor, who by an odd coincidence was Charles T Harvey.5  Construction of a planned healthful suburban community called Garden City began in 1870.  There would be houses and schools, a water system, and even a new railroad financed by Stewart, the Central Railroad of Long Island.  All the houses were to be rented from the city itself, so that, according to Stewart, people would not tie up in houses the capital that they needed for business.  Stewart wanted to control what was built.  The first ten houses were started in 1871.6  Martin contrasted this grand plan with the lagging development of northern Manhattan because of slow travel time:  he will have his road, and also do his best to hinder ours.7

The next day, two days after he introduced the Beach Pneumatic bill, Senator Genet balanced it by introducing another bill for a viaduct railway. 


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Broadway looking north toward Houston St.  A horsecar on the Houston St and Avenue C route crosses Broadway.  The Viaduct Railway (see below) would have crossed Broadway in the next block north.  From a stereo view.

The Viaduct Railway

The World headlined, QUICK TRANSIT.  /  The Problem Believed to be Solved at Last.  /  A VIADUCT ROAD COSTING SIXTY MILLIONS.  /  The Bill Well Received by the Legislature, and its Passage Assured.8  The owner of the World, Manton Marble, was among the very long list of incorporators.  The article exclaimed, The solution so long awaited of the problem of swift passenger transit on Manhattan Island is unfolded … The present bill is the result of careful examination and study of this whole subject by a number of authorities, including Mr John J Sewell [Serrell] and Mr Leopold Eidlitz, engineers.  These gentlemen having directed their inquiries into every channel, investigated the various other plans suggested, and scientifically ascertained the grades, facilities and obstructions along the several routes proposed, finally decide against an underground, an arcade, or an open cut railway.  All such plans were rendered impractical, in their opinion, both by the enormous expense to be involved and by the natural difficulties of grade, &c, in the way.  The plan which was decided upon, of a viaduct railway, is claimed to be practical and preferable on several accounts.  First, because the work will cost less than an underground or open-cut railway, and capitalists are ready to come forward and defray the expenses.  Second, because the plan insures greater conveniences, pleasure, and healthfulness of travel than an underground railway, with its drawbacks of dangerous draughts and insufficient ventilation.  Third, because the construction of the viaduct is intended to but slightly interfere with the general travel and traffic of the city …8

The list given of incorporators started with Peter B Sweeny, Chamberlain of the city and a perennial street railway investor allied with Jacob Sharp, going back to the Broadway franchise fiasco of 1852.  Second was William M Tweed Jr, lawyer, son of the senator.  Third, Broadway omnibus line owner Hugh Smith.  Fourth, city Comptroller Richard B Connolly.  Not far along were the quoted engineers, John Serrell (spelled correctly) and Leopold Eidlitz, well known as an architect of churches and public buildings.  Twelfth and thirteenth were two of the leading men of the city, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper, and A T Stewart.  Also among the forty-five were newspaper owners Marble, Horace Greeley of the Tribune, James Gordon Bennett Jr of the Herald, Charles Dana of the Sun, and Oswald Ottendorfer of the Staats-Zeitung.9

The bill provided for a railway to be built on private right of way starting near City Hall Park, on a viaduct of masonry and iron, crossing over all streets along the way.  It was to run a few blocks east of Broadway to a point near Houston Street, and then divide into two routes that went up the east side to Harlem and up the west side to Kingsbridge.  As a railroad company it would have the usual power of eminent domain:  that is, compulsory purchase of land at a price determined by a court whenever the company and a land owner could not agree on a sale price.  The fare was set at up to fifteen or twenty cents by distance, but cars were to be available to workmen in rush hours at five cents— the first such rule in America.  The company had to raise three million dollars to start work, and was given deadlines of one year to start, three years to open the road to 42nd Street, and five years to finish.  No payment was to be made to the city for the franchise, but no streets or parks would be occupied, other than the bridges crossing over streets along the line.  All of the money was to be raised privately.9

The Viaduct bill was a strategic move by A T Stewart.  It would be a superior railroad to any of the proposed underground railways, and it would run close enough to Broadway to capture the potential traffic.  As later detailed, it was to have four main tracks to permit express and local trains, a concept not achieved by any rapid transit line in New York until the present subway opened in 1904.  It would use the proven technology of steam locomotives, not pneumatics or cable.  The structure was to be far more substantial and permanent than the Greenwich Street elevated.  There can be little doubt that if the Viaduct railway had been built, it would still be in use today as a main line of the rapid transit system.  The proposed two-track underground railways by contrast would have been obstacles to the later development of faster transit. 

Beach Pneumatic versus the Viaduct

The crusading Times found fault with both of the rapid transit plans.  First they published a letter from ‘Publicus’ highly critical of the Viaduct, misrepresenting some points and calling it a swindle intended to do no more than raise money from unsuspecting buyers of stock that would become worthless.10  The next day an editorial, Warning to Property-Owners in Broadway and Fourth-Avenue, suggested that the Beach Pneumatic tunnel might run near the sides of streets, destroying vaults and buildings3, despite explicit language in the bill that the tunnel shall, as far as practical, follow the center line of the aforesaid streets.11

The Times’s Albany correspondent clarified the positions of some of the players.  The pneumatic tube that has been on exhibition for the past two years in the lower part of Broadway, has apparently grown into Senatorial favor since the bill was introduced changing it into a steam road.  The bill is engineered in the Senate by Mr WINSLOW, and he is sure of its passage.  In the debate this morning Mr TWEED protested strongly against the bill.  He said that it would destroy the street, and that it was a national injury that a thoroughfare of which every American was proud should be endangered by the building of this road.  He said that he was favorable to the bill if they would run on a side street, he favored the project in itself.12  Another senator asked Tweed whether he had not himself sponsored the Beach Pneumatic bill a year earlier with Broadway in it.  Very likely ; wise men change— fools never, retorted Tweed.13  The Times correspodent offered the view that TWEED is not opposed to the bill, but that he is so mixed up with STEWART and the other gentlemen who are against any interference with Broadway, that he is obliged to show some opposition .12

Another senator commented that the bill seemed to be well guarded.  He noticed that the Commissioner of Public Works was in almost every section.  Mr Tweed replied by saying that he had great confidence in the Commissioner of Public Works, (laughter) but he did not wish that officer compelled to what his judgement proclaimed to be wrong.  If tunneling Broadway depended on the consent of the present Commissioner of Public Works, the bill would be worth little to its projectors.13  The joke was that Senator Tweed was himself the city’s Commissioner of Public Works.  Despite the impossibility of a Broadway tunnel under the circumstances, the amendment failed.

The Beach Pneumatic bill passes

The Senate passed the Beach Pneumatic bill on March 15, by a vote of 22 to 5.  The city senators were divided, Tweed and Bradley opposed, and Genet and Norton in favor.  The World printed a letter from ‘Sentinel’ commenting that it seems strange indeed to see this bill pass so quietly, when the right to invade that street has been for so many years denied to all other projects, and especially when the viaduct— which is assumed to be the united plan of all the delegation— is not yet determined.14

The Tribune published a letter from Beach about the bill:  It has been framed with careful reference to the protection of public and private interests, and it is believed is not open to any very serious objections.  The Engineer Commission, to whose supervision the work of construction is committed, is to consist, as you will observe, of Alfred W Craven, George S Greene, and another gentleman to be appointed by the Mayor, who, it is hoped, will be Gen George B McClellan.  Constructed under the direction of these eminent engineers, our citizens may be satisfied that the work will be executed in the best possible manner, creditable in all respects to the City of New-York.  The need for a means of rapid transit in this city is very pressing …11

THE BROADWAY PNEUMATIC TUBE BILL created quite a breeze in the lower house this evening, wrote the Herald’s correspondent.15  The Assembly by the Ears Over the Broadway Pneumatic Railroad Bill, wrote the World.16  The Tribune explained, There was great excitement in the Assembly this evening over the Beach Underground Railroad bill.  The bill passed the Senate yesterday, came down to the Assembly this morning, received its first and second readings, and was consigned to the first Committee of the Whole for immediate consideration.  As soon as the Assembly met this evening, it was voted to go into the Committee of the Whole on the Pneumatic bill.  The bill itself was not even read, a motion being instantly made to rise and report progress.17

It was moving incredibly fast.  Objections were made to the unseemly haste by legislators who had not had a chance to see the bill at all.  The Herald’s reporter was especially insightful: 

One of the assemblymen called attention to the fact that the bill was imperfect, inasmuch as it came in the shape of an amendment to some act or other which its title did not mention, and he moved to have it referred to the Committee on Railroads to be put into presentable form …  During the debate on the bill the vestibule and lobbies of the Chamber were crowded with the backers of the scheme, who made themselves shamefully conspicuous by openly calling from their seats, each in his turn, several members whose aid was desired to push the thing through.  What ARRANGEMENTS were made between the parties of the first part and the parties of the second part is not definitely known, but it is said that heavy payments in the stock of the company were guaranteed to every member who would do the square thing.  A large number of the ruralities were only too glad to swallow the bait and were papered accordingly.  After the results of the vote committing the bill to the Railroad Committee had been declared, the lobbyists, half scared out of their wits, skedaddled as though fearful the statue of blind Justice on the Capitol was about to topple over and crush them out of existence.  The scare, however, will be smoothed over by to-morrow, when the newly made legislative shareholders will PASS THE BILL after its title will have made it readable.  It may be interesting to Broadway property owners to know that they are indebted to the chairman of the Railroad Committee for the way the bill was so suddenly sprung upon the House, in the face of the fact that not a solitary argument in favor of the amended bill was made before the committee since it was introduced this session.  The Governor will certainly veto it.15

The bill did pass the next day, March 17, 102 to 11, but not without more arguments.  BROADWAY TO BE UNDERMINED, said the HeraldThe bill has been crowded through in a most remarkable way, said Assemblyman Smith Weed.  The Herald reported, Many of those who voted for the measure did so fearful lest New York city would set them down as opposed to the rapid transit idea, and because they felt assured the Governor would veto the bill anyhow.18  The Assembly had added amendments providing that the company must provide bridges over any breaches made in Broadway during construction, that the company must file a bond of $200,000, twice what had been proposed, and that the company could not take any part of a park except for entrances and exits to stations.19


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Classified ad, Herald, March 11, 1871.


Beach had succeeded.  It remained now only for the Senate to approve the Assembly’s amendments, and for Governor Hoffman to sign it.  In a mass meeting the same day, the East Side and West Side Associations condemned elevated and viaduct plans.  They favored the Beach underground, and proposed putting the New York and Harlem underground too from Grand Central northward.20  William R Martin now leaned toward the Beach project, probably because it now seemed to have chance. 

The World wrote in an editorial, This is the sixth winter that we have been talking about this transit without doing anything about it … Broadway is the best route for this rapid transit, both in the interest of the people and of the Broadway property-owners themselves.  The underground plan is adequate and is adapted for Broadway … Compared with the viaduct plan the Broadway underground has these advantages :  It extends southward to the Battery ; it will cost less ; it can be constructed with less delay and in less time ; it will have equal capacity and a route incomparably superior … No scheme of rapid transit to-day presents a better route, a more adequate and practicable plan, or one on which the sentiments and opinions of the people are more fully settled and agreed.21  It seemed as if Manton Marble had left the Viaduct plan behind him. 

Opposition did not die easily.  On March 20 the Senate received a petition from A T Stewart, that the Pneumatic bill be referred back to the Railroad Committee, and that he be heard on it.22  Stewart and others claim that the railroad company is an irresponsible one and that the road will damage Broadway property to the extent of millions of dollars.  Mr Tweed was one of the four who endeavored to have the bill referred back.23  Tweed’s alliance with Stewart was clear.  But with only four in favor, Stewart’s request was denied.  The Senate passed the bill again with the Assembly’s amendments.  The World wrote a second editorial in favor of Beach: 

This is not a question which concerns alone the property-owners of Broadway.  Their rights and their prejudices are to be weighed scrupulously ; but their rights and their prejudices are dust on the balance, and must kick the beam now that they put them over against, and demand their preponderance despite the rights and necessities of the people who travel up and down Broadway— the people of all the streets and avenues of New-York, owners and occupiers, the people of the State, the people of the country, the stranger that is within the gates.  Not all the owners of land abutting on Broadway, this great highway of the people, have come out in defiance of the people’s necessity and demand.  It is only a few of such owners who thus misconceive their private interests, and who, with such interests, would outweigh the needs and necessities of a whole metropolis. 

They have chosen to exhibit the grounds of their opposition, and they have proceeded entirely on their own estimate of their interests as property-owners on Broadway ; mainly relying on this statement, that the construction and running of the road would materially damage, if not destroy, crack, and injure every large store on Broadway, and that as against this injury they would have no indemnity.  If the fact is borne in mind that the tunnel is to be constructed in the centre of the street, twenty-four feet distant from the line of buildings ; another fact, that these gentlemen never hesitate in the erection of their magnificent stores to excavate to an equal depth directly along side another store, shoring up and underpinning its walls, without any injury to it ; and a third fact, that they are quite willing to have trains running on a ‘viaduct road’ immediately in contact with the property of owners, on some street other than Broadway, it will be hard to believe that so respectable gentlemen could sign a statement so false in fact.  At any rate, the best of our engineers have publicly pronounced all such fears foolish.24

The Viaduct bill passes

But the Viaduct bill moved along, on the heels of the Pneumatic.  On March 23 the Senate passed the bill incorporating the New York Railway Company to build the Viaduct plan, 21 to 4.  On motion of Mr GENET, the bill was amended by authorizing the City authorities to subscribe to $5,000,000 of the stock, noted the Times reporter without comment.25  This provision, like the $750,000 per mile authorized in the Beach bill of 1870, was to become the lightning rod for charges of corruption. 

In the Assembly the Viaduct bill, like Beach’s, went straight to the Committee of the Whole, who were not entirely prepared for the reception the Viaduct bill met from the moment the Clerk announced its title.  There were those who did not like the looks of the bill in its present shape and it led to sparring all around.26  Numerous amendments were proposed and voted down.  The discussion carried over till the following day, when it was equally fierce, and at one time the rumpus became so uncontrollable that even the crowds in the galleries and lobbies were insensibly dragged into the excitement, and so forgot themselves as to give free vent to their expressions of approval and disapproval of the various personal encounters which were freely indulged in by the honorable members on the floor.27  Finally the galleries had to be cleared.  When a vote was finally taken, after all the arguing, the bill was passed by an overwhelming 110 to 9.28 Thus ended the long agony, wrote the Herald’s reporter. 

Beach Pneumatic versus A T Stewart

A mass meeting was held in the city on March 28, the day the Viaduct bill passed the Assembly.  The meeting was called to advocate Beach’s plan and organize a delegation to go to Albany two days later, when the governor was to hear those for and against the plan.  Both principal speakers lit into A T Stewart as the obstacle to the plan.  William R Martin, chair, opened by noting that we expect Alexander T Stewart will appear with a number of Broadway property owners, to offer opposition to the bill.  The people have not the same opportunity to be heard.  William A Whitbeck of the East Side Association said:

Messrs Stewart and Company characterize the act amending the Beach charter as a bill for digging up Broadway and injuring or destroying nearly all the buildings on that great thoroughfare.  The first of these charges may be answered by stating that it is not proposed to dig up Broadway at all, nor to interfere in any way with the free use of the street, for this would be a disturbance wholly unnecessary, and has been practically shown by the Beach Company itself in the construction of the tunnel now on exhibition under Broadway near Warren street.  Surely the execution of that work caused no inconvenience to the public.  And the same thing, on a larger scale, has been successfully accomplished in hundreds of other instances in this country and in Europe.  In regard to the tumbling down of the houses, we would state that the tunnel will be ‘drifted’ under the middle of Broadway, and not within five feet of the line of the curb.  Now, if Mr Stewart and others, in erecting their large stores on Broadway, were able to make deep excavations for cellars, almost under the foundation walls of adjoining buildings, without injury to them, it would seem that no damage can result from boring for this tunnel more than 25 feet from the building line, especially as the work will be bricked up and protected by substantial masonry as fast as the excavation is made. 

The same persons further assert that the running of trains drawn by locomotives within the tunnel when completed will crack and injure every large store or warehouse on the street.  Those gentlemen favor the viaduct or elevated railroad running through the blocks.  Now if the locomotive running in the tunnel beneath the surface of the street, inclosed in two feet of masonry, and this again surrounded by several feet of earth, causes vibration which can shake or crack the buildings on Broadway, what must be the effect of running trains upon the viaduct within ten feet of adjoining buildings, with nothing between them and the locomotive to resist its noise and force?29

Martin spoke next, getting laughs at Stewart’s expense, noted in the Tribune’s transcript. 

There has been a cry with which you were for a long time familiar :  from New York to Harlem in fifteen minutes.  But I am afraid you have been making a mistake.  It should have been :  from Hempstead Plains to City Hall in fifteen minutes. [Laughter.] This mistake is founded in the circumstance that we have not yet come to believe that a man who spends his life in buying calicoes at six shillings ninepence a yard, and selling them at seven shillings three pence, illustrates the highest order of the human intellect.  [Laughter and applause.] Nor that such a man, by such a pursuit, so enlarges, not only his fortune but his mind … He has a city there all laid out and ready for occupation— he has it all except the people.  [Laughter.] We have everything, city, people, and all— except the railroad. 

… Here comes the fatal question between us— it is for Mr Stewart to force the people to Hempstead Plains, and it is for us to carry the people to and from the city.  We have the people ; he has the railroads.  When we get the railroads, his speculation will be nowhere.  [Laughter.] Now, the question is, Shall we have a railroad by which we can reach the City Hall from Harlem in fifteen minutes?  Mr Stewart’s reasons against it are no better, may not do good as ours are for it.  He has his property ; we have ours.  But he is but one man ; and we are a million. [Applause.]

… It appears that in the bill for this underground road, the movers only ask for thirty-one feet in the middle of the roadway.  I was curious to know why they had limited themselves to exactly thirty-one feet.  Upon inquiry I ascertained that Mr Stewart’s basement extended just twenty-four feet from the front of his building ; and as the width of Broadway is but eighty feet, you see there was exactly thirty-one feet left for the railroad in the middle.  I do think that as Mr Stewart has taken so much of the street, it is rather ungracious of him to try to prevent the public from making the rest of it useful for the purposes of traffic.29

The Herald published a letter from Joseph Dixon.  May I call the attention to readers of the HERALD to one or two of the fallacious arguments against the Pneumatic Tunnel City Railroad, he began.  Much of his letter cited statements of three prominent engineers as to the safety and practicality of the plans.  The letters are dated March 22 and 28, after the bill passed.  Dixon must have provided copies of the same letters to the governor for consideration.  The engineers were Alfred W Craven, Col J G Barnard, and Gen George S Greene. 

Craven, formerly chief engineer of the Croton Aqueduct Department, wrote, In my opinion, a tunnel 31 feet wide and 18 high, exterior measurement, can easily be constructed beneath the centre line of Broadway, without injury by settlement to either the foundation or superstructure of any house, store, or other building on the street.  The ordinary operation of steam locomotives of a railway in such a position will not, in my opinion, cause perceptible injury to any building on its line.

Barnard pointed out that the construction was very different from the Arcade project, which occupied the whole width of Broadway, going down to a depth of at least twenty-three feet below the street surface … A tunnel with but thirty-one feet exterior dimensions, occupying less than half instead of the whole width of Broadway, might be made without damage to any structure.

Dixon concluded, If there be any valid objections to our bill, we are perfectly willing to have due consideration given to them by Governor Hoffman.  We don’t believe there are any, however, and we do most strongly protest against being burdened with all the outrageous nuisances that deservedly condemned the arcade project.30 

The governor vetoes the Beach Pneumatic bill

Governor Hoffman heard the two sides on March 30.  Those speaking against were led by merchant Edward S Jaffray and Stewart’s lawyer Henry Hilton.  They claimed that the tunnel would undermine Trinity Church, interfere with pipes, and take up the whole street.  The larger group speaking in favor included Alfred E Beach, William R Martin, William A Whitbeck, and Gen George S Greene (all mentioned above), and were led by Judge Henry W Johnson.31  The details would be of more interest if the governor had been listening to any of it. 

The next morning Governor Hoffman vetoed the bill.  As the Tribune noted in italics, the veto must have been written before the hearing.  Under the headline MR TRACY’S VETO, the story was, The Governor called for an opinion from Mr E H Tracy, Chief Engineer of the Department of Public Works of New York City, and he ‘unqualifiedly condemns’ the project.32

The press were eager to find a new Boss Tweed story, but it is overly simple to lay the blame on influence from Tweed (the head of Tracy’s department).  Hoffman relied on Tracy’s opinion concerning the engineering issues, but he also found many problems in the drafting of the bill that potentially gave the Beach company far too much power. 

As it had been in 1870, the act was written as an amendment to Beach’s pneumatic dispatch tube charter.  The company had not completed construction of the line of pneumatic tubes required by that 1869 charter, so they were not yet eligible to build anything further.  To get around this, the amendment had to declare that the company’s one-block tube shall be deemed to be the preliminary line of pneumatic tubes ‘duly certified’, required by the provisions of the act.33

Hoffman began the veto message with what he called the greatest objection, that the bill did not even require the underground railway to be a pneumatic railway.  Since no satisfactory pneumatic railway had ever been built, he argued, and the bill allowed the possible use of steam locomotives, It is fair to assume that the purpose of the bill is an underground locomotive railway.33  Here Hoffman struck to the heart of the matter: the bill amending the charter was in fact changing the entire purpose of the company. 

Why did Beach want to amend an old charter, and turn a pneumatic tube company into a railway? Would it not have simplified matters to ask for a railway charter like the viaduct promoters had done? Hoffman astutely pointed out a very good reason, that it is expressly provided, by section ten of this bill, that nothing therein contained ‘shall be construed to limit or restrict any of the powers, rights and privileges heretofore granted to said corporation’.33  This simple clause makes nonsense of some of the other provisions.  An example that Hoffman gave was that the new act required permission of the Commissioner of Public Works (Tweed) to open streets, but the 1868 and 1869 acts did not require such permission, and if nothing ‘shall be construed to limit or restrict’ the original grant, permission would not in fact be required.  The obfuscation of the 1870 bill had been blamed by the press on Tweed, although Dixon had protested that it was he and Beach who drafted it.  This time around it was certainly not Tweed’s doing.

Much of the rest of the veto relied on Tracy, so Hoffman took space to review his credentials.  Mr Tracy … was connected with the building of the Croton aqueduct works of the city during fourteen years, from the commencement to the conclusion of that great enterprise, first as assistant, and finally, as chief engineer of the city department of the Croton aqueduct, in charge of the laying of water-pipes and building sewers.  He has had also a large experience in railroad construction, and since the organization of the present department, has been the chief engineer in charge of its under-ground works.33

The provisions in the act to follow the center line of Broadway as far as practicable and to take all needful precautions not to interfere with water and sewer pipes were contradictory, according to Tracy.  The water and sewer pipes mostly ran down the center of Broadway.  The company might therefore find it more ‘practicable’ to run down one side, destroying vaults and endangering buildings.  Even then, many sewers would have to be rebuilt both in Broadway and in nearby cross streets and sometimes even nearby parallel streets, where the flow to the Hudson or East River needed to be reversed because of the railway blocking the drainage.  Tracy questioned the ability of the company to do all of the necessary sewer replacements, and emphasized the disruption to streets that it would cause.  Hoffman wrote, The work of construction will necessarily be slow, for where rock is not encountered, the subsoil will be so treacherous as to call for great skill, care and expense in constructing the tube, and the buildings along the route, especially on Broadway, will be endangered.  The streets will be rendered impassable for months, not only in laying the new gas and water-mains and rebuilding the sewers, but in the construction of the tube itself.33

The company were to give a bond of $200,000 insuring construction, but the bill did not say to whom.  They had to begin work within ninety days, complete the tunnel from Bowling Green to 14th Street in two years, and complete both branches to the Harlem River in five years.  Hoffman considered that the amount of the bond in any case would not compensate for the damage that might be done to a single building on Broadway

Tracy objected also to construction of the east side branch under Fourth Avenue.  It could be built only with great difficulty since it would undermine the New York and Harlem Railroad.  Beach had to have realized the difficulties and his choice of route here remains a mystery.  The travel will have to be suspended upon the railroads coming into the Fourth avenue while the work is progressing …

While his expressions of concern for Broadway and the buildings along it must have pleased Stewart and friends, Hoffman summed up with a few jabs at them.  … nor am I influenced to decide against any bill of this character merely because it proposes to trench on Broadway, or on any other great thoroughfare, or interfere with the prejudices or inclinations of the owners of property on particular streets.  Every citizen must yield his preferences and contribute his share of sacrifice to the public good …  Broadway … is the pride and admiration of the State and country.  Its greatness and its influence do not belong alone to the individuals who, by their enterprise, public spirit and liberality, have made it what it is, but to the whole people, and any scheme which, however specious or popular the pretext, is plainly calculated to destroy it, should, and will, meet with the general public reprobation.33

The content of Hoffman’s veto message was partly obscured in the press by reactions to the timing of it.  The Times’s Albany correspondent noted, Most people expected a veto of this measure, but everybody was surprised that it should have been sent in today.  The elaborate hearing before the Governor on the merits of the bill was only concluded last evening, and it is next to impossible that this veto message could have been prepared and copied in time to be sent to the Senate this morning.  It follows, therefore, that the Governor must have had his veto of the bill already prepared, and lying in his desk at the very time he was going through the farce of hearing arguments for and against the measure.  The Governor appointed the time for the hearing himself, and put scores of people to the trouble and expense of coming to Albany to present their views of the bill, when, as it now appears, his mind was already made up, and his elaborate plea for killing the bill was already reduced to writing … The veto of the Pneumatic leaves no project for rapid transit in New-York, at present enacted into law, except the viaduct scheme under the control of the Ring and to be built with the money of the City.34

In editorials, the Herald said, Governor Hoffman has shown good judgment and pluck in vetoing the pneumatic tube or underground humbug …  in the face of the mighty influence brought to bear.35  The Tribune said, We leave to the Democratic Legislature and the Democratic Governor the choice of means.  We expect corruption will attach to any plan they may adopt ; but where we have no power we must even take the goods they give us, with whatever evils connected, and strive therewith to be content.36  The Sun said, It is the general impression that Governor Hoffman will sign only the Viaduct bill.  The impression may arise from the fact that this particular measure meets the approbation of Messrs Tweed and Sweeny, upon whose friendly endeavors his excellency looks for the Presidential nomination in 1872.37  The anti-Tweed feeling so evident here would explode later in the year.  At this moment though it obscured the good reasons for the veto.

The Albany Evening Journal, a Republican paper, had the most sarcastic remarks:  We cannot but congratulate Governor Hoffman upon his admirable facility in reaching conclusions and still more remarkable expertness in preparing messages.  On Thursday afternoon, he accorded a hearing to parties interested for or against the Pneumatic Railroad bill.  He had not then, of course, determined whether he would sign or veto it, since, if he had, it would be superfluous to listen to arguments upon the question.  Yet on the following morning, not only had he weighed on the various points and made his decision, but he had prepared a veto message filling two solid columns of this journal and transmitted it to the Legislature!  The World once offered Mayor Hall the position of police reporter upon its staff.  We are sure his excellency, the governor, will receive it as no disparagement when we say that in this marvelous dispatch on the Pneumatic railroad he has shown the qualifications for the highest journalistic station where such facility is as invaluable as it is indispensible.38

The Beach project was dead for 1871.  But the company kept the tunnel open to the public, and prepared for another go in 1872. 

The New York Railway

Governor Hoffman signed the Viaduct bill on April 5, one of the most villainous Ring jobs of the session, according to the TimesSome people had hopes that he would veto the bill, but when did Gov HOFFMAN ever veto a measure that was to put $5,000,000 of the City’s money in the hands of the Ring?39 

The Times reported that lawyer Dexter A Hawkins delivered a report for a New-York Council of Political Reform on April 17 that reviewed the history of the Viaduct road.  Hawkins began by noting that the only thing asked by the corporation, whose names were such as to command the confidence of the whole financial community, was the usual power to take the right of way for the road, on making a reasonable compensation to the owners.  All the capital required to build the road was to be furnished, and could have been readily obtained from private sources.  But then, the Ring took control.  He noted with alarm the amendment about city money being invested, and language that seemed to permit the company to build any kind of railway on any street.40  He even tied into the conspiracy theory a bill introduced by Senator Tweed on March 28 to change the grade of streets embraced in the area bounded by Chambers, Bleecker, Chatham, Broadway, and the Bowery41, as preparation to ease the grade of the viaduct road.  But this was an area of poor drainage, in and around the site of the former Collect Pond, that had been a problem for years. 

The swindle was supposed to be with real estate.  The company officials would know the route, and could buy up the needed land personally and then sell it to the company for a higher price, defrauding the other investors including the city if the city used the authorization to purchase stock.42  The facts contradict this charge.  Historian Eugene Moehring made an exhaustive search of real estate transfers in the names of Tammany Ring members for the period from March 1868 to December 1871, and plotted them on a map, and they do not correspond at all to the route of the Viaduct railway.43

Real estate interests in northern Manhattan were of course in favor of any form of rapid transit.  It was their best hope of raised property values and developing fine residential neighborhoods.  With the Beach bill defeated, William R Martin now jumped back to being a ‘friend of the viaduct’, and delivered a speech before the West Side Association on April 12 praising the Viaduct as very comprehensive in its features and applicable to the requirements of the people.  He said its future lay mainly in the hands of Peter B Sweeny.44

The legislative session ran long in 1871.  On April 15, Senator Genet introduced a bill to amend the Viaduct charter.45  It had been signed into law only ten days before.  The city was now to be prohibited from buying stock until other parties shall have actually subscribed for and taken at least one million of dollars of the stock of the said company, and paid … in money, at least ten per centum of the par value thereof.  Company property was to be exempt from real estate taxes during the time allowed in the charter for construction, but now, if, at the expiration of that time, any of the real estate of the Company shall not be in actual use for the purposes of a railway, taxes and assessments thereon shall be collected for the whole period of its ownership by the Company.  These and other provisions reduced the chances of swindles.46

The incorporators met on May 25 and chose company directors.  The list began with:  Alexander T Stewart; William M Tweed (senior); August Belmont, banker, father of the August Belmont who would finance the Interborough Rapid Transit; and John Taylor Johnston, president of the Central Railroad of New Jersey.  Also listed were Mayor A Oakey Hall, Richard Connolly, Peter B Sweeny, Hugh Smith, and Henry Hilton.  Among the other names recognizable today were John Jacob Astor, Levi P Morton, Charles L Tiffany, José Navarro, and Charles A Lamont.47  The several newspaper owners among the incorporators were not named directors. 

It was a cause for wonder at the time, wrote historian James Blaine Walker in 1918, how Tweed managed to get prominent men not identified with politics to join him in this scheme,48 but here Walker was accepting the view of the press that the viaduct was Tweed’s project.  All wonder disappears if Tweed’s involvement is seen as a payoff to avoid trouble, made by men more powerful than Tweed.  The directors met and named Hilton as President and Smith as Vice President, thus putting Stewart’s man at the top and Sweeny’s next to him.49  The newspaper that would carry detailed articles about the viaduct plan was the Republican organ the Tribune.

The route of the viaduct road


image image
[ 8-4 ]

Map of the Viaduct Railway, from the Tribune, June 5, 1871.  The original, turned ninety degrees from this, was almost 17 inches wide and was spread across the top of page 1.  There were two alternate routings in what is now west Midtown, one shown by a dashed line.  North of 59th St, the various deviations from a straight line were done mostly to avoid steeper grades. 


A map of the probable route was released in June.  It was noted that the downtown terminal was adjacent to the terminal of the Brooklyn Bridge, then under construction.  The directors were to announce their own stock subscriptions and then invite the public to subscribe, and as soon as the statutory one million dollars was reached, the company was going to start construction.  Concern was expressed about maintaining the value of real estate, and about routing the viaduct away from main avenues, through districts where the arcade stalls underneath it are likely to rent well as stores, markets, and bazaars, and through back gardens so as to avoid destroying houses and stores.  The railroad will be built on brick arches, supported by heavy iron lateral columns of elegant design, themselves supported on inverted arches of solid masonry built into the ground.  A thick bedding of earth, on which the tracks will be laid, will deaden the sound of the passing trains, and tend greatly to reduce the reverberation.50

The company engineers estimated when open to Harlem 52,000,000 passengers a year at 7 cents, a gross of $3,500,000, with operating and maintenance expenses of less than $1,000,000.  They estimated the cost of construction and equipment at $2,000,000 a mile, or $21,000,000 total.  Given a net income of $3,000,000 a year from fares and rental of arches, they gave a return on investment of 14 per cent.  But if the capital invested be reduced to $11,000,000, and $10,000,000 be raised upon bonds secured upon the road and its real estate, paying 7 per cent interest, the dividend upon the capital would exceed 21 per cent.50 

Structures and real estate


[ 8-5 ]

From the Tribune, June 7, 1871.  Looking north, with pedestrian bridges to two separate stairway buildings across Centre St, left, and Park Row.


The downtown terminal was to be approximately where the Municipal Building now stands.  It would have been a three story building with a handsome facade in the German renaissance style, with the station itself one flight up over a ground floor that would be an open arcade.50  The property for the terminal had just been cleared for construction of a new building for the Staats-Zeitung.  The newspaper’s owner, one of the original incorporators, was not opposed to selling the land to the Viaduct, but he estimated that the property was worth $1,500,000 and that construction of the terminal would cost the same again.51

Coming out of the eight-track terminal, the railroad would narrow to four tracks at Worth St, and then widen to sixteen at the trainyard running three blocks from Spring St to Houston St, between Marion St and Mulberry St.  At Houston St, the east and west side lines would diverge into two branches of four tracks each to the Harlem River at Third Ave and Kingsbridge respectively.  The engineers must have had misgivings over the very sharp curves at a few places, especially the ninety degree turn near Bleecker St and Sixth Ave, but the company officials said they were necessary to prevent purchasing more property than is absolutely necessary.50

The Tribune gave details of THE REAL ESTATE ENDANGERED and BUILDINGS TO BE TORN DOWN.  The route south of Houston St ran through the cheapest possible property, the sites of many buildings that have figured largely in the police annals, namely the Five Points district.  Care was being taken to avoid buildings of public importance as much as possible although the route passed awkwardly close to some.  The trainyard would be located right across the street from St Patrick’s Cathedral (on Mulberry St).  Property owners were interviewed, and while almost all advocated quick transit, they were ready to fight for their property and denounce the improvement which is to dispossess them of their stores and lands.51


[ 8-6 ]

From the Tribune, July 8, 1871.  Looking north.  On the far right is the much-advertised Museum of Anatomy at 618 Broadway, and two buildings down, just before the viaduct, is the Olympic Theater.  No station at Broadway?


Planning continued.  A drawing of the Broadway bridge was released, of the Saracenic style, with a large arch across the main roadway and smaller ones across the sidewalks.  This and the 340 other bridges would, so far from disfiguring the streets, give to them one of those features which travelers so much admire in European cities, according to the TribuneTwo hundred men are now making a thorough survey not only of the proposed route but of a block on either side of it, so as to ascertain the cheapest and most convenient property to be taken.52 

Finances of the Viaduct road

The directors named A T Stewart, John Jacob Astor, and Levi P Morton as Commissioners on Stock Subscriptions.  The public were invited to invest starting June 16, paying ten per cent on subscription, with the company empowered to call for more up to ten per cent at a time on thirty days’ notice.  The offering noted that the statutory one million dollars has been wholly subscribed for and taken by the Directors of the Company, allowing the city to release its five million.49  The city never did.  The largest stockholder was A T Stewart with 1,000 shares;  holders of 500 shares were Henry Hilton, Peter B Sweeny, Hugh Smith, William M Tweed, A Oakey Hall, August Belmont, William B Duncan, John Jacob Astor, Levi P Morton, W R Travers, J F D Lanier, Charles A Lamont, Joseph Seligman, and José Navarro;  others held 250 or fewer.53


[ 8-7 ]

This classified ad ran for weeks in the Tribune, seen here (divided in two) from the July 1 issue.


As the plan edged closer to reality, a group of merchants in lower Manhattan even began agitating for an extension of the route to the Battery.  This would have been by far the most expensive portion of the line, since no route through cheaper property was possible.54

By the later part of July the directors decided on the character of the business they propose to carry on.  It has been at last determined to carry all the freight and express traffic, as well as passenger, that can be obtained … The directors propose to make arrangements with the New Haven, Hudson River, and Harlem railroads, by which both passenger and freight cars shall run from the Forty-Second Street Depot over the viaduct line.  This arrangement, they think, will greatly facilitate the delivery of freight in different parts of the city.  The directors also intend to make a feature of the express business.  By having an express agency at each depot, with baggage-wagons constantly in waiting, they expect to become recognized carriers of small packages and parcels— in fact, to assume, in this respect, somewhat the character of the London Parcels Delivery Company … Another important point settled is the width of the gauge … the ordinary one of 4 feet 8½ inches.  This width of gauge has been decided upon in order to admit of connections with the existing lines running into New York, and also with the Erie line, which must some day cross the Hudson River, if it wishes to compete with the New York Central in carrying Western traffic.55

The end of the viaduct plan

At this time, July 1871, the Times began a major campaign against the Tweed Ring, based mainly on handwritten copies of documents said to be filed in the city Comptroller’s office.  The Viaduct road was one of the many targets of the attack. 

On July 22, the Financial Affairs page, usually devoted to dry investment news, ran a long letter from ‘A Taxpayer’, described by the editor as personally known to us as a large real estate holder in this City, and every way responsible for what he writes, but for some reason unidentified.  The charges made in the letter, not explained or substantiated, have been repeated by later historians. 

‘A Taxpayer’ calls the Viaduct the most gigantic swindle of the age.  He claims that the lowest estimate of the cost, by their own engineers, is $60,000,000, three times what the Tribune reported from the same engineers, and that other competent engineers have estimated the cost at over $100,000,000.  He makes out all of the sixty or hundred million dollars as if it is to be city debt and a burden on the taxpayers, but by statute the city was authorized to pay no more than five million.  Confusingly, he also complains that the road that should not be built is not planned to run even to Wall-street, where it is most wanted by all our business men

He prefers the New York City Central Underground and the road under Broadway.  He never mentions Beach by name, but he is familiar with the engineers’ letters in support of Beach, and the useless hearing before the Governor.  Mr A T STEWART’s agent, Judge HILTON, was there to oppose it, as he opposes everything not for the benefit of A T STEWART.  Judge HILTON and Mr A T STEWART are better satisfied with the Viaduct, for they have made the main terminus and depot on Chambers-street, near Mr STEWART’s property, and Judge HILTON boasts that he is going to build the road.  The road under Broadway could have been built within two years without one dollar’s expense to the City, as private capital was ready to begin the moment the charter was signed by the Governor …  There was no money in the Broadway Underground or the Central Underground for the Ring, therefore they opposed them.56  Beach always claimed he had investment capital ready to build, but no evidence of it ever appeared; and Beach would soon claim that Tweed had been against the Beach Pneumatic from the start.

This was followed four days later by a long open letter to the directors of the Viaduct company signed by Origen Vandenburgh of the Central Underground, detailing why viaduct railways had become discredited in London for city travel.  He called them suitable only when main lines need to cross low ground.  A shorter editorial the next day repeated Vandenburgh’s essential points, and the Taxpayer’s claims that the Ring would somehow induce the city to pay five million this year and as much thereafter as they choose.  It asks why those not in the Ring are involved in the company, and whether these gentlemen propose to participate in the public fraud, or to do their duty as honorable men and prevent the public wrong?57  It was a smear compaign. 

Vandenburgh wrote another long letter two weeks later, repeating his charges that viaducts are worthless for city travel.  Is it possible, he asks, that Mr A T STEWART and Mr SWEENY, the authors of your scheme and of your Company, can really indulge in what must turn out to be a complete delusion— that the making of a huge excrescence on the upland of New-York is to prevent underground railways from running through it?  Your plans and your viaducts are doing far more today …  to place an underground railway under Broadway than all its advocates and promoters have done.58 

Another month later, the Times ran a letter from an unnamed eminent engineer of this City speaking out against the Viaduct.  He questions the design of the viaduct structure itself, notes problems with waterproofing of and access to the proposed commercial space under the arches, and mocks the Broadway bridge with the needless piers to span only ninety feet.  He mentions the divisive effect of viaducts between neighborhoods on each side.  He notes the failure to generate potential traffic, by missing a connection at Grand Central Depot and by routing the line through the cheapest and least-developed land, which he likens to Hempstead Plains and Mackerelville.  He repeats the figure of $100,000,000 to construct; perhaps he is the same engineer mentioned by the anonymous Taxpayer.59

Scientific American, in an article called ‘Progress of Underground Railways’, could not help mentioning the Viaduct.  In this city proper, where facilities for rapid local travel are imperatively needed, instead of encouraging the building by private enterprise of an underground railway, which could be constructed in a couple of years, for one or two millions per mile, they contemplate the erection of a monstrous elevated or bridge railway, at a cost of some sixty millions of dollars, the money to be drawn, after the manner of the Ring, from the public treasury … This new bridge will be some twelve miles long, dividing the city like a wall, greatly interfering with the comfort of citizens resident near its line, and forming an ugly eyesore for everybody.60  These are much the same points raised by the Taxpayer and the Eminent Engineer. 

The attacks worked.  On November 15, the Board of Directors met.  The Treasurer reported that the financial condition of the enterprise was all that could be expected, and a resolution was passed for the reorganization of the Board.  All the Directors were asked to submit their resignations, and all but two employees were to be suspended.  The Times headlined the story, THE END OF THE VIADUCT SCHEME.61  The Times’s Financial Affairs reporter noted that it was rumored on the Street that the Viaduct Railroad scheme will soon be formally surrendered, and that a number of the Capitalists named as Directors last Summer, and in no way connected with Mr HILTON or the Tammany people, will favor the Central Underground Broadway Road, whose charter has not yet been brought into practical use.  The story goes so far as to name John Taylor Johnston and William B Duncan as the new president and treasurer respectively of the New York City Central Underground.61

The Viaduct was dead. 

At the close of the year, the reorganized company issued their last report, in which they concluded that the undulating grades of the island will necessitate a road partly viaduct, partly open cut, and partly tunnel, and that the city should not be called on at all if it is possible to dispense with its aid.62

The New York City Central Underground Railroad

The underdog New York City Central Underground held on to its charter, which required it to begin construction by May 1871.  In that month the company started work at two sites, according to its first annual report, issued in December 1871.  On ground at 96th St within the lines of the future Madison Ave, a cut was opened to a proper point to begin a heading of the tunnel southwardly.  Farther south, a section of tunnel wall was built thirty feet deep between Bond and Great Jones Streets, where the route ran under private property between Elm St and Lafayette Place.63

Viewed in January 1872, the Madison Avenue site was a simple excavation at or near the base of the hill, extending southwardly about 80 feet, with a nearly uniform width of 12 feet, and of a depth varying with the slope of the hill, the greatest depth being about 10 feet.64  By that date the Bond St site had already been backfilled.  If the wall was not removed for building construction in the intervening thirty years, it was removed when the present subway was built and the property made part of the newly opened Lafayette St.  Enough was done to preserve the charter, but no more. 

Neither construction site was on a street open to traffic.  Oliver Barnes’s letter to the Times in 1872 blamed it on Tweed.  In 1871 an officer of the company called on Mr TWEED, then Commissioner of Public Works, and asked permission to make the necessary openings in streets to begin work, but was met with a flat refusal and the threatening statement that the Company ‘should never put spade in the earth of Manhattan Island’.  The Viaduct Company, to aid which the violent course was taken against the Central Underground, was then in vogue, but has now expired by limitation.65

Back on March 8, at the meeting of the West Side Association, former president William B Ogden had mentioned the idea of getting a new charter changing the company’s route to Broadway.7  The new management seem not to have pursued this in 1871, but they did seek a bill in 1872. 

The West Side Elevated Railroad

The West Side Elevated started the year under indictment as a public nuisance, and in reality it was no more than that as long as it provided no transportation.  The company finally gave up on the cable system and requested from its comissioners the only proven alternative.  February 9, 1871, the commissioners appointed under the Company’s charter issued a certificate authorizing it to use steam as a motive power on its railway.66  The company’s superintendant David W Wyman set out to design the smallest and lightest possible locomotive, because it had to run on a structure that had been built to carry no more than wooden cars.67 

Senator Tweed introduced a bill on March 29 to require the immediate removal of the elevated line, and asked that it be passed at once.  This was the day after the Viaduct bill passed, and the day before the Governor Hoffman heard arguments on the Pneumatic bill.  There were objections that the elevated company should be heard from, and although Tweed pointed to the indictment and the company’s disuse of the railway, the bill was set aside until it was reached in its order.68  When it was reached, it passed, 20 to 9, and went to the Assembly.69 

Historian H C Stryker told what happened next, relying on information from Charles T Harvey himself.  Harvey had of course been edged out of his company by the present owners, but he pulled in a favor from Erastus Corning, who had so praised Harvey during the St Mary’s Canal project.  The bill went to a vote in the Assembly on April 19. 

Harvey was, however, informed of the emergency, and valuing the public interests above any instincts of personal revenge on his despoilers, he, as its originator, appealed to Hon Erastus Corning, then residing at Albany, to save the railroad for friendship’s sake, as Mr Corning had no investment interest whatever in it.  The memory of the Canal episode sufficed to call Mr Corning to appear in the Assembly chamber to oppose Tweed’s bill.  An onlooker saw on the afternoon of that fateful day Tweed in one part of the chamber marshalling the New York City members to vote for his destructive measure, while Mr Corning was seen in another part of the chamber among groups of country members urging them to vote against it.  He was considered as the most influential citizen of the State outside of New York City, and the country gentlemen accepted his advice … Conclusive evidence is preserved in State documents proving that the Tweed measure would have passed but for Mr Corning’s interference, and his only motive was his personal regard for Mr Harvey, coupled with the memory of the latter’s engineering achievement before mentioned.70

The Herald’s reporter saw it a little differently. 

There was quite a lively time of it this afternoon in the lower House over the bill to repeal the act which brought that nuisance— the Greenwich Street Elevated Railway— into existence.  A lobbyist, employed for the occasion, actually succeeded in getting a large number of the country members to vote against the bill for twenty-five dollars apiece, which was cheap enough surely at this dear stage of the session.  The New York members … brought up the rear with a tearful appeal to the enemy to have pity upon the intelligent animals in New York city that are scared half to death whenever they set their eyes upon the nuisance, and the small dogs that bark at it every time, despite their own sweet wills, they have to pass under its hated rails.  But the heavy cannonading of the warlike Hitchman and the tears of poor Connolly proved alike of no avail in the end against the earthworks of the enemy so strengthened by greenbacks …71 

The bill failed, 34 to 74, so the el could stay.  Among all the projects for meeting the public need for rapid transit, this Greenwich-street Railway was the only one in which a large amount of capital had been invested, said Mr Alvord, a leading upstate member.  Another said the company was on the eve of putting the road in successful operation.72  The Herald added editorially, The GREENWICH STREET ELEVATED RAILWAY, or one-legged railroad, as it is called, is not yet on its last legs.  It is not only alive but kicking.71 

Around this point, the story of the company’s finances becomes murky.  The Times reported on April 23 that on the previous day, the West Side Elevated, with its franchises, rolling-stock, stations, engine-houses, fuel, &c, was sold by the sheriff at auction to pay outstanding debts of $214,000.  Only one person, Francis Tows, put in a bid, of just $5,000, and the road was therefore knocked down to that gentleman.73  Tows represented the bondholders.  The strange thing is that the Documentary History, relying on state records, reports instead that the same franchise, track, rolling stock, &c, were sold at sheriff’s sale to Francis H Tows for the sum of $960 on November 15, 1870, and that the sheriff’s certificate of sale was dated November 30, 1870.74  That would put the sale at the time that the railway was still operating by cable and shortly before it was indicted, while the Times’s contemporary report of a sale puts it right after the legislature approved continued operation.  None of the papers report the November 15 sale, not even the Herald when it reported on the company on November 16.  But a sale in November might have spurred the indictment in December. 

Steam operation on the West Side Elevated

According to historians James Blaine Walker and William Fullerton Reeves, the company began operating with a steam engine on April 20, 1871.  Railroad Gazette gave the same date in an 1874 article.75  None of the newspapers reported it at the time, but the Tribune reported on Monday April 24 that the Greenwich-st Elevated Railway is now running regularly76 and that date just after the sale rather than before it is most likely correct.  There were nine train services a day in each direction, coordinated with the timings of Hudson River Railroad trains at 30th Street.

Reeves described it in 1937: They used a new dummy engine, weighing only about five tons, which was a very ornate mechanical contrivance, built to eliminate cinders, noises, and the scaring of horses.  The company had only three cars, which, drawn by the new dummy engine, made up a unit used in the ‘rush hour period’.  Operation of trains continued as before, on the single-track structure on Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue, from Battery Place to 30th Street, a distance of about three and a half miles; and there were still only the two stations, the one at Dey and Greenwich Streets, and the other at 29th Street and Ninth Avenue.77


[ 8-8 ]

Pioneer, from an historical article in Locomotive Engineering, August 1897 (via Railroad History, Spring 1990).


Pioneer, engine number 1, was the only engine the company had for over a year.  Designed by Wyman and built locally by the Albany Street Iron Works, it weighed less than four tons and could pull only a very lightweight train.  Pioneer was an 0-4-0:  the two axles had 30-inch drive wheels and no leading or trailing trucks, and it had a two-cylinder upright boiler, geared to one axle, with side rods connecting to the other axle.  Most dummies had an enclosure simulating the apperance of a passenger car, but Pioneer looked different.  As railway historian John H White Jr wrote, the large rivets and small windows made it look more like an armored car than a locomotive.  It was Wyman’s first try, and Pioneer would be sold after only three years of service.78 

It is generally assumed that Pioneer pulled the three former cable cars but there are actually no documents or images to prove this.  On the contrary, the cars probably had insufficient structural strength for train service, since they had not been intended to be pushed and pulled by a locomotive and were built as lightly as possible.  A photograph taken no earlier than January 1873 shows a car just like a horsecar up on the elevated structure.  The financially strapped company needed to get some kind of lightweight passenger car on the line fast and streetcars were not hard to come by.  This is probably what Pioneer pulled.  How many there were is not known.

It was said in June that the company were building a number of new cars and engines to place on their route, and, when those were available, they would erect seven way-stations between Dey and Twenty-ninth streets, and run every half hour.  They are now making nine trips a day, in connection with the Hudson River Railroad, running the distance of three miles in fifteen minutes.79  Conveying passengers from the isolated Hudson River Railroad terminal to the city was good only for the short term, since much of the train service was due to move the next year to the new Grand Central Depot then under construction.  The elevated company’s ongoing financial difficulties delayed the new equipment and stations to the middle of 1872. 

In July, the channel for the cable was removed.  This road always was a frail-looking structure, but when the frame-work is dispensed with, it will look much more so than it really is.80

The property was held under three mortgages, dated August 1, 1868, August 1, 1870, and May 9, 1871.66  The struggling company failed to meet payments, and was foreclosed again in October 1871.  Some still said, The road is generally regarded as a failure, and it is not expected that it will sell for more than the value of the materials after they are broken up and moved away.81  But some of the investors still believed in it.  More trustees were appointed by the bondholders to bid in the railroad properties for their benefit, and they started afresh to organize another company.  All these bondholders seemed optimistic, and had faith as to the future of elevated roads for our city.82 

The owners organized the New York Elevated Railroad Company on December 5, 1871.  It was assigned the properties covered by the three mortgages in January 1872, January 1873, and December 1871, respectively, but since all the mortgages were held by representatives of the bondholders, the ownership in three parts was a financial technicality that did not affect operating the road and planning for its future.83 

The elevated edges ahead of the underground

At the close of 1871, the West Side Elevated was the only rapid transit road in operation in the city.  The Viaduct plan had come and gone.  The underground roads were no closer to reality than they had been a year earlier:  Beach had failed twice to get a charter for a passenger railroad, and the Central Underground had not been able to build.  Both underground companies would continue the fight, but it was the elevated road that had proved itself.  The New York public began to take the view that elevated railways were the more practical form of transit.

1 Times, 1871 Feb 11.
2 Times, 1871 Mar 8.
3 Times, 1871 Mar 14.
4 Riverside Park Fund, ‘Learn about the park’.  New York Panorama, 406.
5 Elias, Alexander T Stewart, 178-179.
6 Stern, New York 1880, 984-987.
7 Tribune, 1871 Mar 9.
8 World, 1871 Mar 10.
9 Times, World, Tribune, 1871 Mar 10.
10 Times, 1871 Mar 13.
11 Tribune, 1871 Mar 16.
12 Times, 1871 Mar 15.
13 Eagle, 1871 Mar 16.
14 World, 1871 Mar 16.
15 Herald, 1871 Mar 17.
16 World, 1871 Mar 17.
17 Tribune, 1871 Mar 17.
18 Herald, 1871 Mar 18.  Full text.
19 World, 1871 Mar 18.  Full text of bill.
20 Times, 1871 Mar 18.
21 World, 1871 Mar 20.
22 Times, 1871 Mar 21.
23 Herald, 1871 Mar 21.
24 World, 1871 Mar 25.
25 Times, 1871 Mar 24.
26 Herald, 1871 Mar 28.
27 Herald, 1871 Mar 29.
28 Times, 1871 Mar 29.
29 Tribune, 1871 Mar 29.
30 Herald, 1871 Mar 29.
31 Tribune, 1871 Mar 31, two full columns.
32 Tribune, 1871 Apr 1.
33 Hoffman, Papers, 219-229.
34 Times, 1871 Apr 1.
35 Herald, 1871 Apr 1.
36 Tribune, 1871 Apr 1.
37 Sun, 1871 Apr 1.
38 Albany Evening Journal, 1871 Apr 1, quoted in Beach, Broadway Underground Railroad.
39 Times, 1871 Apr 6.
40 Times, 1871 Apr 18.
41 Herald, 1871 Mar 29.  Curiously, the New York City Central Underground later claimed that they wanted the street grades changed in this area in the winter of 1871 to improve their underground profile, but that Peter B Sweeny told them they would have no legislation whatever (Tribune, 1872 Jan 27).
42 See for example Times 1871 Feb 22 and Mar 16 on Ring jobbery, although at those early dates they failed to show how any public money would be involved.
43 Moehring, Public works, Map 18.  Moehring’s source was the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, a record of all real estate transactions in Manhattan.
44 Times 1871 Apr 13
45 Times, 1871 Apr 16.
46 Times, 1871 May 23.  This gives the date of passage as April 28, but the legislature had adjourned by then.  It passed the Assembly on April 19 (Times, 1871 Apr 20).
47 Times, 1871 May 26.
48 Walker, Fifty Years, 103.
49 Tribune, stock advertisements, e.g. 1871 Jul 1 (see illustration).  Times, 1871 Jun 18.
50 Tribune, 1871 Jun 5.  Enormous detail on the route, and fuller financial calculations.
51 Tribune, 1871 Jun 7.
52 Tribune, 1871 Jul 8.
53 Railroad Gazette, 1871 Jun 17.
54 Times, 1871 Jun 17.
55 Railroad Gazette, 1871 Jul 29, quoting the Tribune.
56 Times, 1871 Jul 22.
57 Times, 1871 Jul 26, and 1871 Jul 27.
58 Times, 1871 Aug 5.
59 Times, 1871 Sep 3.
60 Scientific American, 1871 Sep 30.
61 Times, 1871 Nov 16.
62 Times, 1871 Dec 26.
63 Walker, Fifty Years, 96-97.
64 Tribune, 1872 Jan 27.
65 Times, 1872 Apr 30.
66 Documentary History, 1392.
67 Tribune, 1871 Feb 20.
68 Times, 1871 Mar 30.
69 Times, 1871 Apr 20, ‘several days ago’.
70 H C Stryker, Historical Sketches, quoted in Walker, Fifty Years, 83-84.
71 Herald, 1871 Apr 20.
72 Times, 1871 Apr 20.
73 Times, 1871 Apr 23.  Also Sun, 1871 Apr 24, giving the debt as $219,405.93.
74 Documentary History, 1392-1393.
75 Railroad Gazette, 1874 Jan 24.
76 Tribune, 1871 Apr 24.
77 Reeves, First Elevated Railroads, 11.
78 White, ‘Spunky little devils’.
79 Times, 1871 Jun 3.
80 Times, 1871 Jul 21.
81 Railroad Gazette, 1871 Sep 2.
82 Reeves, First Elevated Railroads, 11-12.
83 Documentary History, 940, 1392-1393.

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