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A revised history of Beach Pneumatic Transit

Alfred E Beach summarized his company’s position in a booklet circulated among the legislators and other select individuals at the start of 1872, Broadway Underground Railway.1  As promotional literature it is almost as persuasive today as it was then. 

The main point of his introductory essay was to redefine the campaign of 1871 as a fight between Beach and the Tammany Ring.  Led by the Times, the newspapers had stirred up the public by accusing the Tammany Democrats of every kind of corrupt administration.  The Reform wing of the party took new strength and challenged the party leadership, and by the end of the year many of the Tammany politicians faced criminal prosecution.  Tweed himself was indicted.  Though he won re-election as Senator in November, he never appeared in Albany for his 1872-1873 term.  Beach, like the Times, emphasized or exaggerated— it was never clear which— the Tammany politicians’ involvement on the Viaduct railway plan.  Beach made the story a battle of good and evil:  the Pneumatic had been killed because it would have competed with the Tammany Ring’s Viaduct project, but now surely the Pneumatic would succeed. 

Beach was rewriting history.  He omits all mention of Tweed introducing the bill for his company in 1870, and subsequent historians do the same.  He calls the Viaduct plan ‘hastily concocted’ after the Pneumatic had passed in 1871, but actually both bills were under consideration at the same time, the Viaduct bill trailing the Beach bill by just a few days every step of the way.  Both bills passed by almost the same huge margins (22 to 5 and 21 to 4 in the Senate; 102 to 11 and 110 to 9 in the Assembly).  If the powerful Ring favored one and not the other, why were the votes nearly identical?  Lastly he never addresses the issues raised in Governor Hoffman’s veto.  Beach makes no comment at all about the broad powers the company would have had by amending an old charter that allowed construction under every street in New York and Brooklyn. 

Senator Graham introduced the Beach Pneumatic bill, being the same that was vetoed last year by the Governor, on January 12.2  It was the first rapid transit bill of the session, but not the last. 


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The frontispiece to the Broadway Underground Railway booklet was a large engraving showing a station at the corner of Broadway and Park Row in front of the new Post Office.  Details (below) show a lively street scene, and a station with a patterned floor and a painting on the wall.  The trains do not seem properly rounded for pneumatic operation, but no steam locomotive is visible either.  The train that is just about to enter the station on the near track seems to be led by a passenger car, but is it is a steam dummy?  Broadway has never been as wide as it looks here.

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The Broadway Underground Railway

Beach’s essay in Broadway Underground Railway is worth quoting at length:

The establishment of rapid transit in New-York has for many years been urgently demanded, and from a variety of worthy efforts toward its accomplishment have, from time to time, been made ; but heretofore these efforts have proved unavailing, owing partly to the lack of unity among the various projectors, but principally to their inability to suggest such practicable routes for the roadways and such practicable plans for the construction as should fully meet the wishes of the public, and upon which the popular favor could be concentrated. 

These difficulties were wholly overcome on the announcement, last year, of the routes and plans of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company for their Broadway Underground Railway, to wit: 


From the Battery, under Broadway, to Central Park and Manhattanville, with a branch at Union Square, under Fourth Avenue, to Harlem River.


A first-class double-track passenger railway, eighteen feet high and thirty-one feet wide, under the centre of Broadway, constructed substantially, like the London Underground Railways. 

Private property not to be taken or molested.  Vaults not to be disturbed.  Traffic of the streets not to be interrupted during construction.  To be built wholly by private capital.  No subsidy from the city treasury.

The members of the Legislature fully coincided with the people of New-York in their estimate of the excellence and practicability of the company’s plans, and, in spite of the most strenuous opposition by the notorious Tammany ‘Ring’, both houses promptly passed the bill … 

The only chance now remaining to the Tammany Ring to defeat the bill was to operate with their whole power, to secure a veto.  If the people were determined to have rapid transit, the members of the ring were equally determined to possess themselves of the grant, and, with characteristic knavery, make it a help in their continued robberies of the city treasury.  For this purpose they hastily concocted and caused to be passed the so-called Viaduct bill, which, together with the Beach transit bill, were now brought before the governor for his consideration. 

The difference between the two bills was striking and remarkable.  The Beach transit bill had been carefully framed, with good and satisfactory provisions to secure and protect the public.  It simply granted authority to build a first-class underground railway, by private capital, on specific street routes, but through no private property, and on plans that were free from reasonable objection, and that had been fully examined, approved, and indorsed by the public … 

The Tammany Ring Viaduct bill gave to Tweed, Sweeny, Connolly, Hall, Hilton, Smith, their agents and associates, the most sweeping and dangerous powers ; authorized them to select their own route ; to enter upon and take the private property throughout their entire routes ; to disfigure the city, from one end to the other, by the erection of a huge railway bridge or barrier ; and, to cap the climax, Connolly was authorized to pay over to them, from the city treasury, five millions of dollars to begin operations!

The Tammany Ring was then in the zenith of its unworthy power, and every body regarded the will of its members as paramount.  Notwithstanding the most urgent appeals by the representatives and deputations of various public bodies, and the most conclusive evidences in its favor from engineers, architects, and capitalists, the governor vetoed the Beach transit bill, which the popular voice demanded, and approved the Tammany Ring Viaduct bill … 

This splendid line of underground railway would, ere this, have been completed and in practical operation on at least one half the distance from Harlem to the City Hall, but for the villainy of the Tammany Ring in compassing its defeat. 

But that wretched organization is no more.  Broken and scattered by the whirlwind of popular indignation, it can no longer thwart the expressed will of the people.1

It is very hard to imagine that the Pneumatic could have had a few miles in operation within eight months.  But this is rhetoric. 

Tunnel engineering and the example of London

Most of the booklet addresses the engineering objections raised by Stewart and the Broadway property owners.  It quotes letters from numerous engineers, including the testimonials that Dixon brought to Albany just before the veto of 1871, and a statement from the same period, dated March 29, 1871, signed by thirty-four architects of buildings on Broadway including James Renwick, H H Richardson, and R M Hunt.  In a later letter, English engineer Charles Douglas Fox wrote to Dixon on November 7: 

From the favorable position of Broadway for an under ground railroad, I do not consider that any viaduct scheme, involving, as it must do, an enormous destruction of property, and much disfigurement of streets from over-bridges, and, in any case, stopping short of the business portion of the city, could for a moment compete with it. 

The former can, with proper management, be so carried out as to reduce interference with private interests to a minimum.  Thus, while a horse-railroad down Broadway would no doubt tend to drive away carriage traffic and injure the trade of first-class stores, a railroad under Broadway, leaving the surface uninterrupted, must enhance the value of property along its route, by placing it in direct communication with the whole city. 

The public health benefits to be derived by placing Harlem and Central Park within a quarter of an hour’s ride of Wall street, by trains lighted by gas, and provided with every comfort, and running every five minutes each way, can hardly be underestimated ; and no private interests ought surely be allowed to interfere with a public want so long and now so urgently needed.1

Frederick E Cooper, ‘Resident Engineer’ during construction of the Metropolitan District Railway in London, wrote to Dixon in October at some length about methods of construction.  The company had constructed part of their underground road below tide level along the Thames, worked out methods of keeping streets open during work, diverted sewers and gas and water pipes, and avoided damage to property despite construction very close to buildings.  In regard to ventilation for steam locomotive operation, Where the London Metropolitan Railway runs longitudinally under the Euston Road, ventilating openings have been constructed, six of them within a distance of three fourths of a mile.  They are 27 feet long, and 2 feet 6 inches wide.  None of the ill effects are noticeable that are mentioned by Mr Tracy.  Application is about to be made to increase very much the number of these openings, and no opposition is anticipated.1

Accompanying Cooper’s remarks, many of the large pages are taken up with hand-colored plates emphasizing especially how close they came to tall buildings.  The point was that it was indeed possible to build an underground railway through a city without flooding at low ground and without damaging nearby buildings.  The cross sections of course resemble closely the drawings for Willson’s Metropolitan Railway plan of 1864, and the reader gets the impression Beach was now considering building in this style. 


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Two of the plates from Broadway Underground Railway show the Metropolitan District Railway passing within five to ten feet of large buildings with shallow foundations.  The locations are somewhere between South Kensington and Westminster stations on what is now called the District Line.


An unsigned article in Scientific American conveyed Beach’s thoughts as 1871 came to a close.  The Metropolitan Railway of London affords the best illustration of what is wanted in New York, and points out the most ready and economical means for its achievement.  By making a tunnel along the public highways, the cost of land and the more expensive item of compensation to occupants is reduced to a minimum.  Add to these the most important consideration, the fact that traffic already lies in the very direction your subterranean road will take, and you need say little more to convince the public of the merits of the underground system.  The large majority of the opponents of the tunnel railways will be found to consist of real estate speculators, jobbers, men with axes to grind to the detriment of the public grindstone, and the large class of local politicians whose interest lies in the total abnegation of economy and convenience.3

The Arcade Railway

At the start of 1872, Melville Smith, still promoting the Arcade plan, suggested a Commission of six or eight of the most distinguished engineers of the country, who shall decide which plans of all those proposed are the best.  Those plans would then be taken to a Commissioner of the leading capitalists, to business men who shall decide which of the plans is most likely to secure the requisite capital.  The design of Mr Smith is to prevent, if possible, the several schemes now presented from mutually destroying each other, and to give the city some sort of road which is actually to be built.4  Unfortunately this logical plan was not followed, and the rapid transit plans of 1872 fell into exactly the trap Smith foresaw. 

The Tribune carried a long and well written article on January 27 that reviewed how the growth of the city depended on rapid transit.  The population north of 14th St had grown about ten times since 1840, while lower Manhattan was losing population, and retail business was moving uptown; but the only transportation improvement in that time, street railways, had not reduced the distance to work, which as the article said should be measured in time, not miles.  For rapid transit, there is but one line ; there is, and can be, no other, namely Broadway to Union Square, and then branches via Broadway and Fourth Ave.  The branches were needed because of Central Park dividing Manhattan into an east and west side.  The system must be fast, safe, and accessible.  The cost must be small in comparison to capacity.  The question had already been settled.  The Senate commission of 1866 had reported that underground railways passing under streets present the only speedy remedy for the present and prospective wants of the City of New York in the matter of the safe, rapid and cheap transportation of persons and property.  Mayor John T Hoffman (now governor) had been one of the commissioners who wrote, A system of railways running wholly through blocks would involve an expense for right-of-way and resulting damages, which would render it impracticable to convey passengers for long distances at rates of fare as low as the necessities of the case require, and yet as governor he had approved the Viaduct plan and not the underground railways.5

The writer also cited the Board of Engineers of 1870.  Inevitably the Arcade project looked the closest to what had been proposed by those experts.  The Beach Pneumatic and New York City Central Underground followed too closely the London model and did not provide the four-track system of express and local services that the Board had proposed.  The Viaduct plan had taken at least that point to heart.  Oliver W Barnes of the Central Underground was still of the opinion that Broadway could not be tunnelled around Canal Street because of the low ground, but thought that a community of interests exists between this road and the proposed Arcade Railway, and it is highly probable that these interests will be united. The writer mentioned Beach’s Broadway Underground Railway booklet (thus dating it to January 1872) and the Viaduct project, but says nothing of the chances of either being built.5

Swain’s three-tier Metropolitan Transit road

The pressing need for rapid transit brought forth more plans than ever in 1872.  By late January, there were four bills.  Three were for underground railways in Broadway:  the Pneumatic, the Manhattan Railway (a plan dating to 1866), and a bill for Origen Vandenbergh.  The fourth was a new plan called the Metropolitan Transit, known also as Swain’s Three-Tier Road, which has been here for several years past.  James B Swain had once been State Engineer.  Another plan was for two routes, east and west of Broadway, to be built like the Arcade plan but financed by the city and leased to companies to operate.  Yet another, the New York Warehouse and Railway, was a comprehensive plan to build a railroad along the docks, and an underground railway in Broadway, for freight and passengers.6  Of this group, only the Pneumatic would ever build. 

But Swain’s plan was actually approved.  Instead of using the streets, Swain proposed to buy a right of way through blocks, and in this right of way build three railroads, one over the other.  The lowest level was to be a subway for freight, the next a slightly depressed road for passenger traffic, and the third was to be an elevated structure from which passenger cars would hang suspended and be drawn by horses in the roadway below.7  The route was to run some blocks west of Broadway.  Swain tried for a few years to raise funds, and the company finally announced in February 1875 that the construction of said railroad has been commenced sufficient to comply with the charter, Peter Cooper, the venerable philanthropist, laying the corner stone of the structure Dec 24, 18747.  The Metropolitan Transit Company however got no further than this for the remainder of the 1870s.  The company would unexpectedly come back into transit history in 1886.

The important projects of 1872 were the Beach Pneumatic and a revived New York City Central Underground, the Gilbert elevated railway, and new plans that would put the New York and Harlem underground north of the new Grand Central Depot and extend it underground to City Hall. 

The New York and Harlem Railroad in Fourth Ave

Popular agitation to ‘sink the tracks’ of the New York and Harlem began late in 1871, as soon as Grand Central Depot opened.  The Harlem line was the first railway in Manhattan.  It reached Harlem in 1837, and finally Chatham, 131 miles north, in 1852.  From 1848, trains of the New York and New Haven Railroad used the New York and Harlem as their entry to New York, joining at Woodlawn.  The two roads established separate adjacent terminals in 1857 on Fourth Ave between 27th and 28th Streets, but by city law of 1858, steam locomotives were not permitted south of 42nd St, so from that point cars were pulled individually by horses to the terminals.8

From 1866, ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt consolidated what would become the New York Central system, combining the upstate New York Central proper (Albany to Buffalo) with the Hudson River Railroad and the New York and Harlem.  He planned a large new ‘Grand Central’ depot far north of the business district at 42nd St, the steam locomotive limit.  The Hudson line would be connected by a new route along the Harlem River to meet the Harlem line in what is now the south Bronx.  Construction on these projects began in September 1869.  Harlem trains began terminating at Grand Central on October 9, 1871, Hudson River trains on November 13, and New Haven trains on November 21, 1872.8  However a local train Hudson River service continued to run to 30th St to connect with the New York Elevated.

The railway ran on the surface in the middle of Fourth Ave (now Park Ave) except for two short tunnels and a shallow open cut on the high ground around Yorkville.  The addition of Hudson River trains made it busier, and Vanderbilt was increasing train service as he promoted his system.  At the same time, public outcry increased because the city was growing rapidly northward and the upper east side was being developed for housing. 


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Above, Grand Central Depot, in a photograph of 1880.  The tracks in the foreground come up from the Murray Hill tunnel.  Many New York and Harlem city horsecars turned left into 42nd St (like the one seen here) and then right into Madison Ave, but some went into the arched opening to end inside the depot, as a connecting service for steam train passengers.  Express and freight cars (pulled by horses) would take the switches slightly to the right into the steam railway trainyard.  One of the Broadway omnibus lines terminated in the street on the left, and hacks line both sides.  Behind this front building was a large arched iron trainshed.  The photographer was on the 41st St footbridge.


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Grand Central Depot seen from the south.  Notice the ‘Ladies and Gents Dining Room’ across the street from the station, lower left.  In the foreground is the terminal of the Avenue C Railroad, which ran on a complicated routing along the east side down to about Houston St and then crosstown to West St.  This shows the trainshed behind the main building.  From a stereo view.


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Inside Grand Central, looking downtown.  Notice the horsecars in the left background near the arched opening seen in the previous images.  Trainsheds like this are still in use in Europe.  From a stereo view.


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Looking south toward Grand Central before ‘sinking the tracks’ began in 1873.  The Steinway piano factory on the left was between 52nd St and 53rd St.  This could be the only photograph showing the surface level railway.


North of Forty-second-street the sole monarch of the Fourth-avenue and all that region is the locomotive … Formerly, while this part of the island was a wilderness, the few trains then running were in nobody’s way, and nobody in theirs.  Now the tide of population is surging northward, and crowding into the sections east of the Central Park.  Every 200 feet the railroad is crossed— on the same level— by a street, with its tide of vehicles and pedestrians, for, though living on the avenue is an impossibility, these cross-streets are rapidly filling up with solid rows of houses.  And now, just as this great nuisance is almost unbearable, the heavy travel of the Hudson River and New York Central Railroad is turned into the avenue, augmenting the evil to a fearful extent, and putting the unfortunate dwellers in that section to their wits’ ends to know what the end of it all is to be.  What then, is to be the fate of Fourth Avenue, crowded with tracks and swift trains, day and night, with all their noise, smoke and dust, to say nothing of the frightful risk of human life?9  So wrote the Times late in 1871. 

The Times proposed an underground road for about two miles, similar to that beneath Park-avenue— meaning the Murray Hill tunnel from 34th St to 40th St (still in use today for auto traffic).  The New York and Harlem had originally been granted its ‘rights, privileges and franchises’ in 1831 for a period of 30 years, amended to 30 years more in 1859.10.  The Times and others were to mention this relatively short expiration as a bargaining chip in efforts to get the railway off the street surface.  The relation of all this to rapid transit was that an underground railway was being proposed, and was eventually built, long before such construction was considered practical for local city transit. 

In December, with regard to the frequent slaughter of men, women and children by the locomotives of the Harlem Railroad, the Board of Aldermen appointed a special committee of two to investigate the problem.  They were GEORGE H MITCHELL who, until within a very recent period kept the Florence Saloon, an underground gin-mill on Broadway, corner of Houston-street, and GEORGE W PLUNKETT, a butcher of Washington Market … absolutely uneducated men.11  Vanderbilt by this date wanted to expand the Fourth Ave line to four tracks to accommodate the heavy traffic, so he was ready to make a deal.  He probably influenced the two Aldermen.  At any rate, the committee came up with a reasonable proposal:  leave the Grand Central station yard on the surface but have some of the streets cross it on bridges; sink the tracks into open cut from 49th St north until it merges into the present cut and tunnel; and then elevate the route on a viaduct through Harlem.  The change to viaduct around 96th St reflected the drop-off in elevation at that point and would improve the grade of the railway.  The Aldermen proposed that one half of the cost should be paid by the city.  The existing tunnels ran from 68th St to 71st St and from 91st St to 94th St, with a cut between. 

A very large mass meeting was convened on January 5 by the East Side Association and related groups to discuss the Fourth Ave problem.  The plan generally approved by the citizens and property-owners in that portion of the City was to sink the track some ten feet and arch it over … Mr VANDERBILT had expressed a willingness to accede to any plan that the organizations of the tax-payers should unite upon.12  The assembled group elected representatives to speak with Vanderbilt. 

Vanderbilt however responded with a plan for an open cut from 49th St to 79th St, covered at intervals by bridges for the passage of trucks and carriages, and at shorter intervals by bridges for foot passengers, and for a viaduct on stone arches north of that point.  Mr Vanderbilt denounced the committee’s plan as entirely impracticable.  Their tunnel, he said, would require a double set of locomotives— one of the kind used in the Thames tunnel, which produce no smoke, the other of the ordinary pattern … and anyway the cost would be enormous.  William R Martin speaking for the committee said there were three needs to be met:  safety to life, free traffic across the avenue, and the public use of the avenue.13

There the matter rested for a time. 

Rufus H Gilbert’s pneumatic elevated railway

A new pneumatic railway project was proposed by Dr Rufus H Gilbert, a double line of elevated pneumatic tubes, with stations a mile apart14.  He is not known to have consulted with Beach, but his proposed means of propulsion was the same.  Like Beach he felt that steam locomotives should be avoided if the pneumatic system could provide a cleaner and safer alternative.  The greatest difference between them was between tunnel and elevated.15 

Curiously Gilbert’s idea had been anticipated by Elias P Needham, the same inventor who proposed an underground pneumatic railway before Beach.  In 1869 the Times reported: An interesting model of Needham’s Patent Pneumatic Tube is on exhibition at No 11 Pine-street.  The proprietor of the model, Gen BARNUM, has adapted the tube to an elevated street railway, and asserts that, in that position, its economy would be far greater than if deposited under ground. … The model on exhibition is quite interesting.  The tube is of glass, and objects placed within it fly with the rapidity of lightning.  Needham’s system of gating allowed multiple cars (or trains) in the same tube, maintaining their separation because of the steady flow of air.B  Whether Gilbert consulted with Needham is also unknown, but Gilbert certainly knew of his work, having described it in a public address he gave in 1867.

In mid February, the Times’s Albany reporter wrote that besides the underground roads, there was but one other feasible plan of quick transit now before the Legislature for the Committee to consider, and that is Mr GILBERT’s scheme for an atmospheric elevated road in the Bowery and Third-avenue, which he terms the Ad Interim Road, in view of the facility and cheapness of its construction.  No opposition to this scheme has appeared from any quarter, and as it does not conflict with any of the other projects, it will probably secure the favorable action of the Committee.16


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Gilbert’s original proposal for a pneumatic elevated railway was depicted by a large engraving in Scientific American for April 13, 1872.  The location is puzzling; Nathan Simmons’s dry goods store was on the proposed line at 234 Bowery, west side just north of Spring St, but nothing else matches.  The ‘½ mile station’ in the left background places the spot at about Canal St if measured from City Hall.  Nowhere on the Bowery were the buildings this tall and elegant.  The station building would include the steam engine and blowers.

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Scientific American described Gilbert’s proposal in April.  The plan is to place along the street, at distances from fifty to one hundred feet, compound Gothic iron arches, which shall span the street from curb to curb, at such an elevation as shall not interfere with the ordinary uses of the street.  On these arches, a double line of atmospheric tubes, eight or nine feet in diameter, are to be secured.  The arches are strongly connected with each other by means of a vertical, latticed or trussed girder running between the tubular ways, which are to be firmly joined to it on either side by ties of suitable construction.  Through the tubes, supported as described, cars, carrying passengers, are to be propelled by atmospheric power.  There is also provision in the same set of arches for two or more sets of tubes for the transportation of mails and packages.  The stations will be situated at distances of about one mile apart along the line, and will be provided with pneumatic elevators to raise passengers to and from the place of transit with perfect safety, thus obviating the necessity of going up and down stairs for transit.  The movement of the cars or trains along the line, as well as their arrival and departure from stations, is made known at all points by a telegraphic device which is automatically operated by the cars in passing.17 

An underground railway alliance

In the same report that mentioned the Gilbert Elevated, the Times’s Albany reporter also wrote about a development in underground railway plans. 

An agreement or understanding is said to have been arrived at among the competitors for four of five of the different schemes, which will facilitate the action by the Committee, and will probably result in the adoption of a charter for an underground road that will command the necessary capital for its speedy construction.  All the projectors for a road under Broadway, except the Pneumatic Tunnel, have combined together for an amendment to the Central Underground charter already in existence, which will permit the company to change its route to Broadway, running from Bowling-green to Union-square, and thence in two branches, one on the east and the other on the west side of the City to the Harlem River.  The road is to be a double tunnel after the plan projected by Col VANDENBURGH.  It is affirmed that nearly every property-holder on Broadway favors this settlement of the railroad war, and will unite in asking the Legislature to pass the amendments asked for.  All hazard of a veto is this avoided, as Gov HOFFMAN will sign such a bill without hesitation.16

The reporter clearly hints at Stewart’s assent to the proposal, which must always raise the question whether this was yet another attempt to block construction by others for some years by gaining and sitting on a franchise. 

On March 8, the Joint Railroad Committees of the Senate and Assembly held a protracted session this evening on the question of underground railroads in New-York.  The conclusion arrived at was to adhere to the Beach Pneumatic plan, provided the articles of association filed in the Secretary of State’s office were found regular.  The Committee have a suspicion that the Broadway property-owners who favor the Central Underground plan are not acting in good faith, but mean to kill any plan for an underground road in Broadway, if they secure the grant from the Legislature.18

The condition about the articles of association proved to be a sticking point between the two houses.  Senator Madden, who is no lawyer, but a manufacturer and a most zealous advocate of the Pneumatic plan considered them, after a brief examination, ‘all right’, but Mr WHITBECK, a keen lawyer, thought the papers defective, and deemed it his duty to delay the report until further instructed by his committee, or until the papers lacking be supplied.  There is a good deal of feeling on the subject, and accusations of bad faith are freely made by the lobby who support the Pneumatic.19

Thus, the Pneumatic bill was in motion only in the Senate.  An unsigned article in Scientific American that week praised its editor’s plan for a Broadway underground railway.  In fact, so strongly in favor of its building have the leading property owners become that they now present themselves as rivals before the Legislature, and ask that the right of construction may be given to them and not to the Transit Company, which has begun the work and at a heavy outlay of money demonstrated its desire and ability to execute it with success.  The Legislature is not likely to do such an act of injustice, and there is reason to believe that the necessary authority to proceed with the work will be shortly granted to the Beach Transit Company.20

Beach Pneumatic versus the Central Underground

By mid March, seventeen rapid transit bills had been introduced into the Railroad Commitee of the Senate, and three were favored:  the Beach Pneumatic in Broadway, Swain’s three-tier on the west side, and the Gilbert Elevated on the east side. 

The whole strife about underground transit is now narrowed down to the two schemes represented by the Beach Pneumatic Company and the Central Underground Company.  The latter Company has a charter already, and it only asks for an amendment allowing the road to be built under Broadway, which experience has shown to be the only feasible route.  All the other applicants for an underground charter, except the Pneumatic Company, have agreed to accept the Central Underground charter, which the amendment asked for.  The Central Underground Company offer to put a provision in their charter that they shall raise a paid-up capital of $5,000,000 within thirty days of the passage of their bill, and that they shall commence work on the road within sixty days.  The Pneumatic Company is not shown to be backed by the men or the capital necesssary to insure the construction of the road, and its bill has the additional disadvantage of having been vetoed last year, and of being almost sure to be vetoed again this year if it should pass.21

Meanwhile the Railroad Committee in the Assembly reached a decision on March 20 to favor the New York City Central Underground.  A proposition will be made by them in the morning to the Senate Railroad Committee to effect a compromise on the basis of a payment by the Central Underground to the Beach Pneumatic, for the cost of the work done by the latter.  If successful, both Committees will then report to their respective Houses the central underground ; if unsuccessful, the Assembly Committee will report the latter, while the report of the Senate Committee will stand as at present in favor of the Beach Pneumatic.22

The next day, the Senate debated the Pneumatic bill.  They discussed disruption to Broadway during construction, and whether to insert amendments, such as requiring the company to sell $5,000,000 of stock and have five per cent paid in before construction could start, and turning the works over to the city if the company failed and stopped construction for longer than three months.  In the Assembly, the Railroad Committee now have finally determined to report adversely on the Beach pneumatic rapid transit scheme, and in favor of the central underground, with some amendments. The Assembly wanted similar provisions for the Central Underground, $5,000,000 of stock subscribed, and ten per cent paid in.23

The Senate passed the Beach Pneumatic bill the next day, March 22, 18 to 4.  Swain’s three-tier was also passed, 18 to 2.  Senator Madden had fought like a tiger for both bills.  The third favored bill in the Senate, the Gilbert Elevated, was discussed but sent back to the Railroad Committee, in all probability to sleep the sleep that knows no waking,24 so that property owners along the line would have a chance to comment.  This was not good for Gilbert, since people in Third Ave had begun to complain. 

On March 29, a mass meeting was held by two Reform Democratic organizations, the Committee of Ninety and the Citizens’ Reform Association, to support the Central Underground plan, which they estimated as costing fifteen to twenty million dollars. 

Responsible parties had already expressed their willingness to subscribe $3,750,000 for that purpose, and and the Messrs BROWN, of this City, would be glad to undertake the work for $17,000,000.  The only person who opposed the passage of the bill was Mr A T STEWART, whose private interests were placed in opposition to the welfare of the general public … Mr CLEWS guaranteed to raise $20,000,000 for an underground railroad through Broadway if a franchise was given, in sixty days, and he would set the ball rolling by pledging himself for $5,000,000 that evening, and he had no hesitation in saying it would be raised in twenty-four hours.25  Henry Clews was an important banker; his support was significant.

On the same date, the Assembly were still debating rapid transit.  A motion to consider the Beach Pneumatic and Central Underground together was defeated.  Ignoring Beach, they concentrated on the Central Underground which was effectively applying for Beach’s route.  They considered a provision allowing it to cross Manhattan Valley by viaduct (which the present day subway does) and then took it out.  But they did allow it to come aboveground at the low ground at Canal St and at Bowling Green.  An amendment, however, proposed by Mr Alvord, and cheerfully accepted by Mr Husted, who was ENGINEERING THE BILL IN THE HOUSE, directing that the work of opening the surface of the street should be done under the superintendance of the Commissioner of Public Works, was adopted without debate.26

An argument broke out on the proposal to copy in an ‘interminable’ section from the proposed Beach Pneumatic bill.  It was the section that provided for the city to take over the unfinished tunnels if construction stopped.  That was all right, but in the Assembly version, it also provided that if the tunnels were built on the double tunnel plan and run by locomotives, then Origen Vandenburgh could apply to the courts for appointment of a commission to determine whether he was the originator of the double tunnel plan and if so what compensation the company must pay him.  Assemblyman Alvord eulogized the inventive genius of Vandenburgh and his efforts to secure to New York a practical plan for rapid transit, and said this was a compromise that had been agreed upon by both parties26— both parties being evidently Vandenburgh and the Assembly.  This touched a nerve in this reform legislature about lobbyists dictating laws, and it took some time to return to the subject at hand. 

The text of the Central Underground bill as agreed upon followed the usual Y-shaped route:  Broadway to Union Square, and then Broadway and Eleventh Ave on the west side, and Madison Ave on the east, Madison Ave being the only part left of the original route.  There could be through connections to the Harlem line between 42nd and 46th Sts and to the Hudson line north of 122nd St.  The lower Broadway subway was to keep at least nineteen feet from building lines.  Sewers and mains were to be relocated by the company as needed.  If any person or incorporated company shall have excavated or constructed any works under Broadway, along the line of the route of the New York City Central Underground Railway Company, the person or company might petition the courts for a commission to determine the value, which the Central was to pay to that person or company.  Vandenburgh was also granted his right to a commission as proposed.26

But the same day, the Senate’s Railroad Committee reported adversely on the Central Underground bill.  It was announced by one of the Senators that one of the capitalists connected with that project had recently informed him while in New York that he had associated himself with that project, and should assist in its passage for the purpose of getting possession of the franchise for a road under Broadway and hold it so that no road could be built on that line.  It was, he said, pressed for the purpose of preventing any road being constructed under Broadway … The feeling of the Senate is decidedly against the project, and in favor of the Beach plan.27

The Assembly passed the Central Underground amendment on March 29.28  The Beach Pneumatic and Central Underground now each had half the legislative approval needed, and they had almost the same route.  There was a real possibility of stalemate with neither being approved.  If the unnamed senator’s suspicions were correct, this situation would have been a win for the obstructionists backing the Central Underground. 

Senator Madden, a thick and thin champion of the Beach Pneumatic scheme, which was got through the Senate without due consideration according to some, continued in early April his efforts to stop the Central Underground.  A vote to adopt the Railroad Committee’s adverse report, which would have killed the bill, was not carried.  This left the bill ‘on the table’.  It was not being discussed, but it could be picked up again later.29

On April 12, the Herald editorialized that it is now very evident that unless the members are paid for their votes, directly or indirectly, in money or in shares, no bill will be passed.  When the people are rid of these Albany sharks we shall be prepared to show, from a review of their labors, that the present Legislature has been as corrupt as the most infamous of its predecessors, with only the difference that exists between petit larceny and grand larceny— between the pickpocket and the highwayman.30

The New York and Harlem’s underground railway

On March 20, when the Assembly Railroad Committee decided to favor the Central Underground, they also heard from an engineer, Allan Campbell, who had been asked to report to the Vanderbilt companies about sinking the New York and Harlem tracks in Fourth Ave.  He reported that the present road-bed was laid by authority of the Legislature and the Common Council, while the upper part of the city was unimproved and long before the avenue was opened as a street.  The land was purchased from Twenty-fourth street to the Harlem river by the company and the street widened from 100 feet to 140 by legislative enactment to provide a great railroad avenue.31  Vanderbilt was laying claim to a private right of way in the street, as a bargaining position. 

Campbell recommended an open cut from 49th St north, retaining the two existing tunnels, and a viaduct from 101st St.  A few days later, yet another civic group, the Railroad Reform Association, sent members to talk with Commodore Vanderbilt, who told them he was in favor of rebuilding the Fourth Ave route, and that he did not wish to be abused by the press.32  This settled the question of sinking the tracks as the press called it, but Vanderbilt still did not want to cover the cut, because of the smoke problems. 

On April 10, Vanderbilt made a strategic move. 

Senator Robertson, this morning, introduced a bill to provide rapid transit for New-York City.  The scheme already creates considerable stir, and may possibly grow into something of first-class importance before the end of the session.  It is entitled ‘An act to incorporate the New-York City Rapid Transit Company, and to authorize the said Company to construct and operate an underground railroad in said City’.  It creates a corporation, consisting of ‘Cornelius Vanderbilt and such other persons as he shall associate with himself’, with power to construct an underground double-track railway …33

The route was from Broadway, across City Hall Park in front of City Hall, City Hall Place, Mulberry St, Lafayette St, and Fourth Ave, to 59th St, connecting there with the New York and Harlem.  From City Hall to Union Square, it was identical to the route granted to the New York City Central Underground Railway in 1868.  It will be recalled that close associates of Vanderbilt had had an interest in the Central Underground for its first two years, but would not construct it, apparently using the charter to prevent others from building.34  A branch was also provided for in 58th St or 59th St to reach the Hudson River Railroad line on the west side.  The bill provided for relocation of sewers and mains, and for raising the grade of streets if need be (most likely referring to the Five Points area where the Central Underground had also sought to regrade).  Senator Madden reported the bill the evening of the same day.33

From the same date, in the Assembly, lobbyists pressed for Vanderbilt’s bill for an open cut north of Grand Central.  Whitbeck objected to the bill unless it included covering the cut, with the city paying half the expense.35  Whitbeck claimed the open cut would damage property by $10,000,000 or more.  The people will object to riding through a dark and smoky tunnel, and well they may, but this is to be a well-lighted and ventilated tunnel, traversed by smoke-consuming locomotives.36  The dispute was not resolved this day. 

The World editorialized on the question, repeating (without credit) William R Martin’s three needs of the public, and added the railroad’s three needs.  First, to expand from two tracks to four, and extend their rights beyond the last thirty-year grant; second, to do this without paying the whole cost; and third, to make travel safe.  By his New York City Rapid Transit proposal Vanderbilt admitted that underground transit is practicable below Forty-second street ; and by the same reason it must be above Forty-second street. Or was the rapid transit proposal again an obstruction to others?  There was suspicion.  Vanderbilt may build or not when he pleases.  He can prevent any one else from building such a road.  Two months ago he declared publicly, and with his usual emphasis, that such a road would not pay, and that he would not build it.37

Vanderbilt’s rapid transit plan competing with the Central Underground may, incredibly, have been a move to block a competing mainline railway intended to connect New York with Montreal.  The Central Underground held a meeting on April 12 regarding its possibly providing the New York terminal for a combination of railways independent of the Harlem line including the New York and Boston Railroad, the Boston, Hartford and Erie, and the Vermont Central.  The bill introduced by Mr Robertson for Vanderbilt was considered injurious to their plans.38  The promoter behind the new railway was James Brown from Millbrook, who already owned the small Dutchess and Columbia Railway upstate, and now planned to combine it with five others built or planned to form the New York, Boston and Montreal.  The New York and Boston was graded but not laid from High Bridge to Carmel, on the alignment later known as the Putnam Division.  The plan was never completed, but the companies were merged in November 1872, only to fail in the second half of 1873.39

A week later, the Senate amended the New York City Rapid Transit bill to require work to begin within six months and to be completed from City Hall to 59th St within three years.  Stations would be at least a half mile apart, and the fare would be ten cents for up to four miles.40  The Senate passed the New York City Rapid Transit bill on April 18, with 22 votes.41

The Assembly was still discussing the railway north of Grand Central, and on April 17, Whitbeck’s amendment for an arched cut was lost, 49 to 55.40  However, in a meeting with the various East Side associations, led by William R Martin, Vanderbilt finally agreed to a compromise on April 22.  The railroad would be sunk from 55th St to 103rd St, arched throughout, but with openings 20 feet by 150 feet.  Since a city block is 200 feet, and Vanderbilt’s previous plan had provided for bridges at street crossings, it was indeed a compromise and not quite a tunnel.  Bridges over the railway yard would be provided at 47th St and 48th St.42

Three underground bills

As the Times’s Albany reporter put it, the property-owners on Fourth-avenue thought it best to take what they could get, even if it were only half a loaf.43  He also summed up the other current activity: 

Having arranged the Fourth-avenue difficulty, VANDERBILT, with his army of lobbyists, is now devoting himself entirely to his Under-ground Rapid Transit scheme, by which he hopes to steal the vested rights of the Central Underground Company, and at the same time command the only entrance to the Metropolis for the outside world.43

The Beach Pneumatic scheme is also represented this evening by a trio of lobbyists who have been hanging around the Legislature for the last three years.  Nothwithstanding their bill was vetoed last year they still hope, with the aid of Senator MADDEN’s bullying and the self-interest of a score of Senators and Assemblymen past and present, whose pockets have been stuffed with Pneumatic stock, to force their scheme through the Legislature.43

The Assembly passed the Fourth Ave bill on April 23, by 92 to 20, in a procedural rush that choked off any further discussion.  It included the provision for the city to pay half the cost.  An outspoken reform member, Hawkins, was so angry that he offered his resignation.44  How the VANDERBILT bill came to be passed we do not know, wrote the World in an editorial, but it is is necessary that some scheme be arrived at whereby Mr VANDERBILT shall abstain from killing us.  But it is not as a favor but as a right that we require this. That the city should pay half the cost was an outrage and a swindle.45  The Times agreed that it was a disgraceful scene that will never be forgottenThe bill is fraudulent on its face because of the city paying half.46

The same bill then entered the Senate, where it was passed on May 2 with little further discussion.47  The editor of the Times saw another conspiracy.  The elation of Mr HUSTED and his familiars, and the sharp rise in Harlem and other of the Vanderbilt stocks, imply that the friends of the Fourth-avenue bill are sure that it will become a law.  Perhaps it will ; but there is yet something to be said on the subject.  It is is shamefully true that the bill has been bribed through a part of its way in the Senate and the Assembly ; but Governor HOFFMAN has not yet received it, and it remains to be seen whether he will succumb to the influence represented by HUSTED and BARBER.46

The Beach Pneumatic and the Gilbert Elevated bills were passed in the Assembly the same day as the Fourth Ave bill.  The Beach Pneumatic vote was weak, 66 to 42, and it drew criticism.  Several members of the Assembly have therefore recorded themselves in favor of giving Broadway to both the Beach Company and the Central Underground.48  If it were as easy to build two railroads under the same street as it is for members of the Legislature to stultify themselves, the New-York public might congratulate itself on getting double-quick transit on double-quick time.44  The bill was the same as that of 1871, except that the east side branch was now to run under Madison Ave instead of Fourth Ave, thus avoiding the New York and Harlem but conflicting with the 1868 grant to the Central Underground.  The same provision as in the Central Underground bill provided for Vandenburgh to be compensated if the road used twin tunnels and steam locomotives.48

The Gilbert Elevated passed by a more solid 92 to 13.  Following protest by civic groups over the original route in the Bowery and Third Ave,49 the bill had been amended to authorize the appointment of Commissioners to fix the route, which may be over any of the avenues except the Third, Fourth and Fifth. The plan at this point still called for the propelling of the cars by air pressure through lighted tubes suspended over the middle of the street, in accordance with an invention patented by Dr GILBERT.44  The Senate Committee on Railroads had by this date reported favorably on the Gilbert bill, so it was on its way. 

The World’s Albany reporter wrote, There is undoubtedly a very strong pressure here to defeat the Beach pneumatic, now in the hands of the Governor.  Both the central underground and the Vanderbilt rapid transit people are understood to favor its veto.  An adverse decision on the former from his excellency would result probably in the central underground releasing such part of its old route as may be covered by the proposed Vanderbilt scheme, and both bills would thus be left free to pass.  In such a contingency the one would not interfere with the other.  The central underground having received an adverse report in the Senate, and a motion to agree with the report having been voted down, it lies on the table ready to be called up at any time, the report disagreed with, and the bill referred to the committee of the whole.50  The Assembly were now amending and ‘log-rolling’ for Vanderbilt’s New York City Rapid Transit. 

The three underground projects were proposing each other’s routes in a confusing manner.  The Vanderbilt route duplicated the Central Underground charter south of 17th St, but the new Central Underground route would relinquish that section in favor of a Broadway route that duplicated Beach— these two together left Beach with nothing, and the reporter just quoted saw it this way.  On the other hand, the new Beach route in Madison Ave combined with the Vanderbilt route would cut out the Central Underground, although in this case both grants would be questionable until the Central Underground charter expired. 


[ 9-12 ]

The underground routes, superimposed on a slightly later street map.  BLUE:  The route actually granted to the New York City Central Underground in 1868 and 1869.  YELLOW:  Proposed routes of the three companies (where they do not duplicate other routes).  RED:  New York Elevated Railroad, showing stations in service by the end of 1872.

Below, detail showing the routings out of City Hall through the Five Points neighborhood, by way of small streets and private property.  They avoided Park Row.  The Viaduct route of 1871 is also shown for reference.

[ 9-13 ]


Oliver Barnes, president of the Central Underground, wrote a letter for publication in the Times.  He reported that in the early months of 1872, the company had contacted Vanderbilt and received assurances that he had no objection to their plan, had no interest in and would in no way interfere in matters relating to City transit by steam. But then, it was announced in the public journals about April 2, that a new railroad combination had been formed, extending between the Hudson River and Harlem Roads to Montreal, which depended for access to the City upon the Central Under-ground Road ; and on the 1st April a bill was introduced creating Cornelius Vanderbilt a corporation, adopting word for word the charter of this company, as to its line from City Hall Park to Union-square, giving power to Mr Vanderbilt to build upon that line by express terms repealing so much of our charter.  At the same time the Vanderbilt lobby interest formed a combination with the Beach Pneumatic Company and passed a bill in its interest which in like manner appropriates our line from Madison-square to the Harlem River, which bill is now before the Governor.  The Vanderbilt bill will undoubtedly be passed, this Company having no arguments of sufficient weight to reply to those which the other side are able to produce … Barnes threatened to go to the courts if either company’s bill was passed, to fulfill the company’s obligation to its creditors, to public morality and to itself.51

Governor Hoffman again vetoed the Beach Pneumatic.  During arguments before Governor Hoffman on April 30, the Governor has said to have intimated very plainly that he should veto the bill.52  This time around he waited a week. 

The veto, dated May 6, firstly repeats the same objections as the previous year, since it was virtually the same bill.  He referred readers to that veto for detail, but drew attention to the broad powers in the original 1868 charter not being restricted by the amendment and to Tracy’s objections on engineering grounds.  The only new objection was to the only change in the bill, the Madison Ave route, which he noted had been already assigned to another company for the same purpose of an underground railroad ; a company possessed of means and capital to which large subscriptions of stock have been already made, and the promoters of which assure me that their work will be prosecuted without further delay.  Hoffman declared that if not unconstitutional, it must lead to protracted litigation that would retard and embarrass rather than promote the solution of the question of rapid transit in New York city.53

Vanderbilt immediately realized that the same objection could be made to the New York City Rapid Transit bill in its current form.  The day after the veto, Vanderbilt’s engineers submitted a new route to Assemblyman Husted, for insertion into the bill.  The route now was to start at the City Hall Park, east of Broadway, between the terminus of the New-York Central Under-ground and the new Post Office, and run by way of Park St and the Bowery.54  The route through the Five Points area was awkward, crossing the Central Underground route twice, and was probably meant to be amended later.  It still shared the same route in Fourth Ave from 8th St to 17th St, and the Vanderbilt company asked to take the east half of the street.55

The Assembly passed the New York City Rapid Transit bill on May 8, by 90 to 24.  One member sarcastically pointed out that Vanderbilt forgot to provide for the city to pay half the cost of this too, but his proposed amendment was ruled out of order.56  The Senate then re-passed it with the amended route. 

Meanwhile, the Gilbert Elevated, which had passed the Assembly on April 23, was reported favorably by the Senate Railroad Committee and introduced to the floor on April 24.57  When it was discussed on May 1, the New York City Senators were at first all opposed to the bill, but Mr TIEMANN’s objections were satisfied by an amendment which was offered by one of its friends, providing that the Municipal authorities of the City should have the right to remove the structure in case it proved to be a public injury.58  It was voted on that evening, but failed. 

On May 10, a motion by Senator Madden to reconsider was passed, and the bill was read again.  Senator Tiemann and others who appeared to represent the views of the property-holders along the line to the exclusion of those of the general public spoke against it.  This time, the Gilbert Elevated was passed, 19 to 2.59

The Legislature then adjourned for the year having passed four rapid transit bills:  Beach Pneumatic, already vetoed; Vanderbilt’s New York City Rapid Transit; the Gilbert Elevated; and Swain’s ‘three tier’ Metropolitan Transit.  The Central Underground amendment was left on the table in the Senate. 

New York City Rapid Transit

Vanderbilt was required by the charter to start on the New York City Rapid Transit within six months, and complete within three years.  The company was incorporated May 22, bringing the six months to November 1872.60 

Scientific American, not editorially in favor of steam locomotives in underground railways, noted in July that it might have been expected that the company would be compelled to provide for the necessary ventilation, by side shafts and chimneys built on their own property so as not to encumber public streets.  But no such provision was exacted.  On the contrary, the bill gives the company permission to make openings for ventilation in the middle of the streets, the holes to be six feet in diameter, twenty feet apart, each surrounded by an iron railing.  The two splendid and important thoroughfares under which the road runs are therefore to be occupied and disfigured by the railway corporation, while the air of both avenues is to be contaminated by the foul gases from the locomotive.61

Details were released in August.  The new tunnel would run under the existing Murray Hill tunnel from 32nd St to 42nd St, not through it.  The surveys showed that the new line would need to be a rock tunnel from 13th St to 18th St.  Near Canal street the surface will be reached, and the road will be elevated, by passing it over viaducts built through all this lower portion, and over the Five Points, till reaching the elevated ground at City Hall, where it will start as a surface road.62  This is the only description of the road as not totally underground. 

By September, the company seemed ready to begin construction.  ‘I hope to commence work at both ends of Commodore Vanderbilt’s under-ground railroad, namely at City Hall and Fifty-sixth street and Fourth avenue, on or before the 15th inst’, said Mr Buckhout, the engineer to a reporter yesterday.  The depot at the City Hall will be opposite the north end of the Post-office, facing Beekman-street, and will be 112 feet long and 50 feet broad.  The track at this point will be sunk about nineteen feet below street level.  There are to be eight stations along the road.  The route of the road is to be as follows:  From the City Hall Park it curves into Centre-street, near the Register’s office ; then in Centre as far as Reade ; then it runs through the centre of the blocks south of Park-street, crossing Duane, Pearl, Baxter, Worth, Mulberry, Mott, Doyer and Pell, the latter situated in the close vicinity of Chatham-square, where it reaches the Bowery.  Following the Bowery until Cooper Institute is reached, the road diverges into Fourth-avenue, passing to the east side of the Grand Central, and along to Fifty-sixth street, where it will connect temporarily to the Harlem Railroad.  From Thirteenth to Eighteenth street the road will lead through solid rock.  At the Murray Hill tunnel, running from Thirty-fourth to Fortieth streets, the line will be underpinned— which means that a second tunnel will be built, and the Fourth-avenue cars will run over the under-ground railroad tunnel.  The top of the tunnel will be, on an average, three feet below the street’s surface.  Mr Buckout is hopeful that the down-town portion of the road will be constructed within two years, but the up-town portion, on account of the engineering difficulties, will probably take longer.  In a few days commissioners will be appointed to appraise some property in the vicinity of Five Points, where a depressed road will be built, and about which a disagreement as to price has occurred between Commodore Vanderbilt and the owners.63

Late in October, a contract for alterations of the sewers, gas-pipes, water-pipes and house connections from Fifty-sixth street to the Broadway side of City Hall Park was awarded.64  This was the last word on construction of the New York City Rapid Transit.  In the end, nothing of it was built.  By not starting in November, the company lost its charter, or so it would seem.  In December, a company official said that the present delay is for the purpose of receiving proposals for doing the work.  The maps which purported to give the positions of the sewers, etc, have been found incorrect, after complete surveys by the company’s engineers, and some unexpected difficulties in the management of the drainage have been met.65 Nonetheless the Times concluded, VANDERBILT’s charter, which was lobbied through the last Legislature, and from which the public were led to hope for something practical, has been abandoned.66

Vanderbilt told a reporter in 1875 that he had planned ‘when it was completed to make a present of it to the city’, and that he gave up the project because of unfair criticism and unexpectedly high costs.67  Most people believed only the latter. 

In 1877 Allan Campbell, Commissioner of Public Works, reported to the Mayor about building a rapid transit road from Grand Central downtown.  In regard to the Vanderbilt underground road, no reports or estimates were published, though surveys, plans and estimates were made by Mr Buckhout, the engineer of the Harlem Railroad company.  These documents cannot at present be found, but the information obtained by me when the work was under consideration, at which time I had several interviews with Commodore Vanderbilt upon the subject, will suffice for our present purpose. He said that the following figures had been supplied to Vanderbilt by responsible and experienced contractors : 

Construction work $6,000,000
Private property 1,000,000
Rolling stock and engineering   1,250,000
10% for contingencies 850,000

Campbell added that an estimate of more than ten million dollars for the same distance had been made for the Central Underground by their engineers Chesbrough and Greene.  The Vanderbilt tunnel would have been allowed openings every twenty feet.68

The Times looked back in 1877.  It was known that he had the means to build the road, and as it was to connect with, and furnish a feeder for, his Fourth-avenue road from Forty-second-street to Harlem River, it was thought that, if any underground could be made to pay a fair dividend on the investment, it would be this.  But the public were disappointed.  After spending $12,000 in surveys, and getting the opinions of the best engineers at home and abroad, Commodore Vanderbilt came to the conclusion that the enterprise would not pay, and gave up his charter.69

If the tunnel had been built, it would have been heavily used for local train service from that day to this.  It would have influenced the electrification of the New York Central lines at the start of the twentieth century, and its hybrid nature might have led to a closer coordination of mainline and rapid transit railways in the city. 

The underground railway north of Grand Central was started around this same time.  The section from 57th St to 79th St was contracted in October, and the section from 49th St to 57th St was almost ready for bid.  The railroad company began work in the station yard between 42nd St and 49th St.64  This project was of course successfully completed over the next few years and is now the Park Ave tunnel of Metro North. 

The Gilbert Elevated Railway

The Gilbert Elevated Railway Company was incorporated on June 17.  The incorporators were authorized to use atmospheric power, compressed air, or other power on an elevated railway to be substantially supported above the middle of the streets by iron arches spanning the streets from curb to curb.  The fare was ten cents for up to four miles, but during the hours of five and eight, morning and evening, special trains must be run for half that price.  The lower price, intended to help workingmen, had been previously proposed for the Viaduct road, and it was modelled after a practice on English railways.  The route was to be determined by commissioners.70  Among the commissioners appointed were John A Dix, later to be governor, and Chester A Arthur, later to be President of the United States.71 

By November, the motive power had been changed from pneumatics to steam locomotives, with the necessary change to the structure.  The tracks are to rest on iron arches, tastefully ornamented, and will be elevated twenty-four feet above the centre of the street.  The sides of each track are to be enclosed in a trough, or half section of a tube, which will obstruct the view of the engine and cars from horses in the street.  Between the two tracks, the triangular space formed by the junction of the semi-circular troughs, is to be a pnuematic tube for the transmission of packages, newspapers and mails.  The projectors of this scheme of quick transit assure the public that within five weeks from the time the Commissioners make their report fixing the line of the road, they will commence work, and that from that time forward they will construct at least one mile per month until the whole is completed.72

The Commissioners reported the route on November 26.  Starting from the north, it ran from the Harlem River via Eighth Ave, 110th St, Ninth Ave, 53rd St, Sixth Ave, Fourth St, South Fifth Ave (West Broadway), West Broadway, Chambers St, Broadway, Bowling Green, Beaver St, Pearl St, New Bowery, Division St, Allen St, First Ave, 23rd St, Second Ave, and the shore of the Harlem River back to Eighth Ave, and with a connecting line in Chambers St and Chatham St (now Park Row) from Broadway to Division St.60  The routing via Broadway would of course not last.  But with changes in that portion, this chartered route was the basis for the routes of the Sixth Avenue El and Second Avenue El as later constructed.  The conflict with the New York Elevated Railroad's route in Ninth Ave was not even mentioned.

The New York Elevated Railroad

The New York Elevated Railroad already had in operation the first rapid transit route in the city.  The lone locomotive, Pioneer, was joined by a second, Manhattan, on July 27.  Manhattan, built by the Washington Iron Works in the city, had a similar external appearance, but was a little heavier, about 4 tons, and had a horizontal boiler.  The company’s engineer David Wyman, constrained by the very light structure, had continued his work on improved lightweight engines.73

In the same month the company acquired four passenger cars built by Jackson and Sharp in Delaware.  The new cars had 35-foot enclosed bodies entered from end platforms, totalling about 41 feet overall, but like the engines they were extremely lightweight at under five tons.  They had an unusual ‘shad belly’ design with a lowered floor between the trucks, to keep the lowest possible center of gravity and assure passengers of safety.74  Suggesting the disposable nature of the earlier cars, these new ones were numbered 1 to 4.

Each engine therefore powered a two-car train, but the two trains had to run only minutes apart in the same direction because of the single track.  There was also no way to switch the engines around at the terminal, so the engine must have pushed in one direction. 


[ 9-14 ]

One of the shad belly cars is seen at the builders, Jackson and Sharp, Wilmington, Delaware.  It had to be transported on a flat car because of the odd gauge.  As historian Robert Reed noted, the potentially fine view through the double row of windows was blocked by curtains.


During 1872 the company built and opened additional stations.  The oldest part of the line, south of Dey St, was somewhat rebuilt and a new downtown terminal station was opened on August 13 at Morris St, one block north of Battery Place.  The last block was still needed to hold trains.  Running north from there, trains stopped at Dey St;  Canal St, also called Watts St, opened May 6;  Little West 12th St, opened June 17;  21st St, opened October 21;  and the terminal at 29th St.75


[ 9-15 ]

The reconstruction of the section south of Cortlandt St can be appreciated by these contrasting views from 1868 (see chapter 2) and 1873-1875 (see chapter 10).  The columns are probably the same, but two of the four spreading arms were cut off and some bracing was added.  The location of these images is the tail south of Morris St.


A reported incident of October 21 gives some insight into the line’s operations in 1872.  The Hudson River Railroad’s hourly local trains to Yonkers still ran from the 30th St terminal even after Grand Central was opened.  Together with the elevated railway it was a faster route to the business district. 

At Dey-street a large number of passengers boarded the train, but before it had passed any distance beyond Canal-street some part of its gear broke loose, and a perceptible lessing of speed was observable.  Finally the train came to a stand-still.  Conductor Maugham, who was formerly a police sergeant, thereupon ran to the rear of the cars and signaled the train, which was but a moment behind his elevated vehicle.  It came up, and thereupon ensued an excitement.  The conductor ran through the train and asked ‘one favor of the local passengers, that they would remain quiet’ until he had taken his Hudson River Railroad people to Twenty-ninth street, and then he would bring them back to their respective stopping-places at Twenty-first-street and Twelfth-street.  The conductor of the ‘pushing’ train came on board, and a conference between the two conductors finally resulted in an understanding to stop at Twelfth-street, which was done.  At that station many passengers boarded the train, who were desirous of leaving it at Twenty-first street.  A reporter of the TIMES, who was among the passengers, went out on one of the platforms of the train and listened to a second conference between the two conductors relative to the propriety of stopping at Twenty-first street.  Conductor Maugham was in doubt about it, but there was no doubt with his brother conductor ; so it was concluded to go on, and both conductors stretched themselves considerably over the platform-railing, and by vigorous swinging of their arms, signaled the engineers before and behind to go ahead.  One passenger with several bundles came out from the car just below Twenty-first street and insisted on alighting at that station.  There were many in the cars who were as anxious.  The conductor reported ‘no stoppages’, but asked the gentleman if he would ‘take the chances’.  He replied in the affirmative, and the gate was opened.  When the train reached Twenty-first street, the gentleman jumped and did some superior gymnastic exercises before he recovered an equilibrium on the platform.  The train sped on to Twenty-ninth-street, and thence, after a while, returned to Twenty-first street and Twelfth-street, by which time a very large crowd had collected on Ninth-avenue, and much excitement prevailed.  A couple of policemen came on board, and had a free ride down, often conversing with the conductors.  Inquiries to one of them by the TIMES reporter were very gruffly repulsed.  Whatever was wrong on the train, the conductors refused to be communicative ; but the sight of the two elevated trains locked together with a long ‘coupling iron’ created unbounded excitement among the passengers on board and the pedestrians on the streets below.76

The little railway was finally running reliably, and the future looked bright.  A company handout in October let the public know about it.  We now take and receive passengers at Morris, Dey, Canal, Little West 12th, and Twenty-ninth streets.  We run four unique elegantly finished and furnished cars, made expressly for our road, capable of seating 44 passsengers each, and we take no more than can be seated.  We are frequently compelled to refuse passengers after our cars are full.  We carry about 1300 passengers daily … We believe we are developing what will enhance the value of real estate, solve the problem of quick transit, relieve our overcrowded streets and sidewalks, be of great public service, and a successful paying enterprise.77

Everybody wants rapid transit

Beach was still not through; he would lobby the Pneumatic bill a fourth time in 1873.  The New York Elevated Railroad, now in dependable operation, was beginning to grow in favor because it worked, which was more than anyone else could say, no matter the severe limitations of single track and a structure too weak to support fast and long trains.  Vanderbilt was on his way to proving that an underground railway could be built, but he was building it north of Grand Central.  As Beach wrote, Everybody in New York wants rapid transit, but, strange to say, the moment that any body sets to work with a definite plan for its realization, they are vigorously opposed and the work prevented.17

1 Beach, Broadway Underground Railway.
2 Times, 1872 Jan 13.
3 Scientific American, 1871 Dec 2.
4 Tribune, 1872 Jan 24.
5 Tribune, 1872 Jan 27.
6 Tribune, 1872 Jan 24. Also Times, 1872 Jan 25.
7 Walker, Fifty Years, 103-104. Documentary History, 706-708.
8 Middleton, Grand Central, 11-29.
9 Times, 1871 Nov 18.
10 Documentary History, 768-769.
11 Times, 1871 Dec 18.
12 Times, 1872 Jan 6.
13 World, 1872 Jan 28.
14 Times, 1872 Jan 4.
15 Reed, New York Elevated, 53-54.
B Times, 1869 Jan 30.
16 Times, 1872 Feb 17.
17 Scientific American, 1872 Apr 13.
18 Times, 1872 Mar 9.
19 Times, 1872 Mar 10.
20 Scientific American, 1872 Mar 16.
21 Times, 1872 Mar 20.
22 Tribune, 1872 Mar 21.
23 Herald, 1872 Mar 22.  Also Times.
24 Herald, 1872 Mar 23. Also World and Times.
25 Times, 1872 Mar 30.
26 Herald, 1872 Mar 30, full text.  Also Tribune and World.
27 World, 1872 Mar 30.
28 Times, 1872 Mar 30.
29 Times, 1872 Apr 5.
30 Herald, 1872 Apr 12.
31 World, 1872 Mar 21.
32 World, 1872 Mar 24.
33 Tribune, 1872 Apr 11.  Also Herald, full text.  Also World.
34 Times 1872 Apr 30.
35 World, 1872 Apr 11.
36 Times, 1872 Apr 12, and Herald.  Also World.
37 World, 1872 Apr 13.
38 World, 1872 Apr 13.
39 Gallo and Kramer, Putnam Division, 7-10.
40 World, 1872 Apr 18.
41 World, 1872 Apr 19.
42 World, 1872 Apr 23.
43 Times, 1872 Apr 23.
44 Times, 1872 Apr 24.
45 World, 1872 Apr 25.
46 Times, 1872 Apr 29.
47 Times, 1872 May 2.
48 Tribune, 1872 Apr 24, partial text.
49 World, 1872 Apr 10.
50 World, 1872 Apr 28.
51 Times, 1872 Apr 30.
52 Times, 1872 May 1.
53 Hoffman, Public papers, 378-380.
54 Times, 1872 May 8.
55 Times, 1873 Nov 1.
56 Times, 1872 May 9.
57 Times, 1872 Apr 25.
58 Times, 1872 May 2.
59 Times, 1872 May 11.
60 Documentary History, 922-923.
61 Scientific American, 1872 Jul 6.
62 Manufacturer and Builder, 1872 Aug.
63 Times, 1872 Sep 7.
64 Times, 1872 Oct 30.
65 Railroad Gazette, 1872 Dec 21.
66 Times, 1872 Dec 30.
67Tribune, 1875 Jun 24.
68 Walker, Fifty years, 99-100.
69 Times, 1877 Mar 11.
70 Documentary History, 448, 678-680.
71 Walker, Fifty years, 105-106.
72 Times, 1872 Nov 12.
73 White, ‘Spunky little devils’.
74 Horn, roster.  Also Times, 1873 Nov 1.
75 Reeves, First elevated railroads.  Cunningham & De Hart, History, part 1: 8.
76 Times, 1872 Oct 22.
77 Quoted in Reeves, First elevated railroads, 14.

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