Monday, January 11, 2010

Undercover Underground: Secret Subway by Martin W. Sandler

"There is a perpetual jam and lock of vehicles for nearly two miles along the chief thoroughfares." An editorial in the New York Evening News complained that New York streets were so congested that workers in the city had to spend more than four hours a day getting to and from their jobs.

So what else is new? But would you believe that this traffic report is more than 150 years old?

By the mid-nineteenth century New York City was a wonder of the world, with museums, theatres, restaurants, and brand-new palatial department stores, all attracting visitors from everywhere. But its streets, especially the famous Broadway, were a nightmare, jammed by horse-drawn carriages, delivery wagons, careening omnibuses and horse-pulled railcars, and coated with inches of manure from the animals which made intracity transport possible. Pedestrians and their footgear were an endangered species on clogged streets on which it took three hours to cover four miles. Something had to be done.

Inventor Alfred Beach thought he had the answer. With the invention of the typewriter, the cable car, the pneumatic tube (still in use by drive-by bank tellers today), and the founding of the magazine Scientific American, under his belt, Beach, also a backer of Thomas Edison's "Talking Box," believed that he had the solution for the city's traffic problem. Already his pneumatic system was moving documents and packages around underground in Manhattan, and Beach believed that such a system could be used to create an air-pressure driven subterranean rail line, later to be called a "subway." Beach studied the pneumatic railway at the London Crystal Palace Exposition and created his own prototype, the Pneumatic Railway, unveiled at the American Institute Fair in 1867, which whisked 170,000 attendees back and forth across the exposition. Now Beach knew that such a system could be made to work beneath New York's choked surface arteries, moving passengers in mere minutes to all parts of the city.

But if there were no insurmountable technical problems, there were political roadblocks. New York's mayor, Boss Tweed, controlled everything that happened in his city. There was no way Beach's subway could be built without his support, and his support came at a price, huge sums that the Mayor would demand under the table to allow construction.

Beach was determined not to pay and conceived a daring plan. A demonstration tunnel would be built in total secrecy, using the vast sub-basement of Devlin's Clothing Store as his entrance. The engineering was daunting--Beach had first to devise a tunnel-digging machine, which he named the hydraulic shield. He designed a circular brick tunnel supported by steel arches and circular plates, to be lighted by zircon lights, the latest in illumination in these pre-Edison days, and powered by enormous circular fans, the Western Tornado, which provided the motive power.

Amazingly, the enormity of Beach's construction remained a secret, with city officials believing that he was merely constructed another pneumatic mail tube beneath Broadway, and the pneumatic subway and its elegant waiting room finally opened to the press and officialdom in 1870. Soon, for twenty five cents passengers could enjoy a swift, clean, and luxurious ride beneath Broadway from Warren to Murray Street. Beach proclaimed that when complete his proposed system could carry 70,000 passengers per day at speeds up to 60 mph.

Beach became a media darling instantly, but Mayor Tweed was enraged by the inventor's end run around his patronage system, throwing all of his power into blocking the next phase of extension to Central Park. But Beach soon acquired a potent ally, the young and talented political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who took great glee in lampooning the corrupt mayor and his graft-filled administration. Tweed eventually was driven out of office, jailed and in a bribe-fueled escape, fled the country.

The way seemed open to make New York's infant subway system the marvel of the world. But the intervention of the Panic of 1873, a deep economic depression which lasted four years, brought an end to Beach's great plans, and he was eventually forced to rent out his original tunnel as first a shooting gallery and then a wine cellar. It was only decades later, when the electric motor was beginning to power rapid transit, that New York returned to his grand plan of a city-wide system. Meanwhile Boston got its electric-powered subway in 1895 and thus laid claim to America's "first" city subway, and Alfred Beach died a disappointed and under-appreciated man in 1897, only eight years before New York's system became a reality.

Author Martin W. Sandler's account of the secret subway, Secret Subway: The Fascinating Tale of an Amazing Feat of Engineering, (National Geographic, 2009) reads like a spy thriller as it tells this tale of enormous vision, astonishing feats of technology, and ultimate disappointment but not defeat in the face of political and economic forces beyond inventor Beach's control. Although Beach's tunnel and station, uncovered briefly in 1912 during the construction of New York's current system, remain entombed beneath the city, his dream of underground mass transit now exists in major cities around the world. This slim but engrossing volume makes nineteenth century engineering in all its wonders come alive for middle and high school readers. Filled with wonderful illustrations and backed up by extensive appendices for research, Secret Subway: The Fascinating Tale of an Amazing Feat of Engineering, is nonfiction of the highest order.

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