For 58 nights, they secretly dug below Broadway-arguably the most trafficked street in the world in 1869. A good night’s work advanced their tunnel about eight feet. Every few nights, they poked a metal rod up through the street to be certain they weren’t veering off into City Hall Park or undermining building foundations.
If anyone found out what they were doing, it would all come to a crashing halt. More than anything, Alfred Ely Beach did not want Boss Tweed to discover his secret. His subway would surely put a dent in the omnibus and horse car franchises, and Tweed would expect the same level of graft from Beach.
If he could only finish his tunnel before Tweed found out, an ecstatic public response would surely force its acceptance.
Beach wanted to solve New York’s transportation nightmare, and he knew that the proposed elevated trains just wouldn’t do the trick. The only way to go was down-a subway like London’s, sort of.
London opened the world’s first subway in 1863, but it was dirty, noisy, unhealthy. His would be clean, silent, and beautiful. London’s subway was pulled by locomotives belching smoke and spewing sparks. Beach’s would glide on a current of air.
He rented the ground floor and the two basement levels of Devlin’s clothing store on the corner of Warren Street. From there. he began digging out to the middle of Broadway, then turned south. His hydraulic shield moved the work forward sixteen inches with each push, leaving no telltale signs on the street above. The debris was moved to the basement, then carted away under cover of night.
The car would be pushed by air from the Western Tornado, a massive blower shipped from Indiana on five railway cars. The huge sections were delivered to the corner of Warren and Broadway, then lowered into a chamber below the sidewalk. Curiosities were aroused.
Beach had obtained permission to construct a narrow tube below Broadway to experiment with the pneumatic transport of mail, but a tunnel large enough for a subway was clearly illegal. He was hoping city inspectors would stay away long enough for him to complete his work and reveal it to the public.
The jig was up in January 1870, when a Times reporter made his way below Broadway and into the tunnel, forcing Beach’s hand. In February, the Beach Pneumatic Railway opened to the public-an instant success. That year more than 400,000 people rode on a cushion of air between Warren and Murray streets. Tweed’s objections were overcome, and in 1873 Beach received approval to extend the line as far north as Central Park.
But in the end, it all came down to money, as it often does. Just as Beach was lining up private investors, the market crashed, forcing his backers to withdraw their financial support. The following year Beach saw the writing on the wall and closed down the operation. New York would have to wait another thirty years for its subway.
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