New York Subway: Then and Now

July 19, 2021

In this colorized image, they are working on the cable car lines, one of the earlier public transit options. 

Digging up Union Square to lay cable car lines, 1891. Source: (New York Public Library/colorized).

The modern subway got its start from elevated and excursion railroads over major avenues, although there was an underground railroad, the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, as early as 1844. It had no underground stops, only existing to create a right of way for the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad. It led to South Ferry, where passengers could take a ferry to Manhattan. In 1869, Alfred Ely Beach and his Beach Pneumatic Transit Company started to construct the first real subway under Broadway. It took 58 days to finish, ran from Murray to Warren, and since Beach failed to get permission to expand it until 1873, it closed shortly after. 

Challenges To Creating The Subway

Digging up Union Square to lay cable car lines, 1891. Source: (New York Public Library).

On May 22, 1894, the New York State Legislature authorized the Rapid Transit Act. This act created the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, which set the routes, with the consent of property owners and local authorities, and organized the construction of the rail lines. The early work was done using a system called “cut-and-cover,” which was open excavation. With open excavation, the excavated area was covered with a flat roof, although the construction was not uniform, in part because of the number of subcontractors who worked on it. However, the construction was not without challenges, as they had to contend with ground water, rocks, the canal (which Canal Street is named for), rerouting sewers, water, gas mains, steam pipes, electric conduits, and pneumatic tubes the Postal Service used. They had to be careful that the foundations of tall buildings were stable and they sometimes ran into problems with underground rooms, such as vaults. And they also had to contend with people’s concerns that it wasn’t safe to be underground.