Digging Up the Facts About New York's Subway System

IN February 1912, workers digging the tunnel for a branch of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit made an accidental archaeological find. It was another subway tunnel, built in 1868 by one Alfred Beach to operate on the technology of the day: air pressure. Beach reasoned that the tubes he had seen being used to rush mail around London (like vacuum systems still used in buildings to move cash around) could be used to move people.

Wary of Tammany Hall politicians, Beach built his line in secret. It went one block from Warren Street to Murray Street under Broadway. At one end was a huge compressor, snuck in from Indiana somehow. The subway car (there was only one) fit close to the sides.

When it opened, to great public sensation, he had further plans to sell stock and build a system throughout the city, depending not on air but on steam engines. People used to the clattering horse-drawn trolleys or omnibuses open to the weather thought that whizzing along under the streets was the height of modernity. Beach's plans, however, ran into a stock market panic three years later. The project was abandoned, to be rediscovered only when diggers later broke through and found the car and compressor still there, preserved for history.

The New York City subway system story is told in wonderful and odd vignettes in Clifton Hood's ``722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York.'' The book, an authoritative new combination of political and technological history, is at times outrageously funny and fascinatingly intricate.

The subway system is the city and without it the place could not exist. There are 722 miles of track, making the New York system the longest in the world; laid out in a line it would reach from New York to Chicago. Forty-six percent of New Yorkers use it to go to work. The transit police force numbers over 4,000 officers, more than the entire Boston police department.

Like everything else in the sprawling, brawling city, the subway became the tool of politicians and speculators. Rapid transit made land values rise. William Steinway, the pianomaker, planned a transit system to Queens, where he had moved his factory to escape the union in Manhattan. He fought for the subway concept rather than the slower elevated railways, which, in his term, ``disfigured'' the city.

The systems, the Interborough or the No. 1 and the Brooklyn Metropolitan, the No. 2, were built under largely uncontrolled capitalism. Construction was done with minimal regard for worker safety, with horrible accidents, and it often halted for stock panics. Even so, when the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) opened, it had kiosks designed after the Budapest Metro, with leaded skylights and bronze fittings, and the stations had the same architects as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. People were so amazed at the glory of it all that they often bought tickets and then just stood on the platform to watch the trains go by.

The nickel fare, a political hot button, became a burden. Politicians demanded the low fare be kept to aid the common man, even into the 1950s. Service and maintenance were neglected to save money. Costs had been cut so deeply that a president of the IRT complained that he had seen a clean window on a subway car and demanded to know who had spent money cleaning windows.

The subway had a social effect as well. New immigrants clustered in Manhattan to be near their trades. In 1910, one-sixth of New York's 2,331,542 people lived below 14th Street, on 1/80th of the city's land area. The tip of the island became the most crowded place on earth, unclean and unsafe. Rapid transit was seen as the cure.

Hood lines up his heroes and villains. The heroes include the construction engineers who set records, boring 180 feet below the surface at the IRT's 191st Street station. The villains include Fiorello LaGuardia, who thought that airplanes were the future. New York remains one of the few great cities having no convenient train service to its airports. And then there's city planner Robert Moses, who favored automobiles, but that's another book.

``722 Miles'' should delight and instruct New Yorkers and others who take subways for granted.

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