Alfred Ely Beach

Beach's Bizarre Broadway Subway

Contrary to popular belief the Interborough Rapid transit (IRT) subway line, which began operation in 1904, was not New York City's first public underground transportation system. The original Manhattan line actually ran under Broadway as early as 1870, following one of the most outlandish engineering operations the city has known.

The chief protagonist of what developed into an undercover underground operation was one Alfred Ely Beach, a gentleman of grand insight and dynamism. Beach had already invented the cable railway, the pneumatic tube, and a device that was to be pivotal in his subway production - the hydraulic tunneling bore. Journalists had revered Alfred Ely since he produced the world's first practical typewriter, which won him a gold medal at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1853.

When he wasn't busy inventing something, Beach managed the affairs of the New York Sun (he and his brother were co-publishers), and founded several magazines while simultaneously working as a patent lawyer. Beach had been entertaining the idea of a subway since his early twenties. From his office overlooking City Hall in downtown Manhattan, Beach would regularly worry about the congestion that developed at the corner or Broadway and Chambers Street where neighing horses, screaming wagon drivers, and pedestrians vied for the limited space at the intersections.

Beach realized there were two possibilities for moving vehicular passenger traffic away from the streets - a road above ground or one below which would carry a railway train. The young inventor rejected the elevated idea, reasoning that it would be both unsightly and noisy. There was no question in Beach's mind that a subway was the answer. But first he had to find a means of moving rolling stock through a tunnel.

Horses were out of the question. A steam engine would produce too much soot. In 1866, when Beach was ready to put his ideas on the drawing board, practical gasoline and electric motors were not yet available. Pneumatic power seemed the only solution.

To convince skeptics that it was possible to move a small railroad car through a tube by means of air power, Beach constructed a plywood tube, six feet in diameter. He then designed and built a small car, seating ten passengers, which would run inside the tube. For propulsion, Beach proposed to use a Helix fan, ten feet in diameter, which would funnel a blast of air into the tunnel. The air would move the train to the end of the tube and then, with fan reversed, pull it back to its point of origin.

Beach used the 1867 American Institute Fair held in the Fourteenth Street Armory to demonstrate the pneumatic-tube experiment. The armory was packed with spectators who gawked at and cheered the ten-car train as it moved through the tube that linked the 14th Street exit [of the armory] with the 5th Street doors [of the armory].

The enthusiasm of the crowd during the weeks that the pneumatic train operated convinced Beach that he had a winner. But he was realist enough to know that it is one thing to construct a plywood tube and place it on the floor of an armory and quite another task to bore a tunnel under Broadway. Beach went right back to the drawing board to perfect such a tunnel driller. The result was a hydraulic shield which could tunnel seventeen inches with each press into the earth wall. Workers remained inside the shield, bricking the tunnel with comparative security from cave-in. Beach's earth-gouger was flexible enough to move left or right, up or down, and, in experiments, proved that it could do the job on a genuine subway construction project.

But hacking through political red tape was a project with which the hydraulic shield could not cope. New York City in 1868 was dominated by the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, the levers of which were controlled by William Marcy Tweed, the boss of all bosses.

Beach realized that, legally, he would require a franchise to build and operate a subway under Broadway. He also knew that Tweed would take as much money from him as could be extracted. During one three-month period following his appointment to the board of the Erie Railroad, Tweed pocketed Erie profits amounting to $650,000. Bribes to Tweed were written off as legal expenses. With this in mind, Beach decided to bypass the Boss. "I won't pay political blackmail," he told his brother. "I say, let's build the subway furtively."

That was extremely dangerous talk, considering Tweed's power and the near impossibility of constructing a full-scale subway in the middle of the metropolis without general public notice. (Some historians insist that many officials were aware of the project, but chose to ignore it.)

Beach dismissed the overwhelming obstacles from his mind. He would build the pneumatic tube. He would not inform the public officials about it. It would be warmly received and Tweed, in the end, would not be a problem. He concluded that the subway would be so beautiful, so efficient, indeed unique, so that when it opened public acclaim would erase any objections raised by Tweed or anyone else.

Having convinced his close associates that the subway would overwhelm all opponents, Beach took on the biggest challenge of his life. The first problem was gaining access to Broadway's subterranean depths. This was accomplished by renting the basement of Devlin's Clothing Store at Murray Street and Broadway; then Beach and his men began digging.

The ground under Broadway at that point was sandy and appeared amenable to beach's hydraulic tunneling shield. In 1868 work commenced when a load of dirt was carried across the cellar of Devlin's Clothing Store and unloaded in a corner.

Beach put his twenty-one-year-old son, Fred, to work on the job as gang foreman. Fred and his crew hacked away at the underground wall of dirt, and gradually they could see that progress was being made, although many of the hired help were frightened off the job by the conditions confronting them under the clothing store.

Claustrophobia was a persistent problem. Fear that the horses galloping overhead, whose hoofbeats were acutely audible in the tunnel, would crash through and expose the project constantly weighed on the workers. Many quit and never returned. Others worked apprehensively in the close tunnel air, guided by lantern light, packing away at the dirt and sand.

For several nights the work proceeded without formidable obstacles. The sound of iron pick against ever expanding cave was a symphony to Beach's ear. But one night a dissonant noise was heard as a workman's spade struck a piece of stone. Then another and another. Suddenly all forward progress stopped. Instead of sand and dirt, easily penetrated, the laborers had run into a wall of stone.

Beach and his colleagues deduced that the stones were the foundation of an old fort. If a section of the foundation was removed the street might collapse around their heads. Beach had to make a choice; either abandon the project or conquer the obstacle. "Remove it," commanded Beach, "stone by stone!"

One by one, the stones were removed and boring continued while Beach watched the ceiling, hoping against hope that it would hold firm. After several days, during which there was no sign of sagging, Beach was convinced that he had made the right decision. The digging continued. Each night workers would haul the bags of dirt out of the tunnel, dumping them into wagons specially fitted with wheels muffled for silence. While these wagons hauled the dirt away, others arrived with tools and bricks for the tunnel walls. "Night after night, " wrote Robert Daley in The World beneath the City, "gangs of men slipped in and out of the tunnel like thieves."

The project was costing Beach a fortune. By his own estimate some $350,000 of his own money would be needed to complete the subway by it's target date of February 1870. A portion of the expense was for lavish fixtures that seemed more appropriate in the Metropolitan Opera House than for an experimental underground railway. But that was part of Beach's plan. A salesman at heart, he believed that an uncertain public had to be wooed with frills as well as efficiency.

To this end, Beach designed a waiting room 120 feet long (the entire tunnel measured 312 feet) and embellished it with a grand piano, a fountain, ornate paintings, and even a goldfish tank. Instead of entering a dank, dreary tunnel, the customers on the proposed Beach pneumatic subway would find themselves in an elegant, airy salon lighted with zircon lamps.

The digging went on without detection or further incident for fifty-eight nights. It was completed according to plan, whereupon Beach began installing the ostentatious trappings, which took longer than the boring and brick work. The walls of the waiting room were adorned with frescoes. Still, the chef d'oeuvre would be the subway itself.

Beach designed a single car, which fitted snugly into the cylindrical tube nine feet in diameter. Propulsion would be supplied by a giant fan that the workers nicknamed "the Western Tornado." It was operated by a steam engine, drawing air in through a valve and blowing it forcefully into the tunnel. Thus the single car would be driven from Warren Street to Murray Street, the other end of the line, "like a boat before the wind."

Upon reaching the Murray Street terminus, the lone subway car would trip a wire that ran the length of the tunnel, ringing a bell back at Warren Street and alerting the engineer. The blower would then be reversed, and the train would be sucked right back to its starting point, "like soda through a straw." Air would be conveyed to the tunnel by means of an intake-exhaust grating installed on the surface of the street.

The giant fan, also known as the "Roots Patent Force Blast Blower," was designed to move the train at a top speed of ten miles an hour. The subway was completed, along with the frescoes, the fountain, and the fish tank, in February 1870 without the knowledge of Boss Tweed or, for that matter, nearly any other citizen of New York City.

Alfred Ely Beach, then forty-four years old, was ready to reveal to an unsuspecting public the grand triumph of his life. The pneumatic subway would make its official debut on February 26, 1870. Beach invited the press and assorted dignitaries. His calculated gamble was that the subway would so impress them that potential foes would promptly muffle their opposition.

Beach was right, up to a point. Those who attended came away dazzled by the opulence and impressed by the subway's practicality. "This means the end of street dust of which uptown residents get not only their fill, but more than their fill, so that it runs over and collects on their hair, their beards, their eyebrows and floats in their dress like a vapor on a frosty morning," commented the Scientific American (also edited by Beach). "Such discomforts will never be found in the tunnel!"

The twenty-two-seat subway car impressed observers with its rich upholstery and spaciousness, not to mention comfortable ride. Delighted with the initial response, Beach boasted that this subway was merely the forerunner of a line that would run for miles up and down Manhattan Island. "We propose to operate a subway all the way to Central Park, " said beach, "about five miles in all. When it's finished we should be able to carry 20,000 passengers a day at speeds up to a mile a minute." Press comments confirmed beach's triumph.

The New York Herald proclaimed: "Fashionable Reception Held in the Bowels of the Earth!"

The reported from the New York Sun marveled - as Beach had hoped - at the salon. "The waiting room is a large and elegantly furnished apartment, cheerful and attractive throughout."

Nearly everyone of importance was heard from, except the man who counted the most, William Marcy Tweed.

The flunkies at Tammany Hall were already hearing about Beach's subway from the Boss. He had read the papers and it was a toss-up, according to cronies, whether Tweed was more stunned or furious over the surprise subway. One thing was certain: he was not happy, nor was he impressed by the overwhelming favorable public opinion generated by Beach's underground.

Already wealthy and the most powerful man in the city, Tweed nevertheless feared beach on two counts; the inventor had the courage to defy him and, further, his invention would cut into the Boss's profits. It was generally acknowledged that every trolley car company in the city paid tribute to Tweed. A subway of the magnitude proposed by Beach would cut heavily into those profits.

Tweed wasted no time deciding how to handle the upstart Beach; he would go after the fellow the way he'd stalk his most hated political enemy. Across City Hall Park, Beach sat in his office more valorous than discreet. "New York needs a subway," he countered when informed of Tweed's adamant and furious opposition. "I will go before the legislature at Albany."

Beach's single trump card was that his pneumatic tube under Broadway was open and operating; each day a horde of curiosity seekers poured into Devlin's basement to gawk at the grand piano, the fountain and frescoes, and to ride the wind-blown train. Months went by and more passengers paid their quarter a head for the ride, as well as the right to walk through the tunnel when the train was halted.

With public approval on his side, beach went to the legislature. The Beach Transit bill called for a $5-million expenditure, all to be privately raised. All work would be underground with little or no disruption at street level.

The New York State Senate passed the Beach Transit bill by a 22-5 landslide vote. The State Assembly gave it a 102-11 stamp of approval. There was only one catch: Boss Tweed, who came up with a transit idea to counter the Beach proposal. Dubbed Tweed's Viaduct Plan, the Tammany blueprint called for a series of elevated lines mounted on forty-foot-high stone arches. It would cost $80 million, the monies coming from public funds.

Not surprisingly, Tweed had clout in the state legislature, which also approved his Viaduct Plan. One or the other plan - but not both - would be approved by Governor John T. Hoffman. Since Hoffman and Tweed were political brothers the Beach bill was doomed the moment it reached the governor's desk. Hoffman vetoed the plan and signed the Tweed Viaduct bill. Although the governor's action enraged editorialists who charged Tweed with hanky-panky, the fact remained that Beach was defeated. His only hope was that, somehow, he might marshall enough public support in the next year so that the Hoffman veto might be overcome.

Publicity was the key to Beach's campaign. If he could continue the momentum developed by public opinion in favor of his pneumatic tube the governor's veto would be overcome. Beach redoubled his efforts to lure dignitaries down to the tube. But Tweed's influence over politicians of every stripe was so complete that the only official of any stature to accept Beach's invitation was Secretary of the Navy Robeson (who rode December 1870). The cabinet member enjoyed the ride and said so to the press but the publicity was slight compared to what Beach required.

Still, the man-in-the-street liked it and when the Beach Transit bill came up for another vote it passed and then received Hoffman's expected veto. What mattered, of course, was the legislature's attempt to override the veto. A two-thirds majority was needed. When the final tally was in, Beach had lost - by one vote.

A less determined battler would have despaired, but Beach insisted that he still had a chance. He needed a break or two in the political halls and in late 1872 he got it. Tweed's empire showed its first signs of crumbling as the New York Times began printing stories of corruption at Tammany Hall. The Boss was indicted and in November 1872 Governor Hoffman was voted out of office.

But Beach himself was showing signs of defeat. The pneumatic tube gradually lost its curiosity value and gate receipts dwindled to a point where Beach decided to close his subway as an economy measure. He hoped, however, to win the big battle in Albany and kept a collection of lobbyists on his payroll for just that purpose.

With Tweed down and Hoffman out, it appeared that Beach finally had the green light he needed for the subway bill. But now foes appeared from nonpolitical quarters. Engineers argues that his hydraulic shield would be an ineffective tunneling device In rocky sections of Manhattan. Other scientists insisted that pneumatic power might be useful on a short subway such as the one Beach operated under Broadway, but certainly not on a five-mile run.

Deciding that if he couldn't beat his critics he'd join them, Beach rewrote the charter of his transit bill. If the pneumatic tube didn't work, he would provide for steam engines to pull the trains. And if his hydraulic shield failed to cut through Manhattan he would switch to the generally acceptable cur-and-fill technique.

Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm for the subway, Beach managed to alienate the millionaire John Jacob Astor, who had become one of New York City's major landlords. Astor and several of his colleagues feared that tunneling under Broadway might endanger the foundation of Trinity Church and its 280 foot tower, then Manhattan's tallest building. Other landlords were concerned about their buildings and the damaging effects the subway might have on them.

Despite the opposition the Beach Transit bill won approval from the state legislature in 1873. It then went to the new governor, John A. Dix, who gave it his enthusiastic backing. At last Beach's perseverance and grim determination had paid off, on paper at least. Finding funds to build the subway was another story and a rather grim one. In fact, Beach's victory was a Pyrrhic one of the most traumatic variety. He was physically, monetarily, and emotionally wasted. Inflation had forced a revision in his cost estimate from $5 million to $10 million, all of which had to be raised from financiers such as Astor.

But John Jacob Astor wanted no part of Beach or his subway. Other financiers refused him funds; one after another of Beach's attempts to raise cash failed and later in 1873 Governor Dix withdrew the charter for Beach's pneumatic subway.

New York's first subway remained forgotten until February 1912 when a construction crew - digging for a new Broadway subway, the BMT - chopped through the wall of the Beach tunnel. Unaware of the pneumatic tube, the workers were flabbergasted at the ornate trappings before their eyes.

With the exception of some rotted wooden fixtures, the salon retained its original splendor. The magnificent station arrested the sandhogs' attention. Not only did they delight in the vision of an underground fountain but in the discovery that there had been a subway operating under Manhattan years before they began digging. Beach's tiny railroad car was still on its tracks.

Once the workers' discovery was reported, backers of the new subway decided that some form of acknowledgment should be made to the man who built New York's first underground railway. Their tribute was a plaque in honor of Alfred Ely Beach on a wall of the completed BMT City Hall station, which now includes part of the original pneumatic tube.