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Even though the subway is dirty and filled with hundreds of bodies crowding in a tight space, very few New Yorkers, or even tourists could live without it. So the next time you plan to go to New York, make sure you take a trip to its famous subway.
The Interborough Rapid Transit subway, which broke ground in 1900 after many years of political maneuvering, was not the first attempt at transit tunneling in New York City.
Probably the most well known of these early attempts, at least in terms of subway lore, was an 1870 demonstration line, the Beach Pneumatic Transit. The Beach tunnel was constructed in only 58 days, starting under Warren Street and Broadway, directly across from City Hall.
Operated as a demonstration from 1870 to 1873, the short tunnel had only the one station and train car.
In 1912, construction workers on what is now the BMT Broadway subway (N and R trains) took possession of the tunnel, and found the original shield at the south end of the tunnel, as well as the wooden remains of the car.
Left to right: The Tunnel - from "Illustrated Description of the Broadway Pneumatic Railway", page 19 (see below). The Pneumatic Tube on Broadway -- Further Action of Mayor Hall, New York Times, January 5, 1870. The Broadway Mystery - Some Account of the Pneumatic Railway, New York Times, January 8, 1870.
The Pneumatic Tunnel Under Broadway, Alfred Ely Beach, Scientific American, March 5, 1870, page 154.
Plaque in City Hall Station to Mark First Subway Site, New York Times, September 15, 1932, page 23. First Subway Here Was Like A Popgun: Opened 80 Years Ago, It Shot Its Car, Full of Passengers, With Compressed Air, New York Times, February 25, 1950. Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway, American Heritage, June 1961. Alfred Beach's Pneumatic Subway and the beginnings of rapid transit in New York, by Joe Brennan, is now the premiere web site about the Beach tunnel experiment.
A motion has been made in the Legislature for the repeal of the bill authorizing the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company to run an underground tube from the corner of Warren-street and Broadway, beneath Broadway, to within 200 feet of Cedar-street. Yesterday Mayor Hall had a conference with the Deputy Corporation Counsel in regard to the rights of the City in this matter.
Something has been said in regard to the caving in of the surface of the east side of Broadway above the Pneumatic tube. Although we have heard much about the efforts of the City authorities to prevent the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company from continuing their operations under Broadway, between Warren and Murray streets, and from time to time items have been published in the daily journals to the effect that the corporate authorities were about to commence legal proceedings to restrain the Company from further prosecuting their enterprise, yesterday was the first time that the matter came before the Court in any tangible shape. The argument on the motion for the injunction was commenced yesterday before Judge Cardozo, of the Supreme Court, at Chambers. In pursuing his argument he contended that the City Corporation was organized solely for the purpose of government and local regulation. Certainly the most novel, if not the most successful, enterprise that New-York has seen for in many a day is the Pneumatic Tunnel under Broadway.
Such, in brief, is a description of the various compartments of the mysterious underground Broadway tunnel, begun but a few months ago.
We give this week illustrations of this remarkable work, which, with a brief description of the details of construction and mode of operation, will give the general reader a good understanding of the nature of this mode of transit. The operation of this machine is as follows: The pump is worked by one man, and the rams press with a force of 126 tons against the end of the masonry. Whenever it is desired to alter the course of the shield, it is done by turning cocks in the pipes which lead from the pumps to the rams, on that side which is not being advanced. The blowing engine is positive in its action, pressing the air into the tunnel in the direction shown by the arrows on the ground plan, Fig. The tunnel starts from the east end of the reception room, corner of Warren street and Broadway, and extends on a curve to the center of Broadway, thence in a straight line down to a point a little beyond Murray street, where the shield, or tunneling machine now rests.
In 1824, John Vallance took out a patent in England for a method of propelling carriages through tubes by atmospheric pressure, and in 1826 he had a car running on this plan.
The doors of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company were thrown open to the public for the first time on the 26th, when an "Under Broadway Reception" was given, by special invitation to the State authorities, city officials, and members of the press. The New York Times says: "Certainly the most novel, if not the most successful, enterprise that New York has seen for many a day is the pneumatic tunnel under Broadway. The company has temporarily suspended operations on the tunnel in order to give the public an opportunity to examine their works, which are now open for inspection. When the Degnon Contracting Company begins work on Section 2 of the Broadway Subway, for which the contract will probably be signed by the Public Service Commission this week, it will come across an interesting relic of the engineering enterprise of forty years ago, which has already performed a small part of the work for it. This was the beginning of the first subway ever constructed in New York City, and if tradition be correct somewhere in it has been immured for forty years one of the cars which is [sic] was designed to accommodate.
The stock of the company was fixed at $10,000,000, and its route from the Battery under Broadway to Madison Square, thence still under Broadway to Columbus Circle, with a branch under Madison Square and Madison Avenue to and udner the Harlem River. Though New Yorkers never had the pleasure of being shot through underground space by blasts of wind, the work that was completed showed considerable engineering ability.
What seems to have prevented the completion of the tunnel was litigation which reached a Court of Appeals decision in 1873, by which the franchised was upset on technical grounds.
Alfred Ely Beach, Who Devised Shield Method of Subway Building, Sponsored The Project Then. When Governor Smith of New York and Governor Moore of New Jersey shook hands across the boundary line between the states.
Editor Beach appreciated the advantages of this quick method of transport and decided to work for its adoption in the United States. With the small shield constructed of wood a four-and-one-half-foot tunnel had been run out under Broadway some fifteen feet. The next step was to build a shield of sufficient size to make the tunnel he desired to construct. The shield consisted of two iron rings connected by wood staves about three feet in length. The method of operating the shield was as follows: A large hand pump, placed within the shield, was used to force water into the jacks, thus gradually driving out their rams against the end of the tunnel already constructed and forcing the shield forward some sixteen inches. Six months were required to drive the ninety degree curve out under Broadway and to line it with cast iron plates such as are used in tunnels today. The tube bad been completed without public knowledge, the earth having been removed at night.
The proceeds were given to charity as there was no provisions in the charter covering the charging of fares. A plaque to mark the location of the city's first subway and to commemorate the late Alfred Ely Beach, who built it, has been ordered by the New York Historical Society from Waldemar Rannus, sculptor, now living in Astoria. The Metropolitan Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers is to unveil in the near future in the City Hall station of the B. Towering skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, big names, or the transportation that takes millions of people to their destination everyday? Alfred Ely Beach, inventor and editor of Scientific American, had designed a pneumatic (air-driven) system which he demonstrated at the American Institute Fair in 1867, and he thought it viable for transit operation in underground tunnels. The station was under the south sidewalk of Warren Street just west of the Broadway corner.
While frequently mentioned as an important early development in New York City's transit history, it was merely a curiosity.
The successor company to Beach Pneumatic Transit even sued the city for destroying their property! Under Broadway - A Passenger Station - from "Illustrated Description of the Broadway Pneumatic Railway", page 20 (see below). The bill granting the Company the privilege of prosecuting their work was, it appears, in the form of an amendment to an old bill, and it was thus got through the Legislature without attracting special attention. The Mayor has some doubts as to whether the Legislature can give a company the right to excavate beneath a street, and thus, in some measure, to place both public and private property in danger.
There is certainly a flattening of the surface of the Broadway pavement, near Warren-street, but whether this is due to the underground excavations or to the imperfect manner which the pavement was laid is questionable. The allegations of the complaint are substantially that the defendants are an incorporated Company, organized under the act of the Legislature of the State, passed in 1868, and amended in 1869. Beach, one of the corporators, in an affidavit denies that the plaintiffs are the owners in fee of Broadway, and alleges that whatever right, title, interest or authority over that street is held by the plaintiffs in trust for such public uses as the Legislature shall, from time to time, declare and provide. Green, Engineer and Commissioner of the Croton Aqueduct Department, states that he is fully cognizant of the plans of the work; that the tube is of the proper size. O'Gorman said: The real question submitted was very grave and one of the greatest importance, involving the point as to what rights the Corporation of this City have in its streets, or whether it has any rights at all.
O'Gorman said that the adjudications would be found to be embraced within very small limits and extended the legislative power very little, but unfortunately most of the Judges had indulged in arbiter dicta, giving what the law was, or ought to be, altogether apart from the real questions in the case.

The character of the title of the plaintiffs to exclusive possession of the lands in question. It was admitted on all hands that the Legislature has an unqualified right to resume the powers of government which it has delegated to the City. Graham's argument, the Court adjourned until this morning when the Corporation Counsel will make the closing address. A myth, or a humbug, it has hitherto been called by everybody who has been excluded from its interior; but hereafter the incredulous public can have the opportunity of examining the undertaking and judging of its merits.
At the bottom of the steps is the entrance to an office, and the apartment of the "rotary blower", a huge paddle-box-like affair, neatly frescoed on the outside.
The enterprise is controlled by the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, who propose to run their tunnels in every direction eventually, and make rapid communication between distant parts of the City. It was intended specifically for dignitaries, legislatures, Aldermen, scientific men, and members of the Press, and scores of them were present. The tickets of admission will be twenty-five cents, the entire proceeds to go to the Union House for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors.
Having fully set forth the benefits to be derived from it in a previous article, we shall confine ourselves at present entirely to a description of the work and a brief history of the origin and progress of transit by means of air inclosed in tubes.
This forces the cutting edge and the shelves into the earth to a distance corresponding to the length of stroke in hydraulic cylinders and the earth being removed the masonry is again advanced, and so on step by step. The rams then acting upon the opposite side advance it, thus changing the course of the shield. 5, is a massive ornamental structure, of circular form, nine feet in diameter, its bed twenty-one and a half feet below the surface of Broadway. The excavations have been temporarily suspended, for the purpose of affording the press and public an opportunity to examine the works, and witness the operations of the machinery.
This resulted in the incorporation of the Waterton and Whitehall Railway, which is to extend from Charing Cross under the Thames to the Southwestern Railway. All the prominent personages of the city and State were present, and the inspection of the works gave the greatest satisfaction. Underneath Broadway from Warren to Murray Street runs a section of tunnel eight feet in diameter and brick lined, with a smaller tunnel running up the surface and emerging in a grating just inside the grass limits of City Hall Park, north of Murray Street. It was constructed by the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, the President of which was Alfred E. The 1873 charter stated that a two-track section from Bowling Green to Fourteenth Street must be finished in three years, and the rest five years thereafter. The tunnel was driven under Broadway by hydraulic jacks two feet at a time, and the work was carried on so carefully that there was no obstruction of street traffic and passengers had no idea that they were being undermined all the time.
This litigation seems to have been instituted through fear of the effect of the tunnel operations on the stability of the Astor House. Beach proposed in his paper in 1849 a subway under Broadway, the cars to be drawn by horses. He forthwith procured from the Legislature a charter good for fifty years, giving him the right to connect the General Postoffice at Broadway and Liberty Street with the substations by means of twin mail tubes four and a half feet in diameter. When it came to digging up Broadway and removing the Belgian block pavement in order to lay the tubes, the city authorities intervened. He had demonstrated the feasibility of this idea by means of a car with an open-top and piston ends. Work was immediately started on such a shield, and it was finally put together and completed in a machine shop on Water Street. The foremost ring was provided with a sharp cutting edge and transverse shelves across the front, to prevent the sand from caving inward. The curve was finished in March, 1869, and the straight part of brick to the south side of Murray Street in time for the grand opening on Feb.
It was this technicality that finally defeated the four-track subway that was eventually authorized under Broadway.
Beach was not allowed to use steam locomotives, as was subsequently done in the London Underground, or any means of propulsion that would produce noxious gases, the Legislature passed a bill providing for an elevated railway on which coal-burning "dummy" engines were used for many years. Well, in 1904, Mayor George McClellan of New York City takes control and releases a rapid transit system- the subway. He applied for a permit from the Tammany Hall city government, and after being denied, decided to build the line in secrecy, in an attempt to show that subterranean transit was practical. The single track tunnel ran east into Broadway, curved south, and ran down the middle of Broadway to Murray Street, a distance of one block, about 300 feet in all.
The tunnel under Broadway was almost definitely destroyed during the BMT subway construction.
The Company declare that, as yet, the excavation has barely reached Broadway, and that consequently the caving in of the street is all nonsense.
By the terms of their charter they were to be called "The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company", and were authorized to construct pneumatic tubes for the conveyance of letters and packages, under the streets of this City and Brooklyn, and beneath the North and East Rivers, but as an experimental work they were first to construct a line under Broadway, from Warren-street to Cedar, and to connect at Nassau-street with the General Post Office.
That the Legislature have full and exclusive right and power to declare the uses to which the soil of the street shall be put, and that the charter of the Company gives them the full power to construct the works. The affidavits which had been read on the other side were unknown to him until within a few moments, but it seemed that he could without damage readily conceive all their averments.
No injunction, preliminary or final, should issue in such a case until the plaintiffs have clearly established their rights to prohibit the acts complained of, nor until the plaintiffs have done equity by full compensation to the defendants. Yesterday the tunnel was thrown open to the inspection of visitors for the first time, and it must be said that every one of them came away surprised and gratified. To the right a door leads into a long hall, down a few more steps, and directly under the Warren-street sidewalk, which is the "depot" of the establishment, and is handsomely fitted out with a fountain, paintings, and seats. They claim that their cars can run at the rate of one mile a minute with perfect safety by the pneumatic process. This is done by driving up from the center of the tunnel a tube in sections until it reaches the surface, by which the position of the shield is accurately determined. The mouth of the tunnel opens directly into a large underground apartment, one hundred and twenty feet in length, fitted up in good style, for the purposes of a waiting and reception station. It is of circular form, richly upholstered, and very comfortable, with seats for eighteen persons.
When the air current is reversed a partial vacuum is produced in the tunnel, and the pressure of the atmosphere then propels the car in an opposite direction. The various daily newspapers have published long accounts of the event, which has produced quite a novel sensation in the metropolis. The ladies of the Union Home for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors, a most deserving charity, are in possession of the doors, and receive the proceeds of the admission fee, 25 cents. In the present subway contracts provision has been made not only for the present Astor House, but also for a forty-story building that some day or other may be put upon the site. 21 last, in official celebration of completion of the Holland tunnel, they celebrated at the same time the anniversary (which really was ten days later) of the birth of Alfred Ely Beach, whose invention of the tunneling shield fifty-eight years before made possible the construction of the twin tubes, twenty-nine and a half feet in diameter and 9,000 feet long. Something more than a decade later his attention was drawn to experiments being made in England in transporting parcels and mail in pneumatically propelled cars that ran on rails in pipes or tubes of wood laid on the surface of the ground: and, more particularly, to the opening of such tubes running under ground and connecting the London Postoffice with Charing Cross railway station. At Fourteenth Street the main tube was to have a branch under Fourth Avenue, and another tube under Eighth Avenue was afterward provided for. There was a great hue and cry that the walls of the Astor House would crumble if any such attempt was made. In the fall of 1968, this full-sized shield was set up in the cellar of 260 Broadway, at the south-west corner of Warren Street, and was started out on a curve beneath Broadway. Set into the rear ring, which was made of heavy wrought iron, were eighteen hydraulic jacks, placed at equal intervals around the inside; and fastened to the outside of the ring was a metal hood that extended rearward over the wall of the completed tunnel. The thin metal hood, extending back two or three feet beyond the rear ring, was always over the completed tunnel end. The building of this elevated railway was really what blocked the subway project in the 1870s; but ten or fifteen years later, under his charter, Mr.
Today we speak of "cultural lag," meaning that he foresaw real needs and tried to meet them, whereas his day and generation, like ours, lacked the social mechanism to keep pace with technological innovation.
Smaller tube systems are used in buildings for mail delivery, but a rail-car sized system has never been developed.
A report in the New York Times in 1912 describes the tunnel, but the station had probably been destroyed when the building at Broadway & Warren was torn down and rebuilt. The real question did not depend on the affidavits, but upon the issue of law directly taken by the defendants. An injunction will never issue to restrain any mere trespass, where the damages are susceptible of computation and recovery at law. Such as expected to find a dismal, cavernous retreat under Broadway, opened their eyes at the elegant reception room, the light, airy tunnel and the general appearance of taste and comfort in all the apartments, and those who entered to pick out some scientific flaw in the project, were silenced by the completeness of the machinery, the solidity of the work, and the safety of the running apparatus. This hall opens towards Broadway to the tunnel, at the entrance of which stands a car ready for passengers.

Beach himself was conspicuous, making his visitors explanations and entertaining them like princes. It will be seen that these stations are not to be damp and dimly lighted cellars, but commodious, airy, and comfortable apartments, wherein passengers may await the arrival of a car with as little inconvenience as they could in the best steam railway stations, and without any of the annoyances that attend the waiting for street cars at street corners.
This apartment is lighted from the pavement, and occupies the entire space under the Warren street sidewalk.
The plan adopted by these gentlemen was the propulsion of the cars by means of a piston running in a slotted tube; an arm projecting through the slot, forming the point of attachment for the cars, and an endless band closing the slot both before and after the arm as shown in Figs.
It is provided that in burrowing under the Astor House the new subway shall have its foundations arranged in such a way that the foundations of a new skyscraper may be interwoven with them. These vehicular tubes are the largest in diameter that have thus far been driven, being more than three time the diameter of the original tube that penetrated the earth under Broadway in 1869. Lord Stanley, the British Postmaster General, had officiated at the opening of these tubes and had declared them to be a great success and time-saver. Such a tube was constructed, suspended from the wall of the Fourteenth Street Armory during the American Institute Fair that was held in this building in 1867, and was shown in operation. As soon as the pressure had been relieved, the rams of the hydraulic jacks were pushed back, or home, and the sixteen-inch head space that had been gained was bricked up. Beach could have constructed an electrically operated subway such as that begun in 1904, had it not been for the technicality that there was no provision in the charter enabling him to charge a fare.
The perfection of electric multiple-unit traction and electric locomotives came about so quickly after this experiment that it wasn't deemed worthwhile to even try an expanded pneumatic system. During the replacement of the building, the station, which was essentially a basement vault under the sidewalk, may have been incorporated into the new basement.
Should he be of the opinion that the rights of the City Government are being infringed the matter will at once be brought before the Courts. Jones, the Postmaster, however, refused to grant any permission to connect the tubes with his office, and based his refusal on the grounds that the Postmaster-General said he had no authority in the premises.
The proceedings had had the implied sanction of one of the Executive Departments of the City (the Croton Board), and it might be argued from that that the City had waived its right to object to the proceedings. Any possible damage to the plaintiffs would only be the cost of restoring the land to its original condition, which the defendants are entirely able to meet. Adjoining the depot is the machinery for pumping the air in and out of the tube, which is worthy of an examination. Judge Daly, members of the American Institute, City officials, and many prominent citizens were observed among those who came.
1, which includes the present terminus and passenger station at the corner of Broadway and Warren street, and shows the position of machinery, etc. When the pneumatic tunnel is further extended, luxurious cars, 100 feet in length, will be used. Just as the foundation of the Times Building is adjusted to those of the present Subway, so will those of the successor to the old hotel, whenever it is put up, be interlaced with the foundations of the Broadway tube. Several men had lain down in the cars and been whisked through the tubes along with the mail. Necessity being the mother of invention, he began experimenting to devise a way to drive his tubes under Broadway without interfering with traffic.
The tube was 107 feet in length and the car was drawn through it by suction and pushed back again by the blast of air from an ordinary eight-blade air propeller ten feet in diameter, which was driven at the rate of 250 revolutions a minute by a fifteen-horsepower steam engine. The shield worked on the same principle as did the small one, except that in place of hand screws hydraulic jacks were used to force the cutting ring forward through the ground. At the same time, workmen dug out the earth at the front of the shield and carried it back through the shield and the completed tunnel. In 1870 Beach surreptitiously drove a short tunnel under Broadway from Warren to Murray Street with a shield of his own invention, carted away the dirt by night and finally startled his fellow-citizens by taking them for rides underground in a brightly lighted eight-foot car which had a seating capacity of twenty and which was alternately blown and sucked from one end of the line to the other. Gratings in the sidewalk on Warren Street indicate some vault or ventilation areas are down there today. As our readers know, the work was commenced some months ago at the corner of Warren-street and Broadway, under the clothing establishment of Messrs.
The tunnel way itself, how it looks, and how it was bored out, has been so often described in the various daily journals that only a brief account need be given here.
In the "depot", or reception room, a first-class subterranean lunch was served continuously from 2 o'clock to 6 o'clock, and it was continuously appreciated. The body of the shield is shown at A, and is simply a short tube of timberwork, backed by a heavy wrought iron ring, against which the hydraulic rams, D, act to advance the entire machine. Success crowned his efforts in 1868, when he found he could push through the earth by means of screw jacks, a barrel-like affair made up of wood staves through which the earth was removed as the "shield" penetrated the ground. Anyone who has experienced the blast of air from a modern airplane propeller can understand how, when the air is confined in a tube or wind tunnel, it could easily drive a car at high speed before it. Though he had demonstrated the practicability of this, the first subway in the United States, we had to wait thirty-four years before the present Lexington Avenue line was opened. Conceding that no serious damage had been done to any existing civic institutions on the surface of the street, the objection was that it affected the future rights of the City to build other and larger sewers and gas pipes; that they did as little damage to the City's property as possible, did not affect the question. The front part of the shield is a heavy chilled iron ring, B, brought to a cutting edge, and crossed on the interior by shelves, C, also sharpened.
This propulsion of cars was successfully performed in this way, but the system is not at present in use.
He patented this the following year, and decided that, while he was about it, he would drive a tube of twice the diameter, or nine feet. The averment of the engineers is that there is no reason to believe that any future necessities of the City will be injured by tunneling, was not a matter of fact, but of opinion. From the bottom of it to the surface of Broadway is twenty-one feet, and it is therefore below all pipes and sewers. At night fall the unique occasion was over, but the "Transit Company" had made a host of friends and supporters. Bearing blocks, E, of timber, are placed against the masonry, as shown, on which the rams press when the shield is advanced.
The sculptor was born in Estonia, has studied art here and abroad and has lived in this country for the last thirty years.
The panic of 1873 made it impossible to proceed with the underground line that the Legislature chartered his company to build from the Battery to Columbus Circle. According to the charter, the Company were bound to submit their plans to the approval of the Croton Board.
A pressure of one fourth of one pound to the square inch would be an aggregate of three-fourths of a tun on the end of the car, far more than required for propulsion. There was also a smaller tube with an open top car that, as it passed below a letterbox, turned a sort of X-shaped wheel into which the letters had dropped, thereby dumping them into the car collecting them automatically and depositing them in the same manner in the postoffice. This, it appears, they did, and with the approval of the officers of that Board, and under their direction, proceedings were commenced as above stated. Dean, assistant to the Corporation Counsel, was read, setting forth the facts mainly as stated in the complaint. The position he took was, that the fee of Broadway, and of all the streets in the City which may be affected by the defendants' operations, is vested in the City in trust; that these lands should be applied forever to the purposes of streets. H is a hood of thin sheet steel within which the masonry is built, in rings of 16 inches length, the bricks interlocked.
The case now presented was, he submitted, altogether a new one, and the questions were entirely novel.
The car which runs upon this is about half as large as a streetcar, cushioned, lighted, ventilated, and elegant in all its appointments.
In former cases, when railway companies claimed authority from the Legislature to use the surface of the streets, that claim was to a transient passage across the surface. The contrivance that bores out the tubes is a huge iron cylinder, sharp at the end penetrating the earth, and is forced along by hydraulic pressure. Here, below the surface was used, and not a transient but a permanent occupation was claimed.
So far, the tubes now being complete 120 feet, or as far as the south side of Murray-street, the excavation has been through sand only, and not a difficult matter. Yesterday the gentlemanly engineer of the Company explained the whole construction of the tunnel, over and over again, to the visitors that kept coming and going.

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