Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway


As the Civil War ended, all of New York City was wedged into the lower third of Manhattan Island. The city was compact, teeming, jammed with more than 700,000 people. Thousands more poured in every day as immigrants and refugees. The streets were clogged with horse-drawn vehicles and traffic moved an inch at a time. Public transportation consisted of overloaded streetcars and omnibuses dragged along by ponderous six-horse teams. Axles broke, horses shied, harnesses became snarled, and competing drivers got into fist fights. Silks and broadcloths were ruined in the crush inside the cars. Watches and breastpins vanished into the hands of pickpockets. The air was poisonous; it was said that a healthy person could not ride a dozen blocks without a headache. Traffic was so dense that it might take an hour to move a few yards. “Modern martyrdom,” one critic summed it up, “may be succinctly defined as riding in a New York omnibus.”

The situation was desperate. What could be done to speed up public transportation?

Suddenly, one fine morning, New York woke tip and found that it had a subway.

It was all a little crazy, brilliant, and unbelievable.

The time was February, 1870. New Yorkers read about it in their morning papers.

“A FASHIONABLE RECEPTION HELD IN THE DOWELS OF THE EARTH!” read a headline in the incredulous Herald .

“The waiting room is a large and elegantly furnished apartment, cheerful and attractive throughout,” announced the Sun . “This,” added the Scientific American “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 the vapor on a frosty morning. Such discomforts will never be found in the tunnel!”

The subway’s waiting room alone astonished reporters. Its frescoed walls, elegant paintings, grand piano, bubbling fountain, and goldfish tank—all were ecstatically described. Then there was the single small car, called “spacious” (it seated twenty-two) and “richly upholstered.” But most of all the press was overwhelmed by the great blowing machine that propelled the car, that sent it “skimming along the track like a sail before the wind” and, once the car had reached the end of the track, calmly drew it back again!

This was the Beach Pneumatic Subway. Its only power was air.

What the journalists were shown, and what 400,000 gawking tourists were to see during the next year, was a cylindrical tube nine feet in diameter, fitting almost as snugly around the single car as a gun barrel around a bullet. A track was laid along the bottom of the tube for 312 feet under the center of Broadway. When the giant fan, called the “Roots Patent Force Blast Blower,” was turned on, it wafted the car down the track at speeds tip to ten miles an hour. At the end of the track the car tripped a wire. This reversed the fan, which now “inhaled” the car at the same speed.

The press was excited; so was the public. Not only was the new subway both marvelous and revolutionary, not only did it promise a quick and wondrously unexpected end to the dreadful conditions of street travel, but it caught a shocked city entirely by surprise.

For the Beach Pneumatic Subway was a secret until the moment of its unveiling. No one but its builders even suspected it was there. During fifty-eight successive nights they had burrowed through the earth under Broadway and Warren Street. While the city slept, they stole out of the growing tunnel to dump bags of dirt into wagons whose wheels had been muffled for silence. Other wagons arrived bringing tools, rails, and bricks for the tunnel walls and parts for the car and the mighty wind machine. Night alter night gangs of men slipped in and out of the tunnel like thieves.

The street surface was undisturbed. All day, traffic on the busiest thoroughfare of the New World thundered over Mr. Beach’s tunnel. At night the clip-clop of an occasional hansom cab had been plainly audible to the workers beneath.

Beach himself led groups of dignitaries on inspection tours of the tunnel. He was a small, frail man, clean-shaven, with deep-set eyes, a long, thin nose, and a long upper lip. Then forty four years old, he was well-known as an inventor, patent lawyer, and publisher. He now proposed to run a line to Central Park, about five miles in all. He boasted that when completed it would be able to carry 20,000 passengers a day at speeds up to a mile a minute.

A mile a minute? His listeners gasped. In 1870 nothing went that fast.

When they discovered the existence of the subway, city politicians were enraged. Beach had received permission to construct a small tube only, to see if a pneumatic dispatch service might prove practical. By building a subway instead, he had willfully defied them. There was talk of destroying the tunnel, of throwing Beach in jail.

Mr. Beach, knowing the power and determination of his opposition—Boss Tweed and the Tammany King—was nervous but steadfast. New York needed a subway, he insisted. He would go before the legislature at Albany.

No one had ever stood up to Tweed before, and now, furious, he swore to stop Beach no matter what it cost him. The quarrel was more than personal. All streetcar companies paid tribute to Tweed. The new subway threatened that monopoly.