Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway

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Beach now knew that it was possible to propel a train through a pneumatic tube. He went to work to devise a machine for boring a tunnel without disturbing the surface of the street. His hydraulic tunneling shield, when completed, somewhat resembled a barrel with both ends punched out. The front end was sharp for cutting through earth, and the back end was expressly made so that the newly dug tunnel could be bricked up from inside the shield, the workers being protected at all times. Pistons would then press against the completed brick to drive the cutting edge forward another sixteen to eighteen inches into the earth. More dirt would then be gouged out by diggers and removed. The pistons worked individually; by exerting pressure on one side or the other, the tunnel could be made to turn in the earth, or to climb or descend, according to the will of the engineer.

Beach now determined to seek a charter from the legislature, if not actually to build a subway, then to build something enough like one so that a subway tunnel might be bored secretly. He had conducted a number of experiments on pneumatic mail tubes. One of his schemes was to have mail, deposited in a hollow lamp post, flutter down into a small tunnel where a blast of air would blow it along until it dropped down a chute into a distributing station. At the distributing station the letters would be sorted and placed in cylinders to be whisked through underground pneumatic tubes to their destinations, thus providing unprecedented speed in mail service.

In line with this plan, Beach dispatched some agents to map the streets, and sent others armed with the crude instruments of the day to sound Manhattan along certain key thoroughfares. What lay below the pavement? Beach said he was interested in Broadway particularly, to a depth of twenty feet—a figure that must have surprised his technicians.

In 1868, Beach’s petition for a postal dispatch charter went before the legislature, crossing the desk of Boss Tweed, who ignored it. It looked innocent enough, reasoned Tweed. Tweed had no quarrel with the U.S. mails, nor did he have any plans to swindle same. The charter was granted by the legislature.

Beach was a shrewd observer of the political climate. He had watched the downfall of several men who had opposed Tammany, and now he decided against seeking a franchise for a subway. He believed he had sanction enough to build one anyway—particularly if no one knew he was doing it. He wouldn’t pay political blackmail, as he told his brother. He would rather build the subway furtively.

His associates were nervous. Who knew what reprisals Tammany might choose to make when the tunnel became known. The risk was too great. But Beach rode over objections. Let the subway be built well enough and no one could stop it, not Tweed himself!

The sounding had indicated a strata of sand under Murray Street, offering no obstacles to the tunneling shield. He decided to begin work there. Accordingly, the basement of Devlin’s Clothing Store was rented, and one night in 1868 the first load of dirt was dragged across the cellar and dumped in the far corner.

Foreman of the gang was Beach’s son Fred, then twenty-one years old. Night after night the digging proceeded smoothly. Then, as the tunnel lengthened, some men became frightened by the eerie depths and did not return to work. The air was close in the tunnel, the lantern light cast flickering shadows on the wall, and the horses clip-clopping overhead made a weirdly hollow sound.

One night the tunneling bore rang against stone. None had been expected. Bit by bit picks chipped away at the earth until an entire wall was exposed. It looked like the foundation of an old fort, and filled the whole face of the shield. The workmen had no idea what to do next. Young Beach could only suggest that they send for his father.

A cab was sent galloping through the night to rout Alfred Beach from his bed. Half-dressed, worried, Beach rushed from his house just as dawn was beginning to lighten the streets and buildings of Manhattan.

When he arrived in the tunnel, lanterns were held close while Beach examined the wall. If they removed it, the street might collapse.

All awaited Beach’s decision. Inside the shield the men would be safe, whatever happened. But suppose the street did collapse? Beach imagined hordes of citizens peering down at the suddenly exposed tunnel. He would be like a man found naked in public, Beach thought. He would be ruined.

For a while longer he gazed at the wall by the flickering light. Then he made his decision—remove it, stone by stone.

The tunnel bored on. It was a number of days before Beach could watch calmly while traffic thundered over the undermined spot. He feared to see a sudden sagging in the street, and a loaded omnibus or streetcar go pitching into the hole. But the tunnel held, and work went on under Broadway.

Although the digging was finished in fifty-eight nights, the better part of two years and $350,000 of Beach’s own money were spent readying the showpiece which Beach at last exhibited to the public in February, 1870.