Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway


Beach had long since decided that the subway must be lavish, even beautiful (if tunnels can be beautiful). People would be reluctant to accept something new, even something they knew they needed desperately. Popular support, and he needed overwhelming popular support to overcome Tammany Hall, could be won only by a subway which was both practical and elegant, one which would please the gourmets and the merely hungry alike. Unlike most inventive men, Beach knew that genius without salesmanship was not enough. Steak alone was simply—steak. The sauce was the thing.

And so, over the objections of his partners and with his own money, he had the waiting room extended to 120 feet—almost half as long as the tunnel itself—and installed the grand piano, the paintings, the fountain, and the goldfish tank. And to counter the dismay of visitors entering the “bowels of the earth” for the first time, Beach decreed the zircon lights. All must be as bright, as gay, as jaunty as possible.

White with rage, Boss Tweed and the politicians of New York looked on as the subway opened. Alfred Ely Beach, small, frail, and nervous, but absolutely dedicated to a subway for New York, girded himself for the battle of his life.

In 1870, William Marcy Tweed—state senator, Commissioner of Public Works, Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall—aggressively bestrode the summit of the greatest concentration of civic power in New York’s history. Diamonds flashed on his fingers and on the head of his breastpin, and his eyes glittered coldly.

Only nineteen years earlier he had come before the city courts a bankrupt, but now his wealth was incalculable. He was loud, bold, and rich. He owned lavish city and country residences, a stable of race horses, and acre upon acre of property. With a crony, James H. Ingersoll, he controlled a furniture company which provided fifty-dollar sofas or desks for the city—at five thousand dollars apiece. His New York Printing Company printed the city’s forms, and those of every insurance company too. It had absorbed three other companies larger than itself, and four smaller ones because it had succeeded in cornering the market—the insurance companies were afraid not to do business with Tweed.

Tweed’s Manufacturing Stationery Company furnished supplies for the city’s schools. In April, 1870, it had delivered six reams of paper, twenty-four pen holders, four ink bottles, twelve sponges to be used for blotting ink, three dozen boxes of rubber bands, and six rulers—and then had sent a bill for ten thousand dollars which School Commissioner William Marcy Tweed had promptly paid.

Other outrageous bills were submitted by Tweed’s street-cleaning companies, which never cleaned any streets—which did not, in fact, even own a broom. These too were promptly paid, because New York’s Deputy Street Commissioner (William Marcy Tweed) never thought to question them.

Tweed was no one-man gang. The Tammany Ring was well organized, and it is estimated that it stole between forty-five and two hundred million dollars from the city between 1869 and 1871 alone. All this was possible because Tweed controlled the Democratic political machines of both the city and the state. Born in New York on April 3, 1823, he had begun his career as the roughest brawler of the roughest fire company in the city. With these sterling qualifications he was judged worthy to run for alderman in 1851, and he won. A year later he even was sent to Washington as a congressman.

Tweed’s real power began with his appointment to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1857, during the reign of the notoriously corrupt mayor, Fernando Wood. Wood was so corrupt he was already tottering, and with one good shove from Tweed he fell. All of New York cheered the downfall of Wood, and the rise of Honest Bill Tweed.

Encouraged by his success, Tweed grabbed control of the Board of Supervisors and began making “astute” political appointments. Soon Tweed men were everywhere, and the city began to be systematically sacked. Before long the Tweed Ring was so rich that there was literally nothing it could not buy. It bought co-operation from legitimate businesses, it even bought success at the polls. The fix was in, and no election was safe. The Ring bribed those men who counted votes; it bribed those assigned to guard the ballot boxes. It bought gangs of bewildered immigrants who were rounded up, sworn in as citizens, and herded to the polls. It bought the State Assembly in 1866, it bought the mayor of the city, a wise-cracking playboy named A. Oakey Hall, and, in 1868, it forced the election of the governor, John T. Hoffman.

Tweed told Hoffman to stick with him, and he would be Democratic nominee for President in 1872.

And now in March, 1871, there was to be no dramatic showdown between Boss Tweed and Alfred Ely Beach. Tweed’s Viaduct Plan and the Beach Transit Bill, both approved by the legislature, arrived on Hoffman’s desk. Huffman, having received his instructions from Tweed, merely signed the one and vetoed the other. And that was that.

The newspapers were enraged. The two bills had reached Hoffman not twenty-four hours before, they charged. He could not even have had time to read them! The veto, said a Tribune editorial, “was long since prepared. … Of course it was to be expected that as long as Tammany had no hand in the scheme, and saw no chance of converting it into a swindle, its influence would be used against it; but for the sake of decency the tracks might have been covered up.”