- Historic Sites
Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway
Underneath Broadway the workmen dug in secret. Then a startled public learned that their city had—a subway
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Beach himself breathed a long sigh of regret. His associates were bitterly disappointed. He told them it was all right. They might have expected that. The veto meant they must wait another year, nothing more. By the next year they would have support so strong that their bill would be bound to pass even over the governor’s veto.
And so for a year, with young Fred Beach as conductor and brakeman, the little car was blown back and forth every day under Broadway. There were two types of passengers, the thrill-seekers who hurried down the steps to Devlin’s basement, and the merely curious who entered the waiting room more cautiously. Both types arrived in great numbers, and often police lines were necessary to hold back the mobs. Devlin sold a lot of clothes during the long waits. The lines moved slowly. After each ride, passengers were permitted to leave the car and stroll along the narrow tunnel. This was considered highly daring.
For a year the car traveled, its progress obvious to all who passed near the ventilator grating at the corner of Murray Street. A fountain stood close to the grating, its bubbling water blown into spray two stories high every time the giant fan underground went into reverse. The fan’s intake was just as powerful—letters, parcels, handkerchiefs were yanked from people’s hands, hats were pulled from their heads, and all the refuse of the neighborhood was sucked against the grate. A moment later all would be blown skyhigh again as the little car below made its return journey. It was a corner that pedestrians quickly learned to stay clear of.
During that year Beach made every effort to keep his subway in the news, and he sought to coax dignitaries to ride in it so that reports would find their way into the newspapers. But he had little luck. With Tweed against him, no city or state official would come near the place.
The subway had made money. At a quarter a head it had earned more than $100,000, which Beach, with a great show of confidence, promptly handed over to charity. This was a magnificent gesture, but a hollow one, for Beach’s courage was wearing thin. At the beginning of the new year he waited, as the Beach Transit Bill came to a vote a second time.
It passed. Beach had spent a fortune keeping lobbyists at Albany all the preceding year, and he had expected it would. Hoffman vetoed it again, and it was returned to the legislature, where it failed by one vote to attain the two thirds majority needed to pass over the Governor’s veto. That night Beach wept his defeat. But in the morning he was himself again. Perhaps there would be a new governor next year. They would try once more.
Beach closed the subway; crowds had fallen off, and it cost too much to run. But he kept his lobbyists in Albany. There were encouraging signs as 1872 drew to a close. The year before, a bookkeeper had placed evidence of Tweed’s swindles in the hands of the New York Times , which had proceeded to print them, one at a time, day after day. Tweed had been indicted for fraud. It now appeared that his political power would be ended. The people of New York were so filled with righteous indignation that in the election of 1872 Tweed’s man, Hoffman, decided not to run.
The long fight had worn Beach down. Where he had been staunch he was now timid. Some had criticized his bill on the grounds that pneumatic power would never prove satisfactory; others had insisted that the tunneling shield would never work except in sandy areas. Beach now had the charter rewritten, making provisions for steam locomotives, if that should eventually prove more practical, and for the cut-andfill method of entrenching a subway, if his tunneling shield should fail.
There was nothing he could do about the chief objection to his subway, the fear that Trinity Church (then the tallest structure in the city) and other “mighty spires” would topple if Broadway was undermined. This was something that John Jacob Astor and other wealthy landlords had been shouting at the top of their lungs for two years now. Trinity Church’s spire was 280 feet tall.
So it was that in 1873 the Beach Transit Bill came before the legislature of the sovereign state of New York for the third and last time. It was passed by acclamation, with only three dissents in the Senate, and was sent in to the new governor, General John A. Dix, who announced himself “pleased and privileged” to sign it.
That night the elation of Beach and his associates was boundless. They had fought a long, tense war, but they appeared to have won. Against all the odds, Beach was on the edge of realizing his dream.
But his joy was short-lived. Beach himself was emotionally exhausted. Astor and the others were still against him, and they were much more vocal than he. Worse, his own fortune was now gone, spent on lobbyists, publicity, and the construction of the experimental tunnel itself.
Prices had risen. He was forced to raise not five but ten million dollars before work could be started. He began to make the rounds of wealthy businessmen, former friends. But he was no longer one of them. He had become, so it seemed to them, just another penniless inventor begging funds, pushing some wild scheme nobody cared about. People would never ride under the ground anyway.
Then the economy, none too steady since the great depression of 1869, began to flounder. The stock market crashed again, and there was suddenly no money to be had at all. Alfred Ely Beach, tired beyond words, beaten at last, admitted to himself that he had failed. There was no money. There never would be any money.