Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway


Late in 1873, with the “greatest reluctance,” Governor Dix withdrew the charter.

The Beach Pneumatic Subway would never be built.

For a long while after that Alfred Beach was a crushed, heartbroken man. His depression seemed bottomless. When he finally emerged from it, he was a different person. His friends remarked that his conversations were less stimulating, his observations less acute and rarely witty. He seemed kinder, gentler than ever before, particularly to those earnest young men who arrived at his desk bearing their latest contraptions. The onetime vigor was gone. He had stopped inventing.

His interest now was publishing. He started one new journal after the other, most of them curious inbreedings of the Scientific American itself: the Science Record , the Scientific American Supplement (which printed the complete texts of the weightiest scientific papers of the day), and La America Cientifica , which was published in Spanish and distributed throughout Central and South America. Beach had taught himself Spanish. He loved the language, and he was proud and delighted on the day La America Cientifica finally began to make money.

He was an easy touch for charities during those years, for he had great sympathy for humble people, for those who had suffered misfortune. One of his chief projects, when he had got on his financial feet again, was the Beach Institute in Savannah, which he endowed and which furnished a free education for freed slaves. He felt no bitterness toward any man, not even toward the convicted Tweed who reposed in Ludlow Street Jail, and who died there in 1878.

Beach became devoutly religious. Born a Presbyterian, he greatly admired the celebrated Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Since Brooklyn was hours away from his home by hansom cab, Beach could not have attended Sunday services. With Beecher’s permission, he had a private telephone wire installed, connecting his home with Beecher’s pulpit, so that he could listen to the eloquent preacher every Sunday. He would invite his friends over to join him in worship, pass hymn books around, and all would join in the singing.

Gradually the pneumatic subway was forgotten, and with it Alfred Beach himself. When he died of pneumonia on New Year’s Day, 1896, at the age of sixty-nine, he had faded totally from the public view. His obituary in the New York Times ran only a few inches and attracted little notice.

There is a small postscript to the story. In February, 1912, workers cutting the new BMT subway broke suddenly and unexpectedly into Beach’s tunnel. All was as it had been forty years before, when Beach had ordered it sealed up. Some of the wooden fixtures had rotted, but the air was dry and warm, and the tunnel was in good condition. Alongside the once elegant station the little car stood on its rails, as if waiting patiently for its next load of passengers. The tunneling bore still plugged one end of the tunnel, waiting to be driven forward the full distance Beach had planned—toward the end of the island.

Today Beach’s tube is part of the BMT’s City Hall Station, and there is a small plaque on the wall which acknowledges Beach as the father of New York’s 726 thundering miles of subway. He was one of the giants of America’s mechanical age, but this is the only public recognition he ever got.