June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Underneath Broadway the workmen dug in secret. Then a startled public learned that their city had—a subway
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.
The Beach Transit Bill came to a vote in January, 1871, backed by overwhelming popular support. Tweed was ready with a rapid transit bill of his own, called the Viaduct Plan. Beach’s subway called for the expenditure of just over five million dollars, all raised privately. Tweed’s Viaduct Plan was to cost 50 to 0$ million dollars, five of it to be posted at once by the state and to be used in any way the directors of the company saw fit. (At this time New York City was still paying for its County Courthouse. Begun by Tweed in 1868 on a budget of $250,000, it was still unfinished in 1871 and had already cost over eight million dollars, including $221,799 for carpets, $2,870,000 for plastering, and $2,960,187 for furniture.)
All work on the Beach subway would be conducted underground, without disturbing the street. Tweed’s Viaduct Plan would run the length of the island on great stone arches forty feet high. Everything underneath would be condemned and razed.
The New York State Senate quickly passed the Beach Transit Hill by a vote of twenty-two to five. The bill’s margin in the Assembly was even wider, one hundred and two to eleven. But the legislature, known throughout the state as Tweed’s “Black Horse Cavalry,” also approved the Viaduct Plan. The bills arrived simultaneously on the desk of Governor John T. Hoffman.
New York waited impatiently. Would the marvelous invention of Mr. Beach be officially sanctioned? Would he be permitted to build the subway which New York needed, and now craved so desperately? Or would Boss Tweed go on looting the city while hour by hour, day by day, traffic in the streets grew thicker and thicker, snarled and tangled beyond all reason, even pedestrians having to push and shove to get through?
In a few hours the anxious city would know.
According to all the signs by which men make such judgments, Alfred Ely Beach was a genius. He was a man of vision, originality, quick perception, and fantastic energy. Among his dozens of inventions were the cable railway, the pneumatic tube, and the hydraulic tunneling bore which burrowed under Broadway for his subway and later tunneled under London’s Thames, Glasgow’s Clyde, and our own Hudson.
He seems never to have known a childhood, in the ordinary sense. Before he was twenty-one he had invented the world’s first practical typewriter. Made of wood, it was as unattractive as a bushel basket, and about the same size, but it worked, winning the gold medal at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1856. Young as he was, Beach knew full well what he had done. “Someday,” he predicted, “boys will be taught to write their names only. All the rest will be played on this literary piano.”
He was a compassionate man, deeply moved by suffering. To him, a man locked up in darkness by blindness seemed to suffer most of all. So Beach worked almost ten years trying to adapt his typewriter to imprint a raised letter which the blind could read with their fingers. At last he had it: male and female dies arranged to strike simultaneously on opposite sides of the paper, embossing a character. Until then, Braille could be written only by hand.
Like many men of such talent he was patient with problems but bored by success. Once an invention was finished, he had no time for it and would go on to something else. Me earned a little money from some of his inventions, but nothing at all from most of them. Remington and others made fortunes in his wake. Beach himself would have remained poor if invention had been his only source of income.
For most of his life he managed three careers simultaneously: publisher, inventor, and patent lawyer. He was only nineteen when lie took over a rundown and financially shaky journal called the Scientific American . In a few years he had built it into the most successful, powerful, and influential weekly of its kind. It was to become a beacon of light for an age which otherwise might not have been ready for astounding scientific advances.
At twenty-two Beach became publisher of the New York Sun , first and most lucrative of the city’s penny dailies. By the time he was twenty-six the Sun had ceased to stimulate him, so he turned it over to his brother. In all he founded twenty or more publications, some of them still on newsstands today.
He was indefatigable. Between 1850 and 1860 he endured the bumpy day and a half ride to Washington every two weeks, taking the ferry across the Hudson and boarding the train on the Jersey side. On behalf of struggling inventors, he argued thousands of patent cases, winning virtually all of them.
Inventors, good or bad, loved him. He was always courteous, always patient, always had time to listen, even to the most hare-brained scheme, and afterward to offer advice and occasional financial aid. He gave encouragement and a friendly car to Elias Howe, Samuel F. B. Morse, R. J. Gatling (inventor of the machine gun) and to Captain John Ericsson, soon to launch the Monitor . Tom Edison was his frequent visitor, and it was to Alfred Beach’s desk that he first brought his new phonograph.
“What is it?” asked Beach.
“It’s my talking box,” said Edison.
For a moment, while Edison grinned at him with pride, Beach gazed at the handle which jutted from the box.
“Well,” said Death, “cranks are made for cranking.” and he began to turn the handle.
“Good morning, sir,” said the machine. “How are your How do you like the talking box?”
When not at his desk, Beach would be in his workshop. He had no time for vacations, and never took one. His life was regulated to the smallest detail. He knew a week in advance what clothes he would wear, what foods he would eat, what moment he would arrive at the office. That way there would always be time for everything, he would never be rushed, never thrown oft stride. He allowed time for inventors who imposed upon him. for evenings with his family (he had no taste for society), and for exercise, which he believed related directly to good health. He was very rarely sick.
He read widely and thoroughly and could speak with imagination and originality on many subjects. His quick. incisive mind was never satisfied with the superficial. The salient points he grasped at once. From there he probed deeper, ever deeper. He had no interest in gossip or polite conversation, only in ideas.
He had straw-colored hair and appeared frail. But he got by on a few hours’ sleep at night. He was a kind man, a gentle man, but a restless one. He was always working on half a dozen things at once. Music was his only relaxation. He loved opera in particular and attended it often.
It was in 1849, when Allied Reach was only twenty-three years old, that he first conceived the idea of a subway. Beach’s office overlooked City Hall, one of the busiest sections of the city. Day after day the noise of frightened horses and cracking whips floated up to him. So did the voices of the drivers, cursing pedestrians and cursing each other. There was the occasional crack of clubs against skulls as police used primitive methods of untangling jams. Beach himself lived far uptown at 9 West 20th Street, it took him almost an hour to get home each night.
There were only two possibilities for relieving street congestion, an elevated road or a subway. Though he was later to build an experimental El, Beach was disinclined to favor them, reasoning that they would be noisy, unsightly, and most of all dangerous. The most dependable motive power in 1849 was a team of strong horses. But horses were skittish creatures which shied and bolted at the least fright. On a trestle ten or more feet above the street there would be no controlling them at all. Dozens of unlucky passengers would plunge to their deaths each year.
But a subway—the idea sent a thrill through him. He could not get enough of imagining such a grandiose scheme. “The plan is to tunnel Broadway its entire length,” he wrote in the Scientific American , in what was possibly the world’s first public projection of the subway concept, “with openings at every corner. There would be two tracks, with a footpath running between them, the whole to be brilliantly lighted with gas. The cars, to be drawn by horses, would stop ten seconds at every corner.”
A decade and a half passed, during which Beach pushed the subway idea as best lie could in Scientific American and New York Sun editorials. Then in 1866 he began his experiments with pneumatic power. An even grander plan began to take shape in his mind.
Today Beach’s faith in pneumatic power seems incredibly naive. But in 1866 pneumatic power appeared to be the only hope for a subway—and New York, it seemed to Beach, had to have one. The electric and gasoline engines having not yet been invented, the only alternative was to bury a great steam locomotive and have it pull the subway.
Impossible, through Beach. People would never ride in a tunnel with those soot-belching monsters. White shirts would be turned black by the smoke. Cinders would fly in the windows and set fire to ladies’ garments. Résilies, too many boilers burst far too frequently. An explosion would mean a cave-in. Those who weren’t scalded to death by escaping steam would be buried alive. One such disaster would mean the end of the subway for all time.
It had to be pneumatic power. Reach knew of course that the wind machines of his day were inadequate. But he was a dreamer, and he imagined a time far in the future—more compact, more powerful fans, then turbines as mighty as jet engines. One day subways would whoosh under the streets at speeds then considered fantastic!
When the American Institute Fair was held in the Fourteenth Street Armory in 1867, Beach installed a plywood tube six feet in diameter which ran the length of the Armory, and into it inserted a small car with scats for ten passengers. A helix fan, ten feet in diameter, funneled a blast of air into the smaller tube, blowing the car with great élan from Fourteenth to Fifteenth Streets, then reversed to draw it back again. Hundreds of passengers rode in this car during succeeding weeks, and the exhibit often won spontaneous applause.
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.
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.”
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.
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.