by nycgo.com staff, 10/09/2012 [Updated 11/11/2015]
Abandoned Beach Pneumatic Railway tunnel, 1912. Courtesy, The New York Transit Museum
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History of the Underground
As is the case with most of the City's grand public works, the story of the subway system is long, colorful and, in retrospect, sometimes quaint. The first attempt at an underground public conveyance came courtesy of inventor and Scientific American editor Alfred Ely Beach, whose Beach Pneumatic Transit Company built a prototype in 1870 that ran on lower Broadway in Manhattan between Murray and Warren Streets. (Beach sold 11,000 rides in its first two weeks of operation—not bad for an operation that ran for only a single city block.)
It wasn't until 1900 that the City began to get serious about the underground, though, opening its first line on October 27, 1904. The subway ran from City Hall to 145th Street in the Bronx and took about 36 minutes to make the trip, which, considering how long that trip takes today—about the same amount of time—is remarkable. Expansions to Brooklyn and Queens swiftly followed. Because of both the enormous costs and the level of expertise involved, City Hall contracted several private companies to handle the subway's operations, initially working with the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company), which operated the now-defunct elevated trains in Manhattan, and the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company), which became the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation) in 1923.
In 1932 the City opened its own subway, the IND (Independent Subway System), along Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, which we now know as the A, C and E lines. The entire system was consolidated in 1940 under the auspices of the New York Transit Authority, which, in turn, was placed under the control of the state-operated MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in 1968. That, by and large, leads us to today. For those interested in further exploring the warrens of the City's underground, including forgotten tunnels, decommissioned lines (the KK, anyone?) and abandoned stations, the New York Transit Museum is an excellent place to start. So is the subway itself, where remnants of the system's past, including BMT and IRT signage, can still be seen. —Jonathan Durbin