Pneumatic Subway

Alfred Ely Beach’s short-lived and innovative train tunnel was secretly built, but transported thousands of passengers after it was unveiled  

By Tik Root

The origins of the New York City subway system are often traced to 1904, when the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened the Ninth Avenue Line with a $.05 fare. But the city’s first attempt at underground travel actually came 34 years earlier.

The tunnel was dug secretly at night over the course of two months. (Image: nycsubway.org)

For the first half of the 19th century, New Yorkers got from place to place via a hodgepodge of carriages, omnibuses and streetcars. By the 1860s, however, people were trying to adapt railroads to cities. Making engines steam-less, or at least less steamy, though, was quite the challenge. Alfred Ely Beach, the editor of Scientific American and a perpetual inventor, had another idea. He proposed an underground system that used air pressure to move cars along a closed tube (London had tested a similar project). In 1867, Beach demonstrated the technology at an American Institute fair to critical acclaim and in 1868 he published a pamphlet, “The Pneumatic Dispatch,” detailing his dream.

Beach lobbied for permission to build and was reluctantly given the go ahead—sort of. His permit was for a pneumatic tube to transport mail, so he spent the next two years secretly excavating a much larger tunnel that could transport people.

The car traveled ten miles an hour, pushed by the “Roots Patent Force Blast Blower.” (Image: nycsubway.org)

In March 1870, Beach debuted his transit line. The demo project ran 312 feet under Broadway between Warren and Murray streets. The roughly 20-person car was propelled from the station by a giant fan and was brought gently to rest at the other end by reversing and then ceasing the air current. The Times called it “the most novel, if not the most successful, enterprise that New York has seen for many a day.” The Evening Mail declared that “the problem of tunneling Broadway has been solved.”

Beach had the ambitious dream of extending the line all the way to Central Park, and he pressed politicians and the state legislature to help fund the expansion. The Beach Pneumatic Transit experiment was brought to a halt, however, after only three years by a mixture of political opposition, a stock market collapse and more competitive technology.

In its short life, however, the pneumatic subway provided 400,000 rides and whet the city’s appetite for a full-fledged underground system, Today, the New York City subway transports millions of people per day, ranking it among the busiest in the world.

The subway opened in 1870 and operated until 1872. (Image: nycsubway.org)

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