It must have been a good idea in the 1860s. That’s when inventor Alfred Ely Beach decided to construct an underground rail system powered by compressed air—think of those little pneumatic tubes that offices used to exchange memos in pre-email days.
The pneumatic subway was plagued by problems. Beach couldn’t get a permit to build it because Tammany Hall politicians had plans for a subway of their own. But he managed to get it going in secret.
Fifty-eight days later he had a tunnel running from Warren Street across Broadway to Murray Street, a distance of about 300 feet. He opened it to the public on February 26, 1870.
Passengers traveled in the line’s one deluxe car, and the station under Warren Street featured carpeting, paintings, and a grand piano. The cost of a ride: 25 cents (all of it donated to charity).
“Such as expected to find a dismal, cavernous retreat under Broadway, opened their eyes at the elegant reception room, the light, airy tunnel and the general appearance of taste and comfort in all the apartments….” commented The New York Times.
Of course, the pneumatic subway didn’t work out. Beach never got the financing to extend the line to Harlem as he had hoped. And advances in engineering made the air-powered subway obsolete.
Beach’s subway closed in 1873. The tunnel was used as a shooting gallery and then shut off for good by 1900, damaged by a fire in the building above it.
In 1912 workers excavating a tunnel for the N and R trains came upon the old tunnel and wooden subway car (at right). So where is the tunnel now? The consensus seems to be that it was destroyed during construction of other downtown stations.