The real first New York City subway

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.

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6 Responses to “The real first New York City subway”

  1. Nabe News: November 23 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] opened in 1870, but far different from the tube of today.  Invented by Alfred Ely Beach, this pneumatic subway ran a distance of 300 feet; it ran from Warren Street across Broadway to Murray Street [Ephemeral […]

  2. petey Says:

    this has always baffled me. how can you dig a tunnel like that almost under the noses of the people opposing you, and hide it? and, how could everyone have forgotten the location of the tunnel, until the BMT routes were being built?

  3. foom! compressed-air subway! « rooting for tiny victories Says:

    […] is a great historical fact for our city, the ill-fated pneumatic subway system! Check it out… AKPC_IDS += "357,";Popularity: unranked […]

  4. Medevac1969 Says:

    The definitive site for this fascinating piece of NYC history: http://www.columbia.edu/~brennan/beach/

  5. An “arcade railway” never built below Broadway | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] idea, which appeared about the time one engineer was secretly building a short-lived pneumatic tube subway under the same stretch of Broadway, had political […]

  6. Three centuries of Broadway and Murray Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] worth remembering too that underneath this stretch of Broadway, the city’s first subway got its ill-fated start in […]

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