An “arcade railway” never built below Broadway

Traffic in New York—it’s always been terrible.

But in the years following the Civil War, when mass transit consisted of stages and horse cars (steam engine-powered elevated trains were just getting their start), much hand-wringing went into figuring out how to relieve the growing city’s “continual state of deadlock.”


The answer, according to some officials? Something called the Arcade Railway.

As the colorful lithograph shows, the rail line would run underground beneath Broadway, with branches fanning out east and west at 23rd Street to the northern end of Manhattan.

Broadway Arcade Railway, 1884 New York Transit Museum

It was “not merely to tunnel under the street, but to remove the street itself block by block, wall to wall, and construct another street at the depth of fifteen feet, supporting the present street level on arches, and making stores in what are now the basements and sub-basements of buildings,” explained an 1867 article in Scientific American.

The 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 support.


But businessmen, especially department store king A.T. Stewart, who had two massive emporiums on Broadway at the time, feared it would kill sales.

The plan circulated for a couple of decades—getting shot down by city lawmakers five times from 1870 to 1889 (above, a slightly modified version from 1886, from the NYPL Digital Collection).

By 1891, city officials and private businessmen embarked on a more wide-reaching, ambitious plan: the creation of a citywide, privately funded subway—which opened 110 years ago as the IRT.

The Arcade Railway is just one of many ill-conceived mass transit-related ideas that didn’t materialize, like these bridges never built.

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