City Hall festooned with flags and finery to celebrate ‘Tunnel Day’

New York used to really celebrate itself. On the opening day of the Brooklyn Bridge in May 1883, fireworks blazed the skies, and a flotilla of ships sailed triumphantly on the East River. When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in October 1886, the first ticker-tape parade was held amid a day of festivities.

And in 1900, city officials were apparently so excited by the idea of the new subway, they couldn’t wait until the system was up and running to throw a party.

So a celebration open to the public dubbed “tunnel day” was scheduled to mark the start of the digging of the first tunnel and the beginning of underground rapid transit.

Tunnel Day happened on March 24, 1900, and City Hall was decked out with flags, banners, and bunting. Makes sense: City Hall was the focal point for city politicians and other bigwigs, but it was also the site of the groundbreaking of the first station—the “crown jewel” City Hall IRT station.

City Hall Park was also decorated to the hilt. “They are the finest seen in years,” wrote the Evening World the day before Tunnel Day. “The park has become an aerial maze of bright colors. Flags flutter from the treetops and branches.”

Thousands of people watched from the sidewalks of Broadway and Park Row rooftops, 1,000 policemen kept crowds under control, bands played, and officials gave speeches. Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck turned “the first spadeful of earth” with a silver spade, the World noted on March 25. (Crowds tried to grab some of that dirt as souvenirs, alarming the police.)

Tunnel Day was a grand display of pride and progress at a time when the city was on the upswing—in population, land mass, and financial and cultural power. Four years later in October 1904, an even more massive celebration commemorated the opening of the first leg of the New York City subway.

City Hall was covered in flags and bunting once again…but the tradition seems to have died out. I can’t recall a recent event that brought out so many flags and banners.

[Top image: MCNY, X2010.11.584; second image: Evening World; third image: NYPL]

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2 Responses to “City Hall festooned with flags and finery to celebrate ‘Tunnel Day’”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    The subway is worth celebrating. It is an integral part of New York, and it needs to be made safer for passengers again and restored cosmetically to at least what it feels like it was if not the actual original station designs. And of course there are mechanical and safety upgrades in the operations which need to happen, too, but it’s worth it – it’s so much a part of what makes New York, New York.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Plans for the subway stretched back decades before ground broke. So I imagine the city was thrilled just to officially get it off the ground. Interestingly some city residents were very skeptical of it, and quack doctors warned that it could be dangerous to a person’s health!

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