Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
The American Experience
Technology Home American Experience Shop Teachers Archives Contact Us Kids Schedule Who We Are
NY Underground (image map with 11 selections)


The Secret Subway



Photo of Alfred Ely Beach "A tube, a car, a revolving fan! Little more is required!" Such was the proclamation made by Alfred Ely Beach in 1870 when considering how to efficiently transport New York City's burgeoning legion of commuters. Beach was describing the components necessary to move people from point A to point B by putting them in underground tubes propelled by means of air pressure generated by huge fans. This fantastical notion turned out to be logically grounded in the field of pneumatic research.

Study into the potential use of pneumatics--transportation of people or items by means of compressed air--dated back to the early 19th century. In 1805, British manufacturer George Medhurst was toying with the very notions that would capture Beach's attention some 65 years later. Medhurst's primary obstacle was that he lacked a pump strong enough to generate the requisite air pressure. Londoners were understandably less than enthralled with the idea of being packed into tight tubes that inched along underground in the cavernous darkness. But what some viewed as folly, Alfred Ely Beach would embrace as possibility.

Beach's inventive nature seems to have been part of his genetic makeup. His father, Moses Yale Beach, was himself an inveterate inventor who ended up as the publisher of the New York Sun, a penny daily. A dual interest in invention and journalism also manifested itself in Alfred Ely when he, at age twenty, formed a partnership with friend Orson Munn and purchased Scientific American. Such ambitious pursuits were the essence of Beach's character. His ambition was matched by his diligence; he shunned vacations and was awarded patents on two typewriters designed to aid the blind in reading--all before his thirtieth birthday.

Writing in Scientific American in 1849, Beach first proposed a horse-drawn subway to run under Broadway in Manhattan. In time, he would become further intrigued by the work being done with pneumatics by his English counterparts. While they were pouring their efforts into shuttling mail and parcels around London via narrow tubes, Beach was thinking bigger--and wider.

Illustration of Passengers Boarding Beach's Subway Car At the 1867 American Institute Fair, held at the Fourteenth Street Armory, Beach unveiled his findings in the form of a laminated wooden tube, six feet in diameter and one hundred feet in length, that could accommodate a car holding ten persons. The car would in turn be shot through the tube by means of a fan making two hundred revolutions per minute. This above-ground model of a pneumatic tube provided speedy transport for passengers gleefully traveling back and forth between Fourteenth and Fifteenth Streets in seconds. Beach's real intention at the Fair was to generate excitement over his proposed cure for New York City's desperately strained transportation system: a pneumatic subway capable of zipping passengers to various destinations beneath the metropolis.

Photo of Boss William F. Tweed Before Beach could unload a single shovel-full of New York earth however, he'd have to confront a far more formidable obstacle: Boss William M. Tweed. Tweed refused to grant Beach and his investors a charter to begin work on a subway system largely because such a venture would threaten profits Tweed hoped to gain by construction of an elevated railroad traversing Manhattan. Ever vigilant, Beach concocted a cover story--a proposal for a pneumatic mail dispatch system--designed to sneak a building permit past Boss Tweed. In reality, Beach was building his subway on the sly, beneath a rented store front located right across the street from City Hall and Tweed's minions.

In February, 1870, one year after the surreptitious construction project began, Alfred Ely Beach revealed his secret to a dumbfounded public. Clean, quiet, brightly lit, and smooth riding, its station equipped with a grand piano, chandeliers and a goldfish-stocked fountain, Beach's subway created a sensation in New York. In it's first year of operation 400,000 visitors paid twenty-five cents to enjoy the block-long ride between Warren Street and Murray Street, and back again.

Beach responded to the public's adoration of his brainchild by submitting a bill to the New York State Legislature to extend his line all the way uptown to Central Park--a distance of some five miles. Once again, Boss Tweed was determined to derail Beach's dream. With New York Governor Hoffman securely in his pocket, Tweed was confident that any measure passed by the legislature allowing Beach to expand construction would be vetoed. He was correct. For two years, Beach tried in vain to propose subway plans that were beyond the grasp of Tweed's political reach. Finally, in 1873, with Tweed removed from his powerful perch, Beach's bill gained approval and Governor John A. Dix signed it into law. Beach had won a long fought battle. Little did he know he was about to lose the war.

Photo of Beach's Subway Car A stock market crash followed almost immediately on the heels of Beach's subway bill being written into law. Overnight, interested investors withdrew support and the dream of a New York subway was again deferred. It would be another twenty-five years before talk of a subway was taken seriously. By this time Alfred Ely Beach's grand accomplishment was looked upon as a passing novelty. The pneumatic tunnel was long forgotten by most New Yorkers when in 1912, sixteen years after Beach's death, workers excavating a new branch of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit happened upon a bricked up tunnel that housed, nearly intact, Alfred Ely Beach's well-preserved subway car. Time had neatly preserved the transportation artifact. And while the once impressive fountain still remained, it had long since run dry.


program transcript | web and photo credits

ABOUT THE PROGRAM | THE SECRET SUBWAY | BEYOND THE IRT | DEATH BENEATH THE STREETS | BIBLIOGRAPHY | TEACHER'S GUIDE

TELEPHONE | BIG DREAM SMALL SCREEN | NEW YORK UNDERGROUND | TECHNOLOGY TIMELINE | FORGOTTEN INVENTORS