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Aired February 17, 1997

New York Underground

Film Description

By the mid-1800s New York City was one of the most crowded places on earth. Each year tens of thousands of new immigrants were arriving, spilling out into the streets and competing with established city dwellers for space. The congested streets and pokey transportation system were a source of constant complaint: "Modern martyrdom may be succintly defined as riding in a New York omnibus," groused one passenger. Another noted, "It would not be decent to carry live hogs thus--and hardly dead ones."

Then, in March 1888, a ferocious blizzard ground the city to a halt. Mountains of snow twenty feet high filled the streets, horse-drawn streetcars and omnibuses lay abandoned, the entire city was paralyzed. The snow left no doubt that New York needed an underground rail system and in 1894, after years of political obstacles, a plan was approved. Construction began in 1900.

The project's chief engineer was William Barclay Parsons, who was involved in major engineering projects around the world, including building a railroad in China. Nevertheless, Parsons would later say of the subway project, "had I fully realized all that was ahead of me, I do not think I could have attempted the work."

The scale of the subway's construction was unprecedented. At least 7,700 men would be needed to build the ambitious twenty-one-mile route with its four tracks--a local and an express train in each direction. Italian and German immigrants, Irish Americans, and African Americans dug and excavated and built the system virtually by hand. To construct the track with a level grade, the workers had to tunnel through mountains of earth, ford underground streams and patches of quicksand, even skirt building foundations. Hundreds of accidents occurred; thousands of workers were injured or disabled. At least forty-four people lost their lives.

Finally, on October 27, 1904, after a day of ceremonies and celebration, the Interborough Rapid Transit--IRT--opened to the public with "indescribable scenes of crowding and confusion," reported The New York Times. More than 100,000 people dressed in their finest clothes went underground that night to "do the subway." There was even a song.

The subway was so successful in reducing street level traffic and redistributing the population that just three years later, plans to expand it were begun. Over the next three decades, construction continued at full pace, and has never completely stopped.


Elena Mannes

Libby Kreutz

Associate producer
Sasha Waters

Donna Marino

Brian Keane

Len Cariou