New York's New Underground World (1904)

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Entrance to Subway, City Hall Park. Post Office Shown at the Left. Copyright, 1904, Pierre P. Pullis, The Independent, Oct. 1904.

The Independent · October 20, 1904; pp. 896-902

By John T. Hetrick.

Next week Thursday the New York Subway-the greatest underground railway in the world-will be opened. We are therefore glad to give our readers the following article from Mr. Hetrick, of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. --EDITOR.

When a taxpayer of a municipality in this country reads in his morning newspaper that a contract has been let for a public improvement costing one million or more, he naturally says: "More 'graft' for the politicians."

So inbred has become this idea of "Commercialism in Politics" and public life that every office-holder, be he honest or dishonest, is certain that his public acts are being watched by the two "R's"- reporters and reformers. When a contract involving the expenditure of thirty-five millions of public money has been carried out to the letter and practically on time, the wonderment of the public is so great as to excite general curiosity. These questions are naturally asked:

How was the Subway in New York built without scandal being attached to any official, high or low?

What system prevented the politicians from getting their "graft" out of the contract?

What safeguards were adopted to prevent the minor officials from being dishonest?

The answer to all these questions is that the construction of the New York Subway was a business proposition carried to a successful fruition by business men whose reputations were at stake and who would never allow the taint of dishonesty to enter any work in which they were interested. While the Subway is public property, the responsibility for all expenditures was in a large measure lodged in the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the lessees of the system for a term of fifty years.

The city's interests were looked after by the Rapid Transit Commission and Chief Engineer William Barclay Parsons, who designed the Subway. The interests of the lessees were looked after by August Belmont, President of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, and Contractor John B. McDonald, the successful bidder for the tunnel contract. The final check on all expenditures was the Finance Department of the city, headed in turn by Comptrollers Bird S. Coler and Edward M. Grout.

"In after years every man connected with the construction of the New York Subway will be proud to say that he was on this work," said Chief Engineer Parsons to a friend recently. "There have been no scandals of any kind, and no one has ever dared to insinuate that any official, from the highest to the lowest, has done other than hard, faithful and honest work on this vast contract."

Now that the Subway is about to be opened it is proper that a few facts of the "dark period" in the history of the New York Rapid Transit system should be told. When, after years of agitation and two unsuccessful attempts had been made to get capitalists interested in the project, the contract for the construction and operation of the Subway was awarded to John B. McDonald at his bid Of $35,000,000 for construction, financiers interested in the great railroad systems refused to undertake the project of tunneling through rock-ribbed, New York in close proximity to the foundation walls of skyscrapers down-town. Capital was afraid. Contractor McDonald, who had deposited with the city a forfeit of $100,000 could not at first get the backing to carry through the plan, and he faced a loss of money and prestige. In this emergency an appeal was made to August Belmont, head of the banking firm of August Belmont & Company, to take up the work. The then masters of the transit situation in New York, led by the late William C. Whitney, declined to undertake the contract except on the basis of a franchise in perpetuity. Public disapproval prevented such a contract from being made. It seemed as if New York was doomed to another disappointment and that the old slogan, "Battery to Harlem in Fifteen Minutes," would be shouted for many years to come without a spadeful of earth being turned. In this crisis August Belmont saw the possibilities of the situation. He gave his personal pledge and that of his banking firm to carry out the Rapid Transit project. It took the financier but a few days to see that it would be impossible to sign the contract with the city under the restrictions imposed. The bond demanded would place the builders of the road absolutely in control of the guaranty and surety companies, who were then asking exorbitant rates for the risk involved. With characteristic energy Mr. Belmont set to work to cut the Gordian knot. He showed the Rapid Transit Commission that an excessive bond was useless, as millions of dollars would have to be spent by the company undertaking the operation of the road. Mr. Belmont placed several millions of his own money and securities in the city treasury and formed the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company. In a short time men who had refused to bid for the contract were anxious to invest their millions in the enterprise with August Belmont at the head. The details were concluded, and on March 24, 1900, the work of construction began.

What might be called the "Subway Age" of New York will be inaugurated on October 27, 1904, when the thirty-five mile system, costing more than seventy-five million dollars for construction and equipment, will be open for public travel. The rock blasting, sand digging and construction work has taken three years and seven months, including delays caused by strikes and labor troubles of nearly a year.

The favored few who have investigated the new transit system are enthusiastic. Engineers and tunnel builders from London and Paris have declared the New York Subway to be the finest and largest in the world. The St. Gothard and Mt. Cenis tunnels are small as compared with the New York Subway, while the London and Paris underground roads are behind the times when compared with the "near-the-surface" system of this city.

To those connected with this work it is plain that so many new features will be introduced into New York's life by the new Subway as to warrant the assertion that a "New World" has been created by engineering skill. At first designed as a north and south bound transit system, the plans have been gradually broadened until the life of the Metropolis will center around the express and local stations of the road. To show that this statement is true let the reader take an imaginary "Seeing New York" trip, not on the surface in a big double-decked automobile, but on one of the Subway cars. Starting from the Battery, where the dip is made under the East River to Brooklyn, and traveling north, the car will pass near the foundations of the great skyscrapers. When near Trinity Church the side of the car will be within ten feet of the foundations of this historic edifice. Then comes the new $5,000,000 Trinity Building, in course of construction. The tenants of this building will not come to the surface of the street to go to and from business, but will walk through a large underground arcade lined with stores and kiosks. Here a man can buy his evening newspapers, tickets to theaters, flowers and candy for home or girl, and hundreds of other necessities or luxuries. Responsibility for this class of shopping has been gradually shifted on the busy New Yorker until there is danger of the "male shoppers" repeating daily in the underground stations the rush for bargains which result in crushed millinery and trampled dresses in department stores when "gentle woman" emulates the rush-line of a football game to save two cents. The builders expect that many new business enterprises will take advantage of the enormous traffic through the Subway to make of this station in the Trinity Building one of the most important centers of activity in the down-town district.

A few blocks further up-town and City Hall is reached. Hereon the surface every evening there are thousands of people jammed together, crowding the cars to Brooklyn and other lines of travel. When the large station of the Subway is opened express trains of seven cars and local trains of six cars will carry thousands north to homes in Manhattan and the Bronx. The tides of travel will be divided, and it is expected that the opening of the Subway will mark the end of the disgraceful scenes which are now nightly enacted at the Bridge entrance.

The next center of business activity reached on the trip up-town which will be effected by the Subway is at Astor Place, Eighth and Ninth streets. Here a new skyscraper department store has been built, with a large arcade entrance from the underground road direct to the building. Shoppers from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan will journey to this place, make all their purchases and return to their homes without seeing how down-town New York looks, unless they desire to walk the streets. When the Pennsylvania tunnel is completed it will be possible for a passenger to come from any section of the United States West or South, go through underground New York to theaters, apartment houses, stores and do all his business or pleasure-seeking without viewing the old city above ground. When the connection is made at the Grand Central Depot with the Subway, travelers from the North and East may do likewise.

Along the route above the Grand Central Depot arcades have been built at several stations which allow passengers to enter hotels, rathskellers and business buildings without coming to the street. At Broadway and Forty-second Street the tunnel runs through the sub-cellar of a building now being constructed for a newspaper. A magnificent arcade is being built in this station and it has been designed with the idea of making this point one of the show places of the underground system. Towering above the Subway kiosks, which are on the street surface of Times Square, will be the highest office structure in New York.

It has required an army of nearly ten thousand men to construct the Subway. A few figures will show the vast amount of work done. It was necessary to excavate about 3,212,000 cubic yards of material, of which 1,900,000 cubic yards was earth, and 1,312,600 cubic yards of rock had to be blasted in open cut and in the tunnels from Thirty-fourth Street along Park Avenue and also the Fort George tunnel. The cost of excavating was about one-third of the entire cost of the Subway. In construction work 65,000 tons of steel were used and 8,000 tons of cast iron. There was laid 551,000 yards of concrete and 910,000 yards of waterproofing. The total length of track laid is 305,000 feet, of which 245,000 feet is underground and 60,000 feet is on elevated structures in the upper sections of Manhattan and the Bronx.

In designing the Subway it was planned to keep the stations of the road as near the surface as possible. The old type of deep tunnel such as exists in London was discarded because of the discomforts of travel which the people of the English metropolis have experienced. Throughout most of its length the New York Subway is only four or five feet beneath the surface of the street, and it is clear that the walk downstairs to the platforms is not tedious or tiring. Light and air are admitted to many of the stations by means of glass, cement and iron vault lights, and so well has the work of waterproofing been done throughout the Sub way that it is dry and has none of the disagreeable dampness which has caused criticism of foreign tunnels.

From the Brooklyn Bridge to Thirty-third Street the Subway consists of a single tunnel having four tracks, two for local and two for express trains. The tunnel is so planned that only express trains will run on express tracks and only local trains on local tracks. From Thirty-fourth Street to Forty-second Street the road is divided and the tunnels pass on either side of the tunnel of the Metropolitan Street Railroad at a level considerably lower. Through this rock section the simplest form of tunnel was used, consisting of a three-centered concrete arch supporting the roof and resting on concrete sidewalls founded upon the concrete floor. The two tunnels at Forty-second Street and the Grand Central Depot curve to the west and again unite in a four-track single steel tunnel. At Broadway the tunnel again curves into this main thoroughfare of the city up to One Hundred and Fourth Street, where it divides into an East Side line and a West Side line.

And, best of all, the carrying capacity of the road is calculated to be nearly 100,000 people an hour. What that means to the daily traveler on our present crowded elevated and surface cars only a New Yorker can understand.

Photo Gallery

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Photo by: The Independent, Oct. 1904

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Photo by: The Independent, Oct. 1904
Location: 23rd Street

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Photo by: The Independent, Oct. 1904
Location: City Hall

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