Rapid Transit Tunnel Begun - Ground Officially Broken (1900)

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The New York Times · Sunday, March 25th, 1900

Ground Officially Broken by the Mayor with a Silver Spade.
Ceremonies Witnessed by Immense Unruly Crowd Eager for Souvenirs.

When Mayor Van Wyck, silver spade in hand, lifted the first shovel of dirt from a small excavation in the flagging in front of the City Hall yesterday, the rapid transit tunnel was officially begun. Around New York's Chief Magistrate were grouped the men whose persevering work of years had at last made rapid transit a certainty in New York, city officials who have aided them more-or-less in their efforts, financiers who came to the rescue when their aid was most needed, citizens whose names are a power in the professional and commercial world. and beyond all these, banked in almost solid phalanx from the sidewalks of Broadway across the park to the tall buildings in Park Row, were thousands of citizens of all degrees of life, who fought and struggled for position to witness one of the most important events in the history of the city.

Higher up, at the windows and on the roofs of the surrounding skyscrapers. were more people, while at the windows of the old City Hall. that has witnessed many stirring events in its time, were groups of men and women all intent upon seeing the high priests of rapid transit give official sanction to a great work well begun, officially, but not actually. for the first real Bleecker Street to-morrow morning.

Over the mass of people flags in confusion of color fluttered smartly in the March wind. Above all the sun looked down from a serene sky on a Spring day that could not have been bettered, considering the season, and incidentally put to blush the weather forecaster, who had confidently announced all sorts of bad weather.

Tunnel day, for as such it will be known. was a great day for every one concerned, even to the Celebration Committee and the police, over whom the crowd prevailed and became an unruly mob when it should have been orderly and respectful.

Tunnel day was a greater day to the people, for it marked a beginning of a system of tunnels in future years and for future generations which will have wide extensions not only in Manhattan but eventually will go down under the waters of the East and North Rivers, and whose ramifications will find lodgment in Brooklyn and Jersey City, and possibly even Staten Island before this town is a very great many years older. Tunnel transit. moreover, means that Harlem, One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, will be reached in thirteen minutes, says Chief Engineer Parsons, who has worked it out to a mathematical certainty. and points beyond with proportionate celerity. Therefore the people rejoiced, for they have been promised great things.

Crowds Gathered Early. The curious of the city gathered early, even by 7 o'clock. By 9 o'clock the people were arriving in cohorts, and after that to past noon their name was legion and they came in endless precession. The first event of interest to the early comers was the removal by workmen of 5 by 7 feet of flagging from the walk in front of the center door of the City Hall, a few feet in front of the broad steps. Picks broke the pave and as the pieces flew a rush followed for souvenirs. Mayor Van Wyck came along about this time and put some of the fragments of broken stone and mortar in his pocket for keepsakes, but this was not a circumstance to what the Mayor did a few hours later, when he carefully deposited the first shovelful of dirt in his new silk hat and bore it therein proudly to his office.

The workmen went about their task with pride. They were helping to make history. They carefully hollowed out a hole about three feet deep, and when this was done a stalwart laborer swung his pick and loosened the earth in the excavation. Others took the old earth away and filled the hole up even with the sidewalk with nice, clean, loose, and easily handled official dirt for the high priests to shovel at, so that they might not bend their backs too hard. Then the laborers brought the commemorative tablet to the edge of the official hole, and the police fought back the eager and inquisitive crowd busily and persistently.

Back in the rear of the City Hall, at the only point of ingress, a crowd of elect, by virtue of possessing official invitations, clamored for admission and pushed for it, men, women, and children of all sorts and ages. At 11 o'clock the doors were opened and the crowd poured in, the vanguard being sent sprawling on the floor by the irresistible pressure from behind. They swarmed through the corridors, invaded the Councilmanic and Aldermanic chambers, the Governor's Room the Mayor's outer office, and tried every door not locked or guarded by a big policeman or two. Some of the early comers even wanted to break into the Mayor's office, just to say "Howdy-do," but the Mayor's private policeman with suave gestures waved them off.

In the Mayor's office the Rapid Transit Commissioners and others began to arrive about noon. Commissioner Woodbury Langdon was the first to appear. He was followed by the President of the commission. Alexander F. Orr, and after him came Seth Low, Justice Foster, and then Controller Coler. Others who arrived in quick succession were Commissioners Rives, Jesup, and Starin; William Barclay Parsons, Corporation Counsel Whalen, and many of the Judges of the Supreme Court and other city officials. Then came August Belmont and Contractor McDonald, who were received with cheers. The Celebration Committee, of which Councilman Eugene A. Wise was Chairman and Master of Ceremonies, put in an appearance early. Soon the room was crowded, and outside the corridors became packed with a seething mob that gave the police great trouble.

Plans Badly Arranged. A thousand policemen were inside and outside of the building, under command of Deputy Chief Cortright and Capts. Price, Copeland, and Inspector Brooks. The police had a lot of trouble. They wanted to keep the crowd in bounds, but the Celebration Committee's plans of arrangements seemed to have a screw loose somewhere. The roped inclosure around the tablet was missing, and the orders to the policemen were general and conflicting. They had orders to keep the crowd back to the wire fence opposite the broad walk, but the Chairman at 12:45 o'clock, with a wave of his hand from the steps of the City Hall. moved the police lines forward. The crowd followed, as a matter of course, and with a rush that brought them to within a few feet of the space reserved for invited guests.

"Hi! Push those people back!" ordered Mr. Wise to the police, ten minutes later, from the step. "Got to put the guests here."

The police pushed, and then followed a spectacle of women nearly crushed, some almost fainting and calling for help. With one hand the police pushed, while with the other they would reach into the crowd and pull out a small boy or two caught as in a vice. Women, too, were pulled out of the crowd, and one of their number, unable to stand the pressure, fell, fainting, and cut her head.

Promptly at 1:20 Mayor Van Wyck gave the signal to start from his office, and then came another tussle. He led the way, with Councilman Wise, between files of policemen all the way down the corridor. Then came Mr. Orr and the Commissioners. Mr. Parsons, August Belmont, Mr. McDonald, Secretary Burrows, the members of the Celebration Committee, and officials by the score.

The head of the line arrived slowly but safely about the excavation, but the rear had difficulties. Vice President Oakman of the Subway Construction Company and President Baldwin of the Long Island Railroad, and Counsel Wickersham, as well as many others, were lost in the shuffle. August Belmont, pushed by a friendly police man, managed to get to the spot. Mr. McDonald also got in safely but his wife and daughter, who had come down to see the ceremonies, were surrounded on the stoop of the building, and could not extricate themselves.

Councilman Wise was busy giving signals to the band about this time, and the exercises were on. His committee never missed the tail-end of the procession, which by this time was making rude remarks back in the nooks and crevices of the corridors. After the band had played "The Star-Spangled Banner," Mr. Wise, who had six inches in which to make gestures, stepped forward an inch, and said he would now introduce the Mayor.

"Met the Mayor before," came from behind.

Mr. Wise ignored the interruption and impressively said that, inasmuch as the occasion was a great one, it gave him much pleasure to introduce his Honor to the assembled multitude.

Mr. Van Wyck smiled and began his speech with a jump into the mists of time by saying that no Roman citizen ever entertained a keener pride in the glory of the imperial city than does the New Yorker in the fame of his home city.

"Great Scott!" softly exclaimed a big-bodied Republican Alderman, "is the Mayor going to sail back that far? I'll get out."

"Shut up." growled one of Mr Van Wyck's Democratic friends. He's all right."

The Mayor's Speech. During this colloquy the Mayor was going on to say that the foundation of the city's structure was too solid to be shaken by the unjust attacks of the misinformed or the misguided stranger. The people can ever be relied upon to resist both, he said. Mr. Van Wyck then spoke in general terms of the celebrations to the triumphs of steam, electricity, and engineering skill in their application to public utility, and added that the present occasion needed no laborious commentary to set forth its importance. it speaks for itself.

"The completion of this undertaking," continued Mr. Van Wyck, "will be second only in importance to that of the Erie Canal. celebrated in this city seventy-five years ago, when De Witt Clinton mingled the waters of Lake Erie with those of New York Bay. This canal connected our harbor with the inland seas of this continent and brought into close communion our people with the teaming millions of the imperial West. Through this waterway the wealth and riches of the West were poured for years, without serious competition, into the lap of New York City.

"This made our city the commercial and financial metropolis of the world, with a population of three and a half millions of people, for whose accommodation and comfort this rapid transit underground road is necessary. The contrast exhibited between the two periods is striking and instructive. De Witt Clinton saluted in 1825 a city of one hundred and sixty thousand souls. We speak to a population of three and a half millions. Then the slow stage coach was the only means of passenger transportation, now it is superseded by steam and electricity."

Then the Mayor made a statement as showing his apparent abandonment of his understood predilection for more East River bridges, which brought a flush of pleasure and surprise to the faces of those who have labored for tunnel improvements so long and so persistently.

"The contract for the work begun to-day," spoke Mr. Van Wyck, impressively, involves the expenditure by the city of over $36,000,000, the largest single contract ever given out for such work. It necessarily involves further expenditure, for this road must and shall be extended under the East River to Brooklyn's business centre, bringing closer together in every respect the different parts of our city, separated by the bays and rivers of its wonderful harbor."

"Good!" exclaimed several persons in the crowd, and there was general applause. Controller Coler's face wore an expression of "The Mayor's coming our way," as he nodded approvingly. But Mr. Van Wyck went right on, saying as he closed:

"The people of Greater New York are to be congratulated that, with all of her former heavy expenditures, and, at times. somewhat reckless issuance of bonds, she is now, for the first time, able to undertake such an expensive enterprise, which will furnish the first real test of the experiment of municipal ownership of public utilities on such a scale as will be decisive of that principle."

President Orr's Remarks. After the cheers, Chairman Wise introduced Mr. Orr, who spoke in part as follows:

"The removal of the spadeful of earth by our respected Mayor, which, according to the programme, we are soon to witness, will be the inauguration of a system of municipal transit which, if courageously carried out, will continue to stimulate our marvelous development, and knit together all the sections of this great city in fact, as they have been lately united in name.

"If we are to judge of the future of this city by the experiences of the past it would be impossible to forecast, with any degree of accuracy, the magnificent proportions New York will have assumed fifty years hence, when the lease of this tunnel road will have terminated and be again at her disposition, but we have now the satisfaction of knowing that our present action will be recognized as having largely contributed to that growth and prominence and that the wisdom and forethought which had made provision for the possible needs of the future cannot fail of appreciation from those who are to follow us in the line of civic succession.

"It has been asked by some of those who have been skeptical as to the outcome of this tunnel system, 'What does rapid transit really mean?' Rapid transit for New York, briefly stated, is this: A system of economic passenger transportation from all sections of the city that will continuously meet the requirements of our continually increasing needs; and this, we claim, will he assured by an intelligent development of the tunnel system inaugurated here to-day."

Mr. Orr then rapidly sketched transit facilities of the city's early days, beginning with the omnibus, then the horse car, to the installment of the elevated road. He followed this with a brief history of the efforts to establish underground transit, culminating in the exercises of yesterday. He went on:

"The benefits of this rapid transit law to both the city and the lessee are obvious. They are just and protective to the former, and at the same time generous and economical to the latter, and very creditable to all who were concerned in their enactment. But to illustrate more fully the advantages to the city, let us contrast for a moment the outcome of this tunnel contract with an estimated outcome of the lately proposed contract to provide New York with an increased water supply. In the latter case, if the proposition had been accepted. and it is likely it would have been had not the watchful and intelligent supervision of the financial office of the city exposed its disadvantages.) New York would have paid during the sixty years of contract duration to a private corporation which at the present time does not appear to own much more than its name an estimated rent of two hundred millions of dollars and have nothing whatever on hand to show as an asset for that enormous expenditure.

"In the former case, at the expiration of a shorter period (fifty years) the city will own this tunnel railroad that will have cost $36,500,000, and which is the key to the rapid transit situation, without the expenditure of a single dollar for construction or interest, it having simply used its credit under carefully guarded guarantees for the time being to the advantage of the lessee, who meanwhile pays the interest as it falls due and provides for the liquidation of the bonds at the expiration of his lease."

Mr. Orr closed with felicitations to all those who have been instrumental in fostering tunnel transit.

When Mr. Orr had finished, the silver spade, with its highly polished handle and elaborate decorations. was brought forward. August Belmont had purchased the instrument for the occasion. Mr. Wise, in a brief speech of presentation, handed it to Mr. Van Wyck. This brought forth more remarks from the Mayor, who, holding the spade to view, said:

"About fifteen years ago I was Secretary of a Rapid Transit Railroad Committee. having for its object an underground railroad. of which Dwight L. Olmstead was Chairman. We held several meetings. but met with great discouragement, and I was among those who felt that the project could not be carried out. I little thought in those days that I would be standing here to-day engaged in this interesting ceremony. To the toiling masses of this city this day is of great import and meaning."

First Shovelful of Earth. The people who could see now became breathless. The Mayor was about to shovel. Firmly grasping the handle, Mr. Van Wyck stood at the edge of the hole. Down went the spade, and then the Chief Magistrate gave it a push with his foot. The shovel slid easily into the official dirt, and up it came, full even to the edges. For an instant the Mayor stood upright, apparently in deep thought. The crowd hung on still in breathless interest. Carefully the shovel was lowered to the flagging. The Mayor removed his new silk tile. He caught up the shovel, and then with great care deposited the small load in his hat, straightening up with a benignant smile.

"Bravo, old man." came from the Councilmanic side. Then, as those surrounding caught on to the Mayor's action a burst of merriment and cheers followed. Mr. Van Wyck took up his hat and, stowed it away under his arm, looking pleased.

Chairman Wise then took the shovel and handed it to Mr. Orr. The latter bent forward and deposited a quart of official dirt on the sidewalk, whereupon Mr. Wise again took the shovel and presented it to John H. Starin. When it came Mr. McDonald's turn, he raised a laugh by holding up the shovel and exclaiming, "To the manner born." Mr. McDonald went at the work in at professional way, eliciting great admiration from one of the laborers, who stood within the enclosure.

"Bedad," he whispered to a fellow laborer, "th' contractor's th' stuff; I wouldn't give th' Commish'ners foive cents a day fer a digging job. They're too shtiff."

Following Mr. McDonald, Mr. Belmont took a hand, and then two or three of the Councilmen and Aldermen hopped successively into the hole.

"Anybody else want to dig?" called out Chairman Wise, waving the shovel aloft. The last man to break ground was Bion Burrows, Secretary of the Rapid Transit Commission. Mr. Burrows descended three feet into the hole, and threw up almost the last of the official earth.

Speech By Controller Coler. The tablet was then placed over the spot, and Controller Coler, who was the last speaker, stepped forward. He took up Mr. Orr's reference to the Ramapo affair. The city, he said, will own the $36,500,000 tunnel at the end of fifty years without the expenditure of a cent.

"On the other hand." he went on, casting glances at Mr. Whalen, the Mayor and other city officials present, " had the Ramapo contract gone through, that company, with its $200,000,000 contract, would have owned the city absolutely."

Everybody around the "grave" looked at everybody else, while at the same thus a smile broke spontaneously upon the faces of the rapid transit contingent. The city officials either received the thrust in stolid silence or gave answer in scornful smile.

Mr. Coler remarked that the ceremonies meant more than the mere incident of breaking ground for a great public improvement.

"We celebrate." he said, "the inauguration of a new and important policy in city government, the policy of municipal ownership and control of great public franchises and utilities. I earnestly hope the memorial tablet to be here placed commemorates not only the commencement of a great and beneficent public enterprise, but marks as surely the end of reckless extravagance in giving valuable privileges to private corporations, instead of making them permanent sources of income to the municipality as this rapid transit road will surely prove.

"This ceremony marks the beginning of the end of a long, hard struggle for rapid transit, but through all the years that we have toiled for this we have been learning something. We have learned the lesson that a great municipality should never relinquish ownership and control of public property that may be developed into a profitable investment."

Crowd Wanted Souvenir Earth. Most of the crowd at this time were very busy with the police, trying to push up, and the policemen were very busy with the crowd, shoving the other way.

No sooner had the officials started back to Mayor Van Wyck's office than the surrounding crowd swept forward, throwing the policemen about like chaff. The crowd wanted some of that souvenir official dirt, and wanted it badly. Men and women, regardless of the police, dived literally to earth and came up smiling with hands full. After the first onslaught the police, to save the hole and sidewalk and everything else in sight, charged and drove the people back, but not until one young woman had managed to pick up a stray fragment of brick and make off safely.

On the way to his office. the Mayor received a rude shock. A hand suddenly shot out from the waiting crowd inside the building and tried to grab a handful of dirt in his silk tile.

"Here, you have no right to do that!" he exclaimed, angrily.

The man slunk back abashed.

After the exercises were over thousands lingered around. the tablet. Finally the police compelled them to form in line.

"Any one who wants to see the grave," announced a facetious policeman, "get in line." Hundreds filed around the tablet in the course of the next two hours, and interest in the spot did not die out until long after dark.

The Silver Spade. The silver spade used by the Mayor was made by Tiffany, and is of sterling silver. The grip part of the handle is composed of a piece of old oak taken from the flagship Lawrence of Commodore Perry's victorious fleet in Lake Erie in the battle of Sept. 10, 1813. In addition to the inscription the decorations consist of a representation of the coat of arms of the City of New York etched on the front of the blade. and a facsimile of the coat of arms of the State of New York on the reverse side. Vines of oak leaves, symbolizing strength, complete the decorations on the handle and blade. On the blade is this inscription:

"Silver spade used by THE HON. ROBERT A. VAN WYCK in making the first excavation for the UNDERGROUND RAPID TRANSIT ROAD at a place in front of the City Hall on SATURDAY, MARCH 24, 1900, at 2:30 P. M., in connection with the inaugural ceremonies attending the event."

As stated yesterday the first actual work on the tunnel will be begun to-morrow morning by James Pilkington, who will start in to lower 900 feet of sewer between Elm and Greene Streets in Bleecker. A permit for this work was delivered by Secretary Burrows of the Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners yesterday afternoon to Mr. McDonald.

A souvenir of "Tunnel Day," entitled King's Views, a monthly publication. appeared for the first time yesterday afternoon. The issue is devoted exclusively to rapid transit matters. It contains views of past and present plans of underground, surface, and overhead roads, and besides contains much reading matter upon the subject. Its half-tones are well gotten up.

To Settle Bill for Celebration. The Board of Estimate and Apportionment held a meeting yesterday morning and repassed the resolution, adopted a week previously, authorizing the issue of $5,000 in revenue bonds to pay for yesterday's celebration. When the resolution was first adopted, only four members of the board were present, President Guggenheimer being detained at home by illness. At the time it was forgotten that the charter requires the unanimous vote of the board on all appropriations for celebrations, and hence it became necessary to readopt the resolution by a full vote.

Party of Forty Entertained at Delmonico's by R.A.C. Smith.

A private dinner was given at Delmonico's last night by R.A.C. Smith to Contractor John B. McDonald, who will begin to-morrow on his contract for building the rapid transit road. Covers were laid for forty.

"It is only a private dinner party," said Mr. Smith before the guests arrived, "and we wish to keep it private. Mr. McDonald and his friends will be entertained, and there will be absolutely nothing of interest to the public. There will be no speeches."

The guests sat down to dinner at 7:30 o'clock, and did not leave until after midnight.

Among those present were John B. McDonald, R.A.C. Smith, De Lancey Nicoll, Corporation Counsel John Whalen. Park Commissioner Clausen, ex-Mayor Hugh J. Grant, Perry Belmont, August Belmont, and Henry D. Macdona.

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