The Men Who Made New York's New Subway (1904)

From nycsubway.org

Harper's Weekly · October 29, 1904, pp. 1660-1661

A. B. Boardman
Alexander E. Orr, Alexander E. Orr, the distinguished president of the Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners for New York's new subway, has been prominent in New York financial and civic affairs for almost half a century. He has several times been president of the Produce Exchange, and was president of the Chamber of Commerce from 1894 to 1899. He is a director of many important financial institutions.
John B. McDonald
August Belmont

By A. B. Boardman

More than a decade ago it was obvious, if not to the public generally, at least to those who had given special attention to the subject, that the growth of the city of New York, past and prospective, made subways absolutely necessary in the near future. Manhattan, Island is in the form of a beech leaf, the more important business interests being concentrated near the southern end. This conformation, as the population of the city increases, makes the transit problem an extremely difficult one to solve. It is idle to talk of establishing, at least for a long time to come, commercial centres north of Canal Street comparable in importance with those established in the territory south of that street, where are found the great exchanges, trust companies, banks, insurance companies, and shipping offices. A constantly increasing number of employees must be transported in the morning from their homes in the north to their offices in the south, and must be carried back over the same route in the evening. The people of New York have for a long time been dissatisfied with the inadequacy of the transit facilities north and south. They hope that the opening of the subway now completed will greatly improve these transit facilities and make travel more rapid, as well as more comfortable. But this hope can only be realized to a very limited extent, because statistics prove that during the time that the subway has been building the travel which it was built to care for has increased almost, if not quite, to the full extent of its capacity. Mr. William Barclay Parsons and others, who have given the subject most careful attention, are of the opinion that if the travel up and down town is to increase in the same ratio during the next decade as it has increased during the last, it will be necessary to add at least one track running north and south each year, in order simply to keep abreast of the procession. In other words, in order simply not to run behind, we must provide for two and one-half new subways or an equal number of tracks on or above the surface during the next decade. As substantially all the streets running north and south are now occupied by the surface lines, and as many cars are run during the busy hours as can be pushed through the mass of other vehicles on the surface, and as the public will probably never permit the construction of elevated railroads in any other north-and-south avenue, at least below Central Park, it follows that the New York city authorities must be continually addressing themselves to the task of laying out and constructing or providing for the construction of new subways for passenger traffic. The lateral subway now being constructed by the Pennsylvania, New York, and Long Island Railroad Company will necessarily greatly increase the travel upon all the longitudinal lines, and as other lateral subways are built and the territory beyond the rivers is made thereby more and more an integral part of the city of New York, the transit problem in the city it will within a time short in the life of a great city require the appropriation of the subsurface to such an extent that it can truthfully be said that there will be one city above the ground and another city under the ground. The importance of this evolution to the citizens and taxpayers of New York city can hardly be overestimated. We hear the complaint constantly made that taxes are high here because in the past so many valuable privileges in the streets and out of them have been granted without adequate compensation to the city. The city authorities are now alive to the importance of this question, and we can feel reasonably certain that henceforward no important franchises in the city of New York will be granted without conditions which will, at least to some extent, protect the interests of the city and its taxpayers. Treating the city, therefore, as a mere business enterprise, we have suddenly discovered an asset of tremendous importance, which hitherto has been substantially ignored, namely, the productive capacity of the subsurface of our streets and public places.

It may be interesting to recall the history of the effort, which has lasted at least a decade, to provide facilities for the transportation of passengers between the Battery and Harlem in fifteen minutes. Senator Fassett introduced a bill for the appointment of a rapid transit commission when David B. Hill was Governor. It passed the Senate, but was defeated in the Assembly by a very small margin. Afterwards, the necessary legislation was obtained, and a commission was appointed, which laid out a route, including Broadway, and attempted to sell the franchise at public auction. Up to this time the feature of municipal ownership had not become part of the law. The attempt to sell the Broadway franchise failed, partly because of this fact and partly because the financial community had not at that time become sufficiently impressed with the earning capacity of the new transit facilities. The friends of rapid transit were naturally much discouraged. it seemed that nothing effective could be accomplished. When Mayor Hewitt made his great rapid transit address in the Chamber of Commerce, an address which will probably count for more in practical results than any address which was ever made even before that important body, he said, in substance: "We must have subways. Private capital apparently cannot be induced to embark in the enterprise of constructing the first subway, but the city can build and own its own subways, and it will be perfectly safe for the city to undertake such an enterprise, if before commencing construction it has obtained a responsible tenant who will give proper security to operate, paying a rental sufficient to take care of the interest upon the city bonds issued for construction and furnish a sinking fund to redeem these bonds at maturity." The fact that this solution of the problem now seems to us so natural ought not to detract in any respect from the credit of the great man who first suggested it. Mr. Hewitt's suggestion was received with general approval. Great obstacles still remained-legislative, legal, political and financial. These obstacles were surmounted one after the other. First, the Legislature was induced to put upon the statute-book the necessary laws; second, the Supreme Court sustained the constitutionality of these laws, and its judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals; third, the opposition of the city authorities, which delayed all effective action for a long time, disappeared during the administration of Mayor Van Wyck, and from that time both political parties have vied with each other in aiding in every proper way the solution of the rapid-transit problem; fourth, the financial difficulties were swept away by the splendid courage and force, first, of Mr. McDonald, and, second, of Mr. Belmont and his associates.

Will the citizens of New York ever appreciate the work of Mr. Orr and his associates on the Rapid Transit Commission? The space allotted to me permits only a single suggestion in this connection. The rapid transit acts necessarily confer the largest discretionary powers upon the Rapid Transit Commission. These powers are so far-reaching that it can be said with confidence that no financiers would have dared to contract with the city upon the terms imposed by law if they had not the utmost confidence not only in the integrity, but in the business capacity and fairness the Rapid Transit Commission. It is these qualities in the commission and in the engineers selected by it which have made possible to overcome the financial difficulties and present to the city of New York the magnificent subway shortly to be opened for public travel, which has been constructed upon such terms and with such guarantees that all the city's bonds issued for its construction will be redeemed out of the rental within the lives of some of your readers. The greatest municipal enterprise of modern times-great not only in itself, but in its effect upon future enterprises-has been brought to fruition substantially on schedule time, within the engineer's estimate of cost, and without a breath of scandal or a suggestion reflecting in any way upon those upon whom the onerous duty of representing the city has rested. Mr. Orr and his associates will no doubt some day be honored by other monuments, but I have no hesitation in affirming that this subway, the great Pennsylvania tunnel, and the other tunnels which are being built as the result of their efforts will always be the most impressive monuments of their ability and civic virtues.


An Incident in New York's Great Transportation Problem. The Brooklyn Bridge connecting New York and Brooklyn carries over half a million people each day. The cars crossing on the four tracks cannot begin to accommodate the crowds, and as a result, thousands of people walk in all kinds of weather in throngs that make even the pedestrian anxious for his own safety. The completion of the new subway will go far toward relieving the congestion, especially at night, at the New York end of the bridge. Drawn by Seymour Stone. (Click to Enlarge)

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