The New York Subway: Introduction

From nycsubway.org


THE completion of the rapid transit railroad in the boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, which is popularly known as the "Subway", has demonstrated that underground railroads can be built beneath the congested streets of the city, and has made possible in the near future a comprehensive system of subsurface transportation extending throughout the wide territory of Greater New York.

In March, 1900, when the Mayor with appropriate ceremonies broke ground at the Borough Hall, in Manhattan, for the new road, there were many well-informed people, including prominent financiers and experienced engineers, who freely prophesied failure for the enterprise, although the contract had been taken by a most capable contractor, and one of the best known banking houses in America had committed itself to finance the undertaking.

In looking at the finished road as a completed work, one is apt to wonder why it ever seemed impossible and to forget the difficulties that confronted the builders at the start.

The railway was to be owned by the city, and built and operated under legislation unique in the history of municipal governments, complicated, and minute in provisions for the occupation of the city streets, payments of moneys by the city, and city supervision over construction and operation. Questions as to the interpretations of these provisions might have to be passed upon by the courts, with delays, how serious none could foretell, especially in New York where the crowded calendars retard speedy decisions. The experience of the elevated railroad corporations in building their lines had shown the uncertainty of depending upon legal precedents. It was not, at that time, supposed that the abutting property owners would have any legal ground for complaint against the elevated structures, but the courts found new laws for new conditions and spelled out new property rights of light, air, and access, which were made the basis for a volume of litigation unprecedented in the courts of any country.

An underground railroad was a new condition. None could say that the abutting property owners might not find rights substantial enough, at least, to entitle them to their day in court, a day which, in this State, might stretch into many months, or even several years. Owing to the magnitude of the work, delay might easily result in failure. An eminent judge of the New York Supreme Court had emphasized the uncertainties of the situation in the following language: "Just what are the rights of the owners of property abutting upon a street or avenue, the fee in and to the soil underneath the surface of which has been acquired by the city of New York, so far as the same is not required for the ordinary city uses of gas or water pipes, or other of a like character, has never been finally determined. We have now the example of the elevated railroad, constructed and operated in the city of New York under legislative and municipal authority for nearly twenty years, which has been compelled to pay many millions of dollars to abutting property owners for the easement in the public streets appropriated by the construction and maintenance of the road, and still the amount that the road will have to pay is not ascertained. What liabilities will be imposed upon the city under this contract; what injury the construction and operation of this road will cause to abutting property, and what easements and rights will have to be acquired before the road can be legally constructed and operated, it is impossible now to ascertain."

It is true, that the city undertook "to secure to the contractor the right to construct and operate, free from all rights, claims or other interference, whether by injunction, suit for damages, or otherwise on the part of any abutting owner or other person." But another eminent judge of the same court had characterized this as "a condition absolutely impossible of fulfillment," and had said: "How is the city to prevent interference with the work by injunction? That question lies with the courts; and not with the courts of this State alone, for there are cases without doubt in which the courts of the United States would have jurisdiction to act, and when such jurisdiction exists they have not hitherto shown much reluctance in acting.... That legal proceedings will be undertaken which will, to some extent at least, interfere with the progress of this work seems to be inevitable...."

Another difficulty was that the Constitution of the State of New York limited the debt-incurring power of the city. The capacity of the city to undertake the work had been much discussed in the courts, and the Supreme Court of the State had disposed of that phase of the situation by suggesting that it did not make much difference to the municipality whether or not the debt limit permitted a contract for the work, because if the limit should be exceeded, "no liability could possibly be imposed upon the city," a view which might comfort the timid taxpayers but could hardly be expected to give confidence to the capitalists who might undertake the execution of the contract.

Various corporations, organized during the thirty-odd years of unsuccessful attempts by the city to secure underground rapid transit, claimed that their franchises gave them vested rights in the streets to the exclusion of the new enterprise, and they were prepared to assert their rights in the courts. (The Underground Railroad Company of the City of New York sought to enjoin the building of the road and carried their contest to the Supreme Court of the United States which did not finally decide the question raised until March, 1904, when the subway was practically complete.)

Rival transportation companies stood ready to obstruct the work and encourage whomever might find objection to the building of the road.

New York has biennial elections. The road could not be completed in two years, and the attitude of one administration might not be the attitude of its successors.

The engineering difficulties were well-nigh appalling. Towering buildings along the streets had to be considered, and the streets themselves were already occupied with a complicated network of subsurface structures, such as sewers, water and gas mains, electric cable conduits, electric surface railway conduits, telegraph and power conduits, and many vaults extending out under the streets, occupied by the abutting property owners. On the surface were street railway lines carrying a very heavy traffic night and day, and all the thoroughfares in the lower part of the city were congested with vehicular traffic.

Finally, the city was unwilling to take any risk, and demanded millions of dollars of security to insure the completion of the road according to the contract, the terms of which were most exacting down to the smallest detail.

The builders of the road did not underestimate the magnitude of the task before them. The retained the most experienced experts for every part of the work and, perfecting an organization in an incredibly short time, proceeded to surmount and sweep aside difficulties. The result is one of which every citizen of New York may feel proud. Upon the completion of the road, the city will own the best constructed and best equipped intraurban rapid transit railroad in the world. The efforts of the builders have not been limited by the strict terms of the contract. They have striven, not to equal the best devices, but to improve upon the best devices used in modern electrical railroading, to secure for the traveling public safety, comfort, and speedy transportation.

The road is off the surface and escapes the delays incident to congested city streets, but near the surface and accessible, light, dry, clean, and well ventilated. The stations and approaches are commodious, and the stations themselves furnish conveniences to passengers heretofore not heard of on intraurban lines. There is a separate express service, with its own tracks, and the stations are so arranged that passengers may pass from local trains to express trains, and vice versa, without delay and without payment of additional fare. Special precautions have been taken and devices adopted to prevent a failure of the electric power and the consequent delays of traffic. An electro-pneumatic block signal system has been devised, which excels any system heretofore used and is unique in its mechanism. The third rail for conveying the electric current is covered, so as to prevent injury to passengers and employees from contact. Special emergency and fire alarm signal systems are installed throughout the length of the road. At a few stations, where the road is not near the surface, improved escalators and elevators have been provided. The cars have been designed to prevent danger from fire, and improved types of motors have been adopted, capable of supplying great speed combined with complete control. Strength, utility, and convenience have not alone been considered, but all parts of the railroad structures and equipment, stations, power house, and electrical substations have been designed and constructed with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.

The completion of the subway marks the solution of a problem which for over thirty years baffled the people of New York City, in spite of the best efforts of many of its foremost citizens. An extended account of Rapid Transit Legislation would be out of place here, but a brief glance at the history of the Act under the authority of which the subway has been built is necessary to a clear understanding of the work which has been accomplished. From 1850 to 1865 the street surface horse railways were sufficient for the requirements of the traveling public. As the city grew rapidly, the congestion spreading northward, to and beyond the Harlem River, the service of surface roads became entirely inadequate. As early as 1868, forty-two well known business men of the city became, by special legislative act, incorporators of the New York City Central Underground Railway Company, to build a line from the City Hall to the Harlem River. The names of the incorporators evidenced the seriousness of the attempt, but nothing came of it. In 1872, also by special act, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others were incorporated as the New York City Rapid Transit Company, to build an underground road from the City Hall to connect with the New York and Harlem Road at 59th Street, with a branch to the New York Central Road. The enterprise was soon abandoned. Numerous companies were incorporated in the succeeding years under the general railroad laws, to build underground roads, but without results; among them the Central Tunnel Railway Company in 1881, the New York & New Jersey Tunnel Railway Company in 1883, the Terminal Underground Railway Company in 1886, the Underground Railroad Company of the City of New York (a consolidation of the last two companies) in 1896, and the Rapid Transit Underground Railroad Company in 1897.

All attempts to build a road under the early special charter and later under the general laws having failed, the city secured in 1891 the passage of the Rapid Transit Act, under which, as amended, the subway has been built. As originally passed it did not provide for municipal ownership. It proved that a board of five rapid transit railroad commissioners might adopt routes and general plans for a railroad, obtain the consents of the local authorities and abutting property owners, or in lieu of the consents of the property owners the approval of the Supreme Court; and then, having adopted detailed plans for the construction and operation, might sell at public sale the right to build and operate the road to a corporation, whose powers and duties were defined in the Act, for such period of time and on such terms as they could. The Commissioners prepared plans and obtained the consents of the local authorities. The property owners refused their consent; the Supreme Court gave its approval in lieu thereof, but upon inviting bids the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners found no responsible bidder.

The late Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, as early as 1884, when legislation for underground roads was under discussion, had urged municipal ownership. Speaking in 1901, he said of his efforts in 1884:

"It was evident to me that underground rapid transit could not be secured by the investment of private capital, but in some way or other its construction was dependent upon the use of the credit of the City of New York. It was also apparent to me that if such credit were used, the property must belong to the city. Inasmuch as it would not be safe for the city to undertake the construction itself, the intervention of a contracting company appeared indispensable. To secure the city against loss, this company must necessarily be required to give a sufficient bond for the completion of the work and be willing to enter into a contract for its continued operation under a rental which would pay the interest upon the bonds issued by the city for the construction, and provide a sinking fund sufficient for the payment of the bonds at or before maturity. It also seemed to be indispensable that the leasing company should invest in the rolling stock and in the real estate required for its power houses and other buildings an amount of money sufficiently large to indemnify the city against loss in case the lessees should fail in their undertaking to build and operate the railroad."

Mr. Hewitt became Mayor of the city in 1887, and his views were presented in the form of a Bill to the Legislature in the following year. The measure found practically no support. Six years later, after the Rapid Transit Commissioners had failed under the Act of 1891, as originally drawn, to obtain bidders for the franchise, the New York Chamber of Commerce undertook to solve the problem by reverting to Mr. Hewitt's idea of municipal ownership. Whether or not municipal ownership would meet the approval of the citizens of New York could not be determined; therefore, as a preliminary step, it was decided to submit the question to a popular vote. An amendment to the Act of 1891 was drawn (Chapter 752 of the Laws of 1894) which provided that the qualified electors of the city were to decide at an annual election, by ballot, whether the rapid transit railway or railways should be constructed by the city and at the public's expense, and be operated under lease from the city, or should be constructed by a private corporation under a franchise to be sold in the manner attempted unsuccessfully, under the Act of 1891, as originally passed. At the fall election of 1894, the electors of the city, by a very large vote, declared against the sale of a franchise to a private corporation and in favor of ownership by the city. Several other amendments, the necessity for which developed as plans for the railway were worked out, were made up to and including the session of the Legislature of 1900, but the general scheme for rapid transit may be said to have become fixed when the electors declared in favor of municipal ownership. The main provisions of the legislation which stood upon the statute books as the Rapid Transit Act, when the contract was finally executed, February 21, 1900, may be briefly summarized as follows:

(a) The act was general in terms, applying to all cities in the State having a population of over one million; it was special in effect because New York was the only city having such a population. It did not limit the Rapid Transit Commissioners to the building of a single road, but authorized the laying out of successive roads or extensions.

(b) A Board was created consisting of the Mayor, Comptroller, or other chief financial officer of the city; the president of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, by virtue of his office, and five members named in the Act: William Steinway, Seth Low, John Claflin, Alexander E. Orr, and John H. Starin, men distinguished for their business experience, high integrity, and civic pride. Vacancies in the Board were to be filled by the Board itself, a guaranty of a continued uniform policy.

(c) The Board was to prepare general routes and plans and submit the question of municipal ownership to the electors of the city.

(d) The city was authorized, in the event that the electors decided for city ownership, to issue bonds not to exceed $50,000,000 for the construction of the road or roads and $5,000,000 additional, if necessary, for acquiring property rights for the route. The interest on the bonds was not to exceed 3.5 percent.

(e) The Commissioners were given the broad power to enter into a contract (in the case of more than one road, successive contracts) on behalf of the city for the construction of the road with the person, firm, or corporation which in the opinion of the Board should be best qualified to carry out the contract, and to determine the amount of the bond to be given by the contractor to secure its performance. The essential features of the contract were, however, prescribed by the Act. The contractor in and by the contract for building the road was to agree to fully equip it at his own expense, and the equipment was to include all power houses. He was also to operate the road, as lessee of the city, for a term not to exceed fifty years, upon terms to be included in the contract for construction, which might include provision for renewals of the lease upon such terms as the Board should from time to time determine. The rental was to be at least equal to the amount of interest on the bonds which the city might issue for construction, and one per cent additional. The one per cent additional might, in the discretion of the Board, be made contingent in part for the first ten years of the lease upon the earnings of the road. The rental was to be applied by the city to the interest on the bonds, and the balance was to be paid in to the city's general sinking fund for payment of the city's debt or into a sinking fund for the redemption at maturity of the bonds issued for the construction of the rapid transit road, or roads. In addition to the security which might be required by the Board of the contractor for construction and operation, the Act provided that the city should have a first lien upon the equipment of the road to be furnished by the contractor, and at the termination of the lease the city had the privilege of purchasing such equipment from the contractor.

(f) The city was to furnish the right of way to the contractor free from all claims of abutting property owners. The road was to be the absolute property of the city and to be deemed a part of the public streets and highways. The equipment of the road was to be exempt from taxation.

(g) The Board was authorized to include in the contract for construction provisions in detail for the supervision of the city, through the Board, over the operation of the road under the lease.

One of the most attractive-- and in fact, indispensable features of the scheme-- was that the work of construction, instead of being subject to the conflicting control of various departments of the City Government, with their frequent changes in personnel, was under the exclusive supervision of the Rapid Transit Board, a conservative and continuous body composed of the two principal officers of the City Government, and five merchants of the very highest standing in the community.

Provided capitalists could be found to undertake such an extensive work under the exacting provisions, the scheme was an admirable one from the taxpayers' point of view. The road would cost the city practically nothing and the obligation of the contractor to equip and operate being combined with the agreement to construct furnished a safeguard against the waste of the public funds and insured the prompt completion of the road. The interest of the contractor in the successful operation, after construction, furnished a strong incentive to see that as the construction progressed the details were consistent with successful operation.

Immediately after the vote of the electors upon the question of municipal ownership, the Rapid Transit Commissioners adopted routes and plans which they had been studying and perfecting since the failure to find bidders for the franchise under the original Act of 1891. The local authorities approved them, and again the property owners refused their consent, making an application to the Supreme Court necessary. The Court refused its approval upon the ground that the city, owing to a provision of the constitution of the State limiting the city's power to incur debt, would be unable to raise the necessary money. This decision appeared to nullify all the efforts of the public spirited citizens composing the Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners and to practically prohibit further attempts on their part. They persevered, however, and in January, 1897, adopted new general routes and plans. The consolidation of a large territory into the Greater New York, and increased land values, warranted the hope that the city's debt limit would no longer be an objection, especially as the new route changed the line so as to reduce the estimated cost. The demands for rapid transit had become more and more imperative as the years went by, and it was fair to assume that neither the courts nor the municipal authorities would be overzealous to find a narrow construction of the laws. Incidentally, the constitutionality of the rapid transit legislation, in its fundamental features, had been upheld in the Supreme Court in a decision which was affirmed by the highest court of the State a few weeks after the Board had adopted its new plans. The local authorities gave their consent; the Supreme Court gave its approval in lieu thereof; and the Board was prepared to undertake the preliminaries for letting a contract. These successive steps and the preparation of the terms of the contract all took time, but finally, on November 15, 1899, a form of contract was adopted and an invitation issued by the Board to contractors to bid for the construction and operation of the railroad. There were two bidders, one of whom was John B. McDonald, whose terms submitted under the invitation were accepted on January 15, 1900; and, for the first time, it seemed as if a beginning might be made in the actual construction of the rapid transit road. The letter of invitation to contractors required that every proposal should be accompanied by a certified check upon a National or State Bank, payable to the order of the Comptroller, for $150,000, and that within ten days after acceptance, or within such further period as might be prescribed by the Board, the contract should be duly executed and delivered. The amount to be paid by the city for the construction was $35,000,000 and an additional sum not to exceed $2,750,000 for terminals, station sites, and other purposes. The construction was to be completed in four years and a half, and the term of the lease from the city to the contractor was fixed at fifty years, with a renewal, at the option of the contractor, for twenty-five years at a rental to be agreed upon by the city, not less than the average rental for the then preceding ten years. The rental for the fifty-year term was fixed at an amount equal to the annual interest upon the bonds issued by the city for construction and one per cent additional, such one per cent during the first ten years to be contingent upon the earnings of the road. To secure performance of the contract by Mr. McDonald the city required him to deposit $1,000,000 in cash as a security for construction, to furnish a bond with surety for $5,000,000 as security for construction and equipment, and to furnish another bond of $1,000,000 as continuing security for the performance of the contract. The city in addition to this security had, under the provisions of the Rapid Transit Act, a first lien on the equipment, and it should be mentioned that at the expiration of the lease and renewals (if any) the equipment is to be turned over to the city, pending an agreement or arbitration upon the question of the price to be paid for it by the city. The contract (which covered about 200 printed pages) was minute in detail as to the work to be done, and sweeping powers of supervision were given to the city through the Chief Engineer of the Board, who by the contract was made arbiter of all questions that might arise as to the interpretation of the plans and specifications. The city had been fortunate in securing the preparation of plans the services of Mr. William Barclay Parsons, one of the foremost engineers of the country. For years as Chief Engineer of the Board he had studied and developed the various plans and it was he who was to superintend on behalf of the city the completion of the work.

During the thirty-two years of rapid transit discussion between 1868, when the New York City Central Underground Company was incorporated, up to 1900, when the invitations for bids were issued by the city, every scheme for rapid transit had failed because responsible capitalists could not be found willing to undertake the building of a road. Each year had increased the difficulties attending such an enterprise and the scheme finally evolved had put all of the risk upon the capitalists who might attempt to finance the work, and left none upon the city. Without detracting from the credit due the public-spirited citizens who had evolved the plan of municipal ownership, it may be safely asserted that the success of the undertaking depended almost entirely upon the financial backing of the contractor. When the bid was accepted by the city, no arrangements had been made for the capital necessary to carry out the contract. After its acceptance, Mr. McDonald not only found little encouragement in his efforts, but discovered that the surety companies were unwilling to furnish the security required of him, except on terms impossible for him to fulfill.

The crucial point in the whole problem of rapid transit with which the citizens of New York had struggled for so many years had been reached, and failure seemed inevitable. The requirements of the Rapid Transit Act were rigid and forbade and solution of the problem which committed the city to share in the risks of the undertaking. Engineers might make routes and plans, lawyers might draw legislative acts, the city might prepare contracts, the question was and always had been, Can anybody build the road who will agree to do it and hold the city safe from loss?

It was obvious when the surety companies declined the issue that the whole rapid transit problem was thrown open, or rather that it always had been open. The final analysis had not been made. After all, the attitude of the surety companies was only a reflection of the general feeling of practical business and railroad men towards the whole venture. To the companies the proposition had come as a concrete business proffer and they had rejected it.

At this critical point, Mr. McDonald sought the assistance of Mr. August Belmont. It was left to Mr. Belmont to make the final analysis, and avert the failure which impended. There was no time for indecision or delay. Whatever was to be done must be done immediately. The necessary capital must be procured, the required security must be given, and an organization for building and operating the road must be anticipated. Mr. Belmont looking through and beyond the intricacies of the Rapid Transit Act, and the complications of the contract, saw that he who undertook to surmount the difficulties presented by the attitude of the surety companies must solve the whole problem. It was not the ordinary question of financing a railroad contract. He saw that the responsibility for the entire rapid transit undertaking must be centered, and that a compact and effective organization must be planned which could deal with every phase of the situation.

Mr. Belmont without delay took the matter up directly with the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, and presented a plan for the incorporation of a company to procure the security required for the performance of the contract, to furnish the capital necessary to carry on the work, and to assume supervision over the whole undertaking. Application was to be made to the Supreme Court to modify the requirements with respect to the sureties by striking out a provision requiring the justification of the sureties in double the amount of liabilities assumed by each and reducing the minimum amount permitted to be taken by each surety from $500,000 to $250,000. The new corporation was to execute as surety a bond for $4,000,000, the additional amount of $1,000,000 to be furnished by other sureties. A beneficial interest in the bonds required from the subcontractors was to be assigned to the city as further security for the performance of the contract. The plan was approved by the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, and pursuant to the plan, the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company was organized. The Supreme Court granted the application to modify the requirements as to the justification or sureties and the contract was executed February 21, 1900.

As president and active executive head of the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company, Mr. Belmont perfected its organization, collected the staff of engineers under whose direction the work of building the road was to be done, supervised the letting of subcontracts, and completed the financial arrangements for carrying on the work.

The equipment of the road included, under the terms of the contract, the rolling stock, all machinery and mechanisms for generating electricity for motive power, lighting, and signaling, and also the power house, sub-stations, and the real estate upon which they were to be erected. The magnitude of the task of providing the equipment was not generally appreciated until Mr. Belmont took the rapid transit problem in hand. He foresaw from the beginning the importance of that branch of the work, and early in 1900, immediately after the signing of the contract, turned his attention to selecting the best engineers and operating experts, and planned the organization of an operating company. As early as May, 1900, he secured the services of Mr. E. P. Bryan, who came to New York from St. Louis, resigning as vice-president and general manager of the Terminal Railroad Association, and began a study of the construction work and plans for equipment, to the end that the problems of operation might be anticipated as the building and equipment of the road progressed. Upon the incorporation of the operating company, Mr. Bryan became vice-president.

In the spring of 1902, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the operating railroad corporation, was formed by the interests represented by Mr. Belmont, he becoming president and active executive head of this company also, and soon thereafter Mr. McDonald assigned to it the lease or operating part of his contract with the city, that company thereby becoming directly responsible to the city for the equipment and operation of the road, Mr. McDonald remaining as contractor for its construction. In the summer of the same year, the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners had adopted a route and plans for an extension of the subway under the East River to the Borough of Brooklyn, the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company entered into a contract with the city, similar in form to Mr. McDonald's contract, to build, equip, and operate the extension. Mr. McDonald, as contractor of the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company, assumed the general supervision of the work of constructing the Brooklyn extension; and the construction work of both the original subway and the extension has been carried on under his direction. The work of construction has been greatly facilitated by the broad minded and liberal policy of the Rapid Transit Board and its Chief Engineer and Counsel, and by the cooperation of all the other departments of the City Government, and also by the generous attitude of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, and its lessee, the New York City Railroad Company, in extending privileges which have been of great assistance in the prosecution of the work. In January, 1903, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company acquired the elevated railway system by lease for 999 years from the Manhattan Railway Company, thus assuring harmonious operation of the elevated roads and the subway system, including the Brooklyn extension.

The incorporators of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company were William H. Baldwin, Jr.; Charles T. Barney; August Belmont; E. P. Bryan; Andrew Freedman; James Jourdan; Gardiner M. Lane; John B. McDonald; DeLancey Nicoll; Walter G. Oakman; John Pierce; Wm. A. Read; Cornelius Vanderbilt; George W. Wickersham; and George W. Young.

The incorporators of the Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company were Charles T. Barney; August Belmont; John B. McDonald; Walter G. Oakman; and William A. Read.


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