It was 140 years ago today that the first passenger-carrying subway was opened in New York City. As an article at Wired reports, it was a demonstration project that ran from a station on Broadway, in the basement of Devlin’s Clothing Store, to Murray Street, a distance of a few hundred feet. The system, which featured pneumatic propulsion, much like the pneumatic tubes you can see today at bank drive-through windows, was built by Alfred Beach:
Beach first demonstrated pneumatic transit at the 1867 American Institute Fair, and sought to build a pneumatic transit system underground to relieve surface-level congestion with a system consisting of, in Beach’s words, merely “a tube, a car, a revolving fan!”
Beach had received permission to build a package delivery tunnel under Broadway, and quietly built his passenger line also. The station and passenger carriage were apparently quite well appointed, and touring the system and its tunnel were popular pastimes.
At the time, pneumatic propulsion was one of the contenders for building underground railways. In London, the idea was explored by the Post Office as a means of transporting mail across the central area, bypassing the congested streets; it was apparently a technical but not a commercial success. (A later version was built, starting in 1915, using electric traction.) The London Underground opened its first lines in 1863, but those initial segments (some of which are still part of the Metropolitan Line) were in shallow tunnels, built using “cut and cover” techniques, because initially steam traction was used, and thus adequate ventilation was quite important.
Unfortunately, nothing really came of Beach’s demonstration project. There was apparently some considerable political wrangling within the Tammany Hall machine of the time, and wealthy real estate owners preferred elevated railways, fearing that the boring of tunnels would damage their buildings’ foundations. Some of these elevated lines were built, but it would be 34 years before the Interborough Rapid Transit company opened the first underground subway line beneath Broadway.