Secret Subway

Overview

This is the incredible story of the visionary engineer who built New York City’s first subway. The Secret Subway is the gripping tale of a man whose vision was years ahead of his time; a man whose dream was crushed by the greed and political jockeying for power that characterized the city in the days of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.

In the late 1860s New York was congested and dangerous, a place one terrified commentator described as "bedlam on wheels. "Alfred Beach, a ...

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Overview

This is the incredible story of the visionary engineer who built New York City’s first subway. The Secret Subway is the gripping tale of a man whose vision was years ahead of his time; a man whose dream was crushed by the greed and political jockeying for power that characterized the city in the days of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.

In the late 1860s New York was congested and dangerous, a place one terrified commentator described as "bedlam on wheels. "Alfred Beach, a multitalented young man, set out to solve the problem. Rather than just addressing the chaos on the streets, he looked deeper for a solution, into the very foundations of the city. He financed the subterranean project himself, and pledged his workers to secrecy. When the fruits of his plans were revealed the public raved about his new tunnel, single station and subway car. Many believed this new system would relieve some of the congestion aboveground, and could be the first step toward a wider transportation network. But perceiving such ideas as a direct threat to his power, Boss Tweed intervened. The subway system Beach envisioned remained buried in the realm of dreams.

Between 1900 and 1904, a subway line was finally built in NYC. Workers extending that line cut right into Beach’s tunnel, which remained intact. The station, tunnel, and car—except for the decaying wooden parts—were just as Beach had left them. To this day they lie buried beneath the city’s streets, an interred monument to a dream cruelly killed by political greed and jealousy.

National Geographic supports K-12 educators with ELA Common Core Resources.
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Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Jennifer Rummel
The streets of New York City in 1860 are overcrowded to capacity. It takes hours to get to work just down the block and forever to return home. Something needs to be done to change the situation. Several attempts are made to change the situation, but none solve the problem. Alfred Beach, owner of the Scientific American publication, believes that he might have a solution based on something similar in England. The elite of New York, however, would not touch a subway like the one in England, but Beach plans to change that fact by making the New York subway a system with elegance. But first, there are a few roadblocks he must overcome. Sandler takes an in-depth look at the building of New York's first subway. He starts with the city's history, covering the overpopulation because of immigrants, the traffic issues, the noise, and the attempts to change the situation. Sandler gives a mini-biography of Beach, from his influence in aiding inventors to his potential solution for the traffic problem and his decision to pursue his dream undercover. New York City politics hindered many projects via kickbacks, stalled permits, the construction process itself, and the project's secrecy. Sandler discusses Beach's sneaky solution to the political intrigue. Sandler writes about the subway in a well-put-together book with interesting information, great pictures, and a compelling true story. Reviewer: Jennifer Rummel
Children's Literature - Leigh Geiger
It is the late 1860s in New York City and the streets are jammed with "bedlam on wheels," not to mention horses, manure, and people. Traffic deadlocks are common, the noise level is unbearable, and it takes hours to get to work or even down the block to visit neighbors. Although several solutions have been tried, the situation is worse than ever. Enter Alfred Beach, a creative genius, who believes he can build an innovative, air-powered subway. In simple but compelling language, Sandler immediately draws us into Beach's world. Slowly, one layer at a time, we learn about all of the problems that building a subway will entail. Sandler does an excellent job of explaining very technical and potentially complicated information in terms that middle grade readers will understand but that adults will also appreciate. The magnitude of the problems and Beach's ingenious solutions are fascinating. As we learn of his plan to do all of the work in secret, right under one of the busiest intersections in New York City, the book takes on the aura of a thriller. But the engineering feats are only part of the story; Beach must also work with the powerful Boss Tweed political machine. Sandler aptly portrays this political underworld and the raw power of Tammany Hall, again in a simple but powerful style. The book includes many additional interesting and well-illustrated facts about this historical time. There are pictures from Harper's Weekly, Thomas Nast cartoons, full scale drawings, and maps and period photographs. There are also full citations for all of the quotes, an adequate index, and a list of books and websites for further reading. Reviewer: Leigh Geiger, Ph.D.
VOYA - Florence H. Munat
By 1850, the astronomical population growth of New York City had led to a transportation nightmare. Streets were clogged with pedestrians and horse-drawn omnibuses, creating a cacophonous, dangerous, unsanitary environment. An American visionary, Alfred Beach, assumed the task of solving Manhattan gridlock. At the age of nineteen, Beach had bought Scientific American, transforming it into a respected journal reporting on the latest inventions and starting a patent office. Turning his attention to Manhattan traffic, he contemplated and rejected elevated trains, saying they were noisy and darkened the streets below. There was only one other direction to go—down. Beach realized that underground trains would be a difficult sell to the public. He also learned that London (one of the few cities that had a subway) had problems with noxious fumes from its coal-powered trains. His answer was to build a short subway first to gain public acceptance and power it pneumatically. Because no such machine existed, Beach designed a machine that could dig tunnels. Facing an ever greater challenge, Beach planned to build his subway without the knowledge and permission of Tammany Hall, possibly the most corrupt political machine ever. Beach arranged to dig the tunnel at night, in secrecy. Beach's success story is filled with fascinating period detail, while reading like an exciting mystery. Eventually history collided with Beach's dream of subway expansion, and today he is little remembered. Sandler brings his story and vision alive with an engaging, informative writing style. This captivating history of a little-known event in America's past also features illustrations and photographs on eachtwo-page spread. Reviewer: Florence H. Munat
Kirkus Reviews
In a grand tale of 19th-century American enterprise, Sandler pays tribute to Alfred Ely Beach, a publisher and inventor who built New York City's first subway. The author opens with a positively scary picture of what the city's streets were like at midcentury-swarming with recent immigrants, clogged with carriages and commercial wagons and made deadly by hundreds of horse-drawn "omnibuses." Not only did Beach come up with a plan to ease the congestion by building an innovative, air-powered subway, he finessed public opinion, the state government and even the all-powerful Boss Tweed by building the first stretch of tunnel in secret, at night. Having solved massive technical problems as he went, he opened it in 1870 to massive acclaim-and then, just as he was about to undertake a huge expansion of the system, he fell afoul of 1873's devastating economic collapse. Thoroughly illustrated with period images, this is actually a multistranded tale in which Beach, Boss Tweed and New York itself play roughly equal roles; readers will come away admiring the uncommon ambition of all three. (maps, reading list) (Nonfiction. 11-13)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781426304620
  • Publisher: National Geographic Society
  • Publication date: 5/12/2009
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 713,806
  • Age range: 10 years
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Martin Sandler
Martin Sandler is an historian and the author of more than 50 books. He is the winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award for The Story of American Photography: An Illustrated History for Young People. He has won seven Emmy Awards and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He has taught American history and American studies at the University of Massachusetts and Smith College.
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