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The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

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Overview

In the late nineteenth century, as cities like Boston and New York grew more congested, the streets became clogged with plodding, horse-drawn carts. When the great blizzard of 1888 crippled the entire northeast, a solution had to be found. Two brothers from one of the nation's great families—Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York—pursued the dream of his city digging America's first subway, and the great race was on. The competition between Boston and New York played out in an ...

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The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

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Overview

In the late nineteenth century, as cities like Boston and New York grew more congested, the streets became clogged with plodding, horse-drawn carts. When the great blizzard of 1888 crippled the entire northeast, a solution had to be found. Two brothers from one of the nation's great families—Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York—pursued the dream of his city digging America's first subway, and the great race was on. The competition between Boston and New York played out in an era not unlike our own, one of economic upheaval, life-changing innovations, class warfare, bitter political tensions, and the question of America’s place in the world.

The Race Underground is peopled with the famous, like Boss Tweed, Grover Cleveland and Thomas Edison, and the not-so-famous, from brilliant engineers to the countless "sandhogs" who shoveled, hoisted and blasted their way into the earth’s crust, sometimes losing their lives in the construction of the tunnels. Doug Most chronicles the science of the subway, looks at the centuries of fears people overcame about traveling underground and tells a story as exciting as any ever ripped from the pages of U.S. history. The Race Underground is a great American saga of two rival American cities, their rich, powerful and sometimes corrupt interests, and an invention that changed the lives of millions.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-04
A deputy editor at the Boston Globe recalls the visionaries, moneymen, engineering wizards, and the economic and political struggles behind the creation of the subway in America. In 1888, horses operated 90 percent of the 6,000 miles of America's street railway, with all but a fraction of the rest run by cable-pulled streetcars or small steam locomotives. The urban transportation system—filthy, slow, dangerous and unreliable, straining at the explosion of immigrant populations, at the mercy of snow and ice—needed rethinking. As far back as 1849—34 years before the Brooklyn Bridge opened—Alfred Beach, publisher of Scientific American, had proposed the idea of a "railway underneath" New York. However, the psychological barriers to subway travel ("like living in a tomb," critics said) and the formidable engineering challenges would take decades to overcome. By the time Boston and New York opened their subways—in 1897 and 1904, respectively—a remarkable story had unfolded, one Most (Always in Our Hearts: The Story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, the Pregnancy They Hid, and the Baby They Killed, 2005) chronicles with grand style and enthusiasm. Famous names flit in and out of his narrative—Boss Tweed, Thomas Edison, Edwin Arlington Robinson, piano manufacturer William Steinway and Andrew Carnegie—but he focuses on two lesser-knowns, brothers, both transportation magnates: Boston's Henry Whitney and New York's William Whitney, who tie together this subterranean transportation tale of two cities. It's a story of blizzards and fires, accidental gas explosions and dynamite blasts, of trenches tortuously dug, of sewer and water pipes rerouted and cemeteries excavated, of political infighting, of turnstiles and ticket-taking, of ingenious solutions to staggering problems. Inventor Frank Sprague, who perfected the electric motor, financier August Belmont, crusading New York Mayor Abram Hewitt and engineer William Barclay Parsons also play prominent roles in this colorful Gilded Age saga. An almost flawlessly conducted tour back to a time when major American cities dreamed big.
Publishers Weekly
11/25/2013
“Constructing the tunnel will be simple, just like cellar digging,” said the original contractor for the New York City subway. Then again, if Most, an editor at the Boston Globe, teaches us anything in this extensive history of the origins of the American subway, it’s that such optimism is woefully misguided. In fact, construction is almost an afterthought given the back-and-forth political maneuvering that occurred before the subway could even pass muster. It’s surprising that the generation of innovators active in the mid-19th-century, who were famed for their industrial expertise and entrepreneurship, were slow to the races in building an underground rail system. When Alfred Beach, groundbreaking editor of Scientific American, first proposed the idea in 1849, he was nearly laughed out of his New York office; 14 years later, London opened its Underground. When Thomas Edison was approached by Frank Sprague, a promising young engineer convinced that an electric motor could spark a revolution in transportation, Edison showed little interest in the idea (though that didn’t stop him from taking credit when Sprague’s engine powered New York’s first subway in 1904). Most’s account too often zigzags, like the dealings he chronicles, and the New York/Boston rivalry doesn’t clearly emerge, but otherwise he delivers a fun and enjoyable read about a vital, transformative period. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"An almost flawlessly conducted tour back to a time when major American cities dreamed big." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"A remarkably well-told story filled with villains, heroes, and events of the Gilded Age...While many books have been written about New York City's subway, few have documented Boston's herculean accomplishment in beating New York. Most deserves credit for setting the historical record straight. This felicitous tale of American ingenuity and perseverance serves as a useful reminder today of our past commitment to improving our infrastructures as we now face the challenge of stopping their deterioration." —Library Journal

"[Most] delivers a fun and enjoyable read about a vital, transformative period." —Publishers Weekly

"Our subways are the vital lifelines of our greatest cities. They are also symbols of our indebtedness to earlier generations who through innovation and perseverance took us from horse-powered transportation to subterranean rail. Doug Most’s The Race Underground is a fascinating account of how New York and Boston tunneled their way into the future. This book proves again that American history is a treasure trove of great stories, this one filled with drama, sacrifice, loss and unimaginable success." —Ken Burns, filmmaker, creator of the PBS series The Civil War and many others

"A terrific book that makes us take a second look at our past and makes us wonder about possibilities for the future. This a love poem to the power of the human imagination." —Leigh Montville, New York Times bestselling author of Ted Williams

"Combine the propulsive energy of Devil In the White City with the meticulous detail of The Great Bridge and you get The Race Underground. Most's addictive tour de force infuses a story that changed the course of American history with all the drama and excitement of a great thriller." —Seth Mnookin, award-winning author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy and the bestseller Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top

"Imagine my disappointment when my college professor assigned Notes From the Underground and it turned out to be a mere existential novella. Finally, we get the book I wanted – The Race Underground—a history of Boston, New York and the building of America’s First Subway. Give me Doug Most over Dostoyevsky anytime." —Dan Shaughnessy, author of Francona, The Red Sox Years

"The Race Underground is a great American tale, filled with moments of surprising drama and unforgettable characters fighting against impossible odds. Doug Most hasn’t just written a book for history buffs and train lovers; he’s written something wonderful for us all." —Keith O’Brien, author of Outside Shot

Library Journal
11/15/2013
Most (deputy managing editor, features, Boston Globe) depicts the highly charged competition between Boston and New York in trying to construct the first underground "subway" railroad in late 19th-century America. It is a remarkably well-told story filled with villains, heroes, and events of the Gilded Age. Adding more heat to this intercity rivalry were brothers Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York, who managed to push their own cities into successfully modernizing their transportation systems. Boston emerged the victor on September 1, 1897, with a system admittedly on a much smaller scale than initially envisioned. New York's planned subway was, of course, much larger, taking longer to build, while plagued with misfortune (54 workers and civilians died during its construction) before it finally opened on October 27, 1904. While many books have been written about New York City's subway, few have documented Boston's herculean accomplishment in beating New York. Most deserves credit for setting the historical record straight. VERDICT This felicitous tale of American ingenuity and perseverance serves as a useful reminder today of our past commitment to improving our infrastructures as we now face the challenge of stopping their deterioration. Recommended for readers in American urban history and specialists in urban transportation.—Richard Drezen, Jersey City
The Barnes & Noble Review

Doug Most captures nicely my first experience with a New York City subway car back in the early winter of 1970: clip-clopping along at five miles per hour and filled with an unbearable stench. The memories are cruelly unforgettable of the local No. 1 train headed downtown, wheels shrieking — even at five miles an hour — like someone being repeatedly stabbed. Most coaches had no ventilation, no source of heat...and faint light at best, so not only was the smell horrendous but passengers were cold and virtually blind inside. Yes, I remember it was just so.

By then, the subway I rode was seventy years old, yet it was a spitting subterranean image of what Most was talking about in those quotes: the horse-drawn streetcars and carriages, and later the electric streetcars and the Els, that choked Boston and New York's city streets in the nineteenth century, choked them until they didn't move. The Race Underground, Most's fervent and admiring history of the two cities' quest for rapid urban transport, is a crackerjack tracing of that evolution as it draws portraits of both the characters at work to make it happen, and the vile, homicidal, and weirdly mesmeric streets.

Two hundred years ago, most city dwellers walked wherever they wanted to go. Horses, however, were never far away. Perhaps you rode on the horse's back or, by 1827, you hitched it to an accommodation, a public conveyance with two front-to-back seats, or by 1829, a sociable, another public conveyance, this time with the seats running lengthwise. Starting in 1831, the omnibus terrorized the streets — Bedlam on wheels — pulled by teams of horses galloping to get fares. These modes of transport routinely killed pedestrians when they weren't making the simple act of crossing the street plain miserable. If that didn't intimidate and appall you enough, there was the manure. Our equine friends produce up to fifty pounds of it apiece each day. Farmers had commenced the switch to chemical fertilizers, and the manure went begging. In 1888, there were 21,736 streetcars being pulled by horses along U.S. city streets. You do the math.

Compounding the problem and thwarting investment in a remedy, writes Most, was the world's second-oldest occupation: the corrupt politician. Boss Tweed, state senator and head of New York's Tammany crime syndicate, is everybody's favorite. A portion of Tweed's fortune was intimately tied to the omnibus, where he extorted a nickel for every ride, so is it any wonder he, Blocked any attempt that came along that might threaten his empire, with a whisper, a nudge, a payoff, a threat, or a promise? Gridlock ruled the streets and when you looked up, if you were one of the unfortunates whose city chose to go the elevated route, a rain of hot oil, cinders, and soot met your curiosity.

But underground? This was not an idea that people would instinctively cotton to. It was no fit place for the living. It was damp, cold, gassy or airless, and damn dark. London had built a subway, with a steam locomotive-what were they thinking? — with the expected results. Author Most charts the course of the subway's gradual insinuation into the public sphere as an inveigling mix of the far-sighted with the ominous. Far-sighted because the electric subway car was faster than the horse, cleaner than the steam locomotive, more reliable than cable cars, and capable of powering entire transit systems; ominous because no matter how rectitudinous the Whitney brothers, our protagonists, are painted — and Most is a bit starry-eyed in their presence, once claiming that when Henry Whitney bumped into any of his workers on the street, he acted as if they were friends, greeting them with a bright smile and a firm handshake; he had 3700 employees and, evidently, a world-class memory—the Whitney brothers (Henry in Boston and William in New York City) were in it for power and loot. Most reins in the dazzle enough to appreciate that, for all their pedigree, the Whitneys were not that far up the food chain from Mr. Tweed. Whitney admitted that, yes, his plan, if successful, would most likely bring him great riches, riches from the public trough. That was Henry; this is William: He controlled nearly every lighting, heating, and power line, and his Metropolitan Street Railway Company was an all-powerful monopoly.

The title of the book notwithstanding, there was no race to build the subway between the two cities. Boston had completed its first serious subway project years before New York City broke ground on their dig. Boston's was no toy train, as Most, not without affection, called Beantown's 1.8 miles of track. It was a significant feat that took lives to build, and played havoc with two landscapes sacred to Bostonians: the Boston Common, which it went underneath, and old burial grounds, which it went right through. Still, New York City's twenty-one miles of track was a colossal enterprise.

Most, too, finds himself in the picture, taking a sentimental journey with his kids on the No. 1 train, a very different beast today, on a return visit to the city (Most is a deputy editor of The Boston Globe). But he makes way for a parade of characters who give you a taste of the money and the toil, the bankers and the sandhogs. He is also presents critical junctures with a subdued voice, which makes you want to listen closely: tapping into the fruits of the Age of Invention and a superb cast of zealous inventors; the great blizzard of March 1888 that sealed the subway alternative; the workplace tragedies (gas explosions, unintended dynamite explosions); the neighborhoods and businesses changed forever by the construction; the epizootic outbreak caused by the horses as surely as London's street served cholera like hors d'oeuvres; the rude inequities of the Gilded Age; the liftoff of suburbia and the stretch of commuting; advancements in tunneling techniques; how bedrock shapes the topography of Manhattan's architecture,

Most has done very well with this story of our embrace of the subway, though it is often like embracing a funky, unshaven uncle. It is one of our continuities: we can count on it to get us there, and count on it to break down; we can count on the pickpockets (it took barely a minute of operation for the first theft on the subway to be reported...a $500 horseshoe pin with fifteen diamonds on it was gone — today we would say it served the showboat right); count on the spooky ghost stations and drift ways; count on the impromptu concerts, the dance routines, the guy who uncannily replicates the sound of the signal to close the doors — each to make a dime during hard times. Same as it ever was.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312591328
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 44,286
  • Lexile: 1280L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Doug Most is the deputy managing editor for features at The Boston Globe. He is the author of Always in Our Hearts: The Story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, the Pregnancy They Hid and the Child They Killed. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Runner's World and Parents and his stories have appeared in Best American Crime Writing and Best American Sports Writing. He lives in Needham, Massachusetts.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Doug Most, Author of The Race Underground

What about the history of the subway inspired you to start writing the book?

I was particularly interested in Boston's subway, having lived here now for a decade, ridden the subway and been surprised to learn that nobody had written a definitive story of Boston's story. Subways are the fabric that bind cities together, and that's certainly true in Boston and New York. As I explored the story behind subways, I was fascinated to learn how people were terrified of going underground. I loved that detail. And it sparked a whole level of reporting for me.

What do you hope readers will take away with them when they finish the book?

I want them to have an appreciation for what their predecessors did for them, how more than a century ago it was brilliant engineers, determined politicians, and hard-working, blue-collar sandhogs who dug for a living, all of whom came together to create their subways. They died to build these subways. They spent years studying, debating, digging, and fortifying the walls of these tunnels that became the subways of today. It was an engineering miracle, the idea of digging under the streets of busy cities, but it was a miracle that was realized and it's important that today's generation of dreamers realize how much hard work is necessary to make dreams come true.

What is it about the race to build the country's first subway that has such a wide appeal?

Everybody loves firsts. And everybody loves a good competition. In this case, throw in the fact that it was Boston and New York building subways at the same time and it's just a great story. These two cities are linked in so many ways. They are linked by their close proximity to each other, barely two hundred miles. They are linked by sports, from baseball and Babe Ruth to football and basketball. They are linked even by politics. The last two mayors of New York City are actually from the Boston area. How strange and cool is that? Both cities in the late 1800s needed relief, they were desperately overcrowded and they both turned to subways at the same time. Except one of those cities was able to move faster than the other. In every story like this there, someone has to get there first. And that's a story that never gets old.

What do you find most satisfying about writing?

I've enjoyed writing since I was a boy and into my teens. I love words and creating interesting sentences and most of all telling a good story. When a story hooks you from the first sentence or first paragraph or first chapter, there is no better feeling than of being swallowed up in a story.

Which writers have influenced you the most?

I hesitate to single any out. But there are styles of storytelling I love. Throughout the writing of this book, two authors remained on my office bookshelf, and when I found myself stuck I would crack one of their books for inspiration. The first was obvious: David McCullough, the master storyteller of great history books. The Great Bridge was a tour de force, the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I must have opened it a hundred times. The other writer was Laura Hillenbrand. Her two books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken are just amazing examples of narrative storytelling. I loved those books. The way that I fashioned my opening of The Race Underground, with a short, three-page scene-setting story, was modeled after the way Hillenbrand opened Seabiscuit, which I loved.
[As did we: Seabiscuit was a 2001 Discover pick. -Ed.]

ho have you discovered lately?

Well, the last five years my life was consumed by history books and trains and subways, so I didn't get to read as much for pleasure as I wished. A colleague and friend of mine, Neil Swidey, has written two amazing books that are exactly what I love about nonfiction storytelling, The Assist and Trapped Under the Sea. I think he has many more great nonfiction narratives in him. I loved the book about New York mansions and the eccentric rich woman, Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman. I devoured the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, not exactly a new journalist, but a new book. On the fiction side, as a sports fan and someone who used to cover minor league baseball, I loved Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art of Fielding. I'm excited to read for pleasure again.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 18 )
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  • Posted March 21, 2014

    Fascinating Read!

    This was a great book, with the comparison between Boston and New York, almost making it feel like a race. Very interesting with great facts

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2014

    MASTER

    IDGAF YOU CANT IGNORE ALICE!!!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2014

    Chartreuse

    Chartreuse grins. "Sounds like fun."

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2014

    Luna

    She walked in.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2014

    Jake

    Seriosly though what the cr.ap..does anyone want to do anything while we wait

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted April 15, 2014

    Carman

    ( .....)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2014

    Jane

    "Well, let me know when he does. Dont work yourself too hard War Torn. See you Friday fro poker night."

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    Posted April 17, 2014

    Kato

    He smirks and light a cigarette. He watches.

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    Posted April 14, 2014

    Pierxe

    Hi

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    Scott's note

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    Ariel--Nurse

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    Andy

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    Brady

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    Alec

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    Sat

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    Posted April 19, 2014

    ANNOUNCEMENT

    The owner is locked out so this rp will move to 'down below' do not post here

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