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

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

by Doug Most


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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.

Editorial Reviews

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

Publishers Weekly

“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.)

Library Journal

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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250061355
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/10/2015
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 243,587
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)
Lexile: 1280L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt



THEY CAME ON FOOT, AND BY CARRIAGE, and from the city and around the country. On September 12, 1867, thousands of people lined up outside the Fourteenth Street armory, a hulking gray building in downtown New York, to see what the future held for them. The women wore hoop skirts and their finest bonnets, the men came in their dark suits and perfectly knotted ties. The American Institute Fair was more than an event. It was a monument to the times, the place to come and see the latest crazy ideas that the inventors of the day had dreamed up and to get a glimpse of the fantastic future. This year one particular innovation, which a reporter for The New York Times had seen during a sneak preview and raved about in an article, was turning the thirty-seventh year of the fair into a spectacle before it even opened.

The American Institute Fair, started in 1829 as a way to encourage innovation in the country, showcased a collection of novelties, some practical, some bizarre. For a number of years the fair had no permanent home, until it grew so big that organizers decided it deserved its own space. A group of financiers, including August Belmont and William Cullen Bryant, two of New York's richest men, imagined a warehouse-sized building more grand than London's glittering Crystal Palace. And on Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, in the same place where George Washington's troops had once been chased across a field by redcoats, that's what they built. Their own Crystal Palace was shaped like a Greek cross and topped by an enormous 123-foot-high dome, the tallest in America. With eighteen hundred tons of iron and fifteen thousand panes of clear enameled glass, there was nothing else like it. When it opened on July 14, 1853, President Franklin Pierce was there to welcome in a new era when dazzling advances in technology and science would define the country's direction.

One year later at the fair, a clever mechanic named Elisha Graves Otis showed how climbing hundreds of stairs no longer had to be an obstacle for cities to grow upward. His elevator, a new invention that was pulled up by ropes, was not only safe but heralded the age of buildings much taller than eight, ten, or twelve stories. With a crowd standing around his elevator, Otis rode it to its highest level and, for the riveted audience below, reached out and cut the elevator's only rope. Instead of plummeting down, he fell only a few inches and then stopped, showing everybody how the safety catch he had installed worked.

A few years after that, in 1856, another promising inventor and entrepreneur brought a typewriter he'd been tinkering with to the fair. A short and skinny thirty-year-old man with slicked-back black hair and a razor-thin mustache, Alfred Beach was a devoted churchgoer and opera lover who rose early and went to bed early. When he was awake, he was in perpetual motion, exercising regularly and working with one thing or another. He despised vacations. Any spare time that he had, he spent toying with wires, cables, or any contraption he could get his hands on, always with the hope of understanding how it worked and how it could be improved.

In 1848, after Beach had spent almost an entire year exploring the inner workings of the typewriter, he discovered that by having the keys strike both sides of the paper rather than one side, embossed, or raised, letters would be created that could be felt. He knew that if the letters could be felt with the fingertips, then the blind would be able to read. The device worked, and it won him praise from fellow inventors and affirmed in his own mind a desire to do something even greater. It took him years to refine his idea enough to where he was comfortable showing it to the world. And when he finally brought it to the American Institute Fair in 1856, it was a hit. It was recognized as the most advanced typewriting machine yet and won first prize and a gold medal.

Those were the sorts of inventions that drew people, sometimes more than five thousand a day, to the fair every year. And Crystal Palace was as much of an attraction as the inventions inside. The palace was described as "beautiful beyond description." It was also thought to be indestructible thanks to its cast-iron beams. But on October 5, 1858, with two thousand people roaming the exhibitions, one of the storage rooms caught on fire. In minutes the flames had shot through the wood flooring and began melting the walls and roof. As the crowd raced outside to safety, Crystal Palace was swallowed up by sparks, smoke, and flames until it collapsed into a heap. Days later, just five years after its celebrated opening, it was nothing but a pile of rubble. Scavengers came to sift through the remains in hopes of finding a souvenir from the building that was supposed to signal America's new dawn of invention.

Erecting a new permanent home for the fair was out of the question. In 1867, its home was the Fourteenth Street armory, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, a building as plain as Crystal Palace was extravagant. Inside, there were tables and booths showing off the dreams of hundreds of inventors: medical instruments, pianos, sewing machines, steam engines, wagons, sleighs, electric telegraphs, boots, hats, gloves, kitchen utensils, furniture, artificial limbs, wigs, fishing tackle, pocket knives, umbrellas, and toys. There were inventions that rolled along the floor and others that lined the walls. But it was the latest idea from Beach, this one suspended from the ceiling, that crowds flocked to see.

ALFRED ELY BEACH WAS BORN into a prestigious family on September 1, 1826, in Springfield, Massachusetts, an hour west of Boston. His father, Moses Yale Beach, owned The New York Sun, a popular daily newspaper that sold for a penny, mostly to the city's working class. He sent his boy to Monson Academy, one of the very best private schools, near Springfield. Alfred Beach learned from his father at an early age that it was fine to dream big but more important to respect an honest day's work. His first taste of labor was as a newsboy, hawking The Sun on the streets of New York. From there he moved on to work in the press room, where he set type and left each day covered in ink and sweat. And after that he moved up to the newsroom, first to do menial accounting work, and then to work as a reporter.

He loved working with his father. But he dreamed of striking out on his own. In 1845, another young man from Massachusetts named Rufus Porter presented him with that chance. Porter had just published the very first issue of a weekly magazine he created, called Scientific American. Four pages long, it sold for a subscription rate of two dollars a year. The first edition included a note from Porter explaining how useful he believed his publication could be. "As a family newspaper," Porter wrote, "it will convey more useful intelligence to children and young people, than five times its cost in school instruction."

Scientific American was published every Thursday morning and was filled with original engravings of new inventions, improvements, or ideas, along with scientific essays, poems, and even things completely unrelated to science, like moral and religious musings. But Porter saw himself as more than an inventor or editor. He was also an artist who enjoyed painting portraits. Not surprisingly, he quickly lost interest in a magazine devoted to science, and, barely ten months after he founded Scientific American, Porter went looking for a buyer.

Beach was twenty years old and because of his father's newspaper saw the value of the printed word. But he didn't have the money to go it alone. He needed a partner. Thinking back to his days at his private school in Massachusetts, he reached out to a good friend that he thought might make the perfect business partner. Orson Desaix Munn moved to New York, and in July 1846 the two of them paid $800 for the tiny, obscure technical magazine and its subscription list of two hundred names. It marked the beginning of a friendship and partnership that would last nearly fifty years.

Scientific American had only a few hundred subscribers under Rufus Porter. But as Alfred Beach and Orson Munn learned once they took it over, inventors of the day saw real value in the magazine. The inventors wanted help from like-minded dreamers who saw the potential in their ideas. Beach and Munn had barely settled into their offices in 1846 when they were besieged with letters from inventors, or sometimes with unannounced visits. The requests were always the same: Help me apply for a patent and secure it, and I'll pay whatever it takes. Beach and Munn realized that Scientific American was more than a magazine. It was a trusted brand.

Late in 1846, the two launched a new business. If an inventor had an idea, the owners of the Scientific American Patent Agency would happily take their money, help them write the perfect patent application, and track the progress of it once it reached the U.S. Patent Office in Washington. There was no other business like it in the country, and before long Beach was traveling to Washington every two weeks to monitor the hundreds of patents he or Munn helped write. Eventually the business was filing three thousand patents a year and Beach was forced to split his time between New York and a branch office in Washington, directly across the street from the patent office. The patent business earned Beach a fortune and some measure of fame. He became a pied piper of sorts for the American inventor, the one they all sought out for advice, opinions, or help with a patent. Thomas Edison walked in one day to show Beach a device he called the phonograph. Beach turned a crank on Edison's small machine and a voice piped up, "Good morning, sir. How are you? How do you like the talking box?" He liked it, and he helped Edison file a patent. He also would help Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel F. B. Morse, and thousands more.

But it was Scientific American that gave Beach the platform he craved to promote his own personal interests and inventions. Beach and Munn were able to quickly resurrect the magazine by focusing its content less on the highly technical science stories and more on what they knew best: curious inventions and practical, interesting patents. Simply by printing a weekly list of patents given to them directly from the U.S. Patent Office, Beach and Munn increased the number of subscriptions to Scientific American, and it took off: by 1848, not even two years after they bought it, the circulation exceeded ten thousand readers.

Beach was becoming a man of real importance. When his father decided in 1848 to hand over management of his newspaper to his two sons, Moses and Alfred, Alfred's prominence reached even greater heights. He owned the most respected and lucrative science magazine in the country. He had the attention of every serious and not-so-serious inventor across the land. And now he was running a daily newspaper with more than fifty thousand readers in the nation's largest city. He had a vast and growing audience riveted on his every opinion. And he was only twenty-two years old.

THE MID–NINETEENTH CENTURY WAS a magical time for anybody who loved to tinker and had good ideas and good hands. Inventors were changing the way people lived their lives and ran their businesses. Elias Howe, not yet thirty years old, introduced his sewing machine in 1846, and within a few years the garment-making industry was revolutionized and clothes became more affordable. In 1847, a middle-aged inventor from Charlestown, Massachusetts, named Samuel Morse, who had been working for more than a decade to perfect his idea of speeding up long-distance, person-to-person communications, received a patent for an invention called the telegraph. A year later, a blacksmith from New Bedford, Massachusetts, changed the whaling industry with a new type of harpoon. And farming was in the midst of huge change. The American economy relied heavily on the success of the farmer, who might spend an entire day doing backbreaking work in the fields to plow or harvest only a single acre. But as 1850 approached, each passing year brought farmers more relief. A grain elevator invented in Buffalo dramatically sped up the hoisting of grain from ships into bins. The production of artificial manure to help crops grow began to take off, and the artificial-fertilizer industry was born. New inventions allowed farmers who were previously able to manage only a dozen acres to handle a hundred or more. Amid all this upheaval, no industry underwent more dramatic change than the transportation industry.

In 1825, most commuters who lived in cities got to work the same way. They walked. Only the rich could afford to own or hire a private carriage, and the idea of multiple people riding together in the same vehicle seemed farfetched. New York City had nearly two hundred thousand residents, most of whom were crowded into a small portion of the island. Only as more immigrants arrived and the population grew did the footprint of the livable parts of New York expand. That's when Abraham Brower saw an opportunity.

Brower asked the coach-making business of Wade & Leverich in 1827 to design and build for him a vehicle that could hold twelve people. The vehicle, which he called Accommodation, had large wooden wheels with spokes, open sides, and two compartments inside, each with a forward-facing and backward-facing seat for three people. Steps on the side made getting in and out easy, and for a flat fare of one shilling, passengers could be whisked almost two miles up and down Broadway. In bad weather, the driver would sometimes go slightly out of his way to get a passenger closer to home.

Emboldened by the success of Accommodation, Brower added a second vehicle with some improvements. The door was in the back, with iron stairs, and inside the seats ran lengthwise instead of across. The new design made the ride more social for passengers, thus the name Sociable was painted on its side. Boston, in the same year, had seen a similar service introduced, which ran on a regular schedule. For twelve cents, passengers could ride between South Boston and the downtown area. But no other American city jumped on the experiment, and for a short period Boston and New York alone had these precursors to urban mass transit systems.

While Americans were just getting used to the idea of riding with others, Brower began to hear of an even bigger, more lumbering vehicle taking over the streets of Paris and London. It was called an omnibus, and on a spring day in 1831, he introduced it to the streets of New York. The sight of the driver sitting on a raised seat and a small boy standing on the rear steps to collect the fare of twelve and a half cents was jarring for New Yorkers at first. But before long more than a hundred decorated omnibuses were crowding the streets of the city, with names painted on the sides, from George Washington to Lady Washington to Benjamin Franklin. They were popular. And they caused complete chaos.

For the individual owners of the omnibuses, nothing mattered more than the paying passenger. Drivers whipped their horses repeatedly to speed them past a competitor to the next potential fare, even if it meant a harrowing few seconds for those already on board. Grazing a lamppost to cut a corner or to cut in front of a rival was fair game, and pedestrians not paying attention could get maimed by a cornering horse or the trailing carriage. Nobody benefited more from the crowded, jostling cars than the pickpocket. The omnibus, which had started out with such promise, quickly lost favor with the people. "Bedlam on wheels," is how The New York Herald described it. The bedlam would not last, and it would give way to something better.

ON A BITING MORNING IN late 1832, Walter Bowne, a former state senator entering his third term as New York mayor, joined a sidewalk crowd of high-society gentlemen in top hats and ladies in satin dresses standing in the Bowery district. They came to see where street transit systems were headed. A year earlier, Bowne had signed an ordinance allowing the New York & Harlem Railroad Company to build a railroad between the Harlem River and Twenty-third Street. It was promised to the city that a transportation system on rails would be a dramatic upgrade for passengers, a smoother and faster ride than wooden wheels on cobblestone streets, and much easier for the horses. It took months for a route to be agreed upon, and on November 26, 1832, shouting spectators lined the downtown streets to come see what they had been told was the future of transportation.


Excerpted from "The Race Underground"
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Copyright © 2014 Doug Mos.
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