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America’s First Subway

Published: September 1, 2017

Just four years after the Civil War, New York began constructing the first subway in America. It opened in February 1870 but never became more than a block-long prototype of a pneumatic-powered system.

At the time, engineering “experts” warned investors away from the subway system. It would be crushed, they said, by the weight of those enormous buildings overhead, like the five-story-tall Astor House hotel!

So the honors for the first operating subway went to Boston, which opened its 1.5-mile long underground system on September 1, 1897. It marked the beginning of an underground movement as cities began burying parts of their infrastructure.

New York finally launched its own subway system in 1904, and it soon became the world’s largest.

This footage from 1905 shows the New York City subway from 14th to 42nd Street.

By 1936, it had become part of New York’s many subterranean systems that fascinated Post writer Milton MacKaye.

In “Underground Empire,” which the Post published on month, date, 1936, MacKaye describes the system that handled 1.6 billion fares every year and supervised 1,100 miles of subway track. Underground travel had become such an essential part of life that subway stations featured stores, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and night clubs.

With Manhattan so crowded, it made sense for the city to bury its rapid transit, as well as its utilities. Beneath the sidewalks, as MacKaye writes, lay thousands of miles of gas and water mains; steam and sewer pipes; power, telephone, and telegraph lines; and the wiring for police and fire-alarm systems.

He also reported that New York had a 28-mile pneumatic-tube system that pushed 28-pound mail-filled torpedoes across the city to 23 post offices.

Today, New York’s subway is as vital to the city as it was in 1936. Its 1,500 miles of track connect 472 stations, helping to deliver over 5 million passengers to their destinations every day. And much of its old pipes and wiring are still in service. But the pneumatic mail system that fascinated MacKaye is no more. It was shut down in 1953.

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  • A fascinating look at the history of the subway. It’s one of those things I really never thought about, unlike the automobile and air plane, yet it’s an equally important form of transportation for everyday life many places.

    Thanks for the 1936 ‘Underground Empire’ link. I read the entire thing. This demonstrates once again what an important publication the POST was, and still is.