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New York City Subway in New York New York
New York City Subway in New York New York
Building the New York City Subway
7 Minute Read
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August 20, 2021

Building the NYC Subway: Construction, History, Facts, and Info

With over 5.5 million people riding daily, the New York City subway system is like no other. Spanning the entirety of Manhattan Island as north as the Bronx and all the way to Brooklyn and Queens, the New York City subway system has moved everyone from Hugh Jackman, Katie Holmes and Kim Kardashian to your local grocer and neighbor. This is the story behind constructing this underground monster. 

Is the New York City Subway the Oldest Subway In the World?

Many people believe that, since the NYC Subway is one of the most notorious subway systems, it is also the oldest. It is not the oldest subway. In fact the subway in London England - the London Underground - is! The London Underground opened in 1883, almost twenty years before the NYC Subway. Even the Paris Metro opened 4 years before the New York subway system. 

Why did New York Get a Subway System?

It’s clear that subways were not invented for New York and were being built around the world before moving to the Big Apple. 

Alfred Ely Beach, an American inventor, publisher and patent lawyer from Springfield, Massachusetts designed the very first vision for a New York subway system. In the 1860s, traffic in the city was already getting notoriously busy and Beach’s idea was to move transportation underground. In fact, the London Underground was an inspiration to him in the creation of this plan. 

The big difference in this plan? The New York subway system was to be operated with pneumatics instead of steam engines. New York had no underground subway but did have above ground rail lines and cars that were being run by steam or cables so this idea caused quite the stir. By the time the actual trains and lines were built, the subway would run on electricity. But the idea was incredibly revolutionary at the time. 

What Is Pneumatic Power

Pneumatic power is just like hydraulic power except hydraulic power uses liquid such as oil or gas and pneumatic power relies on gases and compressed air. 

Beach’s Subway Actually Was Built. . . Kind Of

After a few demonstrations and pushback from City Hall and other governmental institutions, Beach apparently decided to build the tunnel in secret anyway. He has received a permit to build a pneumatic package delivery system and later changed the permit from two small tunnels to one large tunnel. He took this technicality and used it to build a single underground pneumatic tunnel about 300 feet long. With a single train, this “subway” operated for 3 years from 1870 - 1973 and was more of a curiosity than anything else. 

So, Where Did the NYC Subway Come From

Talk about Beach’s underground system and the push for New York’s own subway continued on for a few years until 1888 when New York experienced a blizzard like never before. 20-foot high snow piles and white-out conditions made New Yorkers realize how vital an underground rail system could be for the future of the city. Mayor Abram Hewitt led another round of partnership-building, legislative action and promotion for the subway, landing him the nickname “Father of the Subway. 

Workers broke ground on the first line of the NYC subway system in 1900. The bid for the project was won by the Rapid Transit Construction Company. 

Construction Workers Who Built the NYC Subway System

There were three “classes” of construction workers who helped to build the first iteration of the subway. 

A majority of the workers - about 7,700 of them - were unskilled immigrant workers. At the turn of the century in 1900, 1.3 of the 3.5 million people in New York City were immigrants. This workforce dug out the rubble, carried stones, dirt and gravel and cleared the way for the subway - all mostly by hand or with dollies. 

They would also be the ones to secure the rail lines together and complete basic building tasks. These workers earned between $2.00 and $2.25 / day. $2 in 1900 is about equal to $65.00. 

The second set of workers were skilled laborers who were in charge of measuring and pouring concrete, laying rail routes and overseeing other laborers. These workers earned a bit more, at about $2.50 per day. 

The “top dog” role during the construction of the NYC subway system were those in charge of the blasting, digging, and actual excavation of the tunnels. Actual skilled miners were hired from across the United States as well as other countries such as Canada, Ireland, Wales, England and other countries. 

They earned a hefty $3.75 a day and viewed themselves as being in a different category than the other workers. It’s said that these miners referred to the subway explicitly as “The Mine” in order to differentiate themselves from the other workers. 

The New York Public Library highlighted some contrasting pictures between construction workers in the first few years of construction versus construction workers during subway work in the 21st century. It’s a unique look at how the industry has changed over the years and what underground work looked like over 100 years ago versus today. 

Challenges of Construction 

The New York subway construction came with many challenges. The underground of NYC was full of groundwater and bedrock. There were also man-made sewer lines, water mains, gas lines and even pneumatic mail tubes.

These tubes are another interesting part of NYC History. The lines were used by the US Postal Service until 1953. The only known remains of the old mail tubes are in the old Chelsea Post Office on 217 W 18th Street where 6 tubes can be seen in the basement coming through the old brick. 

Construction workers were tasked with maneuvering these obstacles almost completely by hand and without much direction. The first subway tunnel dips and jumps as the depth of the tunnel vary across locations. The few first miles of track were not easy to lay. It makes it extra impressive that this same line is still used today. 

Accidents & Injuries

According to a newspaper article published on October 28th, 1904 in the New York Times, there were three major or more serious accidents that happened during the construction of the subway. The first was on January 27, 1902, when a storage shed for dynamite exploded. 6 people were killed and 125 were injured. More than $300,000 USD in property damage was done in the explosion. 

The second was on March 21 when a tunnel collapsed. The collapse happened on Park Ave between 37th and 38th streets. Residential buildings were damaged in this incident. 

The last was a cave-in that happened during excavation on October 24, 1903. 10 men died in this accident.  

Many minor accidents happened and many injuries took place but these three are recognized as the few major incidents. In a quote from the article, the New York Times states. The total deaths due to the Subway work has been very small for a work of such magnitude” - an interesting contrast to how we approach safety and workplace injury and death today. 

How Was the New York City Subway Constructed?

The first rail line used a Cut-and-Cover technique that was often used in tunnel construction back in the day. This method involved removing the top part of the earth - in this case, it was often road or sidewalk - “cutting” down into the earth, digging the tunnel, then using “I” beams to secure a ceiling and rebuilding the road on top of the tunnel, covering it back up.  

Construction of the New York City Subway took 4 years and was completed in 1904; or the first section of the subway was completed then, at least.

The First Subway Line in New York City

The very first line that was completed in 1904 was a 9.1 mile stretch of track that ran from City hall, under Lafayette Street, up to Park Ave & 42nd Street. It terminated at 154th Street Station in Harlem. The very first day it opened on October 27, 1904, 150,000 New Yorkers put on their Sunday best, paid the 5-cent fee and rode the subway line. 

Today, lines 1, 2, and 3 run on this track and were all started in 1904. 

Line Extensions

There have been many additional routes built and combined since 1904. The IRT - Interborough Rapid Transit Company - subway project was completed 4 years later, connecting the mainline to the Bronx and Brooklyn. The connection to Queens happened later on around 1915. The IND Subway Expansion - an independently owned and operated line - completed the 8th ave expansion in 1932. The Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corp - which was incorporated in 1923 - sold itself and all its lines to the city in 1940. By then, many of the individual lines,  both above and below ground, were incorporated into a single subway unit and connected in a more cohesive way. 

The Metropolitan Transport Authority - MTA - has been controlling the subway since 1968.

Current Construction on the NYC Subway Line

The Second Avenue Subway project began in 2007 with Phase 1 opening in January 2017. This project began to be pushed out in the 1990s with many city officials believing that expanding the subway would be a great investment for the future of New York City - Much like many believed back in the 1800s. 

Interesting Facts about the NYC Subway

  • There are 248 miles (399 km) of subway rails in New York.
  • The NYC Subway has 28 routes - 25 of which run through Manhattan.
  • 40% of NYC subway lines run above ground.
  • The NYC Subway has more stations than any other subway in the world with 472 stations located throughout Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan.
  • Most subway platforms are between 525 and 600 feet long.
  • City Hall was the first subway station to open.
  • The City of New York owns the subway and leases it to the NYC Transit Authority.
  • The NYC Subway is the 7th busiest subway in the world and the busiest in the Western hemisphere.
  • Today the lines run with different services for different times of the day. Express trains run during busy and rush hours.
  • Many famous stars, TV shows, bands and musicians as well as regular buskers often perform in the NYC subway.

Subway Construction Today

Today, tunnel boring machines and advanced technology have revolutionized the subway building process. The value in underground transportation has changed city life for over 120 years. There is no surprise that underground roads and boat tunnels have begun to be more popular too. 

This project took years to come to fruition and is still underground much work and construction. Our infrastructure and public transportation is always being updated and added to. Next time you hop on the A train or ride the L train from Union Square, remember that you are riding history. 

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