New York City's Other Subway

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For many, the story of subterranean travel in New York begins in October 27, 1904, when the first underground line of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company began to operate from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. But in reality, underground transit in New York began 34 years earlier—in a stranger-than-fiction saga that involves a secret dig, a massive success, and unheard-of political corruption.

The year was 1869, and a man named Alfred Ely Beach had a big idea. At the time, Beach was best known as the publisher of Scientific American, which he purchased from its founder with a friend just 10 months after it was first printed. (Beach was also known for running a school for freedmen after the Civil War and patenting an early typewriter.)

Like most New Yorkers before and since, Beach hated the city’s notorious traffic. The streets were crowded with horses, carts, and hordes of frustrated people, including the inventor. Beach was familiar with London’s new Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground subway system. But building the subway had been a huge investment of time and a gigantic disruption of the city—not exactly something that seemed viable for cash-strapped New York.

This directly conflicted with Beach’s grand vision, which involved the relatively new concept of pneumatic tubes. The idea was already being used to push capsules containing letters at the London Stock Exchange, and Beach wanted to turn the technology into a game changer for New York. He became a bona fide pneumatic tube pusher, proposing their use for businesses in New York and, eventually, public transit. The idea was almost deceptively simple. “A tube, a car, a revolving fan!” he wrote breathlessly. “Little more is required.” 

Soon Beach was convinced that pneumatic tubes were the solution for New York’s traffic problem. But Boss Tweed, the head of the political machine that was the city’s Tammany Hall, disagreed. When Beach applied for a permit, Tweed turned it down (likely because he was involved in building an above-ground transit system—and collecting huge amounts of graft in the process). So Beach did what any intrepid inventor would do: He got permits to build pneumatic mail tubes instead, then set about building a full-blown demonstration subway under the guise of a piddly mail delivery project. 

Fifty-eight days after construction began, Beach’s secret tunnel was ready to unveil to the public. It was only about a block long, but it was long enough. It also almost unleashed a public firestorm when newspapers claimed that the pneumatic tube people were causing Broadway to sink. Beach created a distraction and avoided a PR catastrophe by holding a star-studded reception underground. He entertained guests in an elaborate waiting room complete with a fountain filled with goldfish, chandeliers and a grand piano, then whisked passengers about 300 feet on a subway car. 

It was nothing less than a sensation. Not only did Beach collect 25-cent fares from over 400,000 passengers in the first year, but he demonstrated that it was possible to move passengers safely beneath the city. Beach’s next step was to try to extend the line, but political interference from Tweed and other legislators and waning public interest sucked the life out of the plan like, well, a pneumatic fan in the years that followed. (Read Joseph Brennan’s epic account of the ins and outs of the political drama and technical challenges of the system here.) 

Though Beach’s vision of a pneumatic underground subway system never went further than a few hundred feet, another one of his concepts lasted much longer. Beach himself didn’t build the underground pneumatic mail system [PDF] that ran beneath the city from 1897 to 1953, but he surely helped inspire it.

The Beach Pneumatic Station was soon forgotten and periodically rediscovered, then annihilated when the City Hall subway station was built in 1912. The system’s closed car and tunnel shield were initially preserved, but have since been lost. How would New York transit look today if his idea hadn't flopped? We'll never know—but it's fun to dream about an alternative timeline filled with Beach's underground, undercover pneumatic trains.