In 1870, inventor Alfred Ely Beach developed New York City’s first ever subway: a one-stop transit line whose passenger car was propelled by pneumatic power. Known as “Beach Pneumatic Transit,” the experimental metro was constructed under a veil of secrecy and was designed to demonstrate the viability of underground train travel. Though not useful for getting around the city—its tunnel was only a block long—the subway operated for three years and even had plans to expand before financial woes forced it to shut down.
On October 27, 1904, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened the first line of what is now the New York City subway system. For the cost of a nickel per ride, passengers could travel over nine miles from City Hall all the way to 145th Street in Harlem. “For the first time in his life Father Knickerbocker went underground yesterday,” the New York Times wrote of the momentous debut, “went underground, he and his children, to the number of 150,000, amid the tooting of whistles and the firing of salutes, for a first ride in a subway which for years had been scoffed at as an impossibility.”
The IRT line was a much-needed engineering marvel, yet contrary to the Times’ report, it didn’t mark the first time that “Father Knickerbocker” had ventured underground. Thirty-four years earlier in 1870, the city had briefly had a one-stop, pneumatic-powered subway beneath Broadway in Lower Manhattan. The prototype had only lasted three years, but in that time it introduced tens of thousands of New Yorkers to the wonders of subterranean transit.
The 1870 subway was the brainchild of Alfred Ely Beach, the publisher and editor of Scientific American magazine. A lifelong tinkerer—he had previously invented a typewriter for the blind—Beach was also obsessed with alleviating the glut of pedestrian and carriage traffic that plagued Manhattan’s streets. He eventually found a potential solution in the emerging field of pneumatics. Inspired by mail delivery systems that used air pressure to shoot letters and telegraph transcriptions through tubes, Beach began toying with using pneumatic power to safely move passenger trains underground. In 1867, he unveiled a working prototype of a fan-propelled train car at New York’s American Institute Fair. “A tube, a car, a revolving fan!” he wrote afterwards. “Little more is required. The ponderous locomotive, with its various appurtenances, is dispensed with, and the light aerial fluid that we breathe is the substituted motor.”
Beach’s success at the American Institute Fair cemented his desire to build a pneumatic railway beneath New York, but he faced a major hurdle in the form of the city government. Post-Civil War New York was effectively ruled by William “Boss” Tweed and his corrupt Tammany Hall political machine, and Manhattan was home to wealthy landowners who had the power to squelch any construction projects they opposed. Determined to bypass this bureaucratic minefield, Beach decided to mask his true intentions. In 1868, after forming an outfit called the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, he secured a charter from the state legislature to build tunnels “to provide for the transmission of letters, packages and merchandise” in New York. The government officials who approved the project believed it was nothing more than a simple pneumatic mail tube system. Once he received his charter, however, Beach altered his plans to include a much larger tunnel that could house a subway car.
With his son Frederick serving as foreman, Beach and a small crew commenced work on their clandestine construction project. Using a piece of hydraulic equipment called a “tunneling shield,” they spent several weeks carving a 9-foot-wide, 312-foot-long tube beneath Broadway between Warren and Murray Streets. They then installed the “Western Tornado,” a 50-ton, steam-powered blower that had originally been used in mining. The rotary fan provided the necessary air power to push the subway’s passenger car down its brick-lined underground tube. When the fan was reversed, it drew the car back to its starting point.
To ensure his passengers remained comfortable in his newfangled transit system, Beach outfitted it with luxurious trimmings. Near the basement of a clothing store called Devlin’s, he built a sprawling waiting room that included frescoes, faux windows, a grandfather clock and a fountain. There was even a grand piano to keep patrons entertained. The train car, meanwhile, included zircon lights and upholstered seats with room for 22 passengers.
New Yorkers had grown increasingly curious about the Broadway construction project by early 1870, and its grand opening did not disappoint. When the doors were finally thrown open on February 26, visitors were instantly enchanted by the subway’s opulent waiting room and futuristic propulsion system. “Such as expected to find a dismal cavernous retreat under Broadway, opened their eyes at the elegant reception room, the light, airy tunnel, and the general appearance of taste and comfort in all the apartments,” the New York Times wrote.
The pneumatic subway was merely a demonstration line—its lone platform meant that it couldn’t actually transport its passengers anywhere—but that didn’t stop New Yorkers from climbing aboard in droves. In the first week alone, nearly 10,000 people took the short cruise between Warren and Murray Streets. Despite the train’s 25-cent fare and relatively plodding speed of 10 miles per hour, most left satisfied. “Our atmospheric ride was most delightful,” one passenger wrote in a company pamphlet, “and our party left the car satisfied by actual experience that the pneumatic system of traveling is one of the greatest improvements of the day.”
Beach eventually sold nearly half a million fares on his subterranean train. Nevertheless, he suffered repeated setbacks when he tried to win a charter for a citywide subway system. Downtown merchants objected to such a large and potentially intrusive construction project, and engineers were still leery of the risks of tunneling beneath the city streets. The governor of New York, meanwhile, vetoed pneumatic transit bills on two separate occasions. Beach would later blame Boss Tweed for blocking his subway plan, but many historians now believe that the Tammany Hall chief was not as key a player as was once believed. Records show that Tweed—a state senator—even introduced Beach’s legislation at one point, but he later turned against the plan and championed a separate project involving an elevated train system.
Despite the opposition of Tweed and other political heavyweights, Beach continued lobbying and finally won a charter for his subway in 1873. The ambitious plan called for an underground tunnel system that would extend from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan all the way to the Harlem River and into the Bronx. Unfortunately for Beach, however, the scheme never got past the planning stage. The same year he got his charter, the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1873 ripped through the United States and Europe and triggered an economic depression. Left with no sources of funding, Beach was forced to abandon his dream project and shut down the Broadway line. He later leased the space as an indoor shooting gallery before finally sealing off the tunnel for good.
By the time Alfred Ely Beach died in 1896, his pneumatic railroad was a forgotten relic. Its station was later ruined in an 1898 fire, and its tunnel remained mostly untouched until 1912, when work crews reopened it during an expansion of the subway. Reports from the time noted that the moldering railway car was still resting on the tracks, but it was later lost or demolished during the construction of the modern day BMT Broadway Line. That subway—the successor to Beach’s whimsical experiment—is now part of a rapid transit system that moves some five million passengers each day.