History Stories

The New York City subway system is nearly 113 years old, and it’s certainly feeling its age.

This summer, New Yorkers have endured delayed trains, canceled trains, derailed trains, trains whose doors won’t open to let people escape, and myriad other problems with the United States’ largest rapid transit system. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a tax on the city’s wealthiest residents to help fix the city’s transit system and provide reduced fares for lower-income residents.

The city’s subway system had expanded a lot since it first opened on October 27, 1904. Back then, it was known as the Interborough Rapid Transit, or IRT, and was privately owned. It consisted of just one nine-mile line in Manhattan that ran from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. According to a New York Times article about the opening, the public was psyched about the new mode of conveyance.

“For the first time in his life Father Knickerbocker went underground yesterday; 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,” reported the newspaper. (“Father Knickerbocker” was a symbol for New York City, much like Uncle Sam is for the U.S.).

However, not everyone was as taken with it. Within a year, riders were already mocking its delays. Look closely at the car in this New York Herald cartoon from 1905 and you’ll see a disclaimer: “Trains will run at the company’s convenience.”

new york herald cartoon

A cartoon of the New York City subway system in the 1905 ‘New York Herald.’ (Library of Congress)

The blog Ephemeral New York notes that in 1915, riders were already complaining that the subway was filthy and smelled bad. In a letter to the The New York Times, one wrote: “All the trains are dirt-filled and full of nameless odors.” Other complaints were a bit more picky: “The lighting of subway trains was now so poor as to be dangerous to the sight of passengers who might attempt to read their newspapers,” complained the Times in 1909.

By 1915, the IRT had expanded to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, but it was no longer the only game in town, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The privately-owned Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (later the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation) had built its own lines to compete for riders’ fares. In the early 1930s, New York debuted its own city-run system, and by 1940 the city had purchased all other private lines—which it still owns and operates today.

Even though complaints about the subway are as old as the transit system itself, it has inarguably played a vital role in the city’s history.

“Without the subway, it’s hard to imagine that New York would have remained a great city, indeed the ultimate city,” reflected the Times on the subway’s centennial in 2004. “Urban greatness, in the 21st century no less than the 20th, requires an efficient, safe and effective rail transit system. Without the subway, New York might very well have turned out to be Bridgeport.”

Indeed. But nothing remains efficient, safe, and effective on its own. It has to be maintained.

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