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Underground Pioneers

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from the magazine

Underground Pioneers

Spring 1994

Builders of
New York’s first subway faced a severe challenge in Manhattan’s geology.
Although the island has a total of only 23 square miles, it harbors an
unrivaled range of forbidding features. Above 103rd Street, Manhattan is
dominated by a line of ridges along its western shore rising 268 feet above
sea level. It is also bisected by two major faults that were important
barriers to transportation at the turn of the century. Moreover, most of the
island is covered with Manhattan schist, a very hard rock that is extremely
difficult to cut through. Even more serious than its hardness is the fact
that it is susceptible to decay and can fracture or collapse without warning,
making it highly unpredictable and dangerous.

The man who had to tackle this geological nightmare was William Barclay
Parsons, the chief engineer of the Rapid Transit Commission. Born in 1859,
Parsons was the scion of a proud, old New York family that had belonged to
the city’s Anglo-American elite during the colonial era. At 12, his parents
sent him to an English private school in Torquay, Devonshire, and for the
next four years he studied under private tutors while traveling through
Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. On this grand tour Parsons formed a
lasting admiration for the British aristocracy, which he credited with
raising the level of civilization around the world.

In 1875, Parsons returned to New York and enrolled at Columbia College. A
big, strapping youth who was good at games and was popular with his
classmates despite a humorless streak that earned him the unattractive
nickname “Reverend Parsons,” he stroked the heavyweight eight-oared crew to a
string of victories on the Harlem River, captained the tug-of-war team, won
election as class president, and cofounded the student newspaper, the Spectator.
He graduated from Columbia College in 1879 and three years later received a
degree in civil engineering from the university’s School of Mines.

After a brief stint on the staff of the Erie Railroad, Parsons started his
own private practice as a consulting engineer in January 1885, with offices
at 22 William Street in lower Manhattan. Although he designed a number of
water supply systems and railways, Parsons became particularly excited about
a scheme that a group of New York City businessmen hatched to build a subway
from the Battery to the Harlem River. These entrepreneurs organized the
Arcade Railway Company and hired Parsons as a staff engineer. The Arcade was
riddled with internal strife, and Parsons and several other dissident
employees soon split away to create a rival enterprise, the New York District
Railway. The Arcade and the District spent more time fighting each other than
planning subways, however, and both companies quickly went bankrupt.

Instead of being disheartened by this failure, Parsons grew fascinated by
rapid transit engineering. He pored over topographical maps of Manhattan and
hiked through city neighborhoods trying to figure out the best route, motive
power, and construction methods for an underground railway. At the same time
he exploited his aristocratic connections by cultivating Abram S. Hewitt,
William Steinway, Seth Low, and other blue-blooded subway promoters.

Parsons’ lobbying paid off. In 1891 the Steinway Commission chose him as
its deputy chief engineer. When the new Rapid Transit Commission replaced the
Steinway Commission in 1894, Parsons became its chief engineer.

William Barclay Parsons, 35, now took direct control of subway building.
Tall and rangy, with a prominent jaw and piercing eyes that made him appear
good-looking in a rough sort of way, Parsons radiated strength and dignity.
He stayed calm under pressure and was known for his rigid self-control.
Parsons was hardly an amiable or engaging man, and he had little personal
warmth. But this stern, demanding patrician nonetheless drew first-rate
engineers to his side, inspired their best work, and earned their lifelong
loyalty. A journalist later observed that Parsons was a “born general and
diplomat” who was “as thorough as a machine” and possessed an extraordinary
gift for leadership.

True to his upper-class background, Parsons had a keen sense of social
responsibility and believed that engineering entailed much more than narrow
technical considerations. He thought of engineering as an instrument for
expanding America’s wealth and power so that it would eventually surpass
Great Britain as the dominant world power.

Parsons found his life’s work with the subway. Fervently embracing former
mayor Abram S. Hewitt’s imperial vision of rapid transit as an instrument for
guaranteeing New York City’s future, Parsons thought of the subway as a
mission rather than a mere job.

The Age of Electricity

The first decision confronting Parsons was the selection of a motive power
for the subway. When Parsons became chief engineer of the Rapid Transit
Commission in 1894, electrical traction was still in its infancy in the
United States. Parsons was skeptical about electric traction’s possibilities
and prudently refused to rule out steam or cable.

Late in the summer of 1894, Parsons sailed for Europe to make a survey of
its railways. London was the birthplace of underground mass transportation,
and in the 1890s it remained the center of rapid transit technology. On
November 4, 1890, the City and South London Railway had inaugurated the
world’s first electrically powered subway. Originally intended for cable
power, the City and South London converted to electricity at the last moment,
and its design resembled a toy train set more than a major urban railway. The
new underground was only three miles long, going from the Monument in the
city to Stockwell on the south bank of the Thames River, and its two tunnels
had a diameter of just ten feet two inches. Its four-car trains were tiny,
seating no more than 96 riders, and they averaged just 13 miles per hour.
Passenger accommodations were not ideal, either. Angry riders complained that
the carriages were stuffy and uncomfortable.

Despite these drawbacks, Parsons understood that the City and South London
represented a gigantic step forward from London’s two steam undergrounds. He
noted that its stations and carriages were clean and well-ventilated, and
that its patrons did not ruin their clothes or inhale noxious fumes. But
Parsons was more concerned about economics than about the environment.
Consequently, he was impressed that the City and South London tallied lower
fuel, repair, and labor costs than the two steam undergrounds, suffered
relatively few mechanical breakdowns, and made a modest profit. To Parsons
this was convincing proof that electricity was the solution.

How Deep Should the Subway Go?

As much as he had learned from the City and South London, Parsons knew
that the New York subway could not be designed from another underground
railway’s blueprint. Manhattan’s tough physical and urban geography demanded
a unique engineering solution, not a carbon copy of another’s.

Manhattan’s geological uniqueness had a particularly strong bearing on the
question of the subway’s depth. Geologists and engineers recognized that
Manhattan schist was a hard, heterogeneous substance that would impede
tunneling. What they had not appreciated, however, was that the schist did
not lie at an even depth below the surface. In the nineteenth century the
amount of knowledge about New York City’s geology was minimal. Before the
construction of skyscrapers required digging deep foundations, and at a time
when only a few public works such as the Croton Aqueduct and the Brooklyn
Bridge entailed much underground construction, engineers lacked basic
information about the subsurface.

William Barclay Parsons himself was among the first to discover that the
distance from the ground to bedrock varied from place to place. In 1891,
while drilling test holes for the Steinway Commission along the route of its
projected Broadway subway, Parsons uncovered a striking phenomenon: The
schist came within 20 feet of the surface at Whitehall Street on the Battery;
dropped to a depth of 163 feet at Duane Street, three blocks north of City Hall;
remained at a low level under Greenwich Village; and then climbed back to 16
feet at 30th Street. This U-shaped rock contour had important consequences
for Manhattan’s growth. For instance, one reason for the emergence of lower
and midtown Manhattan as the main business districts was that the schist rose
so close to the surface there, it provided an excellent building foundation
for skyscrapers.

Parsons’ discovery affected the decision of the Rapid Transit Commission
about whether to construct the New York subway near the surface, or far below
ground, like the City and South London. If the RTC followed the City and
South London’s lead, its tunnel would cross a mixed face of partly soft earth
and partly hard rock. Transiting a mixed face was a poor engineering practice
because it would generate high construction costs and produce an unsound
structure. One way to avoid a mixed face was to sink the tunnel so deep—as
much as two hundred feet below Broadway, the equivalent of two-thirds of a
football field—that it would pass only through solid bedrock. But even though
this alternative would bring about a structurally sound subway, Parsons
warned that it would require the installation of expensive elevators,
escalators, and ventilators that would raise capital and operating costs to
uneconomical heights.

The answer, Parsons argued, was to build the subway within 15 or 20 feet
of the surface. He claimed that a shallow subway could be constructed by
excavating a trench in the street, a relatively simple expedient that would
cost less than a deep tube and yet would yield a stable structure. There was
one drawback to a shallow subway, however: The space below most city streets
was already filled with a maze of electric cables, telephone lines, telegraph
wires, water pipes, steam mains, and sewers that would have to be removed and
rebuilt elsewhere. Parsons nonetheless concluded that a shallow subway would
cost one-eighth as much as a tube, and he strongly recommended that the Rapid
Transit Commission opt for a shallow subway.

In early 1895 the Rapid Transit Commission adopted an engineering plan
that incorporated most of Parsons’ ideas: a shallow railway with four tracks
on a single level as far as the Ninety-Sixth Street junction, and with two
tracks (later enlarged to three in some places) on the Broadway and Lenox
Avenue branches. Once the RTC approved its basic engineering design, Parsons
had to wait until the commissioners awarded a franchise and then construction
could begin. For the chief engineer, the five-year wait for the RTC’s plan to
emerge from the labyrinth of mayoral, aldermanic, and judicial oversight was
torture. Parsons grew particularly concerned when other European and North
American cities began passing New York City in the race for rapid transit.
Between 1895 and 1900, as New York’s courts dickered over the RTC’s budget
and route, Glasgow, Budapest, and Boston unveiled new underground railways
and Paris started to build its first metro. Parsons feared his dream of
building the New York subway would not be realized.

Construction of the IRT

Late in 1899 a cable announcing that the RTC’s subway plan had finally
been approved reached Parsons in Canton, China, where he was surveying a
thousand-mile railroad from Hankow to the sea on behalf of a syndicate headed
by J. P. Morgan. Overjoyed with the happy news, Parsons immediately quit the
Chinese survey and sailed for home. By the time subway construction began on
March 26, 1900, two days after a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the
steps of City Hall, Parsons was already hard at work.

The new subway would run from City Hall, in lower Manhattan, to Grand
Central Terminal, across 42nd Street to Times Square on the West Side, and
then up Broadway to 96th Street on the Upper West Side. At 96th Street, the
subway split into two branches, with one following Broadway to Van Cortlandt
Park in the Western Bronx and the other going through Harlem, crossing the
Harlem River, and terminating at Bronx Park in the Central Bronx.

Contemporary building technology was so primitive that the IRT had to be
constructed almost entirely by hand. Because there were few steam shovels or
bulldozers available in 1900, the burden fell almost entirely on the 7,700
laborers who made up the workforce at its peak. These workers were predominantly
Irish and Italian, although there were also Germans, African-Americans,
Greeks, and members of other ethnic groups. Unskilled workers earned from
$2.00 to $2.25 per day, skilled workers about $2.50. Wielding picks, shovels,
hammers, percussion drills, and other hand tools, these workmen literally
gouged the subway out of the raw earth. These laborers led hard lives.

The standard form of construction was known as cut and cover. The laborers
began by cutting a hole the width of the street. Excavating this trench was
fairly easy below 10th Street, where the subway ran through soft soils. It
was much more difficult above 10th Street where much of the

route passed through solid rock that had to be drilled and dynamited. In
both sections, work gangs had to shore up the old buildings that lined the
path of the IRT, maneuver around the underground storage vaults that extended
into the streets, and relocate sewers and utilities. Traffic was a concern,
too. On busy downtown thoroughfares such as Park Row that had to stay open
during construction, workers covered the trench with a temporary wooden
bridge that supported trolleys, carriages, and wagons; on less important
arteries the street was closed during construction and the hole remained

After completing the trench, the workers erected the structural framework
that would house the tracks, signals, third rail, and other equipment. This
framework was made of steel and concrete and resembled an elongated
rectangular box. Laborers poured a four-inch-thick concrete foundation across
the bottom of the trench to form the box’s base. They fabricated its sides
and roof by planting steel I-beams every five feet and pouring concrete into
the gaps between the beams. This technique of embedding steel columns in
concrete produced an exceptionally strong structure that could easily bear
the weight of the street.

Cut and cover was the most common type of construction, but it could be
employed on no more than 52 percent of the subway’s total length. Due to the
island’s hilly topography, abrupt changes in the ground level occurred so
frequently that the use of cut and cover would not have kept the rails at
grade. To prevent the IRT from resembling a Coney Island roller coaster, the
RTC had to build a wide variety of structures, including a 2,174-foot steel
arch viaduct across Manhattan Valley between 122nd and 135th streets and rock
tunnels in Murray Hill and upper Manhattan.

Of all the techniques used on the subway, rock tunneling was the most
demanding. The workers started by sinking a vertical shaft at both ends of
the tunnel. Then they isolated a small section at the bottom of each shaft
and began driving a narrow heading there. This heading was advanced by
drilling holes seven feet into the face of the schist and putting dynamite
charges in the cavities. After detonating the explosives, the laborers
returned to the face, cleared the rubble, and braced the new section of the
tunnel. Then they started drilling again. This cycle of drilling, blasting,
clearing, and timbering continued until the two headings met in the middle
and the tunnel was completed. The workmen then enlarged the tube to its full
size, lined it with concrete, and installed tracks, third rails, and signals.

The subway’s most daunting structure was a tunnel that ran over two miles
from 158th Street in Washington Heights to Hillside Avenue in Fort George. It
ranked as the second longest two-track rock tunnel ever built in the United
States, surpassed only by the famous Hoosac Tunnel in western Massachusetts.
It was so deep that elevators had to be installed so that passengers could
reach the 168th Street, 181st Street, and 191st Street stations; the 191st
Street stop is 180 feet below ground and remains the subway system’s deepest
station today.

The construction of this imposing tunnel attracted miners from all over:
eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal hills, Colorado’s silver lode, the
Klondike gold strike, South Africa’s gold and diamond fields, Wales, Ireland,
Scandinavia, and Canada. These were men who spent their lives wandering from
place to place. They earned up to $3.75 a day, almost twice as much as
unskilled workers, and pointedly referred to the tunnel as the “mine” in
order to distance themselves from ordinary laborers. During the IRT’s
construction they lived in boardinghouses in Washington Heights and turned
this neighborhood into a tough mining camp that reverberated with the rhythms
of work, drinking, and whoring.

Boring through Manhattan schist was difficult because the rock was hard;
it was dangerous because the schist lacked uniformity. Drillers often
encountered unexpected geological hazards that delayed the project and cost
lives—rock slides, pockets of broken rock or loose gravel, and underground

The single worst accident that took place during the construction of the
subway occurred here in October 1903, near the tunnel’s Fort George portal.
At the time the tunnel crews were working several hundred feet north of 193rd
Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, on the rear slope of Fort George, where the
schist lay at a steep angle that was conducive to slides, and in a strata of
broken rock that was riddled with fissures and seams. Although these
treacherous geological conditions probably should have dictated a cautious
approach, only a few hundred feet remained to be excavated before the tunnel
was holed through, and the contractor, L.B. McCabe & Sons, was in a
hurry. Consequently, McCabe ordered three dynamite blasts be set off every
day instead of the normal two.

This decision proved fatal. Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on October 24, a gang
of 22 men triggered a series of explosions in the tunnel. Ten or fifteen
minutes later, foreman Timothy Sullivan returned to the rock face by himself
in order to sound the tunnel’s walls. He was responsible for making sure that
the blast did not loosen any rocks in the roof and walls that might fall on
his crew. Thinking the schist looked stable, Sullivan shouted, “Come on boys,
let’s get to work.” Sullivan was unaware that an underground spring was
hidden behind the face, weakening the rock. Shortly after the laborers
reached the blast site, a huge three-hundred-ton boulder measuring 44 feet
long and 4 or 5 feet wide, dropped from the roof, killing six men instantly
and seriously injuring eight others.

Two days later William Barclay Parsons arrived at the portal and inspected
the accident site. Dismissing the possibility that the contractor’s speedup
might have contributed to the disaster, Parsons concluded that the mishap was
an unavoidable result of Fort George’s unforgiving geology. “All possible
[safety] precautions had been taken,” he assured the Rapid Transit Commission
in his annual report.

Parsons lost no sleep over the deaths of these lowly workers of foreign
stock. To Parsons, all that really mattered was keeping subway construction
on schedule and making sure that it was completed successfully.

Opening Day

After more than 15 years of planning and four years of construction, the
IRT subway finally opened on October 27, 1904. For weeks, New Yorkers had
been waiting eagerly for the big event. In the words of one newspaperman, New
York City went “subway mad” over the IRT’s inauguration. For the past month,
hundreds of New Yorkers had held “subway parties” to celebrate opening day.
On October 27th itself, courthouses, office buildings, and shops were decked
out with flags and bunting; guns, sirens, and church bells resounded all day
long. Thousands of people had queued up outside the stations, waiting for
their first subway ride.

At seven that night, the IRT opened its doors to the public. Men and women
who had been anticipating this moment for weeks streamed down the stairs and
onto the cars. The night took on a carnival atmosphere, much like New Year’s
Eve. Groups of couples celebrated by putting on their best clothes, going out
to dinner, and then taking their first subway ride together. Some people
spent the entire evening on the trains, going back and forth along the line.
Reveling in the IRT’s sheer novelty, these riders wanted to soak up its
unfamiliar sights and sensations for as long as possible.

New Yorkers had every reason to be excited by their first glimpse of the
IRT. New York’s new subway was the most technologically advanced rapid
transit railway in the world; within two decades, it would be the world’s
longest rapid transit line, too.

In a speech he made earlier on October 27th, at the official dedication
ceremony in City Hall, Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. had predicted that the
subway would guarantee New York’s position as a great city. McClellan claimed
that the IRT would tie this far-flung city together into a single economic
and social unit and promote urban development.

His prediction came true within a decade. The IRT subway brought vast
reaches of upper Manhattan and the Bronx within easy traveling time of
downtown, unleashing a gigantic construction boom that tripled the size of
the built-up area.

The IRT changed New York City almost beyond recognition. Gone were the
farms and villages that had covered northern Manhattan and the Bronx in 1900,
and gone was the pattern of sparse and uneven development that had
characterized the Upper West Side. From Times Square’s theaters and movie
houses to the Upper West Side’s huge ten-story apartments and to the new
working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx, the face of the city acquired a new
set of distinctly urban features.

The settlement of the outlying sections of northern Manhattan and the
Bronx was the most important consequence of the IRT. In effect the subway
represented an indirect municipal subsidy to the private construction
industry that built this new housing and to the low-income tenants who
inhabited it. Only a rapid transit railway as fast as the IRT could have
opened up these distant regions for residential expansion, and only a
publicly financed subway could have achieved the IRT’s high technological
standards. Without violating the laissez-faire taboo against direct
intervention in the private sector, city government helped provide decent
accommodations for working-class families. The subway’s enduring legacy was
that the lives of New York’s poorer citizens became fuller and more

The subway was a great success. In vindicating the judgment of William
Barclay Parsons and its other founders, the new underground railway testified
to the abiding importance of ambition and imagination in city-building.