NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 7:30 AM
Once upon a time, the New York City subway system was a thing of luxury.
Today, that may seem difficult to imagine between slashings underground and Pizza Rats on the stairs, but the first subway — an illegally constructed block-long pneumatic ride — featured everything from a grand piano to a fishpond in the station. It was a different world of underground transit.
In the 1840s, New York had become a crowded place in need of better public transit, according to transit historian and retired New York University professor Peter Derrick.
Streetcars were one early solution, but enterprising entrepreneurs were still looking for something better.
Alfred Ely Beach, shown here circa 1870, was the inventor responsible for the short-lived pneumatic subway.
Beach had to develop tools to dig underground covertly in order to construct the subway tunnel.
In 1849, inventor and journalist Alfred Ely Beach penned an article for Scientific American advancing the possibility of an underground horse-drawn subway. That idea didn’t gain a lot of support, but over the coming decades Beach improved on his plan.
There weren’t many options for powering underground transit at that point. Horses were slow, steam engines were messy and dangerous — and electric rails and gas engines hadn’t been invented yet.
But, by the time of the 1867 American Institute Fair, Beach had found a solution.
The Massachusetts-born inventor unveiled a short but functional pneumatic subway, according to PBS. Adventurous souls interested in embracing a new world of transit could step into the 10-person car and marvel as a 200-revolution-per-minute fan blew them back and forth along the 100-foot length of the demonstration tube.
The sample ride wowed New Yorkers, but it didn’t impress Boss William Tweed.
The political giant hoped to make money off of another new transit possibility — elevated railways. He didn’t want the underground contraptions to interfere with his money-making scheme and, accordingly, he planned to block Beach’s construction plans by denying the inventor and his investors a charter.
Despite Tweed’s staunch opposition and formidable political stature, Beach would not be deterred. After a bit of finagling and some outright lies, the determined inventor got a charter, but not quite the charter he wanted.
What he got permission for with an 1868 charter was a 4-foot tube for demonstrating pneumatic mail delivery, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Technically, he still wasn’t allowed to build a subway — but Beach didn’t allow himself to be bothered with such technicalities. Blatantly disregarding the details of the charter, Beach built a tunnel that was 8 feet in diameter and 300 feet long. To dig the secret tunnel without attracting attention or disturbing the traffic above, Beach came up with a new cylindrical tunneling shield.
The new invention worked and, in February 1870, Beach opened the new subway to a surprised public. The modern wonder was only one block long — it ran along Broadway between Warren and Murray streets — but was housed in an influential part of town, near City Hall and the courthouse.
The station — entered through the Devlin clothing store on the Warren Street side — featured elegant mirrors and fountains and saloons for men and women.
The 22-person car offered grandly upholstered seats, according to the Museum of the City of New York. It was brightly lit, with a grand piano and glorious paintings and a goldfish tank, according to American Heritage.
Boss Tweed was the political leader of New York City’s Tammany Hall in the mid-1800s.
There was a price to pay for that luxury. The one-block trip cost 25 cents, which was no small fee in 1870. By contrast, when the current subway system opened in 1904, fares were just 5 cents.
At a quarter a head, the new system made money; Beach pulled in somewhere around $ 100,000 in the first year. The attraction was so popular that a police presence was often required to control the gathering crowd.
It was — it seemed at first — a vast success. But that success was short-lived.
To make the pneumatic subway a viable form of transit, Beach needed permission to make it longer. For three years, he battled Tweed’s influence in Albany to get approval for the Beach Transit Bill, which would allow him to extend the line to Central Park.
Eventually, he got the state approval he needed — just in time for the Panic of 1873, when investors were less willing to back adventurous endeavors. Despite the popularity and elegance of the Beach subway, “investors thought there was no way to build a whole system out of it,” Derrick said.
As the financial crisis loomed, a cheaper alternative was gaining steam — the elevated rails Tweed had hoped for.
“Subways costs four to five times as much as an elevated line, so subways would be difficult to do — especially without electricity — and the elevated lines were much cheaper,” Derrick said.
A contemporary illustration shows a portal to Beach’s pneumatic subway tunnel.
“The first elevated line was decided on in 1867 and opened around 1875,” he added. By 1880, there was an extensive network of elevated lines throughout Manhattan, and the idea of a pneumatic subway was buried and forgotten.
Today’s subway opened in October 1904 but, as it expanded, eventually workers ran into the old line, uncovering its decaying grandeur during a 1912 project to construct the Brooklyn-Manhattan Subway.
Since then, it’s reverted to being a largely forgotten piece of New York transit history.