A beautifully preserved 1830s steam train is thought to be lurking under a busy thoroughfare in one of the posher parts of Brooklyn. But in 1861, it was sealed up, seemingly for eternity. Everything was set to excavate it just a few years back, until petty personal politics seem to have destroyed any chance of that.
What lies within the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in Brooklyn remains one of New York’s last great archaeological mysteries. The tunnel itself was built in 1844 for the Long Island Rail Road, carrying passengers from other parts of what was then the City of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island to the waterfront for ferries into New York City.
And, by the standard of a “railway tunnel that is underground,” it was the world’s first subway.
It served reliably as a critical link in the New York-to-Boston railway route for 17 years, with trains shuttling passengers back and forth to the ferry docks underneath its brick roof. It was fairly uneventful, besides the casual dude getting murdered inside it during a labor dispute, because this is New York.
But it was ordered to be shut down in a complex corruption scheme involving the LIRR, a compensation system, and the state government, which was definitely not the last time a complex corruption scheme involving the LIRR and compensation systems occurred.
In the fall of 1861, the subway tunnel was bricked up and partially filled in, and documentation at the time indicated that a locomotive from the 1830s was left inside. After the tunnel was closed to humanity, it was mostly forgotten. There were a few references to it here and there, including one from Walt Whitman, who worked at a few Brooklyn newspapers when it was still in operation.
Via Forgotten NY:
The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences; however, there will, for a few years yet be many dear ones, to not a few Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and promiscuous crowds besides. For it was here you started to go down the island, in summer. For years, it was confidently counted on that this spot, and the railroad of which it was the terminus, were going to prove the permanent seat of business and wealth that belong to such enterprises…
...But its glory, after enduring in great splendor for a season, has now vanished at least its Long Island Railroad glory has…
The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent. How beautiful look earth and heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large proportion into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less. afterward, at God’s handiwork.
But that was about it. Some romantic references, some old records that no one paid much attention to, and not much else. It wasn’t completely forgotten immediately, however, as rapidtransit.net notes:
It was reportedly used by smugglers after the Civil War. On January 27, 1916. the tunnel was explored and photographed by the Department of Superstructures of the Borough President of Brooklyn’s office. It was found to be in relatively good condition, but empty and without rail or ties. In the 1920s the tunnel was reportedly used for both mushroom growing and bootleg whiskey stills. In 1936, New York City police broke into the tunnel with jackhammers to look for the body of a hoodlum supposedly buried there.The hoodlum was found later in a barrel of cement in Buffalo. In 1941 the tunnel was again inspected by the federal Works Progress Administration to determine its structural strength. A few years later, it was once again opened, this time by the FBI, in an unsuccessful search for spies.
In the late 1950s, it was inspected one last time. And then the tunnel appeared to have well and truly slipped from the collective consciousness of the history buffs, city officials, and engineers who remembered it.
Until 1979, when a Brooklyn rail nut named Bob Diamond heard that there might be a tunnel buried underneath Atlantic Avenue on a local radio show. Here, let Bob tell the story in his own words, in this frankly excellent video done by The Verge:
Bob was able to excavate a huge portion of the tunnel that was filled with dirt, and even led tours of it until 2010, when city officials shut the whole operation down. He never found, however, what was supposed to be the jackpot. The gold at the end of the rainbow. A priceless artifact of industry and transportation.
An 1836 wood-burning steam locomotive, known as the “Hicksville,” lying on its side.
If it’s there, it should look pretty much just like this, according to this 1844 woodcut engraving (via brooklynrail.net):
Retired in 1848 and declared “not worth repairing” in 1853, it was supposedly sealed into the tunnel behind a brick wall in 1861, when the rest of the tunnel was closed off. We don’t know exactly what the train might look like, but a modern working replica of a similar design looks like this:
But it was that brick wall that Bob couldn’t surmount. Taking out the dirt filling the subway was easy, all it took was some hard manual labor and some volunteers. Breaking through a brick wall takes machinery, and money, and cooperation with the local government. But everything was in the right place – the tunnel was where it was said to be, the brick wall was where it was said to be, and readings below the street from a local contractor showed something underneath the street, right where the locomotive was said to be.
Laura Brinkerhoff, of Brinkerhoff Environmental Services, told me that her firm was responsible for conducting the survey over five blustery cold nights back in January 2011. Shutting down the street from midnight to 5 AM, and using both an electromagnetic detection device and and cesium-vapor magnetometer, her team discovered a massive metallic object underneath Atlantic Avenue. An object that didn’t resemble a water main or anything with a modern utilitarian purpose, and was highly unusual for a regular Brooklyn street.
Brinkerhoff couldn’t confirm whether or not it was a locomotive, but it was big, it was different, and it was metal.
Bob Diamond didn’t have the machinery or money to break through the brick wall and see what was inside, but National Geographic did. So when NatGeo came calling to make a show about the tunnel, and have a big reveal Al Capone’s Vault-style, it looked like everything was falling into place.
Until petty politics stepped in.
Diamond was understandably upset when the city shut down his access to the tunnel, as he’d been leading tours down there for years. So he said some not-nice things about city officials, because that is what you do when city officials piss you off.
Normally, that’s not really terrible at all. City officials are supposed to have thick skins, and criticism comes with the territory. I’ve said some not-nice things about the subway, but I still take it to work every day, and no one’s tried to stop me from riding. It’s because I’ve got a job to do, they’ve got a job to do, everyone’s got a job to do, and it’s never a personal issue.
Everyone I’ve ever dealt with in a professional capacity with the city has been exactly that – professional.
But apparently when it came to Diamond’s criticism, that didn’t happen for one New York City Department of Transportation spokesman, Seth Solomonow. In e-mails between the DOT and NatGeo obtained by the New York Daily News, Solomonow intimated back in February 2011 that a great reveal would never happen:
The emails reveal Department of Transportation PR man Seth Solomonow pulled the plug on the project in part because leaks in the press and Diamond’s lawsuit cast the agency “as the bad guy.”
“If people from the Channel...want to call me they’ll simply be hearing me ‘yell at them’ and then (I’ll) make sure the film will NEVER HAPPEN,” Solomonow said during a Feb. 2011 conversation, according to Pam Wells, a Nat Geo executive producer.
“With the DOT being cast as the bad guy by Bob Diamond, we cannot, at this point, allow National Geographic access to the tunnel...Let me make it clearer. Do not call us. We will call you.”
It’s unclear if Solomonow’s tone and subsequent rejection were his choice alone, or an official policy from the DOT. He’s no longer with the DOT, and in an email he referred all questions about the matter to them. A DOT spokesman only said that they closed the tunnel “for safety reasons,” and that they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Brinkerhoff suggested that the project met other stumbling blocks as well, including the death of a major partner in the project who headed up a local cultural and historical group.
But no matter what did happen between the major players, the special never happened. NatGeo, for its part, considers the whole project shelved, according to the NYDN.
That hasn’t stopped Diamond from trying, and he told Gothamist that he’s done everything possible to get it all working again, including the tunnel tours, with plans laid out by an engineer to address FDNY safety concerns and numerous letters sent to the DOT and city mayor Bill de Blasio. But all he’s gotten back so far is form letters.
Which is really just incredibly tragic. Not only is what little we’ve seen of the tunnel so far already a hugely important piece of transportation history, but what might be behind that brick wall could be even bigger. And with the New York City Transit Museum so close by, it’s a natural tie-in.
Mayor de Blasio, you and I both know you’re a rabid and fanatical reader of Jalopnik. Seriously, I’m here all day working down in the bloggin’ mines, and I spend less time on this site than you do. So if you have a heart, you know what to do.
Give us the tunnel. And give us our steam engine.
Topshot credit: Matt Baume
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