The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
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One Hundred And Fifteen Years Ago, The New York City Subway Became Itself

Gif: Library of Congress
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On Thursday, October 27, 1904, 115 years ago this Sunday, at precisely 2 p.m., New York City erupted in a cacophony of celebration. The city’s factories—there were many then—tooted their whistles in a call to mark not a shift change, but an historic turning point in the city’s history. Church bells rang, some for more than half an hour on end to the mild annoyance of local workers. Even the ships docked in the city’s shipyards—there were many then—blew their horns to join the deafening revelation.

Outside City Hall, where thousands of people had gathered to mark the long-awaited and historic moment, “circulating hucksters” sold popcorn and programs, as if an impromptu citywide ballgame had broken out in the middle of a workday. They came out to witness, to welcome, the New York City subway.

But, the first subway did not run at 2 p.m as scheduled. The ceremonial speeches by politicians and members of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) company, which built and operated the subway in a public-private partnership with the city, took too long. All the politicians wanted to have their say in this historic moment, and the program was not properly planned accordingly. Despite all the noise, the inaugural subway journey did not begin until more than a half-hour later.

It is one of those historical tidbits that seems almost too perfect for its subject. The very first subway, like so, so many after it, was delayed, thanks to poor planning from the politicians tasked with overseeing it.

This delay is a detail, a mere footnote in the subway’s history, rarely explicitly mentioned in dispatches from the day. But it foreshadows some of its most significant events in the following 115 years, and likely beyond.

What is immediately clear reviewing newspaper accounts from that momentous first day is that, right from the start, the subway came into the city not like the typical immigrant or visitor awed by its surroundings or shy in welcome, but with a personality and character of its own, one that transformed not just the people who rode it but the city as a whole. It was not a mere piece of infrastructure, but the closest thing to an organism, a being, one can imagine tunnels and steel and concrete being.

For all the subway’s flaws then and since, it has always been special, because it has always been itself.

“No, Sir! I’m running this train!”

The inaugural train departed the City Hall station at 2:35 p.m. filled with politicians, dignitaries, and IRT executives. Prior to boarding, financier August Belmont presented Mayor George McClellan with a ceremonial silver controller, a lever-like device used to control the throttle. The plan was to have McClellan run the train so he would be the subway’s first motorman, only to relinquish controls soon thereafter to a trained motorman.

When a reporter from the New York Tribune asked McClellan if he “really meant to run the train,” the Mayor replied confidently, “Oh, yes; I know how to run a motor car.”

Beneath the gleaming, cathedral ceiling of the (now-closed) City Hall station, McClellan eased the train around the loop track towards the Brooklyn Bridge station. After that station, according to the Tribune’s account, the train was meant to switch to the express track, where it would run uptown along what is now the 4/5/6 line to Grand Central, across 42nd Street on what is now the Shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square, then up the Broadway west side 1/2/3 line to 145th Street.

But, things didn’t quite go according to plan. Accounts differ on whether McClellan leaned on the throttle too heavily or the ceremonial silver controller didn’t fit the panel properly. Whether it was an equipment issue or the result of the Mayor operating the train instead of a trained professional, he accidentally hit the emergency brake valve after departing the Brooklyn Bridge stop, “bringing the train to a sudden stop.” The Tribune and the Times indicated all aboard took it in good spirits; some thought the Mayor hit something, others laughed it off.

Frank Hedley, the IRT General Manager, was also in the operator’s cab and took over controls to get the train going on the express track again. Then, McClellan resumed his control. He was having so much fun, in fact, that he refused to relinquish until the end of the journey.

When Hedley asked McClellan if he was tired of conducting—one had to lean on the ill-fitting lever pretty hard to keep the throttle open—McClellan shouted back, according to the Times, in one of the most famous remarks from the inaugural day, “No, Sir! I’m running this train!”

As he “gained confidence” beyond the curves of Union Square, where a woman ran up to the cab and handed the actual motorman flowers “for the Mayor,” he leaned on the throttle so the train crept towards—and perhaps above; accounts differ—the 35 mph speed limit on that portion of the track. The Tribune reports Hedley “got nervous and said: ‘A little slower, please, Mr. Mayor.”

“I enjoyed the experience of running the train immensely,” McClellan told reporters afterwards. He then compared driving the train to one of his great passions, automobiling:

As a sport it compares favorably with running an automobile. You know I’m an expert at that. The sensation in starting is almost identical. There is also the additional sensation of leaving the light and running at full speed into the dark. The freedom from responsibility of the steering wheel is a little embarrassing. When we hit the Forty-second Street curve at a high rate of speed, I felt myself almost instinctively groping for the steering wheel.

A reporter from The Sun noted that “The Mayor, when he came out of the box, remarked that if he hadn’t already bought an automobile he believed he’d buy an electric train, with a road to run it on.”

(Four years later, the Mayor’s driver tried to speed the Mayor’s “big limousine automobile of French manufacture” between two oncoming trolleys at 36th and Broadway, but didn’t make it; the car was crushed “like paper” and two people were injured, although the Mayor was not in the car at the time.)

One can only imagine the giddy smile on the Mayor’s face when he concluded, “It has certainly been a glorious day.”


From that 2:34 p.m. train until 6 p.m., the IRT ran special trains for advance ticket-holders. According to figures the IRT released to the papers, some 27,000 passengers took their first ride for free before 6 p.m. in a relatively stilted, highfalutin atmosphere; one had connections to get one of those advance tickets.

Then the party started.

“It was carnival night in New York,” the Times declared. The Tribune claimed to have witnessed “several subway parties:”

A crowd of young people would seize one end of a car and occupy all the seats. They sang songs and played pranks on one another with a spirit that bothered grouchy passengers and made the guards look into their books of instruction.

There was no “express rule against making merry on the opening night,” the paper noted, so the party continued. Whether or not this counts as the first Showtime routine ought to be a matter of rigorous study.

The subway itself, though, was quite the show indeed. Although the city had a vast network of elevated trains (Els) and trolleys, they were hardly dignified ways to get around. The Els, brute utilitarians, did the job, but, powered by coal-burning steam engines, were slow, loud, and dirty, spewing soot everywhere. Meanwhile, the turtle-like trolleys did not have dedicated rights of way on the street and competed for space on the hectic New York streets.

The subway changed all that. Powered by electricity, it was clean, fast, and quieter, relative to the noisy Els. Plus, with the underground tunnels, nothing could get in the train’s way. The subway had a top speed of 45 mph on the straightaway from what is now Times Square to 96th Street (it is still the fastest stretch in the system, with the 2/3 express trains regularly topping 55 mph today thanks to more advanced propulsion and braking systems).

That was an almost unfathomable speed for urban transit at the time. “Harlem in 15 minutes” from downtown was the subway’s rallying cry, shaving some 30-45 minutes off the journey time using the El. Apparently, there were concerns before the subway opened that the flittering of support beams through the windows as the subway rushed by would cause “a new disease of the eye.”

For a city whose population had multiplied several times over since the elevateds first started going up in the 1870s, the need to go further faster was an urgent crisis. The Lower East Side, as documented in Tyler Anbinder’s history of New York City immigration City of Dreams, did not just have the highest concentration of humans of any place in the world at the time, but at any place in the world ever. Powerful journalism such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives documented the deplorable conditions in the Lower East Side slums. That journalism, in turn, sparked a progressive movement to better the living conditions and lives of the immigrants subjected to abject poverty.

The subway could help. “In modern city life distance is measured in time,” the Times opined, “and time is not only money in the old sense—it is health, vigor, education, and morality. That is to say, reduction in the time of transit between home and work opens up great regions where these blessings are possible, as they are not in congested city districts.” In this way, the subway was a bit like time travel, re-imagining the limits of time and space.

Of course, it was not only the do-gooders who wanted the subway, but the profiteers and speculators as well. The Tribune published the thoughts of John N. Golding, a local real estate broker, on how the subway would spark development in places that had previously been off limits:

To the section commonly known as The Bronx it will be almost impossible for one, no matter how visionary, clearly to define its benefit. We have witnessed in the last few weeks the operation of some of the shrewdest real estate experts in the section known as the Washington Heights and Dyckman tracts and The Bronx, and the purchasing of vacant lots unequaled in our history. Hundreds and hundreds of lots have been bought and resold north and south of the Harlem River. Westchester village to-day is as near to City Hall, with the subway in operation, as was, we might say, 125th St ten years ago.

Later subway expansions would do the same to the marshlands of Queens; although some of the neighborhoods that sprouted up there under single developers were whites-only. One of those, Jackson Heights, is now, ironically, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world.

But all that would be in the future. On October 27, 1904, “New-York played with its new toy, the subway, last night, with characteristic energy and spirit,” the Tribune wrote the next day.

And people, by and large, enjoyed the show.

“Most of the superlative adjectives in the dictionary were applied to the subway by women passengers,” the Tribune noted, abiding by the journalistic mores of the time by segregating the opinions of women from those of the men, “but the most popular verdict was ‘Simply perfectly grand!’”

One woman mentioned to the man with her, “Goodness I didn’t think it was anything like this. I thought it was just a dirty hole in the ground that they shot you through as quickly as possible.” Apparently, according to the Sun, Hedley, the IRT General Manager, happened to be standing nearby and overheard this remark. “His enjoyment of the comment,” the reporter noted, “was intense.”

The Sun sensuously reported the “smoothness of the roadbed elicited general praise” and that “the curves were so perfect that even those were walking in the aisle when they were rounded barely noticed them.” And, to round off the most sexually explicit description of the subway I’ve ever come across, the paper concluded: “the purity and wholesomeness of the air caused constant comment—both that the beauty of the stations, which has been dwelt upon so much and was generally admitted to be not exaggerated.”

The Tribune said “many persons” on the Mayor’s inaugural train were “loud in praise of the subway, speaking of its perfect signal system, and declaring that there never should be an accident on such a perfect and naturally safe road.” They were wrong.

By nearly all accounts, most of the subway’s first riders were sightseers, exhibitionists, and other interested in parties who simply wanted to be a part of history. The Tribune pegged 75 percent of the first day’s crowds as out for “the experience,” with a “guilty, self-conscious look on their faces, for the New-Yorker does not like to admit that he is curious about anything.” But even this type of person could not “stifle their exclamations of wonder.”

One woman from Brooklyn was particularly intent on being part of it. The Sun reported that the first ticket purchased at the Brooklyn Bridge station was “bought by a middle aged woman from Brooklyn, who had waited two hours at the head of the line.” The line formed above ground, but once the subway opened, people had to go into the station to the ticket booth to purchase a ticket for five cents (the tokens would come later). This woman was not to be denied:

When the sprint down the stairway began she lifted her skirts, gave a yell and went down the rubber covered steps three at a time and beat everybody else to the window. Somebody asked for her name.

“Not for mine she said. “I’ll enjoy this little experience all to myself. I don’t want my name in the papers.”

With her mad dash, the woman beat out “a small boy who had a very dirty face and a very ragged red jersey.” However, her quest to have her identity lost to history was partially denied by the Brooklyn Citizen, which identified her as “Mrs. J. Shaffer.”

This Mrs. J. Shaffer, if that was her real name, was hardly alone in her enthusiasm. The Sun reported “thousands” bought two tickets, one to ride and the other to keep. The paper also reported a man at the Broadway and 42nd St stop (now Times Square) who bought six tickets for framing.

The Tribune, which was most prone to flowery language that in some cases suspends belief, described a scene reminiscent of our smartphone addiction today:

No sooner had the passengers, jammed in like cattle in a box car, left Brooklyn Bridge behind them, than every man and woman who owned a watch jerked it from his or her pocket, and, pencil and paper in hand, stood ready to time the train. Sneak thieves, had they been so minded, might have reaped a golden harvest on that trip, for such a display of timepieces, from the lordly gold “Jurgensen movement” chronometer to the humble dollar watch, has never before been made in any public vehicle.

Many a dignified old man so far forgot himself in his excitement as to give vent to a low, long drawn whistle as the train reached Fourteenth-st. in four minutes, the Grand Central station in eight minutes, Seventy-second-st. in fourteen minutes, and Ninety-sixth-st. in “yes,” “no”; “yes,” “no”; “yes”—“can he believe it?—seventeen minutes!”

It wasn’t quite the 15 minutes to Harlem that was promised, but it was pretty damn close.

Count among the witnesses the wife of William Vanderbilt Jr., Virginia, who, with a group of friends, watched the first train go through Grand Central while sitting on chairs placed on the platform overlooking the express tracks her by attendants. Afterward, they left the station, got in their cars, and drove away.

At least one guy didn’t get what the fuss was about. At Grand Central, “the big roundsman” said “this ain’t going to be carried away to-night. It’ll be run-in’ when you folks is dead. What’s the use gettin’ excited?”

“The Birth of the Subway Crush”

As New Yorkers are wont to do, they found fault even in the most transformative public works project in the city’s history that instantly improved their lives.

Some women complained that there were no mirrors on the panels between the seats so they could do their makeup. The Times found “a man who couldn’t be pleased” who lived “above 90th St” and lamented the necessity of the train to stop at 14th, Grand Central, and 72nd St. “Why can’t trains run that don’t stop between the bridge and 96th St?” he asked. “If there was I’d save two minutes.”

The answer, of course, is because there is only one express track, and the super-express would get stuck behind the other trains. But he would merely be the first documented case of millions of New Yorkers who think they know better than the engineers and planners who run the subway.

But the Times perhaps took the cake in curmudgeonness by not even waiting a full day to ask what took ya so long?

In this joyous hour when the great city exults that it has at last got a veritable rapid transit railroad, let those among us who are of sober and philosophic bent bow their heads in humility and deplore the weaknesses, the irresolution, and the infirmity of purpose which has made us take such an unconscionable time in getting it. The Subway which the Rapid Transit Commission opens to the public to-day ought to have been opened and in operation fifteen years ago.

Most papers echoed a curious complaint or two, but noted the overall positivity. However, one issue cropped up in nearly every article: advertisements. It seems people were not expecting there to be ads inside the ornate stations. IRT officials reminded everyone they took pains to frame the ads to make them look classier, which is more than the Els bothered to do. But that wasn’t enough for the Mayor, which the Tribune quoted as saying, “they look very bad” while shaking his head in disgust.

One of the more unbelievable scenes described on that first day came from the Tribune in an article titled “Birth of the Subway Crush” that described an incident at the 145th St terminal around 7 p.m.

“Indescribable scenes of crowding and confusion,” the paper began, before going on to describe them, “never before paralleled in this city, marked the throwing open of the subway to the general public last night.” It went on like this:

Men fought, kicked and pummeled one another in their mad desire to reach the subway ticket offices or to ride on the trains. Women were dragged out, either screaming in hysterics or in a swooning condition: gray haired men pleaded for mercy: boys were locked down, and only escaped by a miracle being trampled under foot. The presence of the police alone averted what would undoubtedly have been panic after panic, with wholesale loss of life.

This crush begat what appears to be the first documented instance of fare evasion in the subway’s history, not one hour after it opened:

The fence surrounding the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society’s House of Reception went down with a crash before the resistless onslaught. One policeman’s coat was ripped apart by the crowd, which, surging, pushing this way and in several circles, literally “rushed” the ticket chopper and reached the platform without paying the fare.

Naturally, no article about mob violence in the early 1900s would be complete without references to vulnerable women:

Now, a pair of lonely women would bespeak the aid of some decent appearing man. Buttoning his coat and hamming his hat down hard on his head, the Sir Galahad would hurl himself headlong into the maelstrom of humanity, and re-emerge after many minutes dusty, collarless, and breathing hard, but with the two precious tickets safely in his hand.

And a good ol’ fashioned case of police brutality:

So fiercely did the strain tell on the police that a Tribune reporter saw one bluecoats suddenly lose all patience, and, closing his fist, lunge from the shoulder at the chest of a particularly persistent would-be passenger, knocking him to the ground. For a moment it looks like a fight between the policeman and the passenger, with a possible wholesale panic as the sequel. Happily, however, the passenger was not hurt by his fall, and managed to keep his temper.

I should note that no other article described anything like this. While other reporters witnessed crowds, none cited violence or rough police behavior. The Sun, reporting on the same crush, said there was “not one report of an accident. Lots of people had their toes bruised and the breath knocked out of them in the first rush, but everybody was good natured and took the annoyances as part of the evening fun.”

“Astonishing Power of Digestion”

The subway’s entire history took place that day. Something like 125,000 tickets were bought and used. Combined with the 27,000 or so in pre-sale rides, more than 150,000 New Yorkers came out to ride the subway. A southbound express train delayed service 20 minutes because of a burst air hose. Crowds made the ride tight and annoying. Harry Barrett had his diamond pin stolen off him somewhere between 33rd and 28th Streets. At 2 a.m. the morning of the 28th, Sadie Lawson of Jersey City fell between the platform and the train at Union Square and fractured her hip. People argued, debated, and ignored each other. They wanted to see the subway, then they just wanted to get home.

“Now here’s a social problem,” said a young man in spectacles told the Sun, “What kind of a hog will the underground develop? Of course, we know the end-seat hog, the stand-in-the-cross-aisle hog, the stinking-cigar-end hog, the sprawling hog with his feet out for people to stumble over. They’re standard varieties. They are always with us, and, of course, they will follow us underground. But are there not new conditions in this subterranean transit to develop some new kind of travelling [sic] hog? That’s the question.”

Answer: the manspreader.

The subway, though, is the opposite of a manspreader. It absorbs people and deposits them where they need to go, quickly and invisibly, even when many more people than expected show up. This most remarkable trait, one no other means of transportation can claim, was clear even to those in the subway’s early hours. The Sun remarked on its “astonishing power of digestion” by “swallow[ing] up the crowds apparently without an effort and distributed them up and down the city with the precision of clockwork.”

The subway is often compared to the city’s circulatory system, pumping people around to sustain life. It’s an apt metaphor, but I’ve always thought of the subway as child of this city. On October 27, 1904, the city came out to witness its birth, and immediately recognized in it traits of itself; which makes sense, seeing as the city built it. The city fell in love, then re-structured its entire existence around it.

The city—and later, the state, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gained control of the subway—has not always been a good parent. It has been at times neglectful and misguided. Sometimes, the subway has acted out by simply running itself poorly or making bad decisions, as any child tends to do. But both the parent and child know they cannot live without one another. And they knew it immediately, right from the start.

The subway, right from the start, was a magical but imperfect product of an imperfect city, and like any parent and child, the two have fed off one another, changed each other, made each other better and made each other worse. But, most of all, they made each other different.

One scene from a Times dispatch the night the subway opened sticks with me more than any other due to its mundanity. The paper described a “familiar sight” of a young man with “his bare head lounged luxuriously back on the seat, his hat beside him, and his eyes closed.” Did the city grind this poor guy down so hard that he couldn’t even stay awake for his first subway ride? Or could he just not be bothered to care? Either way, the subway, for him, was already home.