Labor Day, which is today, honors the men and women who toiled in obscurity but made our towns, cities, and the country as a whole a better place to live. This is especially true for those who worked before the labor movement took off in the early and mid-20th Century. Those workers built much of the critical infrastructure we rely on today despite horrid conditions and treatment by management.
Traditionally, Americans honor those workers by going to the beach, grilling, and otherwise doing anything other than working. That’s not a bad way to go, but may I suggest also watching this 114-year-old video of the New York City subway?
I first came across this video about a year and a half ago. It’s part of the Library of Congress’s spectacular “The Life of a City” collection, featuring dozens of short films from New York City in 1898 to 1906.
I love this collection because it’s from a generation where so much of the New York we know today got built: the first subway lines, the Manhattan Bridge, the Flatiron Building, the New York Public Library main branch, the original Penn Station, and Grand Central, just to name a few examples. It is, in many ways, when New York became New York.
But it didn’t happen by magic. Thousands upon thousands of immigrant workers over the decades built these critical civic goods which we still rely on today.
Little is known about most of them. The Sandhogs who dug the tunnels gained some notoriety and fame, but the vast majority of the workers were, well, just workers.
I find watching this old footage helps me appreciate their feats all the more. It contextualizes just how enduring their work has been.
The New York Public Library also has a phenomenal collection of digitized photographs from early subway construction.