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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Secret Underground


By Lisa Karon Richardson

My recent post about the time capsule Parisian apartment got me thinking about secret places and abandoned spaces. I remembered a story I had read about a secret underground built in New York City 30 years before the officially sanctioned subway project got underway. It happened this way:

Alfred Ely Beach, inventor, editor for Scientific America, and owner of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company had an idea for a subway system using pneumatic pressure to power the cars. Several groups had attempted to propose such a system, but had met barriers due to concerns that tunneling would cause buildings to cave in and undermine the entire city.

After being denied a permit to build his underground transit system. Beach applied to Tammany Hall and received permits to build a pneumatic package delivery system. This was originally to consist of two small tunnels from Warren Street to Cedar Street. These permits were later changed to reflect a single large tunnel in order to “simplify construction.”

Beach, gutsy guy that he was, then set about constructing his tunnel right beneath City Hall. It was meant to be a showpiece. An example, that would have citizens clamoring for more of this new method of travel.

To maintain secrecy, the digging and carting away of debris was done at night and everything went through Devlin’s Clothing Store on Warren Street. The tunnel was completed in just about two months. Then Beach brought in artisans to make the Warren Street station beautiful. When it was done the station was replete with mosaics, a goldfish fountain, a grand piano, and zircon lighting. It ran about a block on lower Broadway in Manhattan between Murray and Warren Streets.


Beach opened his technological marvel to the public on February 26, 1870. The car was essentially a large tube. It was furnished with couches and could hold up to 22 passengers at once with an airtight door to maintain the pneumatic propulsion. He sold 11,000 rides in its first two weeks of operation at $.05 each. Visitors came for the novelty. They gawked at the elaborate station and thought it beautiful. But it was little more than a curiosity to New Yorkers.


In 1873 the tunnel was closed for lack of passengers and the experiment was over. 

Beach and the amazing tunnel he created were completely forgotten by the citizens he hoped to serve until 1912 when a construction crew working on excavation for the BMT Broadway Subway line found the remains at the south end of the tunnel and the wooden remains of the car. They kept on with their project, completely destroying the original tunnel in the process. (Beach had passed away but his successors sued over the destruction of their property!) The lavish Warren Street station was destroyed when the building above it was demolished and rebuilt.

I have to say I was sad to find out that this 19th century marvel hadn’t been preserved for tourists of today. I’d have loved to give it a try.
The pneumatic tunnel when it was discovered in 1912.

How about you? Would you be willing to ride in a pneumatic tube like you were a bank deposit? What do you think of Mr. Beach’s chutzpah in moving forward with his plans secretly?

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, Lisa Karon Richardson’s early books were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now that she’s (mostly) all grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure and excitement in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her newest release, The Magistrate’s Folly, is available now. And look for Diamond in the Rough, co-authored with Jennifer AlLee coming May 1st.

14 comments:

  1. Well, that's just too cool! I think it would have been a national historic site on the Steampunk Trail...

    I think it sounds fascinating but I can't help put think of movement by the pod in its tube to be similar to that bank deposit. WHOOOOOSH and it's gone!

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  2. Okay, that is fascinating! I had no idea anything like that ever happened. Yes, I would have ridden!!

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  3. Thanks girls, I found the whole story fascinating. Especially that it was built in secret. That just boggles my mind. And the fact that he got away with it!

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  4. I couldn't help but smile when I got to the part about them doing the work out of the clothing store at night. Way cool. And I loved Beach's innovative spirit. I was so sad that it only lasted three years for lack of passengers. What a heartbreaking end to his dream. I'm assuming he didn't live to see the subways built since it sounds like that was about forty years later. I loved the pictures, and I could totally see myself riding it. :-) Cool story, Lisa.

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  5. wow, that is cool! I would have love to seen it . . . and ridden in it . . . wow!

    Thanks, Lisa, for sharing that tidbit!

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  7. Suzie, you're right. He passed away in 1896. 4 years before the subway system was officially begun.

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  8. Somehow, Gina, I just knew you'd have given it a shot! I do think that if he had been able to make it longer people might have used it more and it wouldn't have closed.

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  9. Fascinating! Although I feel a little claustrophobic even looking at the pictures of the tunnel, LOL.

    I've never heard of this. I love our history posts; I always learn something new.

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  10. Excellent post, Lisa. I remember the first time I used the tube system to send a message in National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa and not understanding the system, didn't close the capsule properly. It opened somewhere along the line and they had to take the whole thing off line to find the blockage. I never did that again. LOL

    I was reading the Newmarket Era the other day - either the 1907 or 1911 issue - and it was talking about building a tube system under Toronto to replace the mail system. I think it was just a pipe dream, though. :D

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  11. Susie, I'm with you. I love the history posts. I learn so much and it's so much fun engaging with one another.

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  12. Thanks, Anita. That is an awesome story, but the pun was awful!

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