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New York City goes underground

By Joseph B. Raskin


Service on the first route of the New York City subway system began 109 years ago today, on 27 October 1904. The occasion was marked by ceremonies in City Hall, led by George A. McClellan and representatives of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), the operators of that line. Mayor McClellan saw the opening of the subway as the beginning of a new era for the greater city.

“We have met here to-day for the purpose of turning over a page in the history of our city; for the purpose of marking the advent of a new epoch in her development. If this new underground railroad which we are about to open proves as popular and as successful as I confidently expect it to be it will only be the first of many more which must ultimately result in giving us an almost perfect system of interborough communication.

“When that day arrives, borough boundaries will be remembered only for administrative purposes, and New Yorkers, forgetting from what part of the city they come and only conscious of the fact that they are the sons of the mightiest metropolis if the world has ever seen, will be activated by a common hope and united in a common destiny” (New York Times, 28 October 1904).

Mayor McClellan himself operated the train that left the City Hall Station at 2:35 p.m., enjoying the trip, although he complained about the posting of advertising in the stations. It arrived at the northern terminal at 145th Street and Broadway at 3:01 p.m. The subway was opened to the public, and by midnight 127,381 riders had made use of the subway. Before the end of 1904, the subway had extended further to the north in Manhattan and into the Bronx; in less than a year, it had extended south to the Battery, and work was underway to construct a link to Brooklyn.

Subway construction, August 25, 1908. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Subway construction, August 25, 1908. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

This was only the start of the construction of New York’s subway system. By 1920, that one line became all or parts of three routes, the Lexington-4th Avenue, Broadway-7th Avenue and 42nd Street Shuttle lines. Those lines were part of the first major rapid transit capital program, the Dual System Contracts. Many of the lines operated by the IRT and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (later the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation). The Dual System Contracts were followed in the 1920s and beyond by the second capital program, which led to the opening of the Independent City-Owned Subway System (IND).

Mayor McClellan’s vision of the growth of the city was already coming true as service was beginning on the first subway line. The subways accelerated the growth and expansion of the city’s population and employment centers that began with the construction of the first elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Edward Everett McCall (1863-1924), Chairman of the New York (State) Public Service Commission, with shovel, breaking ground for a subway in New York City. October 13, 1914. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Edward Everett McCall (1863-1924), Chairman of the New York (State) Public Service Commission, with shovel, breaking ground for a subway in New York City. October 13, 1914. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The subways and elevated lines would extend out through farmland and undeveloped regions far away from the downtown areas of each borough. Rural areas in the city were now well within reach. Real estate developers and the population would follow.

The developers obtained, divided, marketed, and sold tracts of land on the basis that the subway expansion programs were coming their way. People bought property based on that hope. Largely rural areas like Washington Heights, Flatbush, and Flushing became urbanized communities. Street grids extended outwards; villages grew and became larger communities.

The subway system could have extended ever further over the years that followed the opening of the first subway system 109 years ago. But the system is still growing, with the extension of the Flushing line to the Far West Side underway and the completion of the first phase of the 2nd Avenue Subway approaching. Even now, the opening of a subway line is viewed as being a positive step towards the growth and development of New York City as a whole.

 Joseph B. Raskin is an independent scholar and the author of Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System, a Fordham University Press publication. He is widely regarded as an authority on unbuilt subway systems, on which he has been interviewed by the New York Times. He is Assistant Director of Government and Community Relations for MTA New York City Transit.

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