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IRT: New York’s First Subway

Jeffrey Syken

In 1898, the consolidation of the City of New York – with Manhattan at its center and the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island surrounding it (to the north, south and east) took place. It had started as a small Dutch settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan Island and spread steadily northward in the centuries that followed, becoming one of the major cities of the world by the time of consolidation. In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened providing the physical link to unite the separate cities of New York and Brooklyn, allowing consolidation to occur. The railway that traversed the bridge to terminals on either side provided dependable connections between home and workplace. However, conditions in crowded Manhattan still demanded more be done to relieve the congestion on the crowded streets.

Surface and elevated lines that could once handle the traffic demands were overburdened in New York City’s post-Civil War boom years. London had one, Paris too and even rival Boston – time had come for the country’s greatest city to have a “Subway” (underground railway) of its own. Alfred Ely Beach laid claim to having built the first subway in New York – a pneumatic line that ran for a few blocks under Broadway, but it ultimately failed and was forgotten. It would be Mayor Abram S. Hewitt with the able assistance of the New York Chamber of Commerce that would provide the means by which the great city could/would build a Subway; retaining municipal ownership while transferring all the financial risk. The latter would fall on the shoulders of financier August Belmont, Jr. and General Contractor John B. McDonald, for the most part.

Imagine the letter “Y” with an extended tail terminating at Brooklyn’s Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue/s, the base of the Y representing the “Main Line” in Manhattan (City Hall Park to 103rd Street), the upper left leg of the Y extending to Kingsbridge in the Bronx and the upper right leg extending to Bronx Park and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company’s (IRTC) original route. It included “cut and cover” tunnels made of steel and/or reinforced concrete, concrete lined deep tunnels, steel viaducts and sub-aqueous tunnels. The maze of pipes, conduits, sewers etc., disruption to surface traffic and several deadly accidents aside, the Subway – begun in 1900, was completed on schedule (4.5 years later) on October 27th 1904. The subway immediately allowed the city to expand northwards and in the ensuing years, hundreds more miles of track were added to the system. But it all began with IRT: Interborough Rapid Transit.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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