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Beach Pneumatic Transit

The splendors of the Beach Pneumatic Transit demonstration line of 1870 have been the subject of special sections in many books about the New York subway. Its place in history can be overstated. The company built only a very short demonstration line, and it's doubtful the technology proposed would have been practical. Its main importance was in introducing New York to the concept of an underground railway. This idea carried forward to the proposals for subway lines in the 1890's that led to the constructed subway we know today.

Alfred E Beach's subway was authorized in 1868 by the state legislature as a transport system for mail or packages. It was planned to connect with the main post office, then at Cedar St and Broadway, but lack of cooperation from the postal authorities forced the company to start construction from private premises some blocks uptown. It's been said that Beach planned a passenger railway from the start, and thought that a bill for a mail transport system would escape the attention of the Tweed ring of politicians.

The site of the Beach Pneumatic was Devlin's Clothing Store, a well known shop, located at 260 Broadway, the southwest corner of Warren Street. The received version via Daley's book The world beneath the city (1959) is that the entire subway was built in secret, but this is not the case. The works occupied the south side of Worth St for many months in 1869. The the removal of dirt and the delivery of bricks, iron parts, and machinery was open to view, including the cartons marked "A.E.B.,N.Y". The New York Tribune remarked on the large fans delivered on 27 December. The part that was secret was what the pneumatic tube looked like.

Late in 1869 the Tribune claimed that Broadway was being undermined, and there was some sinking in the pavement. The newly elected mayor sued in January to stop the work. While the courts overruled it, the result was that the company made its work public. A Tribune reporter got access to the tunnel and the paper printed an expose that was very favorable to the company. The superintendant of the works, Joseph Dixon, denied the "ridiculous stories that have been circulated about our men being sworn to secrecy" and pointed out that the "work has been carried out under the constant supervision of the officers of the Croton Aqueduct Department, where all our plans are matters of public record".

Both Dixon and the Tribune reporter claimed that the tunnel was intended to carry small pneumatic tubes within it. The idea had been to get the tube to Cedar St before going public, but with only one block finished, as Dixon wrote to the newspapers, "we have concluded to yield to the strong desire manifested by the Press for an earlier examination. We have, therefore, stopped work on the tunnel, and are now fitting up the blowing machinery, engines, boilers, waiting rooms, &c, with a view of inviting public inspection."

The Beach demonstration line was opened to invited guests on Saturday, 26 February 1870, and to the public on 1 March. Access was by a stairway at the Broadway corner. The small station was under the sidewalk in Warren St and had natural light from sidewalk grates. The one-track tubular tunnel leading from the corner of the basement curved out into Broadway and then ran to the south side of Murray St, a total distance of about 300 feet, or about half the length of a modern subway train. Near the end, a vent ran up to a grate in City Hall Park near Murray St. The tube was painted white and lit by a row of gaslights. The tunnel shield that protected the face of the work was left at the end of the tube, awaiting a further extension that never came. Visitors found a small subway car seating 18 or 22 at the station.

Alfred Beach intended the line to raise public interest, in order to attract investors and to bring public pressure to bear on city and state leaders to franchise the line. Proceeds of the 25 cent admission went to the Union Home and School for Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans, and amounted to more than twelve hundred dollars in the first five days according to the Times on 8 March. At the request of visitors, said the company, petitions were made available to ask the legislature for the right to carry passengers through the tunnel.

The car did not run on 26 February, but it may have started running by 1 March. It did not run every day, and when it ran it did so for two or three hours. At other times visitors could walk in the tunnel. For this reason some recalled later that the car did not run.

The tunnel seems to have been open as the "PNEUMATIC TUBE" or "BROADWAY UNDER-GROUND" until the middle of 1873. The lease on Devlin's basement was given up by 1875, and the space was presumably used for other purposes. The tube itself remained company's property with access through the grate in City Hall Park, which was lasting evidence of something below.

The company needed a change in its charter to build a passenger railway. Boss Tweed and the Tammany politicians were against it, and the needed legislation failed in the first quarter of 1871 and again in 1872. Raised a third time under a new regime, it passed in early 1873, but the company could not attract investors, and nothing further came of it. The company however continued to promote possible underground railways into the 1890's when ideas of a subway backed by the city took hold, leading to the eventual construction of the subway system starting in 1900.

The first elevated railway in New York in Greenwich St was promoted during the same period. A short segment demonstrating the cable propulsion opened in 1868, and regular service began in 1869 from Dey St near Battery Park to the Hudson River railroad terminal at 30 St. The cable system, which pre-dates by just a few years the San Francisco cable streetcar system, was not satisfactory, and the line closed in December 1870. A new company began operation with small steam engines in February 1871, not to everyone's satisfaction, with the noise and the hot coals dropping on the street.

A second elevated line was proposed by Rufus Gilbert in 1872 using pneumatic tubes, quite similar to what Beach was doing. A pair of tubes were to be suspended over an avenue on graceful Gothic arches. Gilbert's company faced the same financial difficulties as Beach's in the Panic of 1873, and by 1875 the elevated plan was revised to a more conventional iron railroad viaduct and operation by trains with steam engines, along the lines of the Greenwich St and Ninth Ave elevated line, which by then was proving successful. The Gilbert company built the Sixth Ave El.

The Rogers, Peet clothing store building, ex Devlin's, was destroyed in a spectacular fire on 4 December 1898, when it was about fifty years old. The fire began in the basement, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, during a ferocious nor'easter that lasted into the next day. The few witnesses on hand when it started said that it spread very rapidly up to the roof. The entire building was consumed, while firefighters struggled in the wind, rain, and snow to keep the jumping flames from destroying nearby buildings. Rogers, Peet officials said they stored cloth in the basement. The Times article mentioned that the second basement had been the site of the old pneumatic subway. It had not faded from memory.

As the ruins were cleared afterwards, the sidewalk vault that had been the station came into view. Accounts say nothing about the station, which had presumably been converted to basement storage long before. The round opening to the tunnel had been walled up, but the wall was broken open for a short period in April 1899 to allow inspection of the tunnel. It was found to be in excellent condition, and was walled up again more permanently when a new building was constructed on the site. The remains of the little car were down near the end of the tube.

A newspaper story about a construction accident on the site on 12 May 1899 happens to preserve the information that a large excavation was in progress. The accident was caused by sand in the ground pouring into the open pit. Two men died. It is unknown to what extent the old foundation was reused for the new building, but the work moved along swiftly. Rogers, Peet moved into the new building on 13 February 1900.

Modern stories, relying on Daley's The world beneath the city, relate that workers building the Broadway subway in 1912 were surprised when they broke into the Beach tunnel and discovered the car on the tracks and the station with its fountain gone dry. This is a nice story but it did not happen.

For one thing, the New York Times had run a half-page feature article about the Beach tunnel on 23 April 1911, quoting liberally from their own coverage in 1870. It predicted that the builders of the newly proposed subway lines in Broadway would find it still there. A further smaller article on 4 February 1912 repeats the prediction, and also quotes a paragraph from a report on the tunnel made by the New York Chamber of Commerce in 1905. The existence of the tunnel was not a secret.

As soon as the contract was awarded to the Degnon Contracting company on 8 February, the first thing Degnon did was to legally "take possession" of the tunnel. Several company and City officials went down to look at it, together with reporters. The group went down through the ventilation shaft in City Hall Park. A photograph that ran in the Scientific American in 1912 shows the top of the shaft to be a large grill, just inside the park across from Murray Street. The size of this grill further belies the idea that the tunnel had been totally forgotten. There was obviously something substantial underground at this location.

Accounts in the newspapers and the Scientific American report that the thin iron rails had rusted away but that the iron rings of the tunnel were still very solid. The remains of the wooden car stood near the end of the tunnel. The shield was still across the end of the tunnel, intact except for small wooden parts.

Some photos were taken showing the car and the tunnel. The one below [not cached] appeared in the Report of the Public Service Commission for the First District for 1912. The slight curve in the foreground would be the end of the turn from Warren Street into Broadway, which was built with iron rings, and therefore we are looking south into the bricklined straight section under Broadway. Ahead there appears to be an earthslide, and unseen beyond that, at the end of the tunnel, is the remains of the shield.

Nothing, of course, was said about finding the station, which was long gone by this date.

Degnon engineers remarked on the solidness of the structure after so many years and suggested it might be as much work to remove it as it had been to build it.

The New York Parcel Dispatch Company, which was the same company as the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company after three name changes, brought a suit against the City for taking their property. What became of this has not been recorded any place I have found, but some friendly agreement must have been reached, because the shield, one of the first ever used in tunnel construction, was given special treatment and ultimately handed over to Alfred Beach's son Frederick.

As the new subway was constructed, Degnon's workers dug out all around the Beach tunnel before attempting to remove it. A photograph in the Scientific American of 7 September 1912 shows the shield still in place in the excavation. On 2 December, the shield was cut up and removed, and then shipped to the College of Civil Engineering of Cornell University, upstate in Ithaca, where it was to be restored and put on exhibition, a gift of Frederick Beach. What became of it is not known.

One of the stories about Beach's construction in 1869 was that the workers came across an old stone wall they thought to be a Dutch fort. They removed the stones one at a time and continued through. The Engineer's Report to the Public Service Commission in 1912 mentions the wall too, but reports it was an old cistern.