A can-do attitude

A recounting of the race to build the nation’s first subway is as much about American bravado as it is about a transformative transportation project.

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway
By Doug Most
New York: St. Martin’s Press
404 pages

once upon a time, before the invention of the internal combustion engine and before Henry Ford perfected the mass production of affordable automobiles, transit was king. It was a brief reign, but significant well beyond its impacts on personal mobility. Public transportation enabled cities such as Boston and New York to expand, attract business, and offer a higher quality of life to their citizens. Shrouded by the mists of time, the pre-auto era of public transportation marked a giant leap forward for congested cities whose citizens suffered the daily indignities of crowded streets filled with unregulated horse-drawn carriages.

It wasn’t just equine congestion that made cities nearly unlivable. The streetscape was a visually cacophonous mess of overhead electric and telephone wires, permeated with the sour, often stifling odor of horse dung littering the streets and piled high in empty lots where dung, hay, and assorted other urban refuse were left to rot, a stinking reminder of what it took to satisfy the essential needs of humankind. Leading citizens in 19th-century Boston and New York realized that they would not thrive if they continued to be shackled to 18th-century modes of transportation. It wasn’t fitting for cities that aspired to join the ranks of the world’s great urban places. For many Americans, the urban gold standard, the place to emulate, was London.

London in the 19th century was the capital city of the world’s most powerful nation. Having finished off Napoleon Bonaparte early in the century, Britain proceeded to take command of the oceans and build an empire upon which, famously, the sun never set. The capital city of such a glorious empire would not stand still or rest on its laurels —it would innovate, it would experiment, it would match daring to progress and offer its citizens the most advanced modes of transportation in the world. And so London, a heavily congested city whose streets (like those of Boston) followed no logical pattern, embraced the idea of moving mass numbers of people on fast-moving trains on a plane outside the commonly understood public realm. They would do so underground.

The notion of underground transit was shocking to many people who believed, as one wag put it, that the only time men should be underground was if they were miners, or when they were dead. The idea of confinement in dark, dank tunnels underground did not appeal. When London opened the first segments of its now fabled Underground system in 1863, it was nearly half a century ahead of what cities in America would be able to achieve.

Doug Most’s recounting of the building of the New York and Boston subway systems, The Race Underground: Boston, New York and The Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway, is, at its root, neither about a race nor a rivalry. It is instead a panoramic exploration of late 19th/early 20th-century American bravado—the sort of can-do attitude that not only built America’s first subways, but also built feats of engineering such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Cape Cod Canal.

The parallels between the building of the Boston and New York subway systems to the building of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project are both stunning and the cause for reflection. Great cities take bold action at certain critical points in their history, action that represents a quantum leap forward. In Paris, it was the massive city building efforts led by Baron Haussmann; in New York, it was the decision to build and maintain the great Central Park; in Boston, it was the filling of the Back Bay; and, in our time, the grand vision of improved mobility and reclaimed public open space embodied within the Big Dig. The subway systems in Boston and New York fit comfortably into this list of great municipal projects built upon innovation and a collective belief that the city’s future depended upon the massive investment and temporary disruption necessary to implement such ambitious projects.

The Race Underground offers both an engaging history of the events leading up to subway construction, and an opportunity to reflect on the importance of public transportation to the health and well-being of our cities. It was as true in the late 19th century as it is today: Dense urban environments depend upon a safe and reliable system of mass transportation that can affordably get people to and from work, school, entertainment, and other destinations.

Without public transportation, cities would soon fall apart under the stress of congestion, pollution, and stagnation. The view was neatly expressed by the engineer William Parsons, founder of the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, who observed that the “great cities of the Old World show no signs of standing still.” Standing still was not an option if America’s cities were going to thrive—and perhaps surpass—their European rivals in the 20th century.

As the tale unfolds, we observe how such large-scale projects actually get done—the dynamic combination of persistent visionaries, quirky innovators, forward-looking political leadership, and profit-minded private sector entrepreneurs. Each had a place and an important role to play in building, first, a public consensus, and then the actual underground subways.

The book’s most important achievement is its demonstration of the connections among various emerging technologies—connections that built upon one another to create the right circumstances at just the right time, enabling the construction of underground subways that would be embraced by skeptical citizens. Innovations in the delivery of electric power to trains intersected with innovations in underground tunneling to produce an opportunity moment that is exciting to share through the pages of Most’s narrative.

The book also offers important insight into the thinking of civic and political leaders regarding how to finance and control these systems. Boston’s Mayor Nathan Matthews Jr. was adamant that there was an important leading role for the public sector, fearing that leaving construction of a mass transit system to the private sector would lead to decision making not fully consistent with the public interest. Public-private partnerships—a financial device that we sometimes believe is of fairly recent vintage—flourished in a time when wealthy private sector businessmen held much sway over municipal decision making.

Along the way there are the expected false starts, mishaps, and failed experiments. There are also the comings and goings of a parade of wealthy businessmen whose interest in public transport was fueled as much by visions of hefty profits as by public spiritedness. None were more prominent than the Whitney brothers—Boston’s Henry and New York’s William. Henry Whitney was the driving force moving Boston in the direction of mass transit. A holder of vast tracts of real estate in Boston and Brookline, Whitney saw the importance of public transportation as a way to enhance his property values by enabling unprecedented mobility between Brookline and Boston. The idea that public transportation can trigger economic growth was perhaps more obvious to Whitney than it is to many today who decry the importance of transit expansion projects. One important lesson from The Race Underground is that the strategic expansion of transit systems – today’s examples would be the extension of the Green Line to Medford and the extension of the Blue Line to Lynn—is not a luxury but a necessity for civic growth.

Most takes us through the decision-making process that ultimately led to the subways we still use today: the choice between the “ugliness of steam and the uncertainty of electricity;” the use of “cut and cover” vs. deep-tunnel construction; identifying the best routes that would both serve clear mobility needs while not completely disrupting commerce during construction. The resolution of these choices would help define the public’s perception and acceptance of the new mode of transportation.

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Late 19th century New York and Boston were both focused on the urgent need to improve mobility through public transportation, and while the two cities didn’t really have a conscious “race” to complete the first subway, they each benefitted from a healthy competitive spirit—a spirit that even today informs every Yankee/Red Sox game. In that unspoken desire for primacy, Boston carried the day. Boston’s underground transit system opened in September 1897, giving our capital city the distinction of America’s first subway. It was a modest and underwhelming affair —a cut and cover tunnel linking Park Street to Boylston Street, completed in two and half years at a cost of $4.2 million. The construction had its share of calamities, including a gas explosion that killed 10 people and injured many more and the displacement of nearly 100 long forgotten burial sites, but Boston’s builders persevered and the subway was quickly embraced by citizens eager to embrace the future. When you descend the stairway at the corner of Park and Tremont Streets today, you are sharing the inheritance of that experience.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.