The New York City Subway: Then and Now - Flashback Week


The infamous Blizzard of 1888 blankets subway tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo from the Google-hosted LIFE Photo archive.

Written By: Jennifer Smith

Though it has a way of dog-earing a page in the brains of locals as they sit listlessly and avoid wayward gazes, the New York City subway system continues to inspire a thousand missed connections as well as its own sense of etiquette. For whatever reason and no matter how much time has passed, every New Yorker finds truth in the old cliché, “you couldn’t have ridden the subway back then.”

But if you transit back to a time where you really couldn’t ride the subway back then (because it didn’t exist), you’ll unearth a rich history. The New York Transit Museum tells the story of the 100-year-old subway system best, but here’s a quick overview regarding why the bemoaned but beloved mode of public transportation remains a remarkable feature of the city that never sleeps.

Before Electricity Powered Our Transit …

A drawing of George Shillibeer’s third omnibus by Henry Charles Moore in 1902.

Even in the 1820s, a bustling Manhattan called for public transit. So Abraham Brower brought New Yorkers the first public transit route in 1827: a horse-drawn stagecoach called the “Accommodation.” It only “accommodated” 12 people on a bumpy ride along Broadway (from the Battery to Bleecker Street).

In 1832, John Mason organized the New York and Harlem Railroad, which put those horse-drawn cars on metal wheels and rails for a smoother ride. By 1855, Mahattanites had 27 routes by which they could travel the city by horse-drawn cars.

Before Public Transit Went Underground …

With the advent of electricity in transit near the end of the century, the city’s 593 horse-powered cars fell out of fashion in the wake of the electric trolley car. In 1870, on Valentine’s Day, elevated railway services powered by steam engines began to run along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue. Elevated rail service proliferated for the next few decades, but the Blizzard of 1888 brought NYC transit to a halt and partially inspired the move underground.

Before the New York City Subway We Know Today …

A much-discussed story in the history of the NYC transit system is that of Alfred E. Beach, who developed the first New York City subway, the Beach Pneumatic Transit, clandestinely under the nose of New York State senator William M. Tweed. Beach developed his demonstration subway around the same time elevated railways were picking up steam. Thus, politically connected property owners along Broadway, where Beach would build his line, opposed the idea because of their stakes in the elevated railway game. Still, Beach managed to create a 312-foot tunnel under Broadway that powered a subway car from 1870-1873 with a giant fan.

An outline of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Tunnel in the March 5, 1870 edition of Scientific American. Scanned image is in the public domain.

The first official underground line opened in 1904. In the early days of subway construction, the city built most of the subway lines and leased them to two private companies: The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company and The Interborough Rapid Transit Company. The city-owned system, The Independent Subway System (IND), opened its first line in 1932. By 1940, the city bought the two private systems and began to integrate the lines with the IND, tearing down some elevated railways in the process.

Today, about 40% of the subway system runs on surface or elevated tracks. The move underground was realized by the “cut-and-cover” construction method, where the street had to be torn up to dig out tunnels below and then rebuilt again from above.

In 1953, the New York City Transit Authority (now the MTA New York City Transit) established its headquarters at 370 Jay Street.

Before You Complain …

The New York City subway system as it stands today. Photo is in the public domain.

The incredibly complex subway system of today didn’t get here without dealing with a few bumps in the road. During the 1970s, (perhaps the proverbial “back then” everybody is always talking about), the subway system all but fell apart. The budget crisis of 1975 gave rise to ever-increasing fares and suspended maintenance programs. Consequently, the subway cars grew filthy, run-down and some say, downright dangerous.

100 years later, we can safely say the New York City subway system moves forward. MTA Arts for Transit brings a little beauty into our daily commute and with nearly 66,000 MTA employees, the subway system continues its 24/7 mission to keep New Yorkers on track.