Written by Steven Thomas TopViewNYC
The New York City subway system has been an iconic representation of American metropolitan transportation since its opening in 1904. Subways provide a solution to crowded cityscapes, offer a cheaper alternative to cabs and cars (which place the cost of gasoline, parking, and insurance on one commuter instead of many), and allow people to live in one borough and work in another. Woven into books, movies, and popular culture over its hundred-year existence, the New York City subway system has bled into other areas of history while simultaneously creating its own.
Contract for Construction
Construction of New York City’s first subway line began with a contract between the Rapid Transit Construction Company and New York City on Feb. 21, 1900. The contract, worth $35 million and built upon a winning bid by John B. McDonald and financing by August Belmont, gave the Rapid Transit Construction Company, later called the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the right to all tracks they built and a 50-year operating lease. The length of the lease is a sign of the high expectations for the new subway system, although many New Yorkers had their doubts that the potential risks of riding the subway, such as tunnel collapses and tuberculosis from the underground air, would outweigh the advantages.
- New York City’s Subway Turns 100: Information on the original contract can be found here, along with a history of the subway.
- A Seven-Year Struggle to Build New York’s Subway: This is a blog post from the Smithsonian on William Steinway’s search for contractors to build the New York subway system.
Construction of the First Line
The first line of the New York City subway was built using the “cut-and-cover” process: open excavation, blasting, and brute work by men with pickaxes at night followed by removal of debris by day. Several obstacles hindered construction and required rerouting, including sewer and water lines, gas and electrical mains, natural bedrock, building foundations, the Columbus Monument, and occasional basements and bank vaults. While accidents did happen during the construction process, The New York Times reported only three serious ones, causing a total of 16 deaths and 125 injuries. These obstacles made the project’s completion four years after its inception quite impressive.
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