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BROADWAY'S SECRET TRAIN

fig5-8.jpgThere are a zillion reasons why New York is the City with a big "C," and everyone else lives in the land of the lowercase. But right up there at the top of the list is our sprawling subway, the central nervous system of this town. And it turns 100 today.Like every grand project, there are lots of stories behind its building. But my favorite has to be the one about the secret train which ran under Broadway.Back in the 1860's, New York had become beyond overcrowded, quadrupling its population in just 40 years. Something had to be done to ease the city's traffic woes. But Boss Tweed, the City's unchallenged ruler at the time, had his hand in the trolley business, and wouldn't let alternatives flower.So Alfred Beach the editor and co-owner of Scientific American decided to build a subway in secret. He had a license to build a mail delivery system under Broadway using pneumatics, or compressed-air. But Beach expanded those tubes many times over, so they could carry people in air-powered trains.The idea was to make an underground railway so grand, that even Tweed could not resist the public pressure for it. And the scheme almost worked. Unveiled in 1870, Beach's subway was, by all accounts, a smooth, quiet ride. And it was ornate chandeliers adorned the ceiling of the demonstration terminal. In the middle sat a grand piano.The press went ga-ga over Beach's railway. 400,000 people paid a quarter to make the one-block trip in the first year the train was open. New York's Senate and Assembly passed bills authorizing Beach to build a Manhattan-long pneumatic subway.But Tweed, as usual, had the last laugh. Governor John Hoffman, his puppet, vetoed the subway bill. Beach's dream died that day in Albany. It'd take another thirty years before New York would start digging.

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