The very best part of the book “The World Beneath the City” that I’ve been telling you about is the part about the subways. For centuries, transportation was second only to water as New York City’s worst problem. The streets of long, narrow Manhattan Island were perennially clogged with pedestrians, men on horseback, and horse-drawn taxis, wagons, and trams.
By 1870, this led to the advent of slow moving, steam-driven elevated railways above a few streets. However, elevated railways — or simply “els” as they were usually called, were ugly, noisy, shaky, swaying, barely crawling things running high above the streets. Their coal-fired engines spewed out smoke, steam, and soot that blackened the buildings around them, and the rumbling, hissing, sooty train passing every few minutes gave no peace to the people and businesses in the streets below, or to nearby apartment dwellers.
Subways were considered; but use a steam engine underground? Not possible. However, the advent of electrically run trains finally solved the problem. The IRT, Interborough Rapid Transit Company, subway line began running in 1904, a safe, clean, cheap and fast means of getting around the city. A second line was soon added; and by 1916 the BMT, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company, was running in Brooklyn and Queens, with sidelines to Manhattan. However, the best part of this whole story is what happened during the construction of the first BMT line in Manhattan.
What would you say was the most unlikely thing you might discover underground while digging a subway? Would you say that the answer to that might be a subway?
Well, guess what? You’re right!
Not only did the miners hammering a BMT subway line through solid rock under Broadway cut into an already existing subway, but also they could hardly believe their eyes when they saw a beautifully decorated station platform with frescoed walls, elegant paintings, a grand piano, and what had once been a bubbling fountain and a large goldfish tank!
Nope! Not a sci-fi glimpse into the future; a look back at the past.
From February 1870 to April 1873, Ely Beach, inventor, genius and editor of Scientific American Magazine actually demonstrated a short subway dug beneath Broadway, from the corner of Warren Street to the corner of Murray Street. It was pneumatic, run by a giant fan that produced air that pushed the train back and forth the same way messages are blown around office buildings today in plastic carriers blown through hollow plastic pipes.
However, by 40 years later in 1916 it had been totally forgotten.
And now a few words about Smelly Kelly, a “subway sniffer” who became famous for his ability to sniff out problems caused by the dozens of different kinds of leaks, sags, and spills from the streets above, things which could wreak havoc with the subways below.
In one typical case, a restaurant owner was threatening to sue the city because of a horrible stench “rising from the subways” which had permeated his business and was driving his customers away.
In came Kelly and his famous nose. “I’m Kelly,” he announced without further ado.
“Smelly Kelly?” the owner asked doubtfully.
“The same,” Kelly replied, starting a nose-sniffing walk around.
“What do you think?” the owner asked.
In minutes, standing on a chair, Kelly pointed upward at a portion of the ceiling and said, “Rats. And they’re right here.”
“You heard him!” the owner said to some customer friends.
Broomsticks and other rough tools began poking at the spot. Soon a large mess of dead rats, apparently killed by rat poison, spewed out onto the floor, another victory for a man with an incredibly accurate nose.
Read the book!