Diane and her guest discuss the rivalry between Boston and New York to build America’s first subway. It was a competition that played out in an era not unlike our own: one filled with economic upheaval, job losses, bitter political tensions, and the question of America’s place in the world.


  • Doug Most Deputy managing editor for features, The Boston Globe.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway” by Doug Most. Copyright © 2014 by Doug Most. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last year marked the sesquicentennial anniversary of the world's first subway which opened in London in January 1863. A new book tells the story of America's first subway. It's a tale of competition between New York and Boston. It's marked by political infighting, engineering challenges, and a widespread fear of traveling under the city streets.

  • 11:07:25

    MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled "The Race Underground." Author Doug Most joins me here in the studio. Throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Doug Most is deputy managing editor for features at The Boston Globe. And welcome to you, Doug. It's good to have you here.

  • 11:08:00

    MR. DOUG MOSTThank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here. It's fun to ride the D.C. metro out here, only ride the subway to get to where I'm going.

  • 11:08:08

    REHMDid you do that today?

  • 11:08:09

    MOSTI absolutely did. I was thrilled to be here.

  • 11:08:10

    REHMAnd what did you think of it?

  • 11:08:13

    MOSTI mean, I've -- I went to school in Washington.

  • 11:08:14


  • 11:08:14

    MOSTSo I'm very familiar with it. And it's such a different system than the Boston and New York systems 'cause it's so much newer. It's much more recent than the Boston and New York system, so it's cleaner. And it's sparkling, and it's all the things the Boston and New York systems are not.

  • 11:08:30

    REHMYou know, I was in Moscow years ago before the D.C. subway was built, and I was so impressed by the beauty of it, the mosaics, the architecture, the cleanliness. Now Washington has its own. But describe New York and Boston before they had their subways built.

  • 11:09:00

    MOSTI think the only way you can describe those cities is crowded. The streets in both Boston and New York, before there was such a thing as a subway, were just overrun. It was like elbow-to-elbow people. You could not move, especially on the sidewalks. People were just walking down the sidewalks, carrying their bags, and being bumped into the street. And then it was dangerous because there were horse-pulled carriages, and there were carriages on tracks and electric trolleys. And...

  • 11:09:29


  • 11:09:29

    MOST...in Boston, there's a great photograph which we include a photograph sort of similar to it in the book where you literally just had a line of streetcars, street trolleys down Tremont Street, right in downtown Boston. You could have walked from rooftop to rooftop of each of these cars without ever setting foot on the ground 'cause they would move forward an inch at a time.

  • 11:09:50

    REHMAnd if you did move forward, you might find yourself stepping in unpleasant things.

  • 11:09:59

    MOSTYes. You might find yourself stepping in things that smelled and things that were just very unpleasant. And not only that. It was -- horses were...

  • 11:10:04

    REHM'Cause horses were going along, too.

  • 11:10:07

    MOSTHorses were, you know, a huge part of culture back then and society back then. But the thing about horses, despite their beauty and for all their beauty and grandeur and the marvel of a horse is that they were only good for a couple years. You know, a horse would sort of get worn out after a couple years. And then throw in weather to the mix. You know, if there's a blizzard or a snowstorm, a horse is just like a person. It's sort of unable to move and really get through the snow. And...

  • 11:10:34

    REHMSo is that really what ultimately decided the idea that both cities had to do something underground?

  • 11:10:48

    MOSTYeah, there were a combination of factors that happened. Immigration was a huge thing that was happening. So many people were coming in from other countries by the boatload, thousands of people streaming into Ellis Island and through New York Harbor at the time. And the cities were essentially in just the fingernail of what exists now.

  • 11:11:09

    MOSTSo if you can imagine New York City today, back then, everybody lived downtown in sort of maybe in the Canal Street in the '20s. And that was it. What we now know is the '60s and the '70s and the '90s, that was farmland and pasture. There was nothing up there because there was no way to get there other than by horses. And it went so slow. And it would take an hour to get up there.

  • 11:11:31


  • 11:11:33

    MOSTBoston was the same way. Boston was sort of a very tiny little downtown district. And for those cities to expand and to grow and to allow the immigrants to -- sort of the newcomers to the cities to move out beyond the downtown area, they needed a way to get there. And that was a big part of sort of why electric trolleys were needed and ultimately why subways were needed.

  • 11:11:54

    REHMYou know, I was fascinated to learn that you had two brothers, one in each city, to a very, very prominent family who decided that they had to, in Boston and in New York, have the underground form of transportation, and then began this competition.

  • 11:12:23

    MOSTYeah. So, as a writer and a as a researcher, you look for stories, and this was what made it really fun for me. As I was researching the story of the Boston subway, I stumbled on to a gentleman named Henry Melville Whitney. And when you think of the name Whitney in American history, two things come to mind. There's the great Whitney Museum in New York City, which of course everyone loves, and then there's also Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin.

  • 11:12:44

    MOSTThose were two things that sort of came to mind. Turns out Henry Whitney, who grew up in Conway, Mass., had a brother named William Whitney. And those two brothers from this great American family became central to the debate and the construction of the subways in their respective cities. William Whitney could have become president of the United States if he wanted to be. He got Grover Cleveland elected president, became his secretary of the Navy, and he could have been president himself if he wanted to. But he chose not to and sort of stayed in big business instead.

  • 11:13:15

    REHMIn New York.

  • 11:13:16

    MOSTIn New York and became sort of the street transit sort of king of New York, if you will. He became very involved in the transit operations of New York, just as his brother was doing the same thing in Boston. So you had these two brothers, one in Boston, one in New York, deeply immersed in the city transit systems and trying to figure out ways to improve them. And that made it really fun.

  • 11:13:36

    REHMAnd were they talking with one another at the time?

  • 11:13:41

    MOSTThey were. They were communicating with each other. They were sort of following each other. And, in fact, there was a pivotal moment, which I describe in the book, in which William Whitney in New York needed an engineer to help him sort of improve the transportation system, and he called his brother -- or didn't call him, of course. But he reached out to his brother at the time and said, do you know someone?

  • 11:14:02

    MOSTAnd there was a Tufts University engineer that -- by the name of Frederick Pearson, who had done some great work for Henry Whitney in Boston. And he said, you should use my guy. And so suddenly you have this engineer who worked on the Boston system now being shared from one brother to the next on the New York system. So it was a great example of them sort of paying attention to each other and helping one another.

  • 11:14:22

    REHMTalk about that concern that Americans had at the time of moving underground.

  • 11:14:32

    MOSTYeah. We tend to -- today, in any city, London, Paris, Boston, New York, Washington, we sort of -- I did it myself today. I'm riding an escalator going down while staring at my phone. And it's just something we all do today. We take for granted sort of the idea of traveling underground. Today we do it so blasé. You know, we just go down there, and we allow a train to emerge out of a dark, mysterious tunnel.

  • 11:14:56

    MOSTWe step onto it, and it whisks us away. And we just assume that was the way it was. But it was not that way. Centuries ago, mankind was horrified and terrified at the idea of going underground. Embracing the underground world was very difficult. The earliest tunnels were sort of built by slaves in Europe and other places. And they were sort of forms of torture. And some of the ways that they built these tunnels when they, of course, had not tools were archaic.

  • 11:15:26

    MOSTJust amazing how they would light a fire, for example, against a rock, and then they would heat the rock. And then they would throw cold water at the rock, and that would cause the rock to chip. And that was sort of how they built some of the earliest, earliest tunnels. But as things evolved and they developed tools, things became easier. But the challenge remained getting mankind to embrace the underground. That was where the devil lived. That was where people went to die. It was not where people went to travel.

  • 11:15:57

    REHMWhat about getting people to go to work underground, though, to build these two subways?

  • 11:16:02

    MOSTYes. Hugely problematic. Claustrophobic -- people who were terrified of working under there. It was very scary and dangerous. A lot of people didn't want to do it. And they would start on the job, and they'd walk off the job after a couple weeks 'cause they couldn't handle being underground. But it took a long time. And it finally -- I think you mentioned this. The world's first subway opened in 1863 in London. But there was a big problem with London's subway, which was, at the time, the way trains moved was steam.

  • 11:16:36

    MOSTSo if you can imagine a steam train underground -- you know, and next time we complain about how dirty it is under there, we should maybe think back to then because it was dark soot and smoke and sparks flying into the air when a train would sort of emerge. And it took 30 years after London subway opened for another subway to open. And the reason for that was because everyone realized that London, while they had built a beautiful subway, had not found the perfect solution because a steam train underground was not the future.

  • 11:17:10

    REHMThis idea of going down there and being covered with soot and, you know, actually breathing in this air, it had to have been horrible.

  • 11:17:23

    MOSTYeah. There's a great anecdote in the book of a young boy -- this young boy journalist who sort of rode on the train, and he described it as sort of just, like, standing next to someone smoking a cigar the entire time, just sort of, like, blowing smoke into his face 'cause it was just -- you just couldn't breathe. So it really was sort of a brutal experience. And yet Londoners rode that underground because it was the only method of transportation they had. And so they did ride it, millions of people, but it was just a very, very unpleasant experience.

  • 11:17:50

    REHMAnd when did they shift then from that kind of coal-operated underground?

  • 11:17:59

    MOSTYeah. Well, the big development was -- and a couple of engineers. There was sort of a race to design the electric motor. There were a number of engineers who were working on the electric motor, and one of them was this young Navy Ensign by the name of Frank Julian Sprague. And he is someone who, in the book, I sort of described as someone who deserves much more credit in history than he gets.

  • 11:18:19

    REHMHe's a real hero.

  • 11:18:21

    MOSTHe's a brilliant guy, and he unfortunately toiled in the shadow of Thomas Edison. And by working in Edison's shadow, he never quite got the credit he deserved.

  • 11:18:31

    REHMWe're talking about a new book. It's titled "The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway." Doug Most, we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:00

    REHMWe're talking about a new book by Doug Most, who is with The Boston Globe. His new book is titled, "The Race Underground: Boston, New York, And The Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway." Doug Most has clearly done a lot of research on this. Here's our first email. "How does the timing of Boston and New York subways compare to the building of subways in Russia? Their subway stations are like many museums." And I really agree with that.

  • 11:20:49

    MOSTYeah, back when these two subways were built, it's sort of interesting how quickly they developed. Boston essentially signed the contract to build its subway in 1895. And two and a half years later, opened up. Very quickly. In New York, it was essentially four years, but they built much longer. They built almost 20 miles of subway before they opened up. So both cities were very quick in acting.

  • 11:21:20

    MOSTWhat's interesting about that email is one of the chapters in the book is devoted to a gentleman named Alfred Beach. Alfred Beach was, what I like to call, a dreamer. He had this great dream for New Yorkers in the mid-19th century, around 1850, to build a tunnel under Broadway. And when he proposed in building a tunnel under Broadway…

  • 11:21:44

    REHMTwo blocks or something. Extraordinary.

  • 11:21:45

    MOSTYeah, right, one block. But it was science fiction back then. The idea of a tunnel under Broadway in 1850, New Yorkers sort of mocked him and laughed at him and ridiculed him. But what Beach did is he refused to be deterred. And he went and built this thing in total secrecy -- an amazing project. And the reason I'm telling the story is because what he did was when he built the station, he knew that he had to convince people that it would not only be safe to go underground, but actually enjoyable to go underground.

  • 11:22:18

    MOSTHe designed this one-block station -- and it went 312 feet -- with a chandelier and a gold fish tank and beautiful…

  • 11:22:29

    REHMMaking it beautiful.

  • 11:22:30

    MOSTMaking it -- and settees and all these things. It was like a living room. And people went down there and were sort of struck by this gorgeous, beautiful setting. And then, oh by the way, there's a little train here that you can ride underground. And it was the first example of someone sort of saying, you know, we'll build a subway, but it has to be enticing. People have to want to ride on it. And he did that.

  • 11:22:53

    MOSTThe story of Alfred Beach is a great story because he was a dreamer who sort of put forth this idea. And even though the actual New York subway didn't open for a full half-century later almost, people like Alfred Beach are critical to our society today because they're dreamers. And they put forth ideas that may or may not happen one day, but we need those people to do that.

  • 11:23:18

    MOSTJust like John F. Kennedy said, "One day we'll walk on the moon," and just like someone like Elon Musk today says things like, "We're going to build a hyperloop train in California that will whisk people at 800 miles per hour," people laugh at it and sneer at it and say well, that'll never happen. And they may be right. But you know what? Maybe in 50 years it will happen. And the only way it's going to happen is if somebody puts forward those ideas.

  • 11:23:42

    REHMI'm really interested in the fascinating characters that are in this book. I mean we talked a little about Frank Sprague just before the break, but as you say, he really deserves a lot more credit…

  • 11:24:01


  • 11:24:03

    REHM…than he got because he was overshadowed by Thomas Edison.

  • 11:24:07

    MOSTHe was. And there are other characters in this book, too, who sort of come to life, you know. The Whitney brothers, for example, were brothers who -- especially Henry Whitney. There was a fair amount written about William Whitney because he almost ran for president. He was secretary of the Navy. There was a biography of him written years and years ago. But Henry Whitney sort of never quite got his due for what he did in Boston.

  • 11:24:28

    MOSTHe just never sort of was recognized for being the very first person to propose, in Boston, to tunnel under Boston Common, which is the famed park in Boston. But he proposed that and eventually that's what happened. So again, someone to sort of put forth a bold idea is critical to things happening. That first step is often the hardest step, as they say. And that's what happened with Henry Whitney.

  • 11:24:50

    REHMTell me about the kinds of tools they had to use to begin this process.

  • 11:24:59

    MOSTYeah, they were the most rudimentary tools you could imagine. They were picks and axes…

  • 11:25:02

    REHMYeah, picks.

  • 11:25:02

    MOST…and shovels. I mean literally there's a scene I describe in the book where on the day New York began construction, an army of men just showed up at a corner in downtown New York, swinging picks right into the concrete. And just started chopping up the street. That's how it had to happen, you know, because there were no giant derricks or bulldozers or things that we have today. There were just men and their tools. And they would who up with their overalls and covered in dirt and grime and blood and sweat, and just start hammering away.

  • 11:25:34

    REHMAnd who were these people?

  • 11:25:37

    MOSTMost of them were immigrants. A lot of them were Italian and Irish immigrants who either lived in this country or came over specifically to actually build this project. There's a great story, which I was so fascinated to learn about. When a portion of the New York subway had to be tunneled, not just sort of cut up the street, but deep underground, in the Upper West side. A group of immigrants who were miners, who came from around the world because their work was experienced in digging mines.

  • 11:26:05

    MOSTThey came over. And they had to get papers approved. And they went to a judge in New York to say we're here to dig the subway. The judge sort of looked at them and sort of was like, "Why are you here?" And they were like, "We're here to dig a subway." And he sort of said okay, good luck with that. And it was sort of a great moment where these guys -- they just came over for this one project because that's what they did. They heard about this and they wanted to be a part of it.

  • 11:26:30

    REHMWhat countries were they coming from?

  • 11:26:34

    MOSTMost of them were coming from Ireland and from Italy. They were Irish and Italians, but they really -- for the miners especially -- they came from around the world. There were South Africans who came and there were others who came over. So wherever there were sort of men who wanted to work -- and these guys traveled around the world, just doing these projects. But a lot of them were also New Yorkers.

  • 11:26:53

    MOSTAnd in Boston, the contractor who got the very first job was a guy named Michael Meehan, who came from a neighborhood in Boston called Jamaica Plain. And what he did was he hired workers from Jamaica Plain. He wanted men who he had worked with and was familiar with. So he hired men he knew from his hometown.

  • 11:27:10

    REHMHow well were they paid?

  • 11:27:13

    MOSTThey were paid between $1.50 and $2.00 an hour. So not a lot of money, but for them it was good money back then. And one of the things Michael Meehan learned was that the Irish would not work for less than the Italians. The Italians were willing to work for less. And he ended up actually working with more Italians, despite his sort of -- he had a certain disdain for the Italians. He didn't want to work them because they often didn't speak English and they didn't want to learn English.

  • 11:27:39

    MOSTThey sort of just came and huddled together and hung with themselves. And he sort of said I'm only going to use the Irish in Boston. But then when he tried to cut their pay, the Irish said no, no, no. You can't cut our pay. And then he said well, now I'll use the Italians because they will take a lower pay. And so he eventually switched and became more enamored with the Italians.

  • 11:27:57

    REHMAnd what happened to the Irish?

  • 11:27:59

    MOSTThey still worked on the job, but not as many. Not as many. So he was just willing -- he needed to find a way to make the job as profitable as possible for him.

  • 11:28:06

    REHMHow dangerous was the work?

  • 11:28:09

    MOSTVery dangerous. Very dangerous. In both cities men died. There were multiple accidents. In Boston there was a gas line explosion where they nicked a gas line and it caused a huge explosion and a number of people died. And in New York, one of the most dangerous things was really the tunneling and the digging way underground where they had to use dynamite. And dynamite back then was a relatively new thing.

  • 11:28:38

    MOSTAnd they were tunneling with dynamite under the city. There's, again, a story in the book where I describe how they would blast and then they would wait 10 minutes and go under to see if everything was clear. And if you can think about it today, 10 minutes is not a long time. And they would sort of wait 10 minutes before they went underground to see if the dynamite blast worked. And unfortunately, what would happen occasionally is there were still cracks and loose rocks and boulders.

  • 11:29:02

    MOSTAnd then they would be underground working, and then something would just collapse on top of them. And that happened a number of times, including to one of these major engineers on the New York job. Irish Shaylor (sp?) was killed when a boulder fell on top of him underground in the Murray Hill neighborhood.

  • 11:29:18

    REHMThere must have been a number of casualties.

  • 11:29:21

    MOSTThere were on both projects, dozens of men died on both projects. It was dangerous work. There were also a lot of near fatalities. Men who were struck by equipment and lived, but never worked again, had limbs amputated and things like that. So there were a number of sort of near fatalities, as well. It was very dangerous work.

  • 11:29:43

    REHMWere their families compensated?

  • 11:29:45

    MOSTThey were not. There was really no way to compensate back then. It was just, you know, we're really sorry and, you know, what have you. But that was the way things were back then. It was just an acceptance of the danger of the job.

  • 11:29:57

    REHMI know you spent five years on this project. What got you interested?

  • 11:30:03

    MOSTA couple things. One of the moments that fascinated me is around the time 1903, which is when New York was just getting ready to open its subway, if you think about that moment in history, 1903, 1904, it is perhaps one of the greatest moments in our time. If you know your history, three things happened around that time.

  • 11:30:23

    MOSTA gentleman by the name of Henry Ford was just perfecting this little thing he had figured out, where if you put gasoline in the back of this little contraption with four wheels and wheel, everybody could have one of these things. A little vehicle. Everyone could have their own, instead of having to ride on busses or trains or trolleys. And that thing of course became the automobile. That happened in 1904 where he invented his company.

  • 11:30:46

    MOSTThen in 1903, just a few months before that, a couple of brothers in North Carolina took the first flight ever on their plane. And then you had New York opening its subway in 1904. In the span of less than 12 months, planes, trains and automobiles…

  • 11:31:02


  • 11:31:03

    MOST…all collided and happened. And the subway was this great example of sort of just innovation and moving underground and new thing that this country had never seen. That was one piece of it that I was fascinated with. And then like I said before, I love a good story. And this had people that I was just fascinated with, from Boss Tweed, to Frank Sprague, to Alfred Beach, to the Whitney brothers. It was just a great story to tell.

  • 11:31:26

    REHMAll right. We've got lots of folks who have questions. We'll open the phones now. First to Grasonville, Md. Hi there, Carl.

  • 11:31:39


  • 11:31:41


  • 11:31:42

    CARLYes. Thanks for taking for my call. I really enjoy your show, Diane.

  • 11:31:46

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:31:46

    CARLI was curious because years ago I was on a short-term retirement working in the city of Budapest, Hungary. And I utilized the subway system there. And I was told by a person who was in good repute to me that Budapest actually the world's oldest subway, that predated that London subway system. And I think that was something that was mentioned early in the show, that London had the world's first subway. I was wondering if you had any insight or feedback on that remark.

  • 11:32:15

    REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling.

  • 11:32:16

    MOSTLondon was the first. Budapest was very early. Budapest was -- I'm not sure of the exact year, but I believe it was the 1890s. So London was definitely the world's first subway in 1863, but Budapest and Paris and Glasgow, they all were sort of around the same time in the 1890s.

  • 11:32:39

    REHMAnd Moscow?

  • 11:32:40

    MOSTAnd Moscow was a little later than that, I believe. It's possible what they might be referring to is one of the world's first electric subways. I'm trying to remember if Budapest -- because again, London was steam. So Budapest might have been one of the world's first electric subways.

  • 11:32:56

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm fascinated by why Moscow decided to create such a beautiful subway, whereas the others that I've seen have been pretty functional. Why do you suppose the Russians decided that that underground form of transportation had to be almost like a museum?

  • 11:33:37

    MOSTI think that every city that sort of decides to build a project like this has to decide sort of what the purpose of it is and sort of how widespread they want it to be. Boston's subway is a very small system. No, it's a smaller city, to be fair. So everything is relative. But it's a relatively small system. It only goes a certain distance and it's expanding, but it's still very popular.

  • 11:34:01

    MOSTThe question of functionality versus beauty, it's an interesting debate. I think that a lot of it has to do with the early days of when the architects were designing these stations. William Parsons, who's the engineer who designed the New York City subway, he was less interested and focused on the beauty and he was more interested in the functionality of it. And making sure that there were tracks that were for local and express trains and such.

  • 11:34:32

    MOSTHe wasn't an architect. That wasn't his background or his interest. He was an engineer by trade. Went to Columbia and founded Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the world's largest engineering firms to this day, that's now building the 2nd Avenue subway in New York City and built Boston's Big Dig. So I think it depends on who sort of gets involved in the projects. If a city decides that they want an architect involved, then that will bring a beauty and aesthetic to it that's different than just focused on the engineering.

  • 11:35:02

    MOSTSo that's probably what happened in Russia, where they really wanted these stations to be like museum quality. But in Boston and New York they were less focused on that and more just on the let's make sure it works and it's functional and it gets people where they need to go.

  • 11:35:17

    REHMWhat's the state of the New York subway today?

  • 11:35:23

    MOSTSo it's enormously -- the traffic on it is at record levels these days. And they're expanding it. They're building the 2nd Avenue subway, which is now one of the world's largest public works projects that's ever been undertaken. It's just an enormous job. And some of the photographs of it are spectacular. Just seeing this huge tunnel underground that's being built today with the tools that they have today, which are far different than the picks and the axes that men used a century ago.

  • 11:35:51

    MOSTSo it's expanding and growing. And continuing to be expanded. And it's happening in other cities, too. Los Angeles…

  • 11:35:56

    REHMI was about to ask.

  • 11:35:58

    MOSTYeah, Los Angeles, a city where people are just wedded to their cars. And the idea of Los Angelenos sort of riding in anything but their own vehicle is sort of funny to imagine, but they're talking about building the subway to the sea there, which would be a subway that would take them from downtown out to the ocean. And if that happens that would be remarkable.

  • 11:36:17

    REHMThat would relieve some of that extraordinary traffic.

  • 11:36:22

    MOSTYou would think so. The question is, again, whether we can convince people…

  • 11:36:24

    REHMWill people use it?

  • 11:36:26

    MOST…to ride it. Right. Exactly.

  • 11:36:28

    REHMAnd what other cities? I mean here in the Washington area, there's this proposed extension out to Dulles Airport.

  • 11:36:38

    MOSTRight. And that would be a huge thing, to be able to take people out to Dulles because obviously the Reagan Airport only goes to certain destinations. Having another airport that's within easy access to the Metro system would be enormous. So I think a lot of cities are looking at subways as something they can expand. They are expensive. There's no question about it. It's a huge undertaking. It's an expensive undertaking. And it's something that you have to have all the way from the top down, from the White House on down, has to be behind this idea of sort of building things, not for the cars, but for the masses.

  • 11:37:12

    REHMAnd when we come back I do want to hear about the overall costs of both New York and Boston's subway. Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 11:39:58

    REHMAs we talk about a new book titled "The Race Underground: Boston, New York and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway." Doug Most is the author. He's also a writer for the Boston Globe. Going to go back to the phones to Jim in Pittsburgh, Penn. Hi there.

  • 11:40:31

    JIMHi, Diane. Good morning.

  • 11:40:32


  • 11:40:34

    JIMDoug, I want to ask you a question. When they engineered these things way back then at the beginning at the 20th century, did they happen to factor in the way that these tall buildings and everything in downtown New York City and -- as well as Boston? I mean, that's got to upset their foundation and everything, doesn't it, as they tunnel underneath there? Or for that matter, even the safety of the -- you know, the people that are going to be traveling in these subways underneath these buildings.

  • 11:41:02

    MOSTThanks. It's a very good question and you're absolutely right. It was a huge factor. First of all, you have to remember that the buildings were not as tall as they are today. So a skyscraper back then was maybe 12 or 15 stories. But having said that, it was a huge concern. In Boston, when they were building these things, they would go into the basement and they would go underground and sort of look at the foundation of these buildings and sort of ask themselves, well, how can we sort of do this without making sure the building starts to tip? It was a critical, critical question.

  • 11:41:33

    MOSTAnd not only that but as I mentioned before, using dynamite was a huge concern underground because they did not want the streets to buckle. They did not want buildings to buckle. So they just had to be really careful. And they had to sort of work around the buildings whenever they could. And so it was a huge factor. They paid very close attention to it. And when there were buildings that they were not convinced would be able to withstand it, they would try to firm up the footing of the building as much as possible so that it would be able to withstand the pressure and the construction. So yes...

  • 11:42:05

    REHMWere there any critical errors in that regard?

  • 11:42:10

    MOSTSo there were a few places. In fact, there's a photo in the book of a hotel around Park Street where a particular dynamite blast caused the hotel to buckle a little bit. And they have sort of these braces that are holding it up and sort of had to be then sort of pushed backwards a little bit. So there were absolutely examples of -- I wouldn't say accidents but certainly as it was happening they were learning as they went. Let's put it that way.

  • 11:42:36

    REHMHope that answers it, Jim.

  • 11:42:39

    JIMDid they have access to electricity back then, Doug? I know Thomas Alva Edison and Westinghouse were around back then but did they have anything from electric power that could help them build these things?

  • 11:42:50

    MOSTA little bit. So electricity was very new, especially for the Boston, New York systems was really only a decade old. But the electric light was used to light the tunnels. So they brought down bulbs and that was how they were able to get light down there. But there were also gas lines and other things that were sort of powering a lot of the cities. And so it was a combination of electricity and gas that was sort of powering things. Electricity was very new back then.

  • 11:43:14

    REHMThanks for calling, Jim. Here's an email from Clifford. "How did they figure out if the tunnels would flood from the water table, or how did they avoid flooding from the water table?

  • 11:43:31

    MOSTSo water was obviously a huge, huge concern, especially as they got closer to a river or closer to water. But even when they were not next to the river there were times when they just had to sort of be mindful of it. In Boston -- and I sort of tell this story in the book -- there were several times where they would be digging the tunnel and all of a sudden water would start to seep up from the ground. And so what they had to do was really then put another layer of concrete and another layer of waterproofing and more steel and more iron and then more concrete, really just make it waterproof.

  • 11:44:05

    MOSTThey were determined to make these tunnels like ships in the sense that -- and this is one of the quotes from one of the reports that was available back then, to make them so that the tunnel itself could float in the ocean. It had to be completely waterproof. And that was critical to these things working because they knew people would be terrified if they were not convinced that it was safe.

  • 11:44:25

    REHMAll right. To Shawn in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi there.

  • 11:44:31

    SHAWNHey, Diane, how are you doing today?

  • 11:44:33

    REHMI'm great, thank you.

  • 11:44:35

    SHAWNAwesome. Hey, I wanted to talk a little bit about the abandoned subways of Cincinnati, the abandoned project started in the '30s. And kind of ties into the modern day things that's going on here in Cincinnati with the light rail projects that we're trying to start and move through all of Ohio. And, you know, if he knows anything about that or could elaborate on some of the, you know, modern day implications of having and not having a subway.

  • 11:45:03

    MOSTSo I've heard about the Cincinnati project. You know, the idea that they started something and then didn't finish it. It's sort of bizarre and strange but not entirely unheard of. Again, I'll take you back to sort of what happened with Alfred Beach. You know, he built the subway -- a one-block subway and then it never went anywhere.

  • 11:45:22

    MOSTAnd a great story, the Alfred Beach thing that happened was someone asked me, well what ever happened to his tunnel and the subway car that he built for people? So years later in 1912 in New York City, workers were expanding the New York City subway, the IRT and they busted through a wall and they stumbled onto his tunnel and to his car. And it was like this -- it was like finding an archaeological dig essentially in the middle of New York City.

  • 11:45:49

    MOSTAnd sadly at the time they sort of said, well, that's really interesting and, you know, it's pretty cool that he did that but we need to keep moving. And they just kept on digging right through what he had done and didn't preserve it.

  • 11:45:59

    REHMWhat -- how could they simply abandon Cincinnati's tunnel?

  • 11:46:03

    MOSTYeah, it's a good question. I've only been reading about it fairly recently, and so I was just fascinated that they would sort of start this thing and not finish it. And the only thing I can say is obviously these projects were enormously expensive. And sometimes if cities are sort of not good about mining their budgets and mining their finances, if the project gets out of control then they might have a hard time completing it.

  • 11:46:26

    REHMHere's an email from George on this subject regarding Cincinnati. He says, "The turns were too tight for the train cars. It became a bomb shelter. Now I think it's being used to develop into retail and nightlife venture."

  • 11:46:53

    MOSTSo if that's true, that's fascinating because in both cities, in Boston and New York, they had issues that still to this date play out. When New York was building its subway there was a curve that was nicknamed dead man's curve because it was so sharp. And it needed to be adjusted because it was just too sharp. And it was -- passengers would feel almost ill taking the turn too fast.

  • 11:47:18

    MOSTAnd in Boston today, one of the reasons expanding the Boston subway is so difficult, and it's very frustrating for people who live there, is that the tunnels are so narrow, the trains can only be so long. They can only be two cars or three cars long because you can't have a longer car through these tunnels. So it's very frustrating. You know, a city that would probably love to expand its system, it's very difficult to do that because the tunnels won't allow it.

  • 11:47:42

    REHMYou talked about Thomas Edison, electricity, gas. There were several gas explosions, one that killed ten people in Boston, 54 people perished in the four years of construction in New York.

  • 11:48:03

    MOSTYeah, it was just -- again, it was just such a dangerous project. You know, the explosion in Boston happened six months before the Boston subway opened. And nobody knew -- Bostonians were walking around that morning that it happened smelling gas. Everybody could smell it and they knew something was going on but they didn't know where the gas leak was. And, in fact, somebody called into the gas company and said, there's a gas leak but the building they called from was not where it was.

  • 11:48:31

    MOSTBut the person who answered the phone, this woman named Nellie Harmon -- I love that her name was Nellie Harmon, she sent crews to the building where the call came from but that's not where the leak was. So they evacuated the wrong area. And then a few minutes later a car was sort of coming around a corner and a police officer sort of looked down at the tracks where the streetcar was and saw sparks coming off of the car. And he knew that that was bad. And second later that car exploded into the air, 50' into the air. And that's where ten people died, including several horses.

  • 11:49:07

    MOSTIt was a tragic accident but it was an example of sort of how back then we were sort of ill prepared and ill equipped to sort of deal with these things.

  • 11:49:16

    REHMYou have to talk about the role of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.

  • 11:49:21

    MOSTYeah, Boss Tweed, obviously a great character -- this takes us back to Alfred Beach. So Alfred Beach, the skinny opera-loving inventor and then you have Boss Tweed, the 300-pound crime boss of New York City. And they essentially went head to head and went to war over Alfred Beach's desire to build this sort of secret subway that he wanted to build. Because Boss Tweed was so corrupt he was taking a cut out of every bus and transit operation on the streets. And he knew that a subway...

  • 11:49:49

    REHMSo he didn't want anything underground.

  • 11:49:51

    MOST...he knew a subway was bad for business.

  • 11:49:53


  • 11:49:54

    MOSTAnd so he stood in Alfred Beach's way and ultimately, you know, sadly sort of got what he wanted. And Beach never was able to build his tunnel. He was sort of responsible for holding Beach's project up. Tweed eventually got arrested and eventually went off to jail. But by then Beach was bankrupt and had no money left. And so that's one of the reasons why it took another 30 years before New York actually built the subway.

  • 11:50:17

    REHMSo how did the competition between the two brothers proceed or was thee a fair amount of cooperation along the way?

  • 11:50:29

    MOSTYeah, it was collegial. It was cooperation but they were paying very close attention to each other. Both cities were paying very close attention to each other, sending engineers and other people up to Boston and down to New York to see what they were working on and to see if they could learn from them. When the Boston subway opened, there was a great quote in the New York Times that sort of I think summed up how New Yorkers felt about the fact that Boston opened the first subway.

  • 11:50:52

    MOSTIt sort of said that, that's so conservative an American town would get there first and open the first subway. I mean, you could see it sort of galled New Yorkers a little bit that, you know, Gotham, of course, the great Gotham sort of was beaten to the punch by little old Boston. And of course New York would get there seven years later and would grow. But Boston did get there first.

  • 11:51:15

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Victoria in Leesburg, Va. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:51:23

    VICTORIAHello. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:51:25


  • 11:51:26

    VICTORIAI was listening to your show and I love listening to your show whenever I have a chance. But I was hearing you talk about the Moscow subway earlier. And both the Moscow subway and the St. Petersburg subway, I'm actually familiar with because I lived in St. Petersburg for two years. And the story behind that is that during the Stalin period they were building subways. And they decided that they would be basically palaces for the people, that the people going to and from work, the laborers should be able to enjoy the beauty of the palaces that the aristocrats used to have.

  • 11:52:00

    VICTORIASo they brought in artists and they brought in architects from all over in order to design each and every station differently. And that is why both of those subway systems are so beautiful. It has to do, actually, with one of the few things you can thank Stalin for.

  • 11:52:16

    REHMSo interesting...

  • 11:52:16

    VICTORIAAnd I just always thought that was very interesting.

  • 11:52:19

    REHM...because the curved arch -- that arch of mosaics is absolutely breathtaking.

  • 11:52:27

    MOSTWell, and she used that word architects and I think that was a key thing. I think having architects and builders sort of involved in the stations is why some of them were treated like museum-like buildings as opposed to in other cities where they maybe were less concerned with the aesthetics of what the space looked like, and more concerned just with the functionality. But clearly Stalin was concerned with the beauty of it as well, if that's the case.

  • 11:52:50

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a call from Christian who's here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:53:03

    CHRISTIANOh, thank you for getting my call.

  • 11:53:04


  • 11:53:05

    CHRISTIANI have two comments and a couple of questions. I'm from Chile, South America. And we have a subway in Santiago which is huge right now. Some stations have, like, four levels where you can get banks, businesses, dry cleaning, many stops like I haven't seen here. And is that part of making decisions to making subway stations in the United States? Is it just a functional thing? And my second is that metro was there. The train runs on wheels like a track with rubbers and not like here, which are iron wheels like old trains. And there's some -- why they make the stations like that?

  • 11:53:53

    REHMYeah, it's very interesting, Christian. Thanks for your call.

  • 11:53:57

    MOSTYeah, so they do have the stations sort of being very deep and having almost like a shopping mall quality to them. It's sort of fun. And again, what's amazing about that, if you think about it is think about how far we've come to where there was a time where the idea of going underground, we were terrified of it. And now here they are building tunnels where, hey let's go shopping underground, which is sort of funny and fun to imagine that. So that's very interesting.

  • 11:54:21

    MOSTAnd it's an example also of clever engineering, taking advantage of sort of space without disrupting the surface. But why not dig and build and open business underground?

  • 11:54:31

    REHMWell, weren't there some here in Washington when the subway first opened?

  • 11:54:36

    MOSTI believe there were. When the first subways opened in Washington there was a little bit of that, although I don't think it's there much more now. But New York and Boston have never really embraced that, although occasionally in some of those stations you see little coffee shops or a magazine shop.

  • 11:54:48

    REHMI'm fascinated with the rubber wheels.

  • 11:54:51

    MOSTYeah, the rubber wheels is interesting. I mean, obviously one of the big things that you always have to be concerned with with what the trains are riding on is the weather. Now obviously down there they're probably less concerned with perhaps blizzards and the sort of weather that we might get up here.

  • 11:55:03

    MOSTSo the question is, you know, what kind of wheels and surface are going to withstand sort of inclement weather and also hot, cold, hot, cold and sort of be able to really be able to take that. So rubber wheels might be as enduring perhaps as sort of something that's harder and more steel like. So it would be interesting to know why they went with rubber tires. I don't know the answer to that.

  • 11:55:26

    REHMSo here we are in 2014. The D.C. subway system is fully operative, even considering extensions. But at the same time above ground rail streetcars, which I grew up with here in Washington, are on their way back. Now how do you see that balancing with this idea of underground transportation? Is one better? Is one simply a compliment to another? How do you see it?

  • 11:56:12

    MOSTWell, again, take you back to -- so what happened in one of the pivotal moments in the book is where I describe the blizzard of 1888. So at the time in New York City and in Boston they were relying on street transit. Street trolleys was how people got around. And they were so crowded. But not only that, when a blizzard struck in 1888, it was perhaps the worst natural disaster in American history. Four-hundred people -- at least four-hundred people died in this blizzard. Probably many, many more.

  • 11:56:40

    MOSTThat blizzard crippled the entire northeast. And without that storm cities were sort of going to continue on the street. But that storm was the pivotal moment where cities decided we had to move our systems underground.

  • 11:56:55

    REHMDoug Most. He writes for the Boston Globe. His new books is titled "The Race Underground," a fascinating story. Doug, thank you.

  • 11:57:08

    MOSTThank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

  • 11:57:10

    REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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