Could a subway station have a grand piano, chandeliers, and a fountain with goldfish to boot? Alfred Ely Beach certainly believed so in the years following the Civil War, and, in fact, he was not deterred in creating such a subway, one that debuted 150 years ago, on February 26, 1870. Beach (1826-1896) was an inventor, patent agent, co-publisher of Scientific American, and the son of Moses Yale Beach (1800-1868), a pioneer in journalism. Like Alfred E. Beach, anyone traveling on nineteenth-century New York’s clogged streets knew the need for rapid transit was certainly there: Mayor A. Oakey Hall had asked in 1869, “Long ago we should have become able to say, that New York Island was thirty minutes instead of twelve miles long.”
The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company’s operative system entailed the use of massive fans to propel cars through a tight tube, and, reversing, suck them back.
Like other things in transit, Beach’s pneumatic idea was preceded by a London model. Even more impressive, perhaps, was Beach’s innovative method of hydraulic tunneling that proved to have future uses.
His small tunnel under Broadway from Murray Street to Warren Street was meant only as a demonstration in 1870, but Beach’s ambitious plan, shown here, did foresee taking riders all the way from Manhattan’s City Hall to Central Park at a startling rate of one mile per minute.
Beach was able to pull off his scheme by operating under the subterfuge that he was demonstrating two pneumatic tubes for mail package delivery. His surreptitious result instead proved to be one large tube for the movement of very big “packages”—elegant, lighted cars that would hold twenty-two people on upholstered seating.
Those of us with recent memory of the ten years it took to complete the new Second Avenue Subway are tempted to marvel that Beach’s tunnel was finished in just 58 days. But we need also keep in mind that his white-brick tube was only a football field in length, twenty feet deep, and just eight feet wide.
Nonetheless, Beach got that far, even bragging in this handbill that his transit demonstration was indeed a done deal, or in the common French phrase, “Un Fait Accompli.”
This handbill is a rare, surviving broadside, but one that was clearly meant to be widely circulated: The positive, if tentative, reviews of the newspapers were followed by his appeal, “Agitate, petition, and give all the aid in your power to the BEACH PNEUMATIC COMPANY, 260 Broadway, corner Warren Street. That which has already been done, without fuss or boasting, is sufficient evidence of what will be done when the Company get Legislative authority. AFTER READING, SHOW THIS TO YOUR FRIENDS.”
Beach had no shortage of curiosity seekers on opening day in February 1870. An audience that had known only steam power was intrigued and impressed by the lack of sparks and smoke, a ride that could be gentle as long as one was not standing in the wrong place. The cost was not the nickel of future subway fame, but a full 25 cents, the standard price for middlebrow amusements (these proceeds went to a charity for Civil War orphans).
When it was time to expand the system in the three years that followed, Beach needed to gain the financial support and state government approval that he had managed to evade with this initial demonstration. Here he faced opposition from landowners on the route who feared the disruption of underground tunneling and the reluctance of government to leave such a project to one private company. Beach would use the Tammany leader, William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, as his scapegoat for this failure since Tweed’s spectacular fall coincided with this effort. The Beach Pneumatic Transit’s ultimate demise came with the financial Panic of 1873 where investment clearly dried up.
With his fortune spent on lobbying, Beach seemed to lose his taste for his own inventions until his death on January 1, 1896. He nonetheless kept up a quiet legacy: Self-taught in Spanish, he saw to it that La América Cientifica circulated in Central and South America. Today’s visitors to The Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center in Savannah, Georgia could pause to note that it is named for this early benefactor to education for freed slaves.
The standard narrative of this “What Might Have Been” subway recounts that the tunnel was so much forgotten that it surprised constructors of the “real” subway who came upon it in 1912. However, in the New-York Historical Society collections we do find this photo of men cavorting around the neglected car in 1899.
We waited, of course, until 1904 for the subway we now know to open, and despite constant complaints about its operation, there remain no doubters as to its necessity. Beach’s plan for “package delivery” also inspired the system of pneumatic mail tubes under the city that many of a certain generation will remember.
We now must leave it to engineers to ponder the present-day practicality of this pneumatic scheme: Is there any feasibility in its speed and carbon footprint to move not only masses of people, but our ever-increasing number of parcels?
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections