It is hard to imagine New York City without its intricate subway system. But did you know that before 1870 underground rapid transit in the city was considered an impossible feat? People believed that a new underground system would prove detrimental to existing buildings’ foundations. Business owners on Broadway protested that if the subway line ran under their stores it would disrupt how they conducted business, while other property owners believed that the ground in the street was “like a bowl of jelly” and would vibrate causing the buildings around it to collapse. However, Alfred Ely Beach’s one-block underground pneumatic tube, that opened to the public in 1870, proved that not only was subway a plausible option, it was also more convenient. Since underground the subway could travel faster and farther allowing the then over crowded city to expand and grow rather than add to the traffic and chaos on the street. Even in inclement weather conditions the subway would be able to run smoothly when the elevated railroads and trolleys could not.
In need of transportation reform the government agreed to the subway project, allowing construction to begin in 1900, and four years later it was ready for business. On October 27, 1904 fifteen thousand invited guests rode the train along with August Belmont (project’s financier), William Barclay Parsons (project’s engineer), and Mayor McClellan at a specially commissioned Tiffany & Co. controller handle. The mayor was given the honor of driving the first train, he became so entranced by the speed that he continued driving past the earlier agreed upon point and only gave up the control to the regular motormen at 103rd Street. That whole day the general public crowded around subway entrances anticipating the emerging commuters and waiting for 7:00 pm when the subway would be opened to them as well. By the end of the day more than 150,000 people had ridden the new luxurious subway system. The Rapid Transit Subway was a hit! The subway provided New York with a more elite identity and allowed the city to grow into the one we know and love today.
In 1922 the New York Historical Society acquired that significant Tiffany and Co. Subway Controller Handle to be preserved as a symbol of the city’s growth and transit history. Come on by to see this artifact and many more in our “Stories in Sterling” exhibit on the second floor!
Tiffany & Co., Subway Controller Handle, 1904. Collection of the New York Historical Society.
Inventory Number: 1922.103
– Laura M.