MY NOTE: Alfred Ely Beach was a publisher of a scientific magazine. This is a short story of a man who could see ahead into the future and built what was, during his time, an innovative mode of transport. (975 words)

Portrait of the inventor and his NYC subway.

Portrait of the inventor and his NYC subway.

How America Got Its First Subway

Alfred Ely Beach and the Pneumatic Train


The New York City subway system officially began rolling on October 27, 1904. The underground trains, operated by the Interborough Transit System Company (IRT), ran from City Hall to 145th and Broadway on a nine‐mile long track dotted with 28 stations.

But that was not New York City’s first subway. Three decades before — from 1870 to 1873 — Alfred Ely Beach had dug a 312‐foot tunnel under lower Broadway and, for three years, ran a lone subway car operated by a giant blowing fan. Beach’s pneumatic subway had been one idea, among many, submitted at that time in response to the growing number of horse‐drawn carriages, omnibuses, and streetcars clogging the streets of lower Manhattan. A booming population was forcing a northward expansion but it was very difficult to get uptown. What the city needed was a better transportation method.

Alfred Ely Beach was born on September 1, 1826 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He grew up in New York City where his father, Moses Yale Beach, owned a successful penny paper called The Sun. The young Beach worked for his father a short time before branching out with his own publication. Three months before his 20th birthday, Beach and his school chum, Orson Munn, bought a start‐up journal called Scientific American. They changed the editorial content of the magazine to reflect the current tide of innovation and began writing about patents and inventions. They enhanced the franchise by opening a patent agency. Munn and Company later became the most successful patent agency in U.S. history.

Meeting thousands of inventors each year, undoubtedly, influenced Alfred Beach. He submitted an idea for an underground pneumatic transit system. Although historians credit Beach for building the first subway in New York City the first plans for an underground railway system was actually introduced in 1865 by an inventor named Elisa Needham. Needham was inspired by pneumatic technology in London which used blown air and tubes to distribute parcels.

“Mr. Needham is a melodeon manufacturer of this City. The advantage of his invention over the pneumatic tube used in London is, that he uses but one engine for forcing the air, whereas the English process uses an additional engine at every station. He employs an endless tube, through which there is a continuous current of air.” –New York Times, 1865

Needham presented his idea to the New York State Senate, which approved it in 1865. But the Governor, Reuben Fenton, vetoed the bill. With that veto, Fenton would essentially delay the arrival of the subway by nearly half a century. Needham tried once more, but failed again.

Alfred Beach picked up where Neeham left off. Like Needham, he encountered resistance. His detractors were business owners along Broadway who thought that construction would interrupt traffic to their shops, and omnibus and streetcar owners who didn’t want the competition. Beach persisted, submitting plans of a smaller scale. In 1868, he got state legislature approval for an underground pneumatic system for transporting mail parcels.

That was all it took for him to begin digging. In 1869, Beach began building his subway funded with a personal investment of $350‐thousand. The plan was for the tunnel to connect with the main post office at Cedar Street and Broadway. Postal authorities wouldn’t cooperate so Beach was forced to begin his dig further uptown a few blocks away at 260 Broadway. In 1869 Mayor Abraham Oakley Hall threatened to sue to stop the digging after receiving complaints of sinking sidewalks. To garner public support Beach made sure that newspapers wrote about the project.

On March 1, 1870, 58 days after he first began digging, Beach opened his pneumatic subway to the public. Access was a flight of steps beside Devlin Department Store at Broadway and Warren Street. The station was decorated with a goldfish pond, frescoes, and comfortable chairs. The 312‐foot tunnel, which featured a curve, was lit through sidewalk openings covered by grates.

Beach’s pneumatic subway car carried 22 passengers who each paid 25 cents for the privilege of the short ride through the tunnel and back. In the first five days, $1,200 were collected and donated to a local military orphanage. In two weeks, they had sold 11,000 rides and by the end of the first year more than 440,000. Beach hoped that the popular attraction would lure financial investors to fund the expansion uptown. But, after waning interest and a financial crisis, the tunnel closed three years after it opened. Two years later the tunnel became basement storage for Devlin Department Store.

In the succeeding years, Beach’s company regrouped and repeatedly tried to get legislative support for a passenger railway. They failed to do so in 1871 and 1872. The next year, however, new state legislators supported and passed the bid. Unfortunately, there were no investors. Over the years the company continued to present the idea. It wasn’t until the 1890s, however, that the idea for a subway system finally took hold with the backing of the City of New York.

In 1900, the construction of the New York City subway system finally began. Historians aren’t sure if Beach’s pneumatic system actually could have worked in a larger scale. But his efforts have been recognized in helping establish the transportation system that, today, carries more than five million people each day.

In 1912, workers digging to build the Broadway line came upon the old Beach tunnel. They found remains of the car and the tunneling shield used to bore the tunnel. Today, the City Hall Station occupies the space where the tunnel used to be located.

Alfred Ely Beach died of pneumonia on January 1, 1896 in New York City at the age of 69. The New York Historical Society commissioned a plaque in his honor at City Hall Station. ✿