Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The world’s first subway

Does anyone watch Cities of the Underworld? In a recent episode they explored the oldest subway tunnel in the world. Your immediate thought was of London, right? So was mine, but I had to put that idea on hold when they revealed that in 1844, sixteen years before they even began construction on the first London subway, a subway tunnel had been built in Brooklyn. Abandoned in the 1850s and then filled in, it soon entered into urban legend. Clearly I needed to find out more!

Today Brooklyn is a borough of New York, but in the 1840s it was a separate city with its own transport system. The Long Island Rail Road Company had at that time a train that ran right through the city along the busy Atlantic Street (now Atlantic Avenue). Brooklynites who tried to dodge the train were frequently knocked over and killed.* The train had no air brakes and so took up to eight blocks to stop (though trains did not stop for people back then anyway). Cornelius Vanderbilt, the company’s director, was not so very concerned about the casualties, but he was indeed concerned about the punctuality of his trains. So for reasons of safety and practicality, a ‘grade-separated’ or subway transport system was planned.

Construction on an Atlantic Street tunnel began in 1844. The ‘cut and cover’ method was used: half a kilometre of street was dug up, a brick arched tunnel – large enough for two standard gauge tracks – was built and then the street was laid down again on top of it. It was built by Irish workers and took as little as seven months to complete. It was the first tunnel built under a city street for trains, and as such is considered by many to be the world’s first subway (it did not, however, have underground stations, as do modern rapid transit subways).

But within a very short time the train lost its usefulness and the tunnel fell into disrepair. The last train ran in 1859 and in 1861 a man called Electus Litchfield was contracted to fill in the tunnel. Litchfield realised he could make away with a great deal more money if he merely stopped up the ends and entry points, without actually filling in the entire tunnel. He had some associates sign the papers saying that it had all been done properly and nobody was the wiser.

As the decades passed rumours started to circulate concerning the tunnel: the freemasons were using it; German spies were hiding there; it was housing bootleggers’ whisky stills; it was a dumping ground for the mob. But in later years it was all but forgotten.

In 1980, Bob Diamond, a young engineer living in Brooklyn, heard mention made on the radio of a local, abandoned subway. The radio host was discussing a 1979 book by G. O’Toole called The Cosgrove Report. The book, which is about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, referenced a rumour that the eight missing pages from the diary of John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassinator) might be hidden in a forgotten subway under Atlantic Avenue. Diamond was intrigued to say the least. He contacted O’Toole, who knew nothing more than what he had related. Two local rail historians said they had looked for it but found nothing.

Diamond spent the next year scouring old newspapers, looking for clues of where the subway might be located. Eventually he came across a 1911 article that spoke of a set of plans, housed in the borough president’s offices. When Diamond went there he was told that there were no such plans, but he was allowed to make a search for it. He found an old locked box. Having broken the lock, he sifted through ancient documents until, at the bottom of the box, he found a rolled up blueprint for the tunnel. Diamond noticed a small blue circle in the drawings and speculated that it represented a manhole. If the manhole could be found, it might offer an entry point into the tunnel.

In the middle of downtown Brooklyn’s busy Atlantic Avenue, Diamond and some friends located a smooth manhole, different from all the others. They opened it up but it revealed a drop of only about two or three feet before one would hit a floor of dirt. His friends assumed the search was a failure but Diamond decided to wiggle along in the crawl space. He was able to go forward for about 21 metres before the dirt went up to the ceiling.

Diamond, who has since said that he felt like an urban Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark had just come out that year), decided to dig with his hands, in the same way that Indiana had done. In digging he came across a brick wall. He was assisted in breaking through the wall with a pole, and in so doing opened up a hole through which he could look down into a cavernous, black tunnel, roughly 5 metres high and 6.5 metres wide. The lost subway had been found.

The subway, which today is known as the Atlantic Avenue or Cobble Hill Tunnel, was made part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Since his discovery Diamond has lead many group tours into the tunnel (everyone still enters in through the Atlantic Avenue manhole), marketing it as a great tourist attraction. One can even hold art events down there.^

A documentary, What’s Behind the Wall, which details Diamond’s quest, is soon to be released.* But for Diamond the search is far from over. A large part of the tunnel (the western section) is walled off. Diamond believes that not only might Booth’s diary pages be hidden behind that wall, but there may well also be an old locomotive lying there. Tradition has it that in 1961 one of the trains Litchfield was using to haul in dirt had a crank axle break and, rather than spend the time and money involved in fixing or removing it, it was simply left where it was. This could help explain why he chose to fill in only the tunnel ends.

Permission from the authorities for Diamond to break through the wall has thus far been denied due to the hugely disruptive impact such an operation would have on traffic. The western end of the tunnel remains, therefore, a mystery. At least for now.

* An interesting footnote, only thinly related, is that by the late nineteenth century New Yorkers referred to anyone from Brooklyn as “trolley dodgers”, because of the extensive network of streetcars that by then dominated the city. The Brooklyn baseball team even changed its name to the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers in 1911. The name was then shortened and became the Brooklyn Dodgers.
^ For photos of the tunnel, go to
* A preview can be seen at

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Boers of Patagonia

Have you ever come across some titbit of history so fascinating or unusual, that when you learn of it you wonder how you came to be so far in life without ever having come across it before? Well today's history blog (the very first) is about just such a topic: the Boers of Patagonia.

Not many South Africans are aware that there is a sizeable number of Afrikaners (often referred to as Boers) living in Argentina in the region of Patagonia. The Van der Merwes, the Venters, the Krugers, the De Langers, the Bothas and the Vissers - these are some of the names of Argentine Boer familes living in the semi-desert region of Patagonia, which is not that unlike the South African Karoo.

Between 1902 and 1907 many Afrikaner families left South Africa and sailed to Argentina as self-imposed exiles. The Anglo-Boer War had just ended. Those Afrikaners who left had, like their kinsmen, lost friends and family to the war effort or to the British concentration camps and were moving because they refused to live under English rule.

The first group of exiles sailed from Table Bay aboard the old Highland Fling, travelling to Patagonia where Camillo Ricchiardi (the Italian husband of President Paul Kruger's granddaughter) had organised 2,000 hectares for them from the Argentine government. Patagonia is inhospitable territory, and as such had largely been left unpopulated, save for gauchos (cowboys) and bandits. But the Afrikaners were known to be tough and good at farming and it was hoped they would help develop the area.

When the first settlers arrived at Comodoro Rivadavia on the coast of Argentina (about 1,500 km north of Tierra del Feugo), there was nothing for them: no houses, no water supply, no jobs to be had, and no facilities other than one tiny lean-to store. They lived in tents until they could build huts. They insisted the government dig wells for them. In so doing, huge, profitable oil fields were discoverd in 1907.

Some of the 800 or so original families remained near the coast, and the men figured out how to be mechanics, horse-men and builders. Many ventured into the hinterland, which is windswept and barren, and which was still, essentially, pioneer land. Australian Merino sheep were bought from the Welsh communities to the north by those wanting to start farms. Today the area is famous for its Merino wool. The Boers gradually became prosperous: not wealthy, but self-sufficient and comfortable.

The Afrikaner community was tightly knit (as all settler communities tend to be when starting out) and kept to itself by and large. The famous travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, wrote in 1975: "They lived in fear of the Lord, celebrated Dingaan's Day, and took oaths on the Dutch Reformed Bible. They did not marry outsiders and their daughters had to go to the kitchen if a Latino entered the house."* (The Boers' isolation also meant that they did not develop the racist tendencies of South African Boers, being so far from the events and influence of apartheid South Africa.)

The Boers began their own schools so as to educate their children in Afrikaans. They built an NG Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church), sang Afrikaans songs and made their customary foods, such as biltong, milk tart and koeksisters. They would gather together once a year in February to play Boer sports, braai traditional meals and have a Saturday night sokkie (an Afrikaner dance).

But as so often happens, the distinctive nature of the settlers' culture is being eroded with time. Over the decades there has been mingling and intermarriage with other ethnicities. Children have been sent off to foreign schools. Towns have grown and become more cosmopolitan.

In its heyday the Boer community numbered in the thousands, but today that number has been reduced into the hundreds. A big dip in numbers came in 1938 when many repatriated to South Africa.

Afrikaans as a language is fading with each generation as the Boers are increasingly assimilated into Argentine culture. A Spanish cleric took over preaching at the Comodoro Rivadavia NG Kerk in 1953 and thus Afrikaans was no longer needed to understand the sermons. Today, many of the younger Boers speak Spanish as their first language and some know only a few words of Afrikaans.

Many Patagonian Boers have visited South Africa, or plan to visit, and naturally have relatives here. It is generally the first and second generation Argentine Boers who feel a strong connection with South Africa, having listened to the stories of parents or grandparents and developed a keen sense of their Afrikaner identity (something that has historically been felt very strongly by Afrikaners). Feelings of patriotism towards South Africa appear to be dying out with the older generations. Tellingly, Martin de Blackie, a first generation Boer descendant, relates:

"Ons skreeu vir die Springbokke," he says. "Ook wanneer hulle teen die Pumas speel. Die kleintjies kan dit nie verstaan nie. Hulle sĂȘ, 'Man, julle is Argentinos. Julle moet vir Argentina skreeu.'" (We shout for the Springboks. Also when they're playing against the Pumas. The little ones don't understand it. They say, "Man, you're Argentine. You must shout for Argentina.")^

* In Patagonia
^ Article found at on 17.02.2010