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

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