That First Day: Pomp and Then the Populace
March 28, 2004
By MIKE WALLACE
Y all accounts, Thursday, Oct. 27, 1904, was a stirring day in the city's history. Flags and bunting were up everywhere, and factories gave workers a half-holiday. Crowds congregated at City Hall and along the city's first subway line; church bells rang, whistles screeched, sirens screamed, and ocean liners boomed their foghorns.
Just after 2:30 p.m., a half-hour behind schedule given the overlong inaugural ceremonies, an olive green train loaded with bewhiskered and silk-hatted dignitaries pulled out of the City Hall station, with Mayor George B. McClellan at the controls. McClellan ran it flat out, his hand glued to a silver throttle, until nervous aides persuaded him to yield command to a professional at 103rd Street.
Soon the train burst into the sunlight at the viaduct over Manhattan Valley; people who packed the hillsides cheered this first tangible display of the previously invisible proceedings. It then rolled on to its terminus at 145th Street, completing the 9.1-mile journey of 28 stations in just 26 minutes.
The path of the IRT, as that first line was officially known, recapitulated the city's past and anticipated its future. From City Hall, the line plowed north along the old Commons where Stamp Act protesters once rallied. Then it pressed on under Centre Street, where Aaron Burr's wooden water pipes had been unearthed. Heading up Elm Street and Lafayette Place, it tacked under Fourth Avenue (beneath the site of the Astor Place riots), plunged (at Murray Hill) beneath the old Park Avenue tunnel and cruised straight to Grand Central.
At 42nd and Park, the system's financier, August Belmont Jr., would construct the lavish Hotel Belmont, complete with passageway that let him swing his special subway car, the Mineola, with its mahogany inlay and plate glass, directly onto the underground system for joy rides. (As Mrs. Belmont observed: "A private railroad car is not an acquired taste. One takes to it immediately.'')
At 42nd Street the route zigged left to Broadway and zagged right into the former Longacre Square (now rechristened Times Square), maneuvering through the new building for The New York Times (above the pressroom, below the first floor). Here it headed up Broadway, through the emerging theater district, under a shored-up Columbus statue, up the soon-to-boom West Side and beneath a new acropolis emerging on Morningside Heights. Then, breaking into the open, the route traversed a viaduct that soared over the old village of Carmanville at 125th Street until it resubmerged at 133rd and continued north.
For energy, that first train relied on what was known as the World's Greatest Powerhouse. IRT engineers had designed an immense, ultramodern generating plant at 59th Street and 11th Avenue to feed electricity to its entire system. Coal, which arrived by barge to a special Hudson River pier, was carried by conveyors through a tunnel to the powerhouse and there dropped into six generating stations, each of which had its own enormous chimney.
The engines and alternators could collectively produce 100,000 horsepower, more than any electric plant ever built, and deliver it to transformers and converters housed around the city in substations. These, in turn, passed on 625 volts of direct current to third rails in the subway tunnels.
Not only was the powerhouse a technological triumph, it was also a striking piece of architecture. The IRT's contract had insisted that all visible parts of the subway be designed "with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.'' Stanford White created the powerhouse face-work. The substations were built to look like trompe l'oeil Beaux-Arts homes.
The passenger stations along that first line also looked to Europe for aesthetic inspiration. For entryways, the IRT turned not to Paris (and its Art Nouveau Métro) but to Budapest. The Hungarians had modeled their stations on the "kushk'' - a summerhouse with a mosque-like roof that had graced gardens in ancient Persia - and New York's subway engineers transmuted them into "kiosks.''
Below ground, the stations were finished with tiles, marble, pottery and ceramic mosaics. In some stops, special panels denoted a historic building or event associated with the location. Oak ticket booths with bronze grilles were installed, ready to serve paying customers (turnstiles would not become the norm till the 1920's). But the first customers rode free, if only for the day, recalling for some Henry George's defeated proposal to subsidize mass transit by taxing speculative real estate profits.
The first car having completed its first voyage (during which F. B. Shipley from Philadelphia became the first man ever to give up his subway seat to a woman), additional trains, bearing 15,000 V.I.P.'s, now chugged up and down the route until 6 p.m. At that point, 70 of the most powerful and prominent joy riders trooped off to a testimonial dinner for Belmont at Sherry's restaurant, a repast that featured a perfect facsimile - 40 feet long - of the 72nd Street station, complete with an operating set of IRT toy trains.
Then it was the populace's turn. At 7 p.m. the crowds poured into the stations, where they were handed a booklet a Columbia professor had written assuring them the subway air was as pure as that in their own homes. An estimated 150,000 people rode up and down the line, thrilling, The Tribune said, to "the novelty of the whirlwind rush through the long tunnel, the thunder of grinding wheels and the mad dance of flying shadows past the car windows."
One Henry Barrett took a more jaundiced view: he discovered, shortly after entering the 28th Street station, that he had been deftly parted from his $500 diamond stickpin, thus becoming yet another first - the city's initial victim of underground crime.
A rather different association between subways and crime was made that day by the chief of police who, during the festivities, told the chief contractor's wife: "This subway is going to absolutely preclude the possibility of riots in New York. If a riot should break out at any time now we could clear the road and send out a trainload of a thousand men, dropping as many of them off at every station as necessary, and have an armed force in Harlem in 15 minutes.''
What most astonished one sharp-eyed Times reporter, however, was just how speedily the novelty wore off over the course of the day. Even as crowds of the yet uninitiated surrounded station exits, gawking in amazement as people emerged from a hole in the ground, the emergees themselves - now seasoned veterans - headed matter-of-factly homeward, "having finished what will be to them the daily routine of the rest of their lives.''