This is a guest post by Sonia Kahn, Library Technician in the Geography and Map Division.
On a recent trip to New York City, I frequently found myself in the underbelly of the city, submerged below the hustle and bustle as I was transported up and down Manhattan. I couldn’t help but notice while I was visiting how the now antique mosaics depicting station names give the subway system character. It’s a massive difference from the drab uniformity of the concrete stations here in our nation’s capital, a system which is much more modern but lacks the vintage charm of New York. This led me to wonder just how old these catacombs of conveyance were that whisk people every which way, at all times of day, just below the surface.
The story of New York’s modern subway system actually doesn’t begin underground at all. In fact, quite the opposite. Public transportation had existed in the city in the form of horse-drawn coaches since the 1820s, and the latter half of the century brought with it elevated trains. In 1878 the first truly reliable elevated train line known as the “El” opened, carrying passengers along Greenwich St and 9th Avenue from lower Manhattan up to Harlem.
Elevated railways quickly became the dominant form of public transportation, but they were not perfect. A major blizzard in 1888, which paralyzed above ground transportation in New York, helped build support for an underground transit system. Several years later in 1900, construction began on a subterranean train line, and in just four years New York’s first official subway line had been completed.
In October 1904 the first portion of what would go on to become one of the world’s most extensive subway systems opened for business. The initial subway route consisted of 28 stops over a roughly 9 mile distance under Manhattan. Interesting to some might be the fact that the subway system was originally privately operated, with the first line run by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). Success from the initial underground line encouraged the IRT to further expand the subway system. By 1915 the IRT was servicing every New York City borough aside from Staten Island.
Seeing as public transport was a purely commercial endeavor in the first half of the 20th century, other companies sought to capitalize on the subway concept. Founded in 1896 to consolidate and run railway lines in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) entered the picture in 1915 when it began operating its own subway line. The BRT’s new line crossed the Manhattan Bridge to connect Brooklyn with Manhattan. A few short years later the BRT had constructed its Broadway Line which traversed the island of Manhattan.
The success of both the IRT and BRT lines resulted in further rapid development of the New York subway system. In 1913 both companies signed dual contracts with the City of New York to restore and modify existing stations while also entering into new construction projects. By 1924, just twenty years after the initial opening of the IRT line, the subway had more than quadrupled its number of stations.
In 1932 the City of New York opened the first city-run subway line known as the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad (IND).This quality which made the IND distinctive from its privately–run counterparts was short lived however, as in 1940 the City of New York purchased both the IRT and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, the successor to the BRT, and consolidated all three subway systems into a single network. The predecessor of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which today operates all city-owned subway and bus routes, was created in 1953. By the mid-twentieth century, the New York subway system as we recognize it today was truly starting to take shape.
For nearly 120 years the New York City subway system has been helping riders reach their destinations. Since its inception and that original 9 miles of track run by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the transportation system has seen many changes including the transition from fare tickets, to tokens, to MetroCards, and now the adoption of a new digital tap-and-go pay system known as OMNY which stands for One Metro New York. Only time will tell what direction the subway system might take in the twenty-first century, but without a doubt New York City’s trains will keep chugging along, ever-present just beneath your feet.