The tour of the New York’s finest tunnels is rather unexpected. It’s Sunday, and improvement works at some stations have sent Brooklyn into confused chaos. Getting from the Brooklyn Bridge to Williamsburg requires Herculean feats of deduction given closures to the lines that usually connect them.
Then it clicks – a detour through Manhattan and a change of lines is in order. It’s a quick dip into another world – Manhattan feels like a completely different city to Brooklyn – then back out again. Two jaunts over the East River, taken on with a minimum of fuss. Even when it’s trying to mess with you by introducing cunningly placed engineering works, the New York City Subway system is still a marvel.
It operates 24 hours a day, connecting 468 stations and carrying over five million people every weekday.
The Subway is taken for granted by New Yorkers and visitors alike, but building it wasn’t like constructing normal railway lines. The lines that spanned America were ploughing through wide open space. In New York, they had to be constructed under an already crammed city heaving with people and buildings. It was a task that took considerable will and ingenuity.
In Downtown Brooklyn, the story of the Subway’s construction is told. The New York Transit Museum. It’s hidden underground in a disused station. The tracks are still live – a rogue train could career its way in if it wanted to – but the Court Street station is otherwise off the network.
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The dangers facing the men who built the subway were more real. Between 1900 and 1925, more than 30,000 men were employed in building the original network. Most were drawn from pools of recent immigrants, organised by community leaders snaffling an elaborate range of kickbacks. They had no modern technology to help them out – most of the work was done by brutally hard shovelling.
During an eight hour workday, each workman was expected to take away around 50 wheelbarrows worth of waste. They got paid reasonably well for their efforts given the cost of living at the time, but there was no compensation if they got injured.
And get injured they did. Part of the problem was that much of the schist rock that makes up Manhattan is layered at odd angles. It regularly broke loose and slid avalanche-like into the tunnels following dynamite blasts. In October 1903, the worst incident saw ten men crushed to death by a runaway boulder in Washington Heights.
Those tunnelling under the land had it bad, but the dangers were far higher for the specialists taking the tunnels underwater. Tunnels were at constant risk of flooding, the compressed air pumped in made things ferociously hot, and at the lowest points the pressure was too much for many to bear. Cases of the Bends – the horrific affliction that takes out divers if they go too deep without equalising properly – were fairly common.
Amongst the photos of mules plodding through the tunnels and workers caked in the sort of rock dust that gave many of them silicosis, one story stands out. On April 1st, 1916, labourer Marshall Mabey and two other men were working in a compressed air tunnel under the East River. A hole saw them sucked out and propelled through the water, into the air – they were shot out from the bottom of the river. The other two died, but Mabey somehow survived.
And when you hear his tale, you get a lot more understanding about having to work a way around the map when some of the stations are closed on a Sunday afternoon. The ease of today’s Subway didn’t just take hard work and vision – it took a lot of sacrifice too.
This post was kindly funded by Virgin Holidays.
Thinking of paying the “Big Apple” a bite? Virgin Holidays has been providing exotic, tailored holiday packages since 1985. With destinations from the to the Far East; you can be certain that you’ll be booking an exceptional experience regardless of whether your prefer spa resorts or more direct cultural engagement. Camper or cruiser, you’re sure to find a holiday package that suits you!”