The Beach Pneumatic Transit began as a system for the transportation of letters and parcels through Manhattan.
Construction had began in 1869 after Alfred Ely Beach, the owner of Scientific American magazine, had received a franchise from the state of New York to build two tubes with a diameter of fifty-four inches to move mail along Broadway.
The system was based on the emergent technology of pneumatic transport which had been used in the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in Dublin from 1844 to 1854 and the Crystal Palace Atmospheric Railway which had operated throughout 1864.
Pneumatic transport involved the use of railways that run through tubes with the carriage itself forming a near air-tight seal with the walls of the tunnel.
A steam-powered fan than pushes or pulls the carriage along the rails using the partial vacuum created by the seal in the tunnel.
Construction was completed on Beach’s project in only fifty-eight days with the only delay coming from Beach applying for a new permit to build a single tunnel with a diameter of one hundred and eight inches to replace the two smaller tunnels that had originally been agreed upon. Beach explained that he could fit the two pipes necessary for his postal transit system within this single tunnel and that it would speed up the construction process.
The state had no objection to this and allowed this apparently small, but ultimately vital, change to the plans.
Invitations were issued to the great and good of New York to the opening of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company on February 26th 1870.
They were told to come to the offices of the company at 260 Broadway on the corner of Warren St. Many who received these invitations were perplexed at the instructions.
The corner of Warren and Broadway was home to a clothing store, Devlin and Co., and there had been no evidence of any works taking place there that could involve any sort of major engineering project. Some expected to find little more that a presentation of the plans for the system given the amount of time since construction had began and the lack of any apparent work being done.
Instead, they walked into a scene that none of them expected.
They descended into the basement of Devlin’s to find a 120 foot long reception room illuminated by gaslit chandeliers, fine art lining the walls of the room and tables of champagne and hors d’oeuvres laid out in front of them.
Beach himself greeted them and lead them across the room to the opening of the tunnel where the Beach Pneumatic Transit System would run. There they were confronted by the biggest surprise of all. It was something that no New Yorker had ever seen before.
A subway car.
Beach explained that his system had evolved from a postal delivery scheme to a passenger transit line. The larger tunnel could accomodate the two pipes needed for the proposed delivery system but was also, conveniently, just the right size for a subway car.
The officials from City Hall were furious for a couple of reasons.
Firstly they had invested huge amounts of money, both their own and the states, in the development of overground rail transit systems that were being developed.
Millions of dollars in contracts and kickbacks had been pushed through the Tammany Hall system of William ‘Boss’ Tweed, a corrupt figure who ran the government of New York City.
In addition to this it was seen a additionally embarrassing for the men of City Hall that this construction that threatened their fortunes and careers ran directly under City Hall itself.
Beach, fearing the authorities discovering the scope of his plans, had planned the tunneling process meticulously. He didn’t announce that he had begun construction to stop fictitious complaints about the effect on water and sewage supplies from those who opposed the scheme and he managed to dispose of tons of debris from the excavation and the elaborate construction of the tunnel and reception room without attracting attention.
All of this was done under one of the busiest streets in New York.
Beach had invented a special tunneling shield to allow for the speedy creation of the tunnel with the minimum of work required to move the resultant debris. The shield also allowed for the tunnel to curve to the left or right, a first in subterranean excavation.
The initial tunneling that Beach had done ran along the length of Broadway and was 321 feet long. Beach was confident though that he could quickly and easily extend his system throughout the island of Manhattan in a very short time.
All seemed well for Beach and the Pneumatic Transit System. It was proved to be a speedy, dependable and clean way for people to move around the city with a minimum of effort.
However this did not tally with the plans of ‘Boss’ Tweed and the many New York industrialists that had invested time and money in the development of other transit systems.
Beach’s efforts to expand his plans were repeatedly blocked by City Hall and in the New York Senate. Beach used his considerable fortune to keep the project running but needed outside investment to make it a workable reality.
This dried up as the years of opposition to the scheme stretched out and eventually a financial crisis in 1873 saw Beach lose all other investment and the company collapse.
The tunnel was hired out as a wine cellar and a shooting range and Beach’s interest in pneumatics waned with the development of electrical engineering.
In 1912 the City of New York declared that it would be building a subway station at City Hall. Excavation began and the workers stumbled upon a long forgotten project.
It was Beach’s tunnel.
The tunnel had been sealed for forty years and was entombed in dust but was in complete working order. The air inside was warm and dry as the tunnel had never leaked or caved in.
Sitting at the edge of the tunnel was Beach’s subway car, ready for it’s next journey...