top of page

“A tube, a car, a revolving fan!

Updated: May 24, 2021

My all-time favorite historic New York story has got to be the first ever subway built by Alfred Ely Beach.

This is the story of Alfred Ely Beach, who actually built the first NYC subway back in 1870, way before the actual IRT began in 1904. In fact, when the IRT was digging out the subway, they were shocked when they came upon Beach's subway car!

By 1849, Beach had recognized a major problem that would change his life. From his office, he heard the over-congested street noise below and every night it took him nearly an hour to get home. He believed that either an elevated railway or a subway beneath the streets was necessary for New York City. He settled on an idea for a subway, thinking it would be less noisy and less dangerous.

In 1866, Beach began experiments in pneumatic power. He had been granted a patent in 1865 on a design for a pneumatic transit system for mail and passengers that included a design for pneumatic tubes. These types of tubes are still in use in some buildings and in the drive-through tellers at banks. Mr. Beach invented a “tunneling shield” that allowed excavation to be done with minimal disruption at street level. Workers carted off the earth dug out of the tunnel at night to avoid detection, according to The Times.

(Fifty-eight years later, Mr. Beach’s tunneling shield was credited with helping make possible the excavation of the twin tubes that would become the Holland Tunnel.)

To convince skeptics that it was possible to move a small railroad car through a sort of pneumatic tube by means of air power, Beach constructed a plywood tube, six feet in diameter. He then designed and built a small car, seating ten passengers, which would run inside the tube. For propulsion, Beach proposed to use a Helix fan, ten feet in diameter, which would funnel a blast of air into the tunnel. The air would move the train to the end of the tube and then, with fan reversed, pull it back to its point of origin.

Since the Mayor, Boss Tweed, was totally against this...because it wasn't the city's idea and think money......

Alfred signed a lease at Devlin's Department Store and with his brother and friends, under the cover of darkness, late at night when the town was asleep, dug out the basement of the store hiding the dirt throughout the city.

The car could hold 22 people and the riders would enter the site at Devlin's Clothing Store, a well known shop, located at 260 Broadway, on the southwest corner of Warren Street.

The Beach tunnel was constructed in only 58 days, starting under Warren Street and Broadway, directly across from City Hall. The station was under the south sidewalk of Warren Street just west of the Broadway corner. The single track tunnel ran east into Broadway, curved south, and ran down the middle of Broadway to Murray Street, a distance of one block, about 300 feet in all. The subway opened to the public on February 26, 1870. It was sealed shut by authorities soon after.

1 view

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page