A light post with "subway" written along the side | LivingIn
Guide to NYC Off the Stop

NYC Subway History: The Early Years

May 18, 2018

The New York City subway has a long, rich, and storied history about which many books have been written. As a kick off to our Citi Habitats “Off the Stop” Subway Series – a station by station look at each subway stop and the neighborhoods surrounding them – we’ll be taking a deep dive into the subway we’ve come to know and (maybe) love today. From subway cars to subway fares, a lot has changed over the years. Here’s a bit of background about how the journey began.

Our city’s rapid transit system was reliant on horse-drawn stagecoaches and electric trolley cars before the rails were put down to make what is now our 472 station, 27 line subway system. The first regular railway service began on February 14, 1870 along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. “The El” ran on an elevated track and was initially steam-powered and made out of wood, with a design meant to mimic the train cars of the west.

Vintage engraving of "The El" running above Broadway in Manhattan | LivingIn

An 1878 engraving shows the Western-inspired “El” trains running above Broadway in Manhattan.

At about the same as the El launched, an underground subway was being illegally operated by the rogue inventor and wealthy owner of Scientific American magazine, Alfred Ely Beach. Lauded as the Elon Musk of his day, Beach created a pneumatic subway, a tube-shaped train that was pushed by air pressure created by giant fans. Although the local government banned Beach’s invention, he built it illegally by excavating a tunnel under the city, and then ran it for three full years for $0.25 per ride. It consisted of one car traveling 312 feet under what is now known as TriBeCa – from Warren to Murray along Broadway.

A full 34 years later, in 1904, the first official subway system opened and saw 150K riders on day one (compared with an average of 6M daily today). The subway was launched by a private company called the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) and it ran from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. Nine years later, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT, later called the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit System, or BMT) opened a line running between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Finally in 1932, a city-run line, the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad (IND) opened for $0.10 a ride, after which the city purchased and began operating the other privately owned lines in 1940.

"Interborough Rattled Transit" as seen in a 1905 NYC political cartoon | LivingIn

Even in the early years of the subway, commuters griped about transit service as pictured here in a 1905 political cartoon labeling the IRT as “Interborough Rattled Transit”.

The fact that each train line ran independently explains why the tracks, tunnels, and train cars are different sizes: the narrow numbered lines – also known as the A Division – were built by the IRT, while the BMT and IND built the wider lettered lines, also known as the B Division. B Division subway cars are 18 inches wider and between 9 and 24 feet longer than A Division cars. Despite the name “subway,” about 40% of the tracks are actually above ground.

Want to learn more? Check out our article featuring the evolution of the subway tokens and fares over the years.

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