Notes From the Underground

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

Hi, my name is Maggie, and I am a gigantic dork about subways.

I didn't realize this until I was 21, when I lived in NYC for three months on a summer internship and quickly found myself doing things like reading the collected works of subway historian Stan Fischler and spending my whole commute with my nose pressed up against the door windows at the front of the train. (Which is awesome fun, by the way. If you've never done this, you are missing out on a free adventure AND a great opportunity to look ridiculous in public.)

For some reason, above-ground trains don't seem to do it for me. I tried joining Minneapolis' historic streetcar club (Demographics: Over 60, mostly men. The couple meetings I went to featured some great discussions on urological health), but couldn't get as excited about it.

But streetcar preservation's loss is your gain. Today, I present to you the three things you must know about the New York City subway system.

1. The Place to Visit

The New York City Transit Museum is far more fascinating than its name suggests. Descend into this abandoned subway platform in Brooklyn Heights for some first-class history lessons: Like the fabulous tale of the workers who were caught in a cave-in during construction of a tunnel under the East River; sucked up through the river bed by the resulting vacuum; thrown high into the air on a geyser of water—and lived to tell about it!

2. The Man to Know

Alfred Ely Beach is my imaginary boyfriend and a legendary badass. In the late 1860s, Beach put together the first proposal for a subway system in New York City, based on pneumatic train cars. He pitched his idea to the City as was promptly denied, either because famously corrupt mayor "Boss" Tweed reportedly had a financial stake in the trolley, streetcar and elevated railway industry, or because some politically connected landowners didn't want anyone digging under their property.

Either way, Beach decided to fight city hall–in secret. He rented out a basement, hired some discrete labor and dug out a block-long tunnel under Broadway, using the cover of darkness to keep things on the down-low. Word did get out eventually that something was going on, but the details didn't come out until shortly before Beach unveiled his swank underground digs to the public.

Opened in February 1870, Beach's Broadway Underground Railway featured gurgling fountains, a velvet-seated train car, and (by some accounts) a fish tank. Rides were .25 cents a head (about $3.60 or so today). It was spectacular, but the success didn't last. Beach never convinced the state legislature to let him build a full-scale system. By the time he died in 1896, the BUR had been sealed up and forgotten. That is, until the early years of the 20th century, when subway construction workers basically tunneled right into it. According to legend, they found the opulent platform largely intact, but the wooden car was rotting. Most likely, Beach's BUR tunnel ended up becoming part of the old City Hall subway station….which leads me to….

3. The Secret to Enjoy

I picked this tip up from Stan Fischler's books. So the original City Hall station has been closed since the 1940s. There are some good pictures online that will give you an idea of what an amazing piece of architecture this station was. We're talking chandeliers, beautiful arched ceilings, intricate tile work…the whole nine yards.

Most of the time, this is closed to the public. But there is supposedly a way you can sneak a peek. Following Fischler's instructions, you take the Lexington Ave. #6 local southbound to the end of the line and (if the conductor will let you) stay on the train as it does a loop past the old City Hall station to turn itself around. During the loop, you can see the City Hall station out the train windows.

I should note that I never managed to successfully pull this off. I was in New York in the summer of 2002, and (unsurprisingly) convincing subway workers to let you have a little leeway wasn't so easy at the time. But there seem to be people who've done it recently, so you should try it. And, if it works, let me know. I would love to be jealous of you.

BTW, there's more on Alfred Ely Beach in Be Amazing.

Photo is courtesy Brett Day