Origins of the New York City Subway: A History of New York’s Underground Transit System

Despite recent fare increases, the price of an unlimited monthly MetroCard is still under $100, and not many areas of the city are so remote that they are not served by at least one train or bus line. However, few residents, and even fewer visitors, know much about how the subway grew into what it is today.

The First Subway Company

Ground was broken for the construction of New York City’s first subway on March 25th, 1900, in a ceremony presided over by Mayor Robert Van Wyck. The tracks would be constructed according to the routes outlined in 1894’s Rapid Transit Act. The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) company built the city’s first transit system in a little over four years, and New York City’s subway opened to the public on October 27, 1904. City-dwellers were eager to try the new trains, and the New York Times estimated 150,000 people rode on the first night alone [1].

 

The first trains ran local and express from the now-closed City Hall station to 145th Street and Broadway along tracks now used by the 4/5/6 and 1/2/3, crossing over between the east and west side at 42nd Street. A second branch, running to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, opened the next month, and was eventually extended to Bronx Park.

Over the next few years the subway continued to expand – the Broadway line reached its current terminal in Van Cortlandt Park, tracks were extended all the way to South Ferry at the southern tip of Manhattan, and the first underground extension to Brooklyn was unveiled at Borough Hall on January 8, 1908. Opening day at Borough Hall, however, confirmed a problem the city had already convened its Public Service Commission to try to solve – with more than five thousand people jostling to access the station that day, it was clear that the current system could not support the commuting population of the city.

While the IRT system was still expanding – the Brooklyn tracks would extend by May of that year to the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in order to link up with the Long Island Railroad – the Public Transit Commission decided it had to bring in another transit company to help ease the congestion.

The Dual Contracts

City planners negotiated exhaustively over the next five years and finally drew up a dual contract with both the IRT and Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), the company responsible for operating the elevated railroad lines in Brooklyn, on March 19, 1913. The BRT would construct and operate a Fourth Avenue Subway and extend several Brooklyn lines, while the IRT would extend the lines north of 42nd Street in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, along with the rest of the Brooklyn routes. The IRT would also construct a line beneath Seventh Avenue and a new tunnel to Brooklyn. Under these contracts, the system’s capacity would more than triple.

The Fourth Avenue Subway was instrumental in connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, allowing multiple access routes to Manhattan’s subways through its connection with the Centre Street Loop via a newly-constructed spur at Canal Street leading to the Manhattan Bridge. A newly-constructed tunnel between Whitehall Street in Manhattan and Montague Street in Brooklyn would permit even more interborough traffic. The Fourth Avenue Subway was constructed to connect with the already-extensive system of South Brooklyn railroads controlled by the BRT, which were mostly reconstructed as elevated lines.

Queens benefited even more from the new construction – at the time the dual contracts were drawn up, the borough lacked any rapid transit connection to Manhattan, commuters’ only options being the Long Island Railroad or a trolley over the Queensborough Bridge. Even Staten Island was supposed to gain from the dual contract system, but the planned tunnel from the Fourth Avenue Subway at 65th Street to a point between St. George and Stapleton was never constructed.

The Fourth Avenue subway was the first of the new lines to be completed, connecting western Brooklyn south to Bay Ridge to the rest of the system. The Queensborough line was finished shortly thereafter, and both lines opened on June 22, 1915. However, by 1921, though the work on the dual contracts was not even finished, a report by the Transit Commission [2] noted that the number of riders had more than doubled yet again. Even completed, the dual contract system would not be able to hold the city’s commuting population.

The Demise of the BRT and the Rise of the IND

The BRT, already struggling to maintain financial solvency during the inflation of World War I, finally went bankrupt in 1919, partially due to claims arising from a dreadful accident aboard an elevated line over Malbone Street in Brooklyn which killed 93 people. Four years later, the company was restructured and reemerged as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT).

By 1920, the idea of unifying the subway under city administration – buying out both the IRT and the BMT to create a city-owned transit system – had become popular, and in 1921 the New York Transit Commission was created to solve the overcrowding and other problems that had arisen in the privately-owned subways.

Then-Mayor John Hylan proposed wresting control of almost 100 miles of existing lines from the transit companies and building even more. His plans were rejected, but the Board of Transportation, a new entity created to monitor the new construction, set out plans for new lines under 8th and 6th Avenues and 53rd Street.

Without the fanfare present during the groundbreaking ceremonies of the earlier systems, construction of the “independent” city-owned line (IND) began on April 3, 1925. It would use the same measurements and specifications as the BMT lines, meaning trains from both companies could share tracks and bringing the city’s subway system closer to total unification.

The first section of the IND opened on September 10, 1932 and the system rapidly expanded during the first half of the 1930s, reaching into Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Unfortunately, the city, unused to operating a subway system, rapidly accumulated a massive amount of debt and could not begin construction on the “second system” originally planned, which had included a Second Avenue Subway, among other lines.

Unification

By 1940, the IRT had followed the BRT into bankruptcy and even the BMT was not doing so well. The city began operating the BMT on June 1 and took over the IRT eleven days later. There were few casualties among the subway lines, but the Fulton Street and Fifth Avenue elevated trains, along with part of the Broadway elevated in Brooklyn, closed forever, as did northern portions of the Second and Ninth Avenue Els in Manhattan.

The unified company was at first called the New York City Transit System, with the three-letter company names coming to represent “divisions” of the subway rather than separately-operated routes. In many stations, these designations can still be found on the tiles, though they mean very little anymore.

While many miles of track have been laid since 1940, the vast majority of today’s subway system was built before unification. The city’s transit company is now called the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and parts of long-ago expansion plans remain on the drawing board – the Second Avenue Subway, scheduled now for completion sometime in 2016, was first proposed in 1929 – but New York City’s public transit system experienced its construction heyday in the first half of the twentieth century. Regardless of its age, it remains a wonder of modern engineering and an undeniably efficient mode of transportation.