A new exhibition at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn shows an incredible collection of photos from the early 1900s that document the underground rail system of the city under construction.
The images were made by the brothers Pierre and Graville Pullis who were hired by the construction company to document the colossal enterprise that started in 1900.
In addition to capturing the groundbreaking work among the torn streets of the city, the extensive cache of photos marks the unique architectural and historical changes that took place simultaneously above ground between 1900 and 1940.
“You can see that they are waiting just at the right time to click on the shutter, so that they capture the pedestrians in a visually interesting way, or that the woman leans out of the window to shake off the dust on her cloth,” curator Jodi Shapiro Gothamist.
Employees in 1929 use the ‘hydraulic shield’ when building the Greenpoint Tube. The ‘hydraulic shield’ was an early, rudimentary device, before tunnel boring machines were invented. The hydraulic shield was 23 feet wide and weighed 200 tons, it had nine compartments with doors where men collected the earth and rock with picks
7th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, 1914. The mainline of Manhattan was first completed in 1904 and ran from the city hall in the center, along 42nd Street before ending in 145th Street in Harlem uptown
A surveyor analyzes the metro construction on Bowery Street in 1901. Originally, all mass transit trains in New York City were raised (seen in the background) and operated by the same company that built the first underground line in 1904. The raised lines that ran up Second, third, sixth and ninth became known as ‘the el’ and were completely stopped in 1955
Men are in the East River Tunnel construction in 1907. Tunnels under the river were made with compressed air in the room at a pressure of 13 pounds per inch. This heavily pressurized air ensured that the tunnel did not collapse under the weight of the sludge and water from the river bed. “Blowouts” occurred all too often in an accident – they occurred when a leak in the compressed tube caused escaping air to flow through, quickly creating a huge hole that workers would suck through. A man named Marshall Mabey was torpedoed by 27 feet of the muddy river bed and the water of the East River and then launched 200 meters into the air before he landed intact in the river
The first metro line was completed in 1904. There were 28 stations along the 9.1-mile track that ran all the way north from Manhattan City Hall to 145th Street in Harlem with a detour along 42nd Street. Completed in just four years, 100,000 enthusiastic passengers paid a penny for a ride on the first train journey that took place on October 27 at 7 p.m.
The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) has won the construction contract with a bid of $ 35 million (more than a billion dollars today). The contract has also given the IRT the right to all tracks they have built and a lucrative operational lease of 50 years.
The construction was checked by an Irish immigrant builder named John McDonald. He used a process called ‘cutting and covering’: workers would reveal the streets at night and fillet with dynamite explosions. A daytime crew armed with spades and pickaxes would then remove the debris with a mule cart. After the earth was removed, teams built the tunnel with the associated infrastructure and then covered it with dirt and paving.
McDonald encountered various obstacles during the entire process. Water, gas, electrical and sewer pipes had to be diverted. They have taken special care to ensure that the foundations of tall buildings are not weakened or damaged during this process. Underground spaces such as basements and bank safes had to be carefully avoided and supporting the foundation at the Columbus Circle monument proved to be extremely difficult. In total, the hurried construction ended in 16 deaths and 125 wounded.
8,000 days of workers “given to gambling, fighting and cursing” were hired to complete the unprecedented achievement. Dynamite shoots collapsed windows and terrorized coach houses. Tunnels collapsed with the killing of employees and the swallowing of shop windows, “wrote the New York Times.
Nevertheless, the Manhattan Main Line was a resounding success and the IRT quickly added to the circuit, with a total of 23.5 miles in 1908. When the IRT expanded through Manhattan, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) had a monopoly on all mass transit over the East River.
Both competing companies wanted to have the opportunity to expand in each other’s area, which led to an agreement with the city that promised to divide expansion contracts between the BRT and the IRT. This allowed the New York City metro system to expand rapidly in the five most important districts.
Men are seen at work on Lexington Avenue, between 105th and 106th Street, in Manhattan, 1913. The earliest subways were installed using the “cut and cover” process – a method that tore up streets with dynamite and cleared up the rubble with spades and mule carts. After the earth was removed, teams then built the tunnel with the associated infrastructure and again covered it with dirt and paving
Willets Point Station in Queens, 1927. The cooperation between city contracts between the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) led to the rapid expansion of metro lines to all five boroughs of New York City between 1904 and 1940
Workers in a water pump room in The Bronx, 1916
9th Street subway entrance in Brooklyn, 1910. As the Interborough Rapid Transit Company expanded through Manhattan, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company owned a monopoly on all mass transit paths in Brooklyn
Tunneling under the East River proved to be exceptionally difficult and dangerous. Men suffered from ‘the turns’ (or decompression illness) – an incurable disease that often occurs with divers and that occurs when nitrogen gas is released too quickly from bubbles in the blood stream. This happens when someone rises to the surface too quickly and can cause death through a stroke, heart attack, or lifelong joint pain.
Another common phenomenon was ‘blowouts’. Long before tunnel boring machines (TBMs) existed – workers worked underneath river beds with pickaxes and shovels using a ‘hydraulic shield’ that was 23 feet wide to push through the slurry. Highly compressed air pumped through the tunnel to prevent it from collapsing under the weight of the river bed and river.
In February 1905, while working on the new R Train subway line that extends to Brooklyn Heights; Marshall Mabey noticed a leak in the compressed air, which caused problems. When heavily pressurized air rushed through, the crack quickly grew to a hole of 18 inches. Mabey, along with Frank Driver and Michael McCarthy, tried to close the hole with a plank before it became catastrophic, but all three men were sucked through the hole, resulting in a so-called ‘blow-out’.
Mabey, Driver and McCarthy were immediately torpedoed by 27 feet of the muddy silt river bed and the water of the East River, then shot 200 meters into the air before being spit back into the New York City Harbor. Mabey lived to tell the story, but his colleagues were less lucky.
In a New York Times headline entitled “Man tells what it feels like to go upstairs in a geyser,” Mabey explained that he “had never been squeezed so tightly in his life” and lost his consciousness for a moment. “I’m a good swimmer and I kept my mouth shut and came to the surface,” he said. “I had my big rubber boots and they bothered me, but I somehow managed to keep my head above the surface … In the end, men on a pier threw me a rope and I held on until I got out of it water was collected. ”
Ashland Place & Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 1911. Jodi Shapiro, curator of the New York Transit Museum, told Gothamist: “You can see they are waiting for the right moment to click on the shutter to catch the pedestrians crossing the street in a way that is visually interesting, or for the woman to lean out of the window to shake the dust off her dress’
A still from Union Square, taken in 1901, reveals how disturbing the ‘cut and cover’ construction method was for daily life
17th Street and 4th Avenue in Manhattan, 1902. John McDonald, the contractor responsible for overseeing the construction of the first subway line, encountered various obstacles throughout the process. Water, gas, electricity and sewer pipes had to be diverted in addition to the special genomes to avoid underground spaces such as basements and bank safes. The Columbus Circle monument in particular turned out to be extremely difficult.
Colleague Sandhog, Richard Creedon from Jersey City, New Jersey, spoke to the New York Times about his experience in a much lighter outburst. He said he was closing holes with sandbags when “I was pulled into the stream and shot at the other end.” Then I suddenly hit water and open my eyes. I flew through the sky and before I came down I had a nice view of the city. ”
In 1940, the city of New York consolidated the two private companies (the BRT and the IRT) and began operating a state-established agency known to the public as MTA New York City Transit.
Today, the New York City metro system is the heart and pulse of the Big Apple with more than 850 km of track, 472 stations with 5.6 million riders a day.
Today, the tangle of tunnels under the city includes more than 850 km of track with 472 stations serving 5.6 million riders a day. The remarkable performance and performance of engineering has become the heart and pulse of the Big Apple.
4th Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan, 1900. A daytime crew would scoop up the rubble and sand in mule carts after an evening shift had blown the streets with dynamite. In total, the rushed construction ended in just four years, ended in 16 deaths and 125 injured
An excavated boat was discovered while digging for the Third Avenue Line in 1916
Fast construction work on Union Square in 1901. Curator Jodi Shapiro told Gothamist that these photos also offer a unique insight into life in New York at the turn of the century. She said: “Buildings that appear on photos from 1901 can still be found, while others, so important for the landscape of the city at that time, have long since disappeared.”