New York marks subway's century of service to city

System averages more than 4.5 million passengers a day

October 24, 2004|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - More than any other American city, this is the place where people ride in a hole in the ground. It's the city where the rumble of a subway car is part of the lullaby of Broadway. And how do you get to Harlem? You take the "A" train, of course.

New York's subway is out of sight, but it is rarely out of mind. Celebrated in song and featured in movies and television shows, the underground railroad is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of life here that it comes as a surprise to many New Yorkers that it is turning 100 years old this week.

Only 100? Wasn't there a subway when the Dutch bought Manhattan from the Indians?

"The subway is the pulse of New York City," said Ellen Hart, who in 1959 was crowned Miss Subways, a beauty contest that the transit system held for 35 years. "Who doesn't take the subway?"

Plenty do, certainly. The city's rapid transit system carries an average of more than 4.5 million passengers a day, an increase of about 25 percent in the past decade. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, rides the Lexington Avenue line from his Upper East Side townhouse to City Hall.

"The city couldn't function without it," said Lawrence Reuter, president of New York City Transit, which runs the subway. "The road system just isn't capable of moving that many people."

The popularity of the subway represents a remarkable turnaround for a system that, like the city above it, underwent a profound crisis in the 1970s and early 1980s, when breakdowns were common, crime soared and graffiti covered the outsides and insides of most trains.

"We've come a long way," said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, a transit-rider advocacy group. "This truly is a happy birthday. If the centennial had been in 1979, it would have been a very different story."

The city is celebrating the event with several nostalgic exhibitions looking back over the subway's first century, including a display of old signs, seats, ironwork and decorative tiles at Grand Central Terminal. On Wednesday, Bloomberg, New York Gov. George Pataki and other officials will re-create the first subway journey by boarding a vintage car that will take them from City Hall in lower Manhattan to 42nd Street.

But at least one thing will be different this time. The mayor will not be at the controls.

In 1904, the motorman of the first subway train was Mayor George B. McClellan, son of the famous Civil War general, whose plodding ways provoked President Abraham Lincoln to complain that his commander had "the slows."

That was hardly the problem with the general's son. During that first ceremonial trip, the mayor took curves at such a dangerous clip that transit officials feared they might have a crash on their hands before the public ever set foot inside a subway car.

Despite its renown, the New York subway is not the oldest in the world. That honor belongs to London's Underground, the first part of which opened in 1863. New York was not even the first in America. Boston's "T," which combined surface-level and underground tracks for the city's streetcars, began service in 1897.

But, as they do in baseball, New Yorkers tend to look down on Boston's subway system.

"It was basically a trolley running underground," said New York subway historian Joe Cunningham. "It was very short, nothing on the scale of this system."

In Chicago, rapid transit dates to 1892, but the first subway wasn't built until the 1940s.

Like other large cities at the turn of the century, New York needed a rapid transit system to relieve severe congestion in its streets and to open up new neighborhoods for development.

Advances in electric motors and transmission systems made it much easier to run trains underground, but the construction and operation of the first New York subway involved a complex orchestration of several engineering disciplines.

"It wasn't enough to build a tunnel," said Cunningham, who conducts subway tours for the New York Transit Museum. "They had to design cars, signals, the electrical power supply, figure out how to do maintenance. And what you did in one department affected other aspects of the system." Subway construction cost $35 million.

The station near City Hall, where the first subway trip began, has been closed since 1945. Despite grime and dust, the elegance of the original subway stations survives at this stop, which will be reopened for Wednesday's ceremony.

Incandescent light fixtures hang from the barrel-vaulted ceiling, casting a ghostly glow as trains screech around the station's tight curve, a loop at the end of a line that allows trains to turn around. The station's herringbone tile is by Rafael Guastavino, probably best known for his work at Ellis Island's old immigration building.

Although heavy use and renovation have led to the removal of much of the original decoration at other stations, some quaint touches survive.

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