Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: New York’s First Subway Ran On Air

Written By: Tracy - Jun• 26•17

Wasn’t this the wallpaper at Subway for years?

Have you ever used the pneumatic tubes at the drive through of a bank?  The vaccuum cleaner- like tubes that pull a capsule from your car over to the teller seem like they’d be a fun roller coaster if you enlarged them to human size. 

Something similar became New York’s first attempt at a subway from 1870-73.  And while the attempt was not exactly like a roller coaster, it was a novelty to New Yorkers. 
 
The pneumatic transit was the brainchild of Alfred Eli Beach, one of the publishers of Scientific American. He conceived of it to relieve traffic problems along Broadway. 
 
The transit as Beech envisioned it was to be a 5 mile underground tube running from Central Park along Broadway. It was to be built with a tunneling shield of his own design, and consisting of a car that moved by being pushed on a cushion of air. 
 
Beech initially worked with Tammany Hall, but as Boss Tweed fell out of favor Beech claimed that Tweed opposed the project.  Pushback actually came from Broadway property owners who worried that someone building a tunnel under their properties would cause them to collapse. 
 
When Beech couldn’t secure the permits for his project, he instead applied for permits for a pneumatic mail system, then simply expanded that project to encompass a people mover. 
 
The resulting “proof of concept” subway was 1 block long, with a car that could seat 22 people.  The single terminal was very ornate, with frescoes and a piano in the waiting room.  Passengers would board the cars, ride the length of the tunnel, then ride back. 
 
New Yorkers treated the transit as a novelty. 11,000 tickets were sold in the first week. All proceeds went to charity.
 
So why are we riding the subway instead of pneumatic tubes today?  
 
Timing. 
 
Beech had trouble getting permits to expand his project. By the time he got the permits, public interest in the project had dropped off. The ride was closed within three years. 

 

Like much of New York’s forgotten past, the transit captures public imagination.  The Pneumatic Transit has been referenced in books, movies, and TV.  No roller coasters, though. 

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