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The Fascinating History of New York and Boston's Race to Build a Subway

Doug Most's new book, The Race Underground, tracks the rivalry that emerged with the tracks.

Courtesy of Doug Most

Long before Yankees-versus-Red Sox, the rivalry between New York and Boston came down to transportation. When New York completed the Erie Canal in 1825, Boston grew so envious it stopped referring to its rival by name. (Massachusetts Governor Levi Lincoln would only call it "a neighboring state.") When Boston responded by building the country's first true railroad system, it was New York's turn to worry about keeping pace with its "enterprising neighbors."

Boston Globe editor Doug Most follows this intercity transportation feud below ground with his new book, The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway. Boston finished its subway first — service began September 1, 1897 — and didn't let its neighbor forget it. ("Its success will mean setting the pace for greater Gotham," wrote the Globe.) New York didn't follow suit until October 27, 1904.

"It's no secret that Boston and New York have a fun relationship, if you will," says Most. "We tend to think about the rivalry today as a baseball thing. Obviously that's just a tiny piece."

Most's lively history goes beyond the tracks to explore the people who built them and places where they emerged. His core cast of characters includes transit siblings Henry and William Whitney, famed civil engineer William Parsons, "father" of New York rapid transit Abram Hewitt, and the forgotten developer of electric rail travel Frank Sprague. He also captures the spirits of the towns themselves as they struggle through fits and starts toward their underground future.

"I hope the book helps people have a special appreciation for how these marvels of design and engineering came to be," says Most. "I really wanted it to be about the people behind this thing who made these things come to life."

You're a Boston guy. What made you want to compare the subways instead of just looking at Boston's?

The idea started out as just a story about the Boston subway. No one had ever told in full narrative the real history of the building and debating and construction and design of the Boston subway.

But at the same time Boston in the late 1800s was going through this fascinating debate about whether to build a subway, how to build a subway, where to build a subway, and how to pay for subway, New York was going through the exact same thing. Those two cities at the same time were really wrestling with the questions.

There was an enormous amount of cultural change people had to go through to accept subway travel.

Today we walk downstairs underneath our streets, looking at smartphones and reading the paper, and we do not think twice about how that tunnel we're about to ride a train through got there. Centuries ago, the idea of going underground first of all was terrifying to people. People did not want to go down there. It was where the devil lived. Where people went to die.

I also chuckled at how short-sighted many people were. Businessmen saying, oh you're going to close my business while you build a subway, and that's going to hurt my store. Well, it might hurt your store for a little while, but the streets are essentially unmovable. You can't walk anywhere. Has it occurred to you that maybe the subway might help you in the long run?

There are still businesses on Second Avenue here in New York saying the same thing.

We tend to think of NIMBY as a new thing. It definitely is not. There's a long history to NIMBY.

You write that if anyone deserves more credit than he gets for the subway it's Frank Sprague. Why do you think he's so overlooked?

I think because he really lived in the shadow of Edison. He was unfortunately someone whose time coincided with maybe the greatest inventor ever. When you read a history of Frank Sprague you get this feeling that if he had lived in a different time or somehow managed to avoid Edison's shadow we might have had a special appreciation for him. Because the electric motor, if we think about it today, was remarkable for what it allowed to happen. The subway was one of the first things that really came of that.

The early days of construction on the New York subway, 1901. (New York Transit Museum / Doug Most)

This really did feel like a true race at times. I'm thinking of the fact that both cities approved subway plans mere months apart in 1894. How important was it for each side to win?

The cities definitely were paying very close attention to each other. And they worked with each other, too. The Whitney brothers even shared this engineer, Pearson, with each other. So even though they were both hoping to be the first, they also recognized that they could learn from each other, and they paid attention to each other.

The reality is New York should have beaten Boston. They were so far ahead in so many regards. They just couldn't get their act together. Like in 1891, they had a transit bill and were ready to do it, and the bidding process fell through. They should have gotten there sooner than Boston did. Boston, maybe because it's a smaller town and maybe a little easier to move, was able to get it approved and to move quicker.

Even though Boston did win, in a sense, you point out that the experiences of riding the subway in both cities were pretty similar at first.

They were similar for a lot of reasons, and they were different in one big way. The big difference, I think, was how it was a moment for New York. They brought out all the bells and whistles. They invited the big politicians and made it into a big celebration, just like the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In Boston, which has always been known as a more subdued place, not necessarily looking to flaunt our achievements, people came out and lined the streets but there was no celebration. It sort of just happened. The governor, the president — none of those people were there, even though this was a momentous day for the country.

So I do think the cities showed their true colors in a way. New York unabashedly said look at us, we're doing this. Boston sort of said don't look at us, we're just going to go do it.

Photos: top, the first trolleys emerge from the Boston subway in 1897, courtesy of Doug Most; inset, courtesy New York Transit Museum / Doug Most

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