Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Today in 1904, NYC opened its first underground line, inspiring the biggest building boom in city history—and a spoof by Thomas Edison.
By the end of the 19th century, New York City's Lower East Side housed over half a million people per square mile. With vermin-infested tenements and rampant disease due to bad sanitation, “Staying clean in a neighborhood filled with horse stables, brothels, slaughterhouses and saloons was impossible,” writes transit historian Doug Most. Also difficult: Commuting to work to another neighborhood by horse.
New York needed to move and breathe. In 1894, the city signed the Rapid Transit Act into law, and began planning its first line, boasting to constituents that they'd be able to travel "from City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes."
The time estimate may have been a bit of a stretch, but the city kept its promise of a better transit system. On October 27, 1904, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company debuted nine miles running through 28 stations to the public. For five cents a ride, travelers could skip from City Hall in lower Manhattan to Grand Central Terminal in midtown, head west along 42nd Street to Times Square, or hop north all the way to 145th Street and Broadway in Harlem.
More than 100,000 people rode the train that night, though not without a fight. "Indescribable scenes of crowding and confusion never before paralleled in this city marked the throwing-open of the subway to the general public," wrote the New York Times. "They fought, kicked, and pummeled one other in their mad desire to reach the subway ticket office."
In other words, the route was a tremendous success. Fare collections outdid every expectation. Artists, musicians, and filmmakers celebrated the new system—even Thomas Edison, whose electric lights illuminated the underground tunnels, released a spoof on the city's promise that year:
By 1905, IRT service expanded to the Bronx, to Brooklyn in 1908, and to Queens in 1915. Meanwhile, it set off the biggest building boom in the city's history. By 1940 Brooklyn—mostly farmland in 1910— had more residents than Manhattan. Harlem, Queens, and the Upper West Side likewise saw populations and skylines rocket, with much of the city's classic pre-War architecture springing up as a result of expanded transit.
And in 110 years, underground construction has never really ceased—and nor has debate of how the NYC subway can best serve a city that's never not transforming.