Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new PBS documentary traces the political debate and technical achievement behind Beantown’s underground.
Like most big public works initiatives, America’s first subway system arrived after years of squabbling. But when Boston’s subterranean transit line opened in 1897, it was on time and under budget—a pipe dream for most transit projects today.
A new PBS documentary, The Race Underground, traces the layers of opposition and the maneuverings of inventors, landowners, and politicians who helped birth Beantown’s subway.
Proposed by the real-estate magnate Henry Whitney, who’d monopolized the city’s existing streetcar network, the project called for tearing up part of much-prized Boston Common—a section that included a graveyard. Citizens were appalled by the notion of defiling this doubly sacred space, and the prospect of dead bodies coming to surface didn’t help their sense that underground transit sounded like an actual Hell on earth. And frugal Bostonians naturally resented all the perfectly good streets, sewers, water and gas mains that had to be torn up, disrupting their lives and livelihoods. One petition opposing the subway was signed by 12,000 businessmen. “The Boston subway was not a foregone conclusion, not by a long shot,” the historian Stephen Puleo says in the film.
But Whitney’s ambition, coupled with innovative technology and key political support, won the day in the end. Driven by an electric engine invented by Frank Sprague—which was powerful enough to pull multiple train cars across a network of tracks—Boston’s subway would be cleaner, more efficient, and less prone to blizzard-y debilitation and electrical fires than existing streetcars, Whitney believed. Most of all, he saw money: there was profit to be earned in connecting well-to-do suburbs to the rest of booming Boston with a safer, more reliable transit system.
The debate lasted for a few years, but Boston’s boldly populist mayor, Nathan Matthews, helped frame the project in terms of congestion-cutting and jobs. Then, as now, people liked the sound of that. Once the project ground broke, construction moved fast: The first .6-mile section, now part of today’s Green Line, opened on time in 1897, and for less than its original $5 million budget. Conquering their fears of the underworld, a quarter-million Bostonians rode the rails on opening day. What had been radical quickly became routine: system ridership boomed to 50 million within its first year. Systems in New York and Philadelphia soon followed.
Nowadays, transit projects are plagued by a lot more than Victorian anxieties about death. For example, contract problems and overly fancy stations designs have dragged down a long-planned extension on the very same Green Line; a few extra miles of rail will cost more than $2 billion when (and if) they finally open in 2021, ten years late. That project is now said to be on President Trump’s list of infrastructure priorities—unsurprisingly, perhaps, given how suburban rail connections can unlock real-estate values, a financing strategy the president appears to be fond of. The Race Underground is a history-buff’s tour through the challenges and allure of a transformational piece of infrastructure, both familiar and very much of their time.
The Race Underground airs 10 p.m. Eastern Tuesday night on PBS (local listings here).