Alfred Ely Beach’s Last Secret?

On April 9, 1873, Governor John Adams Dix signed the Beach Pneumatic Transit bill into law. After more than three years of legislative battles, Alfred Ely Beach was finally poised to begin work on New York’s City first real subway system. But the proposed system was never built. What happened?

The Chaos Book Club

Today is Day 19 of the Chaos book club. Chaos is an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. Thanks to those of you who’ve bought the novel already. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic Subway Tunnel

Yesterday, we briefly examined the story of Alfred Ely Beach. Simply put, he was a brilliant inventor who recognized the need for a subway system in New York City. But he knew that Boss Tweed, the corrupt leader of Tammany Hall, would never let him build it. So he secretly constructed a demonstration tunnel under the streets of Manhattan, hoping that public opinion would force Tweed’s hand.

The tunnel was a hit and Tweed saw an opportunity. He joined forces with Beach and together, the two men lobbied the legislature for permission to expand the system. However, the proposal stalled, partly due to concerns from the Astors and other wealthy families that subway tunnels would undermine their properties.

The Pneumatic Subway runs into Trouble

Still, with Tweed at his side, Beach was in pretty good shape…that is, until the Orange Riot of 1871. That year, Tweed allowed Irish Protestants to parade in the city, celebrating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. But for the second straight year, the parade erupted into violence between Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics. Some sixty civilians and three members of the New York State National Guard died in the riot. Tweed’s inability to control the people led others to question his leadership. An anti-Tweed campaign initiated by the New York Times and the political cartoonist Thomas Nast gained steam.

The Times proceeded to publish a series of articles exposing massive corruption in Tammany Hall (the Democratic Party political machine in New York City). This culminated in Tweed’s arrest in 1871. Tweed was released on bail and was even re-elected to the state senate a little while later. But the damage was done. Tammany Hall began to crumble and Tweed was rearrested.

Beach was forced to separate himself from the tarnished politician. He accomplished this with such vigor that he created a pseudo-mythology that continues to this day. In this revised version of history, Tweed and Beach had never joined forces. Instead, Tweed had fought Beach’s every effort to build the subway system. Thanks in part to this campaign, Beach finally gained political approval in 1873. But that was by no means a sure thing.

“Now that the Beach Pneumatic Tunnel bill has been signed by the Governor, let us hope that it will not be buried with the Central Underground and Vanderbilt projects. The public interest demands a road through the backbone of the island.” ~ Daily Graphic

Unfortunately, a financial crisis was about to erupt, one that shared some general similarities to the current crisis. Following the Civil War, the U.S. government granted land and subsidies to railroad companies, creating the framework for massive expansion. Investors responded to the false signals by pouring cash into the industry. Of course, the boom was unsustainable. The Panic of 1873 led numerous banks to fail and many factories to close. It also dried up Beach’s funding sources.

The End of the Pneumatic Subway System?

Eventually, Beach gave up and closed his demonstration tunnel. He died in 1896, having never seen his dream of underground transit come to light. It would be another eight years before the first underground line of the New York Subway system opened to the public.

Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic Subway System in Chaos

Unfortunately, Beach’s demonstration tunnel was destroyed back in 1912. There’s a very slim chance that some remnants of the waiting room might still exist. However, this is highly unlikely.


When I sat down to write Chaos, a question popped into my mind: What if Alfred Ely Beach started to build his own full-scale subway system under New York prior to the crash? It’s clear he was the type of man who’d do whatever it took to achieve his goals. And it’s not like he didn’t have the capabilities…after all, he built his demonstration tunnel in relative secrecy and with his own funds.

Working on that assumption, I dug up maps for Beach’s planned route, one of which you can see here (figure 10-22). Then I went to work, constructing the remnants of a “lost subway system” buried deep under New York.

I clambered off the rock pile, ignoring my protesting muscles. I was tempted to call for a brief rest but all that changed when my beam fell upon the wall at the end of the tunnel.

It twinkled brightly, casting additional beams in hundreds of different directions. As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I realized that the wall wasn’t the end of the tunnel.

It was part of an entirely separate tunnel.

A perpendicular tube connected to the one in which we stood, forming a T-intersection. Keeping an eye out for explosives, I strode forward and stopped at the point where the two tunnels intersected each other.

I shone my light about the new tube in both directions, marveling at the spectacle before me. It wasn’t gigantic, maybe two feet taller and five feet wider than the current one. But it was unlike any tunnel I’d ever seen. There were no signs of crumbling concrete or ugly metallic beams. In fact, the entire passageway looked like it belonged in an art museum.

It was almost perfectly cylindrical except for a deep, smooth groove carved out of the red-bricked floor. Arching beams, painted bright red, sprouted out of the ground and ran across the ceiling before returning to the ground again. Brightly colored, ornate tiling covered the walls.

My remaining doubts melted away. Still, I could scarcely believe that I was looking at an abandoned subway tunnel constructed decades before the rest of the system. But it wasn’t just any tunnel.

It was Alfred Ely Beach’s lost subway system. ~ David Meyer, Chaos

Chaos by David MeyerCy Reed’s triumph is all too brief. And even though he’s found Beach’s lost system, that’s of little consequence…what really matters is what’s hidden inside the maze of underground tunnels. You can read more about his thrilling adventure by getting a copy of Chaos at one of the above links.

That’s all for now. Tomorrow, we’re going to venture into the world of science to examine the strange world of superconductors. Stop by tomorrow to check it out…you won’t want to miss it!


Chaos Book Club


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