getting around

When the NYC Subway Was Just a Dirt Trench

Rare photos from the early 1900s show the 120-year-old system’s pick-and-shovel beginnings.

Looking north over Union Square East, in 1901 or 1902. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Looking north over Union Square East, in 1901 or 1902.
Looking north over Union Square East, in 1901 or 1902. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Looking north over Union Square East, in 1901 or 1902.
Looking north over Union Square East, in 1901 or 1902. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books

As its name suggests, Capitol Hill Books is in Washington, D.C, but within seconds into a conversation with its co-owner Hélène Golay, her roots in Brooklyn come up. “That’s kind of why I bought them,” she tells me, when we start discussing the 37 extremely rare photographs of the New York City subway that she picked up at an auction. They were made in 1901 and 1902, and record the building of the first of today’s lines: north from City Hall to Grand Central, across 42nd Street where the shuttle runs today, and up the Upper West Side. Golay will be bringing them to the ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, where they’ll be on view (and for sale) from April 4 through 7, at the Park Avenue Armory. The co-owners are asking $12,500 for the set.

The view north (from Spring Street) on Elm Street, which no longer exists. It ran parallel to Lafayette Street and was demapped when the latter was widened. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Columbus Circle, July 25, 1901. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books

Their origin is a little mysterious — they came without provenance at the auction, and there’s no photographer’s stamp or other rock-solid attribution. (There are some similar photos in museum collections, notably the New-York Historical Society, and the New York Transit Museum has an extensive array of them, with an exhibition up now.) That said, they’re likely the work of the Pullis brothers, who were hired by the city to photograph the subway as it was built. Golay looked into museum collections of their work to see if they matched, and, she says, “I didn’t see any that aligned perfectly with the collection that we’re selling. But they’re in the tunnels with the workers — it does seem that they’d been there in an official capacity, rather than as rubberneckers.”

Another view of Columbus Circle. The masonry at left supports the Columbus monument, and the engineers and crews had to take particular care not to topple it. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
149th Street and Courtlandt Avenue, September 23, 1902. There’s a similar photo made a few weeks earlier in the collection of the New-York Historical Society. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
A sewer tunnel at 110th Street. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Broadway at West 65th, approximately where Lincoln Center is now. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books

A couple of things about these scenes are striking. For one, the images made above ground are utterly recognizable. A photograph of Union Square, particularly, drives home that the edges of the square have been redeveloped comparatively little in the past 122 years. Golay remarks that she specifically responded to that photo because she for many years took the subway — this subway — to shop at the Barnes & Noble at the north end of the square, and the building that houses B&N is itself visible in the background.

Another view of Union Square, this one from East 16th Street up Union Square East (a.k.a. Fourth Avenue), August 29, 1901. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Broadway and 186th Street, where (the original caption notes) the tunneling was 156 feet below the surface. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Cut-and-cover construction between Duane and Pearl Street, just north of City Hall. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
Broadway and 116th Street. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books

And, of course, there are the laborers doing the actual work. Large portions of these lines were built in a then-innovative method called “cut-and-cover” — dig a trench, roof it over. Only when the ground grew hilly — the heights of Washington Heights, for example — did they dig straight through. Cut-and-cover construction went faster than underground boring, and it cost less. It’s a big reason why we got so many hundreds of miles of track laid underground in just a few decades. The vast number of people who did the work worked for contractors, and their names are mostly unrecorded. But we can see a few of their faces here. The subway’s history, after all, was and is an immigration story. Whether they were from Palermo or Minsk or rural Alabama, the newest New Yorkers built it, and the newest New Yorkers still ride it. The former faced a lot of risk from which we all benefit. Peer into the cut under Broadway or Fourth Avenue, and what you don’t see are a lot of hard hats or safety harnesses, let alone heavy machinery. It’s mostly guys with picks and buckets and handcarts. The IRT, impossibly, exhaustingly, was largely built by hand.

City Hall Station, the original downtown terminus of the subway. It still exists in almost precisely this form, although it’s been closed since 1945, replaced by the much larger station of the same name that we use today. Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Hill Books
When the NYC Subway Was Just a Dirt Trench