Home Subway History A groundbreaking for the subway, 110 years later

A groundbreaking for the subway, 110 years later

by Benjamin Kabak

For many New Yorkers, the name Robert Van Wyck will conjure up images of traffic on the expressway near JFK Airport that bears his name. Perhaps some will know him as the city’s first mayor after the five boroughs were unified, and others will know tales of the way Van Wyck’s ice trust scandal cost Tammany Hall the 1901 mayoral election.

What many do not know about Van Wyck is that he is the man who, with one well-placed shovel, started construction on the New York City subway systems. As the MTA Board voted to cut service yesterday, we let the 110th anniversary of the day construction started on the subway slip by us announced. It was then a day of celebration for the city, and New Yorkers in 1900 thought Tunnel Day would be commemorated annually well into the future. This year, the MTA gave its nod to history by cutting off some of the city’s lifeblood.

March 24 in 1900 was a Saturday, and that afternoon at 1 p.m., Mayor Van Wyck took a silver shovel made by Tiffany and with a handle constructed from wood from the “Lawrence,” Commodore Perry’s flagship from the Battle of Lake Erie, to the front steps of City Hall. There, above a now-defunct stop, he broke ground amidst a throng of politicians and IRT officials. Today, the subway system stretches for miles and miles, and the shovel is with the Museum of the City of New York.

As we reflect on a subway system that will soon lose service and a map that will be short two lines, we look back at Van Wyck’s words on that day. He was a politician who understood the importance of mass transit in New York City. “The completion of this undertaking,” he said, “will be second only in importance to that of the Erie Canal…This made our city the commercial and financial metropolis of the world, with a population of three and a half millions of people, for whose accommodation and comfort this rapid transit underground road is necessary. The contrast exhibited between the two periods is striking and instructive. De Witt Clinton saluted in 1825 a city of one hundred and sixty thousand souls. We speak to a population of three and a half millions. Then the slow stage coach was the only means of passenger transportation, now it is superseded by steam and electricity.”

Alexander Orr, president of the city’s Rapid Transit Commission, echoed Van Wyck’s words. “The removal of the spadeful of earth by our respected Mayor, which, according to the programme, we are soon to witness,” he said, “will be the inauguration of a system of municipal transit which, if courageously carried out, will continue to stimulate our marvelous development, and knit together all the sections of this great city in fact, as they have been lately united in name.”

I wonder what Orr and Van Wyck would think of the system today. It stretches far beyond the imagination of the IRT’s Contract 1, but the stations look much the same as they did in 1904. The city, then willing to invest heavily in transit, and state have shirked their responsibilities, and the MTA has been left with no choice but to scale back service the city needs. Orr’s and Van Wyck’s prognostications came true; the subways have knit together all sections of this great city, but who will realize that today and come to a sagging system’s eventual rescue?

After the jump, an excerpt from The Times article from March 25, 1900 about the groundbreaking ceremony. The writer, a name lost to time, waxes poetically about Tunnel Day.

When Mayor Van Wyck, silver spade in hand, lifted the first shovel of dirt from a small excavation in the flagging in front of the City Hall yesterday, the rapid transit tunnel was officially begun. Around New York’s Chief Magistrate were grouped the men whose persevering work of years had at last made rapid transit a certainty in New York, city officials who have aided them more-or-less in their efforts, financiers who came to the rescue when their aid was most needed, citizens whose names are a power in the professional and commercial world. and beyond all these, banked in almost solid phalanx from the sidewalks of Broadway across the park to the tall buildings in Park Row, were thousands of citizens of all degrees of life, who fought and struggled for position to witness one of the most important events in the history of the city.

Higher up, at the windows and on the roofs of the surrounding skyscrapers. were more people, while at the windows of the old City Hall. that has witnessed many stirring events in its time, were groups of men and women all intent upon seeing the high priests of rapid transit give official sanction to a great work well begun, officially, but not actually. for the first real Bleecker Street to-morrow morning.

Over the mass of people flags in confusion of color fluttered smartly in the March wind. Above all the sun looked down from a serene sky on a Spring day that could not have been bettered, considering the season, and incidentally put to blush the weather forecaster, who had confidently announced all sorts of bad weather.

Tunnel day, for as such it will be known. was a great day for every one concerned, even to the Celebration Committee and the police, over whom the crowd prevailed and became an unruly mob when it should have been orderly and respectful.

Tunnel day was a greater day to the people, for it marked a beginning of a system of tunnels in future years and for future generations which will have wide extensions not only in Manhattan but eventually will go down under the waters of the East and North Rivers, and whose ramifications will find lodgment in Brooklyn and Jersey City, and possibly even Staten Island before this town is a very great many years older. Tunnel transit. moreover, means that Harlem, One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, will be reached in thirteen minutes, says Chief Engineer Parsons, who has worked it out to a mathematical certainty. and points beyond with proportionate celerity. Therefore the people rejoiced, for they have been promised great things.

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Alon Levy March 25, 2010 - 3:48 am

Don’t forget that at the time, people expected the subway to open for service in 1902. It went two years behind schedule.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 25, 2010 - 9:10 am

[…] Ben Kabak: What Would Robert Van Wyck Think of the State of City Transit? […]

AK March 25, 2010 - 9:51 am

“across the park to the tall buildings in Park Row, were thousands of citizens of all degrees of life, who fought and struggled for position to witness one of the most important events in the history of the city.”

This is the part that I find most depressing– the notion that people understood what historic events were in the moment far more than we do today. That perspective requires a vision/pride in a future that you yourself will never experience, but that you believe is worth preparing/sacrificing for. Perhaps there is something to be said for empires that become fat, happy, and complacent…

Marc Shepherd March 25, 2010 - 10:18 am

I wonder what Orr and Van Wyck would think of the system today. It stretches far beyond the imagination of the IRT’s Contract 1, but the stations look much the same as they did in 1904.

Except that a lot of their artistic design elements have been renovated out of existence, or compromised by additions that are utile but ugly.

Photo of the Day: City Hall, pre-ribbon cutting :: Second Ave. Sagas March 24, 2011 - 1:55 pm

[…] year on this date, I fondly commemorated the groundbreaking. Today, the subway infrastructure still makes New York City possible. Where will we be in another […]


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