The first subway line to stretch across Manhattan started at City Hall and crawled uptown to Grand Central via what is now the 4/5/6 line. At Grand Central, all trains turned west and followed what is now the Shuttle to Times Square where they then turned north to follow Broadway up to 145th Street. It opened on October 27, 1904, connecting the island’s neighborhoods in a way that no trolley or carriages had previously been able to do. These new underground trains were impervious to weather or auto traffic mishaps. They were multiple times faster than traditional wheeled travel, and they allowed or the rapid development of the city’s more far-flung neighborhoods such as Manhattanville and Harlem. This facilitated the emptying and decongestion of lower Manhattan’s intensely crowded slums.
A map and elevation diagram for the city’s original subway line, circa 1904. Its original stretch, from City Hall to 145th Street, opened in 1904, with more stations opening in subsequent years as construction pressed on.
Unlike the high-tech tunnel-boring techniques currently being employed by the MTA to construct the new 2nd Avenue Line on the Upper East Side, the engineers of turn-of-the-century New York constructed the original subway line using a cut-and-cover method: dig a pit in the street, lay tracks, platforms, walls, and a ceiling, then pave back over it. The process was incredibly destructive and disruptive. Wooden planks were laid over the pits so traffic could continue to flow during the construction, which lasted from 1900-04 and beyond. Water, gas, and electric infrastructure beneath the streets needed to be uncovered, raised, and reburied alongside the new subway tunnels, all without disrupting their use. The project was among the largest transit undertakings in America up to that time. And with few exceptions, the entire line remains in use to this day, more than a century later.
Looking north along 4th Avenue during the construction of the subway’s 33rd Street Station (today’s 6 Train stop). The wall on the right is that of the 71st Regiment Armory, which would burn down in 1902 and be rebuilt in 1904. It was completely razed in the 1970s and replaced by an office tower. On the left, in the distance, is the 1867 Church of the Messiah on 34th Street. It was demolished in 1930.
Looking east along 42nd Street where he subway line cut between Grand Central and Times Square. At left stands West Presbyterian Church, constructed 1860-65. At the height of the guilded age, it counted many of the city’s wealthiest citizens among its congregants, earning it the nickname “The Millionaire’s Gateway to Heaven.” The church was sold in 1911 and demolished to make way for the 16-story Aeolian Building, which remains there today. Bryant Park is on the right side of this photo.
Looking north on Broadway at roughly 58th Street. The 1892 statue of Christopher Columbus can be seen in the distance. Tunneling beneath the 80-foot monument proved particularly challenging. In this photo can be seen the tangle of pipes with which engineers had to contend when digging to build the subway. Perhaps you can better imagine and appreciate how difficult the construction of the 2nd Avenue Subway must be for today’s engineers.
Digging beneath the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle.
Steel beams being inserted into the pit at 89th Street and Broadway.
A cable car designed to remove dirt from the subway pit is pictured here at roughly 116th Street. Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library can be seen here int he background. It was then only 6 years old, having been constructed in 1895 along with the rest of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus.
At Manhattan Valley in Harlem, the land drops off dramatically, forcing the subway to temporarily become an elevated train. Here, construction of the Viaduct is shown.
Workers are pictured here standing in the tunnel at 135th Street and Broadway.
Subway construction at 142nd Street and Broadway. The area was obviously still quite rural in 1901, but the opening of the new transit system would lead to its rapid development in the coming decades.