115 years later, the New York City subway still amazes

Posted by Justin Franz
on Sunday, October 27, 2019

A subway train leaves a station in Manhattan. Photo by Justin Franz.
On Oct. 27, 1904, at approximately 2:35 p.m., “New York’s dream of rapid transit became a reality.”

At that moment, Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. piloted the first run of the New York City subway, known as the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. The mayor was originally only supposed to serve as motorman for a few stops, but according to an account by the New York Times, he had so much fun that he stayed at the controls from City Hall all the way to the 103rd Street Station. The inaugural run arrived at the northern terminus at 145th Street on schedule, exactly 26 minutes after its journey began. 

Throughout the afternoon, dignitaries and their invited guests rode the subway back and forth,  while regular New Yorkers waited with anticipation for their chance to ride. “The general public would not be admitted until 7 o’clock, and its curiosity was vastly whetted all afternoon by the unfamiliar appearance of crowds emerging from the earth,” the New York Times reported. “Of this sight New York seemed never to tire, and no matter how often it was seen there was always the shock of the unaccustomed about it. All afternoon the crowds hung around the curious-looking little stations, waiting for heads and shoulders to appear at their feet and grow into bodies. Much as the Subway has been talked about, New York was not prepared for this scene and did not seem able to grow used to it.”

A subway train beneath Manhattan. Photo by Justin Franz.
When the gates were finally opened to the masses at 7 p.m., New Yorkers flooded the system, with an average of 25,000 people riding every hour until well after Midnight. New York City would never be the same. 

A century later, some would say that the New York City subway is a shadow of its former self,  plagued by aging infrastructure that frequently leads to delays and breakdowns. But despite those challenges, it is still an impressive system that can only be defined by superlatives: it’s the largest 24-hour operating subway system in the world with 472 stations and more than 800 miles of track. Every weekday, it moves more than 5.6 million people. 

Passengers wait for a subway. Photo by Justin Franz.
I recently had the chance to ride the New York subway and after a few days I completely understand the excitement of those first riders 115 years ago. It’s hard not to be impressed when you stand in a busy subway station beneath the streets of Manhattan and watch trains emerge from every direction, load and unload hundreds of people and then disappear into the darkness as quickly as it appeared. 

It is a sight that no student of railroading should tire of.

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