Cut and Cover. Most of the initial route was built using the method favored by Parsons.

Late 19th century commuters in New York City relied on horsepower, steam engines and ferries. Horse-drawn streetcars averaged 6 mph, killed a pedestrian a week and left large quantities of manure. Four elevated rail lines offered somewhat faster service. But the noise, soot, cinders and blasts of steam from locomotives made them difficult neighbors. The city desperately needed a better way of moving large numbers of people around quickly.

Until 1883, the big money in New York flowed to the elevated rail lines because of politics and necessity. Trolleys, popular in neighboring Brooklyn and elsewhere, were not allowed in the city due to safety concerns about the tangle of overhead electric wires. An 1883 court decision that the elevateds were depriving adjacent property owners of "light, air and access" halted further construction and led to more rush-hour crowding.

Some cities were moving in new directions. Boston put some of its trolley lines underground and created America’s first subway in 1897. London had opened the world’s first subway in 1863, a 3.7-mile route, followed by Budapest and Glasgow in 1896, Paris in 1900 and Berlin in 1902.


The need for better transit in New York was great by the end of the century. By the early 1890s, "well over a million people poured into New York each day and flowed back home each night," according to Gotham, a book on the history of the city. In 1891, the city created the Board of Rapid Transit to come up with a solution. But huge questions loomed. Should the system be steam powered or electrical? Should it be built by deep tunneling or cut-and-cover? How would it be financed?


In 1894, William Barclay Parsons, a consulting engineer who had worked for railroads, was appointed chief engineer of a reorganized commission. He was an advocate for cut-and-cover construction and had been consulted by the city as early as 1887, when he was 28 years old.

Parsons designed a 22-mile Y-shaped route running north from City Hall to the Bronx. Unlike its predecessors, this "was a high-performance and high-capacity subway system, even when judged by the standards of a later era," said subway historian Brian J. Cudahy. A four-track system offered local and express service.


The city’s previous attempts to sell a subway franchise had failed to attract bidders. The scale and the degree of risk involved were daunting. Only two contractors bid on Parson’s design, and the winner was John B. McDonald, who had worked on New York City’s Park Avenue rail cut. His winning bid was $35 million for the right to build the system and operate it for 50 years.

The terms of the contract were demanding. Open cuts had to be covered with timber to carry street traffic and spoil had to be removed quickly. The contract also called for McDonald to make a $1-million security deposit, post a $5-million surety bond and another $1-million performance bond. But he could not find a financial backer, despite a frantic search.


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McDonald was rescued by August Belmont Jr., whose father represented the Rothschilds, the European merchant bankers. Belmont and McDonald became partners in Interborough Rapid Transit Co., IRT, by which the line still is known.

Groundbreaking was in March 1900. McDonald divided his contract into 15 subcontracts for various segments, plus additional ones for utility relocation.

The geology varied. The City Hall area was soft soil, but three stretches further uptown called for hard-rock tunneling. Most of the work was by pick and shovel, wielded by Italian and Irish immigrant laborers, typically paid $2 for a 10-hour day. Carpenters, ironworkers and plumbers mostly were union members. The work force averaged 4,000.

A variety of pneumatic tools were used–riveters, drills, concrete mixers and Lidgerwood hoisting engines. Temporary powerplants supplied the compressed air, with boilers feeding Ingersoll-Rand air compressors.

The shoring of structures along the route was challenging, particularly the elevated structures of the Manhattan Railway. "Along Elm St. the excavation passed close to the buildings, and from 10 to 15 ft below the foundation of many of them. A 36-in. water main and a 30-in. gas main formerly in the street had to be relaid outside of the subway walls, generally under the sidewalks," Engineering News reported in 1902 (EN 4/17/02 p. 320). "Other pipes, especially at street crossings, had to be relaid in the much-diminished space between the street surface and the roof of the subway. These pipes all had to be supported by timbering or hung by chains from the trench timbers during excavation."

Victory Spoils. Excavated material had to be removed quickly under contract terms.

"The excavated earth was handled by derricks and cableways. Along Park Row, narrow-gauge tracks were laid in the cross galleries. The earth from the center of the excavation was carried in push cars on these tracks to the side trenches and there lifted by the derricks or cableways and dumped into wagons," said EN, now ENR. In all, 3.2 million cu yd of material was excavated.

A typical four-track tunnel section was 55 ft wide and 13 ft high. At the bottom of the timbered trench, a concrete slab was poured and then waterproofed with several alternating layers of felt and bitumen. Between each set of tracks and along the outside walls, rows of steel I beams were erected on 5-ft centers and riveted to cross beams. The side walls were carried up in forms and the exterior waterproofed. Concrete arches were formed above the bents.

A dynamite accident in 1902 killed six and injured 125. A later tunnel cave-in led Belmont to buy out an entire block rather than settle with property owners individually. In 1903, 300 tons of rock fell at 195th St., killing 10 workers and seriously injuring four. Fifty died over 41Ú2 years.

Carnegie Steel fabricated 74,326 tons of structural steel and 4,000 tons of steel rails and the United Building Material Co. of New York supplied 300,000 tons of cement. Both contracts were believed to be the largest ever for a single project. To provide power, the world’s largest coal-fired plant was built on W. 59th St.

The system opened on Oct. 27, 1904, with the nine-mile, 28-station section north to 145th St. completed. Daily ridership reached 400,000 within a year. The remaining sections opened by 1906.

(Photos courtesy of Parsons Brinkerhoff)