Monday, March 15, 2010

Beach's Pneumatic Transit Company

In my last blog, I wrote about Rufus Porter, frustrated airship pioneer and founder of the magazine, Scientific American.  Porter founded the magazine in 1845 but by 1846 he had already sold it to Orson Desaix Munn and Alfred Ely Beach.  Munn and Beach continued to publish the Scientific American for the rest of their lives.  The magazine stayed in their families for generations.  Like Porter, Beach was also an inventor and a frustrated developer of new technology.  [Alfred Beach pictured from Wikipedia]

Scientific American's publishing offices were in New York City.  Traffic in the city was becoming unbearable in the years immediately following the Civil War.  The melee of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys mixed with pedestrian traffic made it difficult to get anywhere, especially at the morning and evening rush hours (sound familiar?).  Beach was a strong proponent of a subway system for the city.  He saw little future in talk of a steam-engine powered subway which would have all the attendant smoke and soot to contend with.  But he was very enamored with an idea that had begun in London to use pneumatic-powered tubes to move everything from mail to people.  Small tubes were being installed in stores and banks to move papers and money from one part of the building to another.  Intermediate tubes (about three feet in diameter) were being explored as a way to move packages and small freight.  Entrepreneurs in London had even proposed a pneumatic tube large enough to transport a subway car.

Beach picked up on this idea and tried to rally local officials to his cause.  Unfortunately, in the late 1860's , New York City was essentially owned by Boss William Tweed and his Tammany Hall ring.  Tweed received kickbacks from the horse-drawn trolley companies and a subway threatened that revenue stream.  Beach thought he could work around Tammany Hall by asking for a charter from the state to build two parallel intermediate-sized tubes to move letters and packages.  As this was no threat to Tweed, it was allowed to go through.  But Beech had other plans than what he was willing to put forth in his request to the state government.  

Unbeknownst to Tweed and his cronies, Beach planned from the beginning to build a demonstration subway using the pneumatic principle.  If challenged, he planned to tell people that he found it cheaper for his package test purposes to build one eight-foot diameter tunnel than two four-foot diameter tunnels.  Beach wanted as little visibility as possible for his project until it was complete.  He thought that if he could win over the public with the demonstration of a working prototype subway, he could overcome the political resistance from Tammany Hall.  He underestimated Tweed and the Machine.

Beach wanted to build his subway beneath Broadway, the main New York thoroughfare.  Beach rented the basement of the Devlin's Clothing Store building as a site to secretly begin excavating his subway.  The digging was done round the clock but the dirt was hauled out of the basement only at night.  It was placed in sacks and carried away in wagons with muffled wheels.  Beach's 21-year old son, Fred, was foreman for the digs.  Beach even invented and built a special tunneling shield to aid in the excavation.  The eight-foot diameter cast iron shield was moved forward by hydraulic jacks which could even be steered to allow the tunnel to turn corners.

After 56 days, the tunnel had been dug all the way under Broadway.  It was 312 feet long and ran from Warren Street to Murray Street.  Beach's single subway car ran on rails and was almost circular in cross-section to closely fit the circular walls of the tunnel.  It was plushly appointed and lit by on-board gas lamps.  Power came from a huge stationary fan system coupled to a steam engine.  The twin blades of the fan generated enough air velocity to briskly push the subway car through the entire length of the tunnel.  Reversing a valve on the fan system brought the car back again.  Beach even built an extravagant 120 foot-long lobby as a demonstration underground subway station. The station was ornamented with expensive furnishings, frescoes, an underground fountain, and even a grand piano.  The whole demonstration had cost Beach $350,000 out of his own pocket.

The subway was opened for public demonstrations on Feb 28, 1870 and it caused an immediate sensation.  People loved it - even if it didn't go anywhere.  Trying to capitalize on that enthusiasm, Beach applied for a charter from the state to build a longer subway system.  The resolution passed both houses but was vetoed by the governor - a Tammany Hall lackey.  But Beach didn't give up.  He was counting on public opinion and a change in his political fortunes to carry the day.  In 1872, it looked like he was going to get his break.  Tammany Hall had been exposed by the New York Times for its corruption and Boss Tweed was under indictment.  The Governor had been swept out of office in November of 1872 as a Tammany crony and the new Governor was much more favorable to Beach's ideas.  His charter granted, Beach formed The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company.

But when Beach tried to raise capital for the project, he ran into an entirely new opponent.  John Jacob Astor III owned much of the real estate along Broadway and he didn't like the idea of a subway tunnel that might cause structural problems under any of his property.  He stonewalled the project and got his friends to do the same.  Beach was by this time exhausted and out of funds.  He closed up his subway station and tunnel and abandoned the project.

Subways did not come to New York City until 1900.  In 1912, a work crew digging a new tunnel broke through into an old tunnel they hadn't known was there.  In it they found a perfectly intact subway car and a glorious underground station complete with water fountain.  Beach's subway was once again back in the limelight.  His pneumatic tunnel was mostly dug out for new construction but his efforts were recognized by a plaque that was placed in a local station.

Twice, publishers of the Scientific American had grand ideas and twice they had been thwarted from seeing their dreams realized.  Both ideas were ahead of their times.  Innovation demands viable technology, tenacity, and more than a little bit of good luck.  

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