Long before Red Sox vs. Yankees or New England vs. Manhattan clam chowder, there was another spirited Boston-New York rivalry that would change the face of urban transportation and transform American cities.
The race to build the nation’s first subway was a late 19th-century battle for subterranean supremacy between two of the country’s most influential cities — sprawling, brawling, politically rough-and-tumble Gotham, seeking its “imperial destiny” as the greatest city in the world; and prudent, staid, buttoned-up Boston, which unapologetically referred to itself as The Hub of the solar system.
It is a story of rapscallions and risk takers, engineers and entrepreneurs, dreamers, darers, and doers — and it is thoroughly researched and splendidly narrated by Doug Most in “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway.’’
Most, an editor at the Globe, acknowledges spending nearly five years on this project, and it shows. He skillfully shifts scenes between both cities, colorfully describing their struggles with gridlocked street-level congestion, even as they wrestled with the morals and mechanics of underground travel and the fits and starts of transforming a new idea and nascent technology into a safe and reliable transportation system.
A fine storyteller, Most also deftly sets the larger context by exploring other broad themes — the invention and harnessing of electricity, which set the stage for powering America’s first subway; the influx of European immigrants, who provided the labor to build both systems; the paralyzing Blizzard of 1888, which convinced New Yorkers that underground train travel — not exposed elevated railways — was the way to the future, especially in winter.
The story’s central characters are two brothers — Henry Whitney in Boston and William Whitney in New York — each of whom was instrumental in propelling his city closer to underground train travel, though neither was still in the picture when the respective subways opened.
Engineer and risk taker Henry, head of the company that owned Boston’s extensive horse-drawn trolley system, gambled early on electric power and gave his city the country’s first electrified street-level trolley system by 1894. The first electric streetcar in Boston rolled in 1889, and horses had virtually disappeared from the system five years later.
Henry’s boldness cleared the way for a clean, well-lit electric subway system. Up until that point, subways were viewed as impractical and dangerous, especially if powered by steam engines, as the London subway was (only London, Glasgow, and Budapest had subways at the time). British subway passengers were subjected to belching black smoke, pitch-dark stations, and stale and noxious air.
In New York, Henry’s more famous brother, William, was smart, athletic, politically connected (a dear friend of President Grover Cleveland, and a near presidential candidate himself), served as secretary of the Navy, and longed for a transportation solution to unclog his city’s choked streets.
He was also the more conservative of the two, preferring the methodical and tried-and-true to what he perceived as Henry’s derring-do, sometimes reckless mentality. William’s reticence to take risks prompted him to eschew electricity and pursue cable as a major source of streetcar power to replace horses in New York, “a compromise between the ugliness of steam and the uncertainty of electricity.” Yet, as Most notes, William’s early decision to pursue a fading technology “would be his greatest miscalculation.”
Portraying this story as simply a sibling rivalry, though, is inadequate; it is so much more. The book draws much of its strength from the superb job Most does of bringing other powerful characters on and off stage at critical decision points in the decades leading up to the subways.
Boss Tweed and his rogues of Tammany Hall are part of this tableau, as are Cleveland, Thomas Edison, electrical entrepreneur Frank Sprague, and even piano-making magnate William Steinway. Most makes it clear that, in the mid- to late 19th century, urban transportation drove the conversation among the elite and powerful, the thinkers and visionaries, perhaps much as biotech or life sciences do today.
As Boston and New York strove to build America’s first subway, each dealt with politics, skepticism, financial setbacks, safety concerns, technological hurdles, and loss of life — a gas explosion during construction killed 10 in Boston, and 54 people perished in the four years of construction in New York, some crushed in horrific rock slides. Yet, both cities pressed on, sustained by a vision and fueled by a desire to be first and best.
With dramatic narrative flair and an easy voice, Most describes the final drive to the finish line, fully chronicling the reasons why Boston emerged victorious when her subway opened successfully on Sept. 1, 1897, seven years before New York’s.
As a bonus, and ultimately more important than the winner of the subway competition, Most shrewdly analyzes how underground rapid transit helped define the modern American city and could serve as a blueprint for new modes of transportation that are still only dreams today.
Stephen Puleo is the author of five books, including several about Boston: “Dark Tide,’’ “The Boston Italians,’’ and “A City So Grand.’’ His most recent book, “The Caning,’’ is now available in paperback.