As much as people curse it and rely on it, they probably never spend much time pondering the origins of the MBTA. For them Michael Rossi’s “The Race Underground,” based on Doug Most’s book “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway,” should prove engrossing, eye-opening, and provocative. Though the documentary’s style is conventional Ken Burns, the content is all too timely for a country facing the need for urgent infrastructure repair and renovation. After seeing it, chances are you’ll never look at Park Street Station the same way again.
It premieres on PBS’s “The American Experience” series next Tuesday at 9 p.m.
The title is a bit of a misnomer, because the process was not so much a race between New York and Boston to be the first with underground mass transit, but more a halting development along parallel tracks. Though it opens with images — old photographs and engravings — of New York City buried under 4 feet of snow in the Great Blizzard of 1888, the film pretty much sticks to the Boston side of the story thereafter. As old photos of scores of horse-drawn trolleys clogging downtown Boston indicate, the situation in the city was already chaotic long before the storm.
With instructive commentary from Most (the Boston Globe’s director of strategic growth and content) and other authors and historians, “Underground” provides a quick survey of the history of urban mass transportation. First there was the horse-drawn trolley, which, as city populations expanded from immigration, proved increasingly inefficient, unsanitary, and ill-smelling.
Responding to this crisis was the film’s unsung hero, Frank Sprague, a Navy ensign with a genius for electric motors. With perseverance, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial chutzpah, he designed the first electric-powered trolley cars, and proved their practicality by making Richmond, Va., the first city to have a transit system that wasn’t powered by horses.
Sprague’s innovation caught the attention of Brookline real estate mogul Henry Whitney, who had convinced the city of Boston to allow him to consolidate seven transit companies and eliminate the overlap in what he saw as one of the major transportation challenges facing the city. Another problem he recognized was the dependency on horses, which Sprague’s motorized cars would eliminate. But the third obstacle, the insuperable congestion of millions of people annually trying to move through the one square mile of space that was the downtown area, would require the unthinkable: digging up the Boston Common, and sending the trains underground.
As the film points out, this transit revolution was far from rapid — it was slowed by the familiar obstacles of intransigence, greed, and fear. People feared change despite the intolerable conditions that existed. They feared the idea of going underground. Some of these fears were confirmed when a gas explosion killed 10 people as the excavation was underway, and chthonic superstitions and patriotic traditions both seemed violated when the digging unearthed the remains of 900 people buried during the Revolutionary War period. Meanwhile, those with power dithered or acted impulsively or didn’t act at all. Capitalists seeking to profit from the problem offered conflicting schemes based on their own interests, or blocked progress, or clung to the status quo.
Those of us who lived through the Big Dig can empathize with the doubts, anger, and despair of those years. Despite these challenges, however, and with little fanfare, the first stretch of what would become the Green Line opened on Sept. 1, 1897. As the film points out, 250,000 people would ride the subway that first day alone, and the improvement was almost magical.
Which brings us to today, where similar magic might be required to improve a system again in need of renewal. I would suggest starting by getting rid of that hideous squeal of metal wheels on the turn into Boylston Station, an aural assault that has been damaging eardrums since the day the system started. And also building a monument to Frank Sprague.
The Race Underground
On “The American Experience,”
WGBH 2, Tuesday at 9 p.m.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.