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Alfred Ely Beach

Alfred Ely Beach
Alfred Ely Beach
Born September 1, 1826 (1826-09)
Springfield, Massachusetts
Died Did not recognize date. Try slightly modifying the date in the first parameter. (aged 69)
New York City, New York
Nationality United States
Education Monson Academy, Massachusetts, now Wilbraham & Monson Academy
Known for New York City's first subway
Children Frederick Converse Beach
Parent(s) Moses Yale Beach

Alfred Ely Beach (September 1, 1826 – January 1, 1896) was an American inventor, publisher, and patent lawyer, born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is most known for his design of New York City's earliest subway predecessor, the Beach Pneumatic Transit. He also patented a typewriter for the blind.


  • Early years 1
  • Invention of a subway 2
  • Death 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Early years

Beach was born in Savannah, the Beach Institute, which is now the home of the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation.[1]

Invention of a subway

Beach's most famous invention was New York City's first subway, the Beach Pneumatic Transit.[2] This came about during the 1860s, when traffic in New York was a nightmare, especially along the central artery, Broadway. Beach was one of a few visionaries who proposed building an underground railway under Broadway to help relieve the traffic congestion. The inspiration was the underground Metropolitan Railway in London but in contrast to that and others' proposals for New York, Beach proposed the use of trains propelled by pneumatics instead of conventional steam engines, and construction using a tunnelling shield of his invention to minimize disturbing the street.[3]

Beach was also interested in pneumatic tubes for the transport of letters and packages, another idea recently put into use in London.[4] With a franchise from the state he began construction of a tunnel for small pneumatic tubes in 1869, but diverted it into a demonstration of a passenger railway that opened on February 26, 1870.[5] To build a passenger railway he needed a different franchise, something he lobbied for over four legislative sessions, 1870 to 1873. Construction of the tunnel was obvious from materials being delivered to Warren St near Broadway, and was documented in newspaper reports, but Beach kept all details secret until the New York Tribune published a possibly planted article a few weeks before opening.[6]

Plan of the Beach Pneumatic Transit station and tunnel

In 1870 state senator William M. Tweed introduced a bill for Beach's subway that did not pass.[7] By the end of 1871 Tweed's Tammany Hall political machine was in disgrace and from then on Beach, in an effort to gain support from reformers, claimed that Tweed had opposed his subway.[8] The real opposition to the subway was from politically connected property owners along Broadway, led by Alexander Turney Stewart and John Jacob Astor III, who feared that tunnelling would damage buildings and interfere with surface traffic.[9] Bills for Beach's subway passed the legislature in 1871 and 1872 but were vetoed by Governor John T. Hoffman because he said that they gave away too much authority without compensation to the city or state. In 1873 Governor John Adams Dix signed a similar bill into law, but Beach was not able to raise funds to build over the next six months, and then the Panic of 1873 dried up the financial markets.[3]

During this same time, other investors had built an elevated railway in Greenwich St and Ninth Ave, which operated successfully with a small steam engine starting in 1870. The wealthy property owners did not object to this railway well away from Broadway, and by the mid-1870s it appeared that elevated railways were practical and underground railways were not, setting the pattern for rapid transit development in New York for the rest of the 19th century.[3]

Beach operated his demonstration railway from February 1870 to April 1873. It had one station in the basement of Devlin's clothing store, a building at the southwest corner of Broadway and Warren St, and ran for a total of about 300 feet, first around a curve to the center of Broadway and then straight under the center of Broadway to the south side of Murray St.[5] The former Devlin's building was destroyed by fire in 1898.[10] In 1912 workers for Degnon Contracting excavated the tunnel proper during the construction of a subway line running under Broadway. The tunnel was completely within the limits of the present day City Hall station under Broadway.[11]

Much of the Beach subway story was recalled as precedent by Lawrence Edwards in his lead article of the August 1965 issue of Scientific American, which described his invention of Gravity-Vacuum Transit.[12]

The Beach tunnelling shield was used in the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada's first St. Clair Tunnel between Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario.[13] This tunnel opened in 1890.

In January 1887 Beach donated land to 7 men who were starting a yacht club in Stafford CT. The Housatonic boat club still exists today in it 128th season making it the oldest operating yacht club in CT.


Beach died of pneumonia on January 1, 1896 in New York City at the age of 69.[1][14]

In popular culture

  • The 1973 novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three by Morton Freedgood (under the pen name John Godey) features a character speculating on Beach's tunnel as a possible escape route for four men who have hijacked a subway car and demanded ransom for its passengers. The history of Beach's project is briefly described, but is ultimately unrelated to the criminals' escape plan.
  • The song "Sub-Rosa Subway", from the 1976 album 3:47 EST by Canadian progressive rock band Klaatu, tells the story of Alfred Beach building his subway.
  • The second noted appearance was in the 1989 comedy Ghostbusters II.
    The set featured artistic features (Specifically the vaulted arches and replica Guastavino tile featured on the set) which were inspired primarily by the 1904 City Hall station. The main inspiration from the real pneumatic railroad (excluding the history) was the tunnel entrance, featuring keystone dedication of "Pneumatic 1870 Transit".
    The history of the station would have been included in a deleted scene of dialogue between Dr. Peter Venkman and Dr. Egon Spengler as Dr. Ray Stantz began to descend into the tunnel.
    Peter: "NYPR?"
    Egon: "The New York Pneumatic Railroad, fan forced air trains, built around 1870."
    It is not known if this scene was filmed as Ray entered the station, or, as suggested by The Real Ghostbusters in Ghostbusters II when Ray removed a manhole cover bearing the initials: "NYPRR".
  • Beach's Subway also makes an appearance in the fictional anthology
  • Savannah, Georgia, is named in honor of Alfred Ely Beach.
  • A recent appearance of the Beach Subway was within An American Tail: The Treasure of Manhattan Island. In the film, Fievel Mousekewitz and Tony venture into the disused 'Beachs pneumatic railroad' (sic), visiting the station; looking at the car and traveling into the tunnel. A brief and accurate description of the system was given by Tony, however due to the lack of surviving photographic reference of the real railway some artistic licences in design was taken by the artists, including a station entrance on the street which resembled the cast iron kiosk entrance used on the IRT Subway in New York.
  • It was mentioned on CSI: NY on September 27, 2006, as one of the many unused tunnels under the city.
  • Alfred Ely Beach and a fictional version of his subway work is a prominent feature in Neal Shusterman's young adult novel, Downsiders.


  1. ^ a b "Scientific American", Jan 11, 1896.
  2. ^ Most, Doug, The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the incredible rivalry that built America's first subway (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2014), ISBN 9780312591328.
  3. ^ a b c James Blaine Walker, "Fifty Years of Rapid Transit / 1864 to 1917". New York: The Law Printing Company, 1918.
  4. ^ Alfred E Beach, "The Pneumatic Dispatch". New York: The American News Company, 1868.
  5. ^ a b "Scientific American", Mar 5, 1870.
  6. ^ "New York Tribune", Jan 11, 1870.
  7. ^ "New York Herald" and "New York Tribune", March 11, 1870.
  8. ^ Alfred E Beach, "The Broadway Underground Railway". New York: Beach Pneumatic Transit, 1872.
  9. ^ For example see "New York Herald", March 21, 1871, and "New York Tribune", Mar 29, 1871, and "New York Times", March 30, 1872.
  10. ^ "New York Times", "New York Herald", "The World", "New York Tribune", Dec 5, 1898.
  11. ^ Walker (above), and "Scientific American", Feb 24, 1912 and September 7, 1912, and "New York Times", Feb 9, 1912.
  12. ^ "Scientific American", August 1965.
  13. ^ William D. Middleton, Metropolitan Railways: Rapid Transit in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003; pg. 17.
  14. ^ "Funeral of Alfred Ely Beach. His Wife Arrives from Europe Just Before the Services.".  

External links

  • Alfred Ely Beach at Encyclopædia Britannica
  • Alfred Beach's Pneumatic Subway and the beginnings of rapid transit in New York by Joseph Brennan
  • Alfred Ely Beach -- Beach's Bizarre Broadway Subway Klaatu's detailed background article, explaining the technical and political details of the project.
  • NEW YORK’S SECRET SUBWAY - American Heritage
  • "Pneumatic Transit" Animation by Abby Digital
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