The History of the Underground

“The History of the Underground” won first place in the Obermayer Prize for Writing for the Public, part of the 2019 Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes.


You are standing on a platform underground of Baker Street, but there is plenty of natural light coming through the glasses in the arched roof. The train is nowhere to be seen yet, but you can faintly hear a rhythmic rumbling coming from deep inside the tunnel. Many people, like you, stand on their tiptoes to have a proper look, men wearing top hats, and women with skirts that touch the floor. The thundering becomes louder and louder. Before you see the headlight of the train, you hear a sonorous whistle first. Then the steam locomotive comes into full view, elegantly stopping by the platform. The crowd jostled forward, while a guard’s booming voice is carried down the platform, asking people to go to the carriage that corresponds to the class on their tickets. You re-examines your ticket, 3rd class, and is delighted to find you are standing on the right section of the platform. Stepping onto the train, you find that all the seats have been taken. But that’s no matter, you are content with standing. A whistle sounds off from the platform, and the train begins to move.

Once inside the tunnel, the windows become pitch black. You see a blurry reflection of yourself by the flickering gas light anchored on the walls of the carriages. The air is hot and steamy, with a tinge of the smell of smoke. At first, you think nothing of it, as this is nothing compared to the constant whiff of manure on the roads above ground. But after a few stops, the sulfuric smell becomes more and more unbearable. A child bursts out crying in the corner, and you begin to wonder if you are going to die of suffocation right here on the spot. The train pulls to a stop, and a voice on the platform cries out: King’s Cross. You feel much relieved, only one more station to go. You happen to look across the carriage to see someone reading a newspaper. On the front is a picture of the American president, Abraham Lincoln, under which is the latest development of the war going on across the Atlantic.

The date is January 10, 1863. And you are one of the 30,000 Londoners who rode the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway, on its opening day.

The Metropolitan Railway was the brainchild of Charles Pearson, a solicitor to the City of London. He first proposed the idea of an underground railway transportation in the 1840s, to relieve the working class of their cramped living situation in the city by helping them move to the suburbs.

It was a time that saw the rapid development of intercity railways. Ever since the opening of the first passenger rail service powered by steam locomotives between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830, there had been a wave of railway constructions heading into London. The first to reach the capital was the London and Croydon Railway, opening its south bank terminus London Bridge in 1836. Euston opened in 1837, Paddington in 1838, Waterloo in 1848, etc.

The frantic period of building railways into London by various companies gave rise to the high concentration of train stations in central London today — almost 20. But they weren’t so central in the mid 19th century. What was considered urban London consisted of only two areas, the City of London (the skyscraper-controlled financial district today), and Westminster (where government and theaters are located). Anywhere else are suburbs or villages. The choice of locations for these stations is quite similar to airports today — far away from the city. The reason?

The government at the time decided to ban railway constructions inside the city, probably because it was an eyesore to the urban aesthetic. Another reason was that rich people, who owned properties in the city, were more vocal against their houses being torn down for the construction of railways, whereas the poor who lived on the outskirts of the city were, well, no one listened to the poor.

So the million pound question was: how to further transport the passengers from the big London termini into the actual city. And Pearson thought of a way: if no tracks can be built on the streets of the city, then why don’t we build them under the streets?

The proposal was welcomed by the different railway companies that were interested in sending their passengers into the heart of the city. And they offered to contribute financially to the project. Indeed, the first portion of the Metropolitan Railway that was built ran between Paddington and Farringdon. With Farringdon being the train station closest to the City of London at the time, the line linked it up with several major stations on the northern periphery of the city, all the way from the westernmost and furthermost Paddington, via Marylebone, Euston, St. Pancras, and King’s Cross.

Construction of the underground railway began in October, 1859. It was headed by engineer Sir John Fowler, using a method called “cut-and-cover”. It is exactly as the name suggests, a trench was cut on the surface of the road, and covered later to form a tunnel. A thoroughfare on the north side of London was completely cut open for a few years, with hundreds and thousands of laborers digging, laying down tracks, and building up the ceiling of the tunnels with bricks and steel. Where the line had to go under houses, those houses were torn down. Many poor people were dislocated to further suburbs, with a measly compensation from the railway company, but not much more than the degree of dislocation of any previous railway works on the ground. And where the line met rivers or underground streams, the waters were diverted and tamed in steel pipes that became sewers.

On January 10, 1863. The final product was ready. Trains of carriages were running in the tunnels, powered by steam engines. A bizarre choice, by our modern standard, to use in a fairly enclosed space with not much ventilation. Yet it was the only reasonable choice for power, the alternative being horses. Horses couldn’t pull multiple carriages. They were too slow. They would freak out in the dark tunnels, and bring manure to the underground, too. But engineers did anticipate the production of steam and smoke in the tunnels, and they came up with all sorts of modifications to the steam engine to adapt it for the new operation. A specially-fine coal was used, a water-cooling tank was enlarged, giant ventilation shafts were created, etc. But when the trains started running in 1863, people found that the improvements were almost negligible. More ventilation shafts were built, fans were implemented, the glass ceilings in Baker Street station were broken through. Still, the tunnels were filled with smoke and soot. The Times famously described a ride underground as “a mild form of torture which no persons would undergo if he could help it”.

But the thing is, most people couldn’t help it. Londoners, rich and poor, flocked to the Metropolitan line. City clerks (white collars) traveled from their comfortable suburban cottages to the city in the 1st or 2nd class carriages, and the working class from their rented accommodation in the 3rd. A special workman’s fare was created by the government, providing a 60% discount on the ticket on the 5:30am and 5:40am trains. Victorian workers weren’t so picky about having to wake up early. They had to, anyway. Before the advent of the underground trains, it took many of them more than an hour to get to work, using the only means of transport available to them — feet.

The following decades saw the extension of the Metropolitan line that created many new suburbs and pushed the city boundary further out, as well as the addition of the District line and the Circle line. But it wasn’t until the year 1890 that London commuters were finally able to breathe properly in a tunnel that is not filled with smoke.

The City and South London Railway was a first in many ways. It was the first underground railway to use electricity, instead of steam, as a source of power. It was the first deep-level underground, or “tube”, built using the Greathead shield. Named after the South-African-born engineer James Henry Greathead, it was a huge metal cylinder, that could be lowered deep underground. Once it was lying down comfortably, it can be pushed forward in a horizontal direction, with laborers standing on scaffolds inside the cylinder, digging away earth in the front. Another group of workers in the back laid the bricks or concrete to form the actual walls of the tunnel, with the help of tunnel-sized metal rings. The Greathead shield was actually inspired by the Brunel shield, which was developed by the French genius Marc Isambard Brunel to dig the Thames Tunnel back in 1826, the first underwater tunnel (a walkway tunnel) in the world. The 1890 tube was also the first railway in Britain to have no class distinctions between carriages and have a flat fare for everyone.

The initial success of the underground in London had caught the attention of railway magnates and city officials all over Europe and across the Atlantic, but the smoke-filled tunnels had put many cities off the idea of constructing their own underground railway. However, this all changed in 1881, when Werner von Siemens built the first electric tram line in Berlin. Prior to this, trams were driven by horses on tracks in the streets. Later in 1888, America also welcomed its first electric tram service, in hilly Richmond. It was designed by the American engineer Frank Sprague. He implemented a third rail on the ground, to relay electricity to the motor on the tram. He also added a rod on top of the tram to connect it to an overhead wire to further power the tram. This rod had another function, making sure that the tram did not run off rail, which would stall traffic. The news of Sprague’s work in Richmond spread to Boston, where America’s first underground railway would be built.

In 1887, Henry Whitney, the king of Boston streetcars (again, horse-drawn trams on rails), and owner of vast land in Brookline, already aware of Sprague’s experiments, first proposed to build an electric subway in downtown Boston. It was in response to the congestion of road traffic. On Tremont Street, horse-drawn private carriages, horse-drawn omnibuses, horse-drawn streetcars, followed one after another, with so little space in between, that the whole street ground to a halt from dawn to dusk, and completely blocked the way of horse-drawn ambulances and horse- drawn fire trucks in an emergency.

Henry Whitney managed to bring Sprague and electric railway to Boston, but he wasn’t able to bring about a subway. That grander vision had to be achieved by the mayor Nathan Matthews Jr. His reproposed subway plan was passed by Bostonians in a referendum in November 1894, but only by a small margin. Many people were opposed to the idea of venturing into the underworld before their time was due.

Construction began in March, 1895, using the cut-and-cover method as the Metropolitan in London. The first section to be built was between Arlington and Park Street. Soon, the southern and eastern edges of Boston Common were disemboweled. Trees had to be replanted elsewhere, telephone and telegraph wires had to be rerouted, sewage and gas pipes had to be approached with caution. And, much to the shock and dismay of citizens, human remains had to be unearthed and reburied elsewhere, 910 in total. Furthermore, tragedy had to be endured, when construction of the subway caused a leak in a gas pipe underground at the corner of Tremont and Boylston, resulting in an explosion that killed 10 passersby on March 4, 1897. Miraculously, the subway was unharmed in the explosion. And merely six months later, it opened.

On the morning of September 1, 1897, the subway tunnel welcomed its first passengers. They came in a car numbered 1752, driven by James Reed. Some of them came on board in Allston, some on Pearl Street in Cambridgeport, and many more were picked up along the way after the car crossed the Charles River on Harvard Bridge. The car was brimming with passengers, many of whom stood on the edge, with their heads, arms, and legs hanging outside the car, when it was greeted by a huge crowd at the entrance to the subway right before Arlington. In the clamor of the crowd, the car bowed down and disappeared into the tunnel.

The scene that greeted the brave passengers was a pleasant surprise. What they expected was a dark, damp, and chilly underworld, but what they saw was an underground palace brightly lighted with electric bulbs. And the air they were breathing in was even better than that above ground. No horse manure! When the car stopped at its final destination, Park Street, many passengers enjoyed the ride so much that they refused to leave, determined to go on another round.

In the century (and a half) that followed the inauguration of their underground railways, both London and Boston saw dramatic geographical growth. The metropolitan area of Greater London today is estimated to be 606 square miles. What used to be London’s city proper, an area little more than a square mile, is no longer crammed with dignitaries, merchants, laborers, prostitutes and common thieves. Now it is deemed to be a place only proper for work and not stay. Its population today is a measly 9401. As to Boston, people who consider themselves Bostonians reside in Brookline, Watertown, Medford and beyond. Without a rapid and affordable form of transport, the common people would have been trapped in a small radius from city center, forever doomed to toil their way to work on their two feet.

 
 

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