Tunnel Vision: New York Subway Construction Photographs, 1900–1908

November 23, 2004
February 20, 2005

On October 27, 1904, New York City's subway system officially opened, but talks to build an underground rail system began soon after London opened its subway in 1863. It wasn't until 1894 that a referendum was put on the ballot to generate financial support from the city and create the Rapid Transit Board, which was in charge of planning the route. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) was awarded the contract to build the first subway line. The Rapid Transit Board planned one original route, stretching from City Hall to 96th Street, which then split into two more routes from Broadway to 242nd Street and another that ran under the Harlem River into the Bronx. Bids were then solicited and construction began in 1900.

The New-York Historical Society's exhibit Tunnel Vision: New York Subway Construction Photographs, 19001908, explores the logistical challenges and remarkable effort that went into what at the time, was the largest construction project in the city's history. The exhibition showcases 80 photographs, culled from more than 5,000 from 19001908 in the Historical Society's Subway Construction Photograph Collection, all of which were a gift from the New York City Board of Transportation in 1950. Made primarily for insurance purposes, the overall collection contains nearly 60,000 photos showcasing buildings and streetscapes before, during and after construction of the of the entire subway system from 1900 until the last line was finished in 1947.

"These photographs capture the incredible human spirit behind this massive project and reveal the pride and willpower that laborers used in lieu of modern technology to make the subway a reality. This was truly a feat in modern engineering for the city to accomplish this task and Tunnel Vision will provide visitors with a snapshot into this extraordinary period of growth for New York," said New York Historical Society President & CEO Dr. Louise Mirrer.

The photographs and text panels document in vivid detail the "cut-and-cover" technique that the project's chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons developed. The process, in which crews dug a shallow excavation below the street surface and built a concrete and steel subsurface for trains to run through. The method was a painstaking process that required the relocation of thousands of sewer, gas and water mains and reinforcing buildings along the route. However, some of the exhibit photos clearly show how that many of the buildings did not survive and had to be demolished. While the IRT construction was marred by significant property damage, business disruptions and fatal accidents, it did succeed in addressing the city's basic objective: a cheap, reliable urban transit system. The five cent fare that remained in place until 1947 allowed an explosive growth of home construction throughout Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

Most of the photographs from the early construction (1900–1908) are printed on platinum paper, which has proven to hold the images intact over the last century. The 65 prints in this exhibit are grouped geographically to show the transformation of key sites in New York City that were dramatically altered during the construction phase and then re-assembled afterward. Unfortunately, many historic structures did not survive the construction phase, or were re-rebuilt in a poor fashion to prevent them from living on today. "Tunnel Vision teaches a valuable lesson about the delicate nature of New York City's infrastructure and the challenges that lie ahead for any further expansion of the subway system," said Dr. Mirrer.

Creative: Tronvig Group