Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

Article excerpt

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway BY DOUG MOST ST. MARTIN'S, 416 PAGES, $27.99

This book on tunneling, written by the appropriately named Doug Most, offers a fascinating story-if you can find it. In principle, it is the narrative of man's gradual conquest of the space below his cities, of the quiet marvel of engineering that is the modern subway, and of Henry and William Whitney, the remarkable brothers whose long and divergent paths led them to transit baronhood in Boston and New York, respectively. In practice, it is nothing of the kind.

Simply put, Mr. Most cannot decide what he is digging for. The slow acceptance of tunnels, the development of the electric motor, the nineteenth century's newfound need for rapid transit, each city's subway construction, the story of the Whitneys- each of these could get its own book, and it is in no way clear which one the author intended to write. This problem is compounded by a style reminiscent of David Lynch, in which not merely every chapter, but nearly every section of every chapter, presents the reader with a new cast of characters, few if any of whom are ever seen or heard from again.

Most is at his best when describing the actual construction of the subways. The accounts of the labor, the accidents, the disruptions to city life, the triumphant first rides-these are crisp, vivid, and engaging, free from the distractions of compulsive microbiography. Unfortunately, they constitute very little of the book. If the reader wishes to maximize his enjoyment, I would encourage him to begin on page 211 and read to the end.

What makes this most disappointing is that the author has selected topics that interest him very much and should fascinate most readers. The Whitney brothers were unlikely robber barons. Frank Sprague's motors did revolutionize mass transit beyond our ability to comprehend. Alfred Beach's secret pneumatic subway and his fight with Boss Tweed would make an excellent movie.

Of particular interest, from the file of It Really Was Different Back Then, is the recurring theme of fear of the underground. To borrow Mr. Most's second chapter title, the ground was "where spirits, the devil, and the dead live"; tunnels have terrified people for thousands of years.

The Thames Tunnel Company, architects of the first transportation tunneling effort under a major city, was incorporated in 1824 and concluded its work by 1843. The "hollow earth" theory, according to which the planet's interior contained bizarre creatures and entire lost civilizations, was still popular at that time. …

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