A seven-year struggle to build New York's subway

William Steinway's diary resides in the National Museum of American History's Archives Center as part of the Steinway and Sons Records and Family Papers, 1857–1919.

For an hour and 20 minutes on August 28, 1973, New Yorkers on an 11-car subway train lived every rider's nightmare.

A chunk of loose concrete from an archway in the old Steinway Tunnel under the East River fell, crashing into the side of the first car, killing one passenger and trapping about 1,000 others in 115-degree heat and heavy smoke.

A man with a beard and glasses

William Steinway, the famous piano manufacturer, would have cringed at the thought of a catastrophic subway accident in a tunnel that bears his name. But perhaps the ill-fated tunnel is an appropriate symbol of Steinway's frustration. The businessman spent the last seven years of his life serving on—and chairing—rapid transit commissions that were confronted with every conceivable obstacle to planning a subway for New York City.

A man in a suit sits in front of a building and columns.

It wasn't until October 27, 1904, that New York Mayor George B. McClellan Jr.—son of the Union Civil War general—took the controls and inaugurated the city's subway.

The saga of planning the New York subway was largely told in the New York newspapers, their columns filled with comments from the very quotable piano maker.

A photograph of a building labeled "Steinway Pianos" on an unpaved street. The photograph is yellowed with age, with folds and rips in the cardboard border.
A group of men in hats and suits, stands on the platform and sits in plywood railroad cars beneath the tiled arches of City Hall station.

Every time the rapid transit commissioners got close to approving a route system there was a catch: legal restrictions, opposition from the owner of existing elevated railways, unhappy property owners, court and political battles, arguments over an above-ground or underground system, and contention over public vs. private funding.

Despite these controversies, Steinway stayed with the project. He had a vision for what New Yorkers needed to get around town speedily: a four-track, largely underground system, with two middle tracks for express trains. "No citizen should have to walk more than three or four blocks to a station," he told the New York Times. By February 1891 Steinway and his fellow commissioners recommended that trains run on a relatively new and clean power source: electricity. He was adamant that the system should not run on a non-electric system powered by steam. The old London subway had run on steam power and Steinway complained that its riders had to "hold up their hands in holy horror" at the gas, smoke, steam, oil, smells, and darkness in the tunnels.

As the years went by, headlines ranging from "Good-Bye Rapid Transit" to "A Route Fixed At Last" told the turbulent story of hope and despair for the New York subway system.

In March 1891, the New York Herald, quoted "a gentleman in a position to get inside facts promptly" and reported that purported conclusions of the Rapid Transit Commission that were favorable to Jay Gould, the subway opponent who owned the elevated railways. "The article is wholly imaginative," Steinway told the Times, and added that he had been home and available if any reporter had wanted to check the facts.

Chances for an underground subway looked grim in December 1892, when the city sought bids for a franchise to operate the system. Only one bid was received, and it was tossed out when the bidder failed to make a required $1 million deposit. Convinced that an underground subway was essential, a frustrated Steinway wrote in his diary January 14, 1893, "To my dismay I see I stand alone in my stand to guard the City from being further disfigured in streets."

Cursive writing on a lined piece of paper. The paper is yellowed with age.
A typed text transcription on a graphic that appears like a piece of parchment.

By June 1893 Steinway had had enough. He was among four members of the transit commission who offered their resignation. There were only five men on the commission. Steinway's decision to resign wasn't just due to frustration. His rheumatism was so serious that meetings had to take place in his home—at one meeting he was propped up in bed while the other commission members gathered around him. He said he should have listened to his doctor and quit months beforehand. However, then New York Mayor Thomas Francis Gilroy, refused to accept the resignations of Steinway and his fellow commission members. The commissioners agreed to go back to work. Steinway told the Times that he stayed because a replacement "would need to give several months of study to learn what I already know."

Things began to turn around. In November 1894 voters approved public financing of a rapid transit system by a vote of 52,383 to 18,679, according to the New York Times. The New York Evening World broke down the vote in several districts where the margin ranged from 3 1/2-to-1 to 5-to-1. However, the subway system was not a sure thing. More controversies were to come.

In January 1895 the New York Sun reported the commission was faced with estimates of $66 million for the system, but was authorized to spend only $50 million. Court battles followed over the proposed routes, as well as over the cost and legality of public financing. Steinway died on November 30, 1896. It wasn't until March 24, 1900, that ground was broken for a system that would have both elevated and underground tracks.

Even then, the debate went on. "The usual cries of doom and disaster echoed," Joseph Cunningham and Leonard O. DeHart wrote in A History of the New York City Subway System. "Ordinary people and professionals (even engineers) said it wouldn't work, or people wouldn't ride it. Other views held that streets or buildings or the tunnel itself would collapse," explained Cunningham and DeHart, "Health addicts declared that one would suffer eye strain, pneumonia, tuberculosis and other horrid debilitating diseases."

An empty subway tunnel. Unlaid train line sits to one side, workers stand to the other.

Nonetheless, on opening day, Mayor McClellan removed a silver controller handle from a mahogany case, placed it in the motorman's cab, and at 2:35 p.m., drove the first subway. The 5,000 riders were invited guests. The system opened to the public at 7 p.m., with mob scenes at every station.

Men in coats and hats stand on the steps of City Hall. Above bunting seems to drip off every flat surface.
And that Steinway tunnel?

A subway train car, circa 1916.
William Steinway initially invested in the unlucky tunnel in the 1880s to run regular trains from Manhattan to Long Island. During construction, a dynamite explosion killed five workers and bankrupted the contractor. After Steinway died, a new backer, banker August Belmont Jr., planned to run streetcars or similar light rail through the tunnel. As for the name, Belmont must have had a premonition that the tunnel would continue to have bad luck. Instead of renaming it after himself, he kept the name "Steinway." A fire closed it in 1907. The city bought it in 1913 and decided to run the subway through it. In 2011 New York's transit system president told the New York Daily News that of all the subway tunnels, "This one gives us the most headaches."

Two men in suits and ties, sit side by side in a subway car, staring in opposite directions. One wears a hat at a jaunty angle.
Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist who writes frequent articles for the museum's blog. Steinway Diary Project researcher Charley Donnelly contributed research and information to this post.

Past stories by Margasak include William Steinway's bizarre experience as chairman of the New York presidential electors in 1893, his construction of a resort that now sits under the runways of LaGuardia AirportHollywood during World War II, and the emotional attachment of visitors to the museum's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz.