Almanac: Building the New York City subway

There are approximately 443 underground miles of track in New York City’s subway system.

CBS News

On March 24, 1900 it was “Tunnel Day” in New York City, for that was the day Mayor Robert Van Wyck used a sterling silver Tiffany shovel to ceremonially launch construction of the city’s first subway.

Soon, thousands of workers were digging for real, building a nine-mile line starting from City Hall north.

Just four-and-a-half years later, in 1904, Mayor George McClellan took the controls of the very first train, as historian Stan Fischler recalled for “Sunday Morning” back in 2004: “They didn’t want him to do anything, but he got so enthused as a motorman that he decided to run the train himself. He did a pretty good job – he didn’t wreck the train!”

Over the years, other subway lines spread like a spider’s web across the city.

G.W. Bitzer shot footage inside a New York City subway tunnel in 1905:

New York Subway (1905) | G. W. Bitzer | Interior NYC From 14th to 42nd Street by Film History on YouTube

As much a symbol of New York as the city’s skyline, the subway has long been celebrated in song.

Fast forward to today, however, and you’ll find a subway fewer New Yorkers are celebrating. And despite the fact that, much of the time, subways remain the best way to get around in New York, full renewal and restoration of the system lies billions of dollars and many years in the future.

Forget about that original “Tunnel Day”; a lot of New Yorkers are waiting for “Light at the End of the Tunnel Day”!

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Story produced by Trey Sherman.

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