What it was like the day the NYC subway opened in 1904


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The Interborough Rapid Transit Subway, or IRT, was the first subway company ever in New York City. The company formed as a response to elevated train lines springing up around the city–it was time to go underground and build a rapid transit railroad to help combat street congestion and assist development in new areas of New York, according to NYCsubway.org. And so 113 years ago, on October 27th, 1904, the first IRT subway line opened with the City Hall station as its showpiece. It’s no overstatement to say that after this date, the city would never be the same. And the day was one to remember, with pure excitement over impressive feat of moving the city’s transit system underground.

The first IRT subway line ran from the spectacular City Hall subway station–which is no longer open–to 145th Street. The route was trumpeted as “City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes.” The day’s festivities centered around the City Hall station, decked out in Guastavino vaulting, as it was intended to be the ultimate showpiece for the IBT’s new subway line with its impressive architecture and curved platform. It was also the chosen place for hanging the commemorative plaques dedicated to those who designed, built and financed the system.

The New York City Mayor George B. McClellan was given the honorary duty of starting the first train at City Hall station. According to a New York Times report of the event, the mayor was eventually supposed to give the controls over to an IRT motorman. Instead, he took the train all the way to 103rd Street. When asked, “Don’t you want the motorman to take hold?” McClellan said, “No sir! I’m running this train!” In the Times article, McClellan is dubbed as “Mayor-Motorman” during the opening ride.

The Mayor was delivered a silver controller to operate the subway train; it was inscribed with the message, “Controller used by the Hon. George B. McClellan, Mayor of New York City, in starting the first train on the Rapid Transit Railroad from the City Hall station, New York, Thursday Oct. 27, 1904. Presented by the Hon. George B. McClellan by August Belmont, President of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.”

The City Hall Station has been closed sincee 1945. CLICK HERE TO VIEW

Turns out it didn’t fit very well on the motor, so the emergency brake lever was pulled in the first few minutes of the ride. According to the Times, it caused “a violent jolt, a sudden stop,” with passengers “thrown forward as though the train had struck an obstruction.”

Despite the initial error–which was quickly fixed for the rest of the trip–throngs of New Yorkers wanted in on the underground train ride. 200 policemen managed a crowd of as many as 7,000 people around City Hall, some of which pushed through the entrance underground. The New York Times recounted that “both the two sections [of the same train] were crowded uncomfortably. Many passengers stood in every car, and the total loads probably aggregated at least 1,100 passengers.” People were also trying to access the train from different stations. Some had gotten afternoon passes to ride, but the passes weren’t valid for that very first trip.

After that initial ride with the mayor, the subway opened for paying fares at 7pm that same day. Ultimately the first person to buy a green ticket was a “middle aged woman from Brooklyn,” according to the Chicago Tribune. She had waited at the front of the line for two hours. That conflicts with a report from the New York Times, which said the first ticket was sold to H.M. Devoe, a Deputy Superintendent in the Board of Education.

The third man to buy a ticket, Henry Barrett, was a resident of West 46th Street. He took the first train at 7:02pm, at the 28th Street station, and then at 7:03 he claimed his diamond horseshoe pin with 15 karats went missing. This marks the first crime on the NYC subway system.

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