Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Parallel Stories of Building The Subways of Boston and New York: Review of "The Race Underground" by Doug Most

I have always been fascinated with subway systems - their operation, their construction and their evolution. I have ridden and explored the subway systems in cities as diverse as London, Paris, Moscow, Montreal, Seoul, Singapore, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, D.C., NYC and Boston. From my first experiences as a kid riding the El from Everett to Boston Garden to see the circus right up to today for my daily commute on the Red Line, the MBTA has been a part of my life. I have known from reading the signs at Park Street that the MBTA Green Line was the first subway line in America. I had no idea how closely tied together were the stories of the construction of the NYC subways and the Boston subways. So I was thrilled when I learned about "The Race Underground: Boston, York and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway."  This fascinating new book tells those parallel stories in a way that brings the history to light and to life.

Two brothers from the powerful Whitney family each played a role in creating what have become Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority. These two brothers  - Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York City - were at the centers of the beehives of political intrigue, financial manipulations, real estate deals and engineering innovations in a desperate attempt to help their respective cities solve the problem of street traffic that threatened to strangle both metropolises.

This true story of rivalry and cooperation reads like a Gothic novel, and is peopled with familiar figures like Thomas Edison, Boss Tweed, Grover Cleveland and Frederick Law Olmstead. The author, Doug Most, digs deep into a large storehouse of primary documents to get to the real story and subplots of how both systems came to be built. Along the way, he pays tribute to the many figures - political leaders, inventors, engineers, financiers, and sand hogs - who moved heaven and earth to turn the impossible into the possible, and to create the transportation systems that are part of the daily lives of millions of citizens.

When I ride these two subway systems now - as I do each month - I will have a much "deeper" appreciation for what it took to create them and of what it takes to keep them running safely and securely. 



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