Sunday, January 24, 2010

Underneath Brooklyn

"Wherever the entrances are, they are kept secret. There are men who know the mysteries of the old subway. But no one is willing to lead the way within it." ~
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday July 23, 1911

Well, one man knows all the secrets and is willing to lead you down a manhole cover, through a dirt passage, and into the cavernous space of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Bob Diamond. Bob discovered the entrance to the tunnel in 1979, after being told by numerous "experts" of civil engineering, city history, and LIRR managers that it absolutely didn't exist. Of course it wasn't supposed to exist. But that's a longer story...

In 1844 the LIRR put train tracks down the center of Atlantic Avenue to connect goods arriving by steamship at the Red Hook ferry terminal to a railway system that was to extend to Boston. But at that time trains didn't have breaks and the manual system for slowing a train down meant you needed great distances to stop a train. When the train kept hitting people, a public outcry ensued to move the train underground. Of course, a train had never been put underground in the US. The Brooklyn Common Council met and decreed, "The right of the public is not confined to its mere surface. The land itself may be dug and fashioned so as to be made the most subservient to their accommodation." Brooklyn Daily Eagle March 7 1844 Geez....what we take for granted today!

So in came the sand hogs and masons to construct what became a 21 ft wide, 17 ft high barrel vault tunnel out of Manhattan bedrock and brick layed with Portland cement to extend from Court Street to Hicks Street. And steam driven locomotives of the LIRR moved underground in 1845 in the first instance of an NYC subway.

As early as 1847, usage of the tunnel had dropped considerably. "From mid 1845 through early 1847, the LIRR fell victim to Wall Street stock manipulations with it's attendant fare wars, unforeseen competition from its “partner” the N&W [another railroad company] acting with its former board member Vanderbilt, some possibly bad decisions by its board of directors, and last but not least, the seizure of it's one remaining steamboat [used in parts of their routes]." Bob Diamond

In 1859, the tunnel was ordered to be filled-in. However the contractor hired Electus Litchfield, who took the $130,000 and instead only filled-in the ends of the tunnel, closed the air holes to the street, and had a document signed that the whole job was done (with none the wiser). Guess sometimes a half-assed work ethic pays off.

And that's when the tunnel became legend. The tunnel was thought to be gone, but stories abounded about pirates, bootleggers, dead bodies, gangs, and spies. Of course, the best story is that John Wilkes Booth buried his diary identifying who hired him to assassinate President Lincoln behind a wall in a black tin box. Bob Diamond heard about this story on the radio, and so began his search for the legendary tunnel.

Bob's stories are remarkable, amusing, and full of surprising twists and turns. His knowledge of railroad development, New York politics, and social history is astounding. For 120 years, people have remained skeptical about the existence of the tunnel, even right up to the minutes before it's discovery. With the manhole open, and a gas company employee arising from it shaking his head, declaring there only to be a pile of dirt below, Bob had to say, "can I take a look?" His tenaciousness paid off. Once descended into the ground, he found a small hole in the dirt that he crawled through, where he discovered another dirt wall. With the assurance of certainty of the tunnel's existence, he began to dig....and dig....and came to the sealed off opening to the tunnel. Eureka.

I'm looking forward to the forthcoming documentary called "What's Behind the Wall." Archeologists are currently excavating the remaining closed off section of the tunnel. There are also hopes to revitalize plans dropped in 2000 "to rescue this tunnel and reconnect it to the waterfront" with historic trolly cars. This is a marvelous piece of New York's history that needs to be preserved and brought to light. Help the cause....go on the tour! More pictures here.

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