26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
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. 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 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.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
In my twenties, I often rode the Boston subway from Arlington station to Park Street without having any idea that this short run was the first section of electric powered subway to be opened anywhere in the world. In The Race Underground, Doug Most tells this story as part of a compelling portrait of two great Gilded Age cities struggling to progress from a pre-industrial transportation system to a world powered by a newly harnessed source of energy.
New York and Boston experienced explosive growth in the 19th century. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York was transformed into a hub for American imports and exports. Population grew from a pre-Canal level of 170,000 to 1.2 million by 1880. New York and Boston were the first and fourth largest American cities at the time and each grew daily as immigrants flooded into their environs. Unfortunately, transportation infrastructure changed little as this growth occurred. Horse-pulled streetcars had served for 50 years but "slowly began to cripple two great American cities."
The New York Tribune argued that a traveler could journey halfway to Philadelphia in less time than he could traverse the length of Broadway. American Architect and Building News characterized Boston's sidewalks as "jammed to suffocation." In addition to the crowding was the stench from piles of manure which could include as much as 50 pounds a day for each of the thousands of horses in both cities. "Urban transport," argues Most,"had become the single biggest civic headache. Traffic was an outright obsession of newspapers and their readers." And the only direction to look to ease the congestion was Down.
The Race Underground focuses most fully on how each city developed the public will to confront this problem. London's first subway had opened as far back as 1863. New York and Boston were not ready to follow this lead, however, wrestling as much with financial and political questions concerning transportation as with engineering issues. The author follows New York's flirtation with pneumatic and steam technologies before it finally passed the Rapid Transit Act of 1891. Even then, little progress occurred and a second Act had to be adopted in 1894. By that time, Boston had passed a referendum by a narrow vote of 15,548 to 14,209 to "construct and maintain one or more tunnels" in the city. The plan was for the city to build 1.8 miles of subway tunnels at a cost of five million dollars to be leased to a private company to operate.
The high point of The Race Underground is Most's description of the historic build in Boston. Powered by Frank Sprague's track, meters and overhead wire inventions and made attractive to users with station lighting developed by Edison, eleven Boston contractors employed a Cut and Cover construction process. Rather than boring up to 200 feet under the ground as in London, Boston engineers dug trenches 50 feet deep, installed tracks and lighting, sealed water out and covered the tunnel. In less than 3 years and at a cost of four million dollars, the first electric subway in the world was opened from Arlington Street station to the Park Street Church. On the morning of September 1, 1897, the streets were deserted as all transportation took place underground and the Boston Globe headlined: "First Car off the Earth" in a special edition.
The Race Underground is another in a list of outstanding books that have detailed transportation revolutions in the Industrial Age. While not as comprehensive as McCullough's histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal or Ambrose's account of the Transcontinental Railroad, Most's tale is a fast-paced, entertaining story of two cities overcoming cumbersome political processes to confront challenging, but ultimately solvable, problems. There isn't really much of a New York-Boston rivalry here and little evidence of a real competition between the cities to complete construction. The real challenge, then as now, as shown by Most, was in how to marshall public will to identify and confront obstacles to prosperity. In doing this, the author has written a rousing history that can also serve as a lesson to an era in which such public will is sorely lacking.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Mr. Most had a very interesting story to tell, and if you could plow through the structural problems, it gave great insights into some of the most interesting engineering battles and accomplishments of the mid to late 1900s.
But, his convoluted paragraphs made it very difficult to follow the story. He delights in setting up an event in the first sentence, moving 400 miles away to the middle of another event, coming back to the first and then instead of concluding, jumping to an event in the past or one still to come. Finally, he completes the first sentence, perhaps only then identifying the main actor.
I just couldn't keep jumping around, even though I spent over a month taking it in 15 minute increments. Finally, I gave up after three quarters of the book -- since I have written on both systems, I know for a fact that they were completed.
Had Mr. Most just alternated the stories of the two cities, chapter by chapter, the structure would have been much more understandable and would have done justice to a marvelous engineering achievement.
Robert C. Ross
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Mr. Most has written an apparently well researched study on an interesting topic, the building of the U.S.'s first subway. The Race Underground is subtitled "the incredible rivalry that built America's first subway", with the blurb stating "A Great American Saga--two rival cities, two brothers, both with plans to build a subway underground. Who will be first?" From these, the reader is naturally led to expect a tale of tension and excitement as the brothers race to build the very first American subway.
I must first confess that my preference* is for the newer trend of presenting scholarly works in a livelier, more pleasant to read, manner. (Eric Larson, Thomas Cahill and Debra Hamill, for example.) Based on the book information, I did expect The Race Underground to fall into this category and to be a captivating history of these brothers and their saga.
To my disappointment, Mr. Most presented his topic in a more conservative style, presenting facts without as much of a "story" as the blurb indicated, at time digressing unnecessarily, and in general not living up to the title of "race" or "incredible rivalry". Therefore, while I did find the subject itself interesting, I found the actual book to be a somewhat laborious read.
* To forestall any comments, I will note that this preference is that of personal taste and not due to lack of education or to an ignorance of historical subjects; I do hold a B.A. in history, though not in this particular time period.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2014
When reading Theodore Dreiser's "The Financier", "The Titan" and "The Stoic", I enjoyed the parts pertaining to the maneuvering around streetcar contracts (based on Charles Yerkes). "The Race Underground" gave me more of this maneuverings, this time for the subways of Boston and New York. I'm not sure about the "incredible rivalry" that the title suggests, but even as a lifelong New Yorker I learned much about my own city's transportation history, as well as that of Boston. It seems incredible that entire systems were built in such a short amount of time, over a century ago. Today it can take a generation or more to build a single line (Second Avenue, anyone?).
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
I fell in love with the T in 1979, on my first trip to Boston, and it’s always irritated me that I’ve never been able to find a history of the Boston subway system, the first in the United States. So happy this was offered!
The book’s promos seem a bit misleading: “Two Rival Cities, Two Brothers, Both With Plans to Build A Subway Underground. Who Will Be First?” (By the way, who would build a subway aboveground?) It seems to be playing up a rivalry between the two brothers, Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, but that didn’t seem to exist. The rivalry between the two CITIES, however, was quite real: both Boston and New York were determined to host the first underground transportation system. Traffic, like traffic today, was glacially slow, irritating, and clamorous, and made even worse by use of the horse, who deposited pounds of manure and quarts of urine each day (this fact is brought up regularly as the chapters progress, as if the author fears we will forget it). Horsecars were filthy inside and out, and there were dozens of different companies running transportation through the city streets. People wanted better transportation, but first they had to get over prejudices–most were afraid to walk to any transportation underground “where the Devil lived” and expected it to be dark and dank–and find a better propulsion fuel than coal, which filled the existing London “underground” with choking smoke.
Most takes us back to the first subway construction attempts in New York City, Alfred Beach’s pneumatic railway, which was blocked by “Boss” Tweed, who had money in the elevated system, and to the architects of both systems, who fear they may have to use coal, but really wish to use the cleaner invention of the time, electricity, which at first does not have the power to propel both cars and passengers. This is followed by the endless political wrangling in both cities, Boston’s eventual decision to build a subway using the cut-and-cover method, and the drama of that construction. The resulting, initial subway route was less than two miles, but did what it was intended to do: reduce traffic on city streets.
Most follows the personalities of each of the people involved: the two Whitney brothers, so disparate in their personalities; the inventors and engineers who devised the systems; the greedy ward bosses; the common laborers who worked on the construction; the ordinary people affected by the weather, the bad transportation, the social mores, the economic turns. There’s bid finagling, gas leaks and one explosion, protests from those who preferred an elevated system, and other drama.
I’ve been reading advanced reading copies for some time now, and know you should ignore the typos, but this volume has the most I’ve ever seen in an ARC, especially proper nouns without capital letters and missing spaces between words. I’ve no doubt they will be cleared up before publication, but I hope the mistakes are corrected along with them! On page 17, in a paragraph describing how horses are unnerved by traffic, the author oddly describes the nervous animals who “sometimes raised up their front legs.” Horses do have to “raise up their front legs” to walk! Does he perhaps mean “rearing,” in which the horse raises up the front part of its whole BODY? At the beginning of chapter three, the Whitney family of 1635 board a wooden sailing ship in England and arrive in Massachusetts “eight days later.” Maybe in 1935, but not in 1635! Could the voyage have taken eight WEEKS? There’s another howler a little further along in the book, but I neglected to bookmark it and now can’t remember what it was, but suffice it to say that I blinked and said “No, no.”
This criticism may lead you to believe that I hated this book, but I didn’t; it is filled with detail about the people and the events–there’s a harrowing description of a little boy sent out on an errand at the height of the Blizzard of 1888, for example–and despite the typos and errors it was quite enjoyable. However, small errors like these make you wonder if some of the larger facts are also inaccurate. Mr. Most is a heck of a storyteller, and at his best when he’s talking about the everyday life of the 19th century protagonists, but I’m not sure how seriously to take some of his facts.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Having grown up in New York (and being a self-proclaimed “subway rat,”) I was looking forward to reading Doug Most’s “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Build America’s First Subway.”
With “The Race Underground” Most provides a well-researched an detailed history of the creation of the two rapid transit systems, intertwining the personalities of the day (including Boss Tweed, Thomas Edison, and the Whitney Brothers: Henry, of Boston, and William, of New York, who were both instrumental in launching the construction projects) and the drama, politics, and human loss it takes to create such massive transportation systems (14 died during the construction of the Boston subway, including 10 who were killed during a gas explosion).
Most provides lots of detail and covers a lot of years in this book, describing the events that led up to leaders of both cities realizing an underground transit system was needed to relieve overcrowding and the spur on growth away from downtown areas. The Whitney brothers were key characters but others played big roles in getting the big projects underway, and although the history leading up to actual construction is comprehensive the author makes it accessible and easy to read.
For me the book really gets interesting at the halfway point, with the actual construction of the two systems: Boston’s system opened in 1897 and New York’s in 1904. It is very interesting to read about construction methods used (Boston was first and used the “cut and cover” method, which was also used in New York), Boston’s efforts to make the tunnels as bright and accessible as possible, to quell fears many had about riding in an underground tunnel, route planning through the Boston Commons area and downtown New York), and the challenges of blasting through New York’s bedrock and digging a system that led to growth in “suburban” Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
I read an advance readers’ edition of “The Race Underground,” and this version did not have any illustrations, photos, or maps. I am not sure if the regular edition will include illustrations and photos, but they would have added to the reading experience, especially for readers who have never used the New York or Boston rapid transit systems or visited the cities.
I enjoyed “The Race Underground” and would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys urban history. Although detailed in parts, in many respects “The Race Underground” reads like a good novel about the creation of two subway systems that have and will continue to be essential to the way of life for millions of people in those two cities.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2014
It is hard to grasp the daring, creative men of the mid to late 19th century when we are living today with what we perceive to be the greatest, most creative entrepreneurs who ever lived. After all look at the computer, the cell phone, the ipod all miracles created by the great thinkers and dreamers of our day.
Well if you read “The Race Underground” by Doug Most you will find amazing men who were equally important dreamers and thinkers for the late 19th century. It is a fascinating story filled with adventure, daring and people who refused to give up often in the face of ridiculous odds. Then when you realize that what they left to us is still used today over 100 years since the subways were built in Boston and New York City you see an enduring contribution they made to the daily lives of people who live in cities.
The writing is historic and yet personal. One gets to know many of the people on a human level rather then just the facts of what they accomplished. Do yourself a favor and read this book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2014
I enjoyed reading this book, but it was not on the level of some of the great non-fiction books that have been released. The history was interesting to me, but I felt it jumped around a little bit too much and it seemingly tried too much to tie the fortunes of Boston and New York together when they really weren't. By attempting to tie them together, it jumped from one city to the other in different chapters / sections and I am not sure it worked as a literary device for me. The information was great and it was a good, solid read. It just wasn't a special, have to read book for me to tell people about.(less)
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2014
I have always been interested in the subway in Boston, the first in the nation, and so this book was something I actually snapped up eagerly. And the book didn't disappoint at first. It was filled with the history, the people, the technology, the scientists. But it fails on many, many levels. There is no sense of perspective presented. The period in question was one of the greatest upheavals in US history yet no sense of the subway's place in history is provided. In Boston, the biggest engineering project in America is underway - the filling of the Back Bay, yet it is never mentioned once. Medical history is being made with the discovery of germ theory and antisepsis: no mention. In New York the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge are given passing notice. The assassination of a US President and the shooting of another is a footnote. The economic collapse of America and the personalities involved is mentioned over and over with no details as if it were some kind of secret. In addition, much of the book reads like a bunch of newspaper articles strung together as opposed to actual narrative. Where was the editor? On vacation? This is a book that is in dire need of continuity editing. For various reasons, the book jumps back and forth, sometimes decades at a time. If you miss the passing reference to the dates, you lose alot of context and it becomes confusing. Also, although the author takes great pains to separate the characters, many of whom have the same name, he does not succeed as well as he might have simply by repeating "In Boston..." or "In New York...". It makes following the story sometimes confusing. When he does get to the climax of the stories, the running of the trains, the writing is good, sharp and interesting, but the passages where this happens are rare. The book is generally good, but it can be tedious. It starts out sharp and fast, declines in the middle and picks up in the end, and while the author makes a weak attempt to provide some info about what happens to the major players after the subways are complete, he botches that job miserably. Also, the author misses no opportunity to plug the "Boston Globe" because he worked there, but he never mentions that the "Globe" was the advertising arm of Jordan Marsh department store and that it was considered the worst rag in the city for a long, long time. He gives it a credibility it does not deserve for the period. The book is pretty good all things considered, but for people who know a little about the period and the players, it's seriously flawed.