Wednesday, November 18

Secret Subway

The Fascinating Tales of an Amazing Feat of Engineering
by Martin W. Sandler
National Geographic 2009

This is the odd tale of a man named Alfred Ely Beach and his plan to construct the first underground transit system in New York City in the late 1800's. Well illustrated and explained, curious readers will be treated to a world full of secret digging, corrupt politicians, unwieldy inventions, and a city on the verge of collapse due to excessive crowding and manure covered streets. Nothing at all like modern times.

Beach's plan for a pneumatic tubeway is presented in great, twisty detail as he sorts out problems keeping his project secret and dealing with the corrupt Boss Tweed of the Tammany Hall political machine. Sandler presents up all the key players nicely and sets the stage for the demonstration of the city's first subway, then follows through with the political pressure that put a halt to construction of a larger system and the eventual Renaissance of the much improved system still in place today.

Although it makes a briefest attempts to set the New York subway system within the context of other subways in Europe, I think I would have liked some comparisons with other mass transit problems and solutions. The elevated trains that sprouted up before the subways are shown negatively, yet they also appeared in other cities around he same time, suggesting that ideas about mass transit weren't isolated to one particular city. Chicago and Boston, for example, managed to have their mass transit in place before New York, but there is no mention of either of these systems or how any of them influenced each other.

Also, as far as the subtitle's hyperbole, while the tale is fascinating, the engineering doesn't really come off as being particularly amazing. For a book that better lays out how a subway is engineered Joe McKendry's Beneath the Streets of Boston: Building America's First Subway is probably the way to go.

When it comes to non-fiction for kids I like to walk away feeling like I learned something, even if I'm already familiar with the topic. It's a shame of my education that I learned more about Boss Tweed than I remember learning in my AP US History class back in the day. Of course, the fault here could be in my study habits, but I have a much better picture of the political fixer now than I did before.
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