If you think about the best history stories you’ve seen told on television over the years (“The Rise and Fall of Penn Station,” “Surviving the Dust Bowl,” “Seabiscuit”, “Grand Central”) chances are you saw them on “American Experience.”
It’s the longest running, most-watched, and most decorated history series on TV for good reason, which is why it’s such a huge thrill to share the news that “American Experience” will be making a documentary program out of “The Race Underground.” It’s such a perfect match for audiences who love a rich, narrative tale about our country’s history.
I could write a nice summary of all the praise “American Experience” has received, but why bother when they do it so nicely on their site:
Television’s most-watched history series, American Experience has been hailed as “peerless” (Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune), and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, American Experience documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 14 George Foster Peabody Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and 30 Emmy Awards, including, most recently, Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking for Freedom Riders.
When Mark Samels, the executive producer of “American Experience,” told me a few months ago they wanted to make my book into a documentary, I had to stop and think about it, for a solid, oh, 15 seconds. Then all it took was finalizing the contract, which is now done, thanks to my agent Lane Zachary.
There are so many angles to the story that are both visually arresting and dramatic in nature, from Alfred Beach’s secret subway to the story of the Whitney brothers to the Blizzard of 1888 to a critical experiment in Richmond, Virginia, to the inaugural ride on America’s first subway under the streets of Boston on September 1, 1897, to New York’s subway debut seven years later, in 1904. I have no idea how this project will unfold on screen yet, but I do know it will be an adventure for me, too.
Way back when we were finalizing the cover of the book, I was fortunate enough to get a copy to the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has enjoyed a long relationship with WGBH. He “blurbed” my book with some powerful words: Our subways are the vital lifelines of our greatest cities. They are also symbols of our indebtedness to earlier generations who through innovation and perseverance took us from horse-powered transportation to subterranean rail. Doug Most’s The Race Underground is a fascinating account of how New York and Boston tunneled their way into the future. This book proves again that American history is a treasure trove of great stories, this one filled with drama, sacrifice, loss and unimaginable success.
I’m thrilled that at least some of the story will now be told in a different format, on screen, and I’ll share more details as I learn them. As always, thanks for everyone’s support through this! It’s made it all the more worthwhile.
Here is the official press release that went out:
American Experience Options Documentary Rights to Acclaimed Non-Fiction Book
The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway
(BOSTON, MA) JANUARY 30, 2015 — American Experience announced today that it has optioned the documentary rights to Doug Most’s acclaimed non-fiction book The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway. Published by St. Martin’s Press in February 2014, The Race Underground was called “a sweeping narrative of late 19th-century intrigue,” by Sam Roberts in The New York Times, and “a story of blizzards and fires, gas explosions and dynamite blasts, of trenches torturously dug, of sewer and water pipes rerouted and cemeteries excavated, of political infighting, of turnstiles and ticket-taking, of ingenious solutions to staggering problems” byKirkus Reviews, which also selected it as a Best Non-Fiction Book of 2014. Available in trade paperback edition in February 2015, The Race Underground features some of the most famous men of the age, including William Steinway, Boss Tweed, and Thomas Edison, and tells the story of how two great rival cities—spurred on by two rival brothers—battled through dirty politics, solved engineering challenges, and ultimately built America’s first two subways, epic projects completed just a few years apart.
“Doug has done an incredible job of telling the story of a dynamic and transformative moment in American history through the lens of two competing brothers and cities,” saysAmerican Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels. “That intimate approach to illustrating the events of our past is right in line with the storytelling that viewers have come to expect from American Experience.”
Doug Most is the deputy managing editor for special sections at The Boston Globe. Prior to his current position, he was the Globe’s features editor and Sunday magazine editor, and before that, a senior editor at Boston magazine. He started his career as a reporter for theRock Hill, SC Herald, and later worked for the Daily Record in Morristown, NJ, and The Record in Hackensack, NJ. While working at The Record, he covered a crime case involving two suburban teenagers which ultimately became his first book: Always in Our Hearts: The Story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, the Pregnancy They Hid, and the Baby They Killed. Most, who has written for a number of national magazines, had two features chosen for Best American Crime Writing, and a feature he wrote for Sports Illustrated appeared inThe Best American Sports Writing anthology.
About American Experience
Television’s most-watched history series, American Experience celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2013. The series has been hailed as “peerless” (The Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune), and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, American Experience documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including thirty Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and sixteen George Foster Peabody Awards, one most recently for the series represented by Freedom Riders, Triangle Fire, and Stonewall Uprising.
Exclusive corporate funding for American Experience is provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance. Major funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Television Viewers. American Experience is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.
About ST. MARTIN’S PRESS
St. Martin’s Press is a part of Macmillan Publishers, a global trade book publishing company with prominent imprints around the world. Macmillan publishes a broad range of award-winning books for children and adults in all categories and formats.
U.S. publishers include Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Flatiron Books, Henry Holt & Company, Macmillan Audio, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, Picador, St. Martin’s Press, and Tor Books. In the U.K.,Australia, India, and South Africa, Macmillan publishes under the Pan Macmillan name. The German company, Holtzbrinck Deutsche Buchverlage, includes among its imprints, S. Fischer, Kiepenheuer and Witsch, Rowohlt, and Droemer Knaur.
Macmillan Publishers is a division of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, a large family-owned media company headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. www.macmillan.comRead More »
On the bottom of page 13 of The New York Times on Friday, March 9, 1888, there was a brief news item. The headline said: “A blizzard in Minnesota,” and it described a heavy storm moving east, crippling trains along the way. New Yorkers would have had no reason to be alarmed. It was the end of a mild winter, and there was no indication of trouble looming for them.
“The Blizzard That Changed Everything” is how I titled Chapter 5 in my book, “The Race Underground,” which tells you just how much trouble was about to unfold. The other reason I devote an entire chapter to the Blizzard of 1888 is that it was a pivotal moment in U.S. transit history. Before the blizzard, cities relied on horse-pulled carriages, cable cars and elevated tracks to move their residents. The Blizzard of 1888 forced city officials to acknowledge that they needed to embrace the idea of subways, once and for all, because subways would not be crippled by snow and ice. (The only subway in the world at that point was in London, which opened the Underground in 1863, but by the late 1890s subways would be operating in Boston, Paris, Budapest, Glasgow, Berlin, and a few years later New York.)
As the weekend of March 10, 1888, neared, a department store in New York City, E Ridley and Sons, made the curious decision to buy $1,200 worth of snow shovels, 3,000 of them, not for the current winter, but for the following winter. Stocking up, John Meisinger explained at the time, just planning ahead. A newspaper mocked him, calling him “Snow Shovel John.” Well, “Snow Shovel John” would have the last laugh.
Saturday March 10 was a beautiful spring day up and down the east coast. President Cleveland and his young wife left town for a vacation weekend. Rowers enjoyed the calm waters of the Connecticut River. Crocuses prematurely started to bud. And army sergeant Francis Long looked out his window from the New York City Weather Station and saw a parade of people celebrating the arrival of the Barnum and Bailey Circus on the streets below.
Then things turned.
A gentle soft rain late Saturday evolved into a whistling wind and sleet storm. The National Weather Service office closed Saturday night and would not reopen till Monday, a critical 17 hour period that would prove devastating. By Sunday morning the east coast was getting soaked, temperatures were dropping and even a local priest had a bad feeling. “It was as if the unholy one himself was riding in those clouds,” he told his New Jersey parishioners.
By late Sunday it was snowing and it wouldn’t stop for almost an entire week. Measuring how many feet fell was almost impossible. Estimates ranged from 4 feet to 20 feet. The same was true with the fatality total. Some estimated that 400 people died in the Blizzard of 1888, but it’s more likely the storm caused more than 1,000 deaths, because so many people became ill with pneumonia, frostbite and other ailments from the catastrophe and died weeks or months later. Their deaths may never have been blamed on the original cause.
My favorite anecdote from the chapter on the blizzard is this one:
At the New York Infant Asylum north of the city in Westchester County, four hundred children between teh ages of two weeks and six years old, along with 200 unwed pregnant women, normally went through about 800 cans of milk a day, supplied by a nearby dairy. With local roads closed, the blizzard cut them off from the dairy, and without their milk for a week or more, they could have been at risk. But a few days before the storm hit, instead of the typical order of 12 dozen cans of Borden’s canned condensed milk, the asylum was left with 12 gross, or 1728 cans! The cans were for older children usually, but now the infants had to drink them, too, and that concerned the physician in charge, Dr. Charles Gilmore Kerley. Cautiously, the staff diluted the condensed milk with barey water to see if the infants could tolerate it. Not only did they like it, but the babies who had been struggling to gain weight suddenly started to fill out. Because of a simple paperwork error, and one forced experiment, canned evaporated milk for infants, with Dr. Kerley’s urging for the next 50 years, went from being shunned to being embraced.
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