‘The Race Underground’ documentary to air January 31 on PBS

Posted on 01/6/17

c1vtnikxgaesy1lOK, set your DVR if you’d like. Tuesday evening, January 31, at 9 p.m., WGBH TV will air the documentary “The Race Underground” based off of my book of the same title. Yes, I’m excited. It’s hard to believe, but this project I undertook is now stretching into its 7th year! Geez.

It started with an idea for a book. Then a year writing a book proposal and selling it to St. Martin’s Press. Then two years writing the book, which came out in February 2014 to positive reviews. Then the paperback came out in 2015. And now the documentary. The Matt Damon movie, well, still waiting on that one!

I’ve seen the film, which is almost an hour long, and it’s remarkable (if they finish a trailer for it, I’ll be sure and post that, as well). It was produced by Michael Rossi, a North Shore filmmaker as I’ve written here before, and he pulled together half a dozen great interviews, myself included, as well some incredible new research and graphics, to weave a great story. It doesn’t tell the story of the whole book about the rush to build America’s first subway between Boston and New York, but rather he zooms in on one of my favorite characters, the unsung hero Frank Sprague.

So the first showing will air January 31, but if you miss it, or forget to record it, don’t worry, there are plenty more times. Here is the entire PBS schedule of airings.

Wed. Feb 1 at 5:00 AM WGBH 2
Sun. Feb 5 at 12:30 AM WGBH 2
Sun. Feb 5 at 3:00 PM WGBH 2
Wed. Feb 1 at 2:00 AM WGBX 44
Wed. Feb 1 at 1:00 PM WGBX 44
Thu. Feb 2 at 4:00 AM WGBX 44
Fri. Feb 3 at 3:00 AM WGBX 44
Sat. Feb 4 at 2:00 PM WGBX 44
Sat. Feb 4 at 9:00 PM WGBX 44
Fri. Feb 3 at 8:00 PM WGBH WORLD
Sat. Feb 4 at 1:00 AM WGBH WORLD
Sat. Feb 4 at 9:00 AM WGBH WORLD
Sat. Feb 4 at 3:00 PM WGBH WORLD


The film aired in early November during HubWeek at the Globe Docs Film Festival, and we had a fun evening with a panel talking about the film and the broader story (here is a photo from that night). ctun8wewyaagcx8

And finally, here is the summary of the documentary from “American Experience.”:

In the late 1800s, Boston reigned as America’s most crowded city, with nearly 400,000 people packed into a downtown of less than one square mile. With more than 8,000 horses pulling the trolleys, the city was filthy and noisy, reeking of manure and packed with humanity.

But a young American inventor named Frank Sprague had a revolutionary idea. Inspired by his visits to the London Underground, Sprague envisioned a subway system that would trade London’s soot-spewing coal-powered steam engine with a motor run on the latest technology — electricity. After an early job with his idol Thomas Edison, Sprague launched his own venture, the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company. Seeking investors, he first struck out with financier Jay Gould after almost setting the mogul on fire during a demonstration. He soon found backing with the wealthy capitalist Henry Whitney, who owned a fortune in suburban Boston real estate and quickly saw the financial upside of connecting his desirable residential neighborhoods with the city’s economic center. Whitney also proposed the consolidation of Boston’s seven existing streetcar companies — all under his control. When the Massachusetts General Court granted Whitney the monopoly, he announced an unprecedented plan – to build the nation’s first subway. Powered by Sprague’s technology and enthusiastically supported by Boston Mayor Nathan Matthews, the project threw the city into a voluble debate.

”The Boston subway was not a foregone conclusion, not by a long shot. There was a petition at one point where 12,000 businessmen opposed the subway,” says historian Stephen Puleo. ”There were going to be streets torn up, sewer systems affected, water lines affected, electrical lines affected. Secondly, folks felt like traveling underground was very close to the netherworld, that you were getting closer to the devil, that you were taking this great risk in God’s eyes by traveling on a subway.”

The debate raged on, but the Mayor finally convinced the city that the new subway would provide much-needed jobs and not infringe on the city’s beloved Boston Common. After two years of construction, Boston’s new subway made its first trip on September 1, 1897. Despite lingering fears, more than 250,000 Bostonians rode the underground rails on its first day. In its first year of operation, 50 million passengers would ride the Boston system, and within ten years, New York and Philadelphia opened subways, with more American cities to follow.

”Frank Sprague lived in the shadow of Edison but played as important a role in the development and growth of cities as any person in our history,” said author Doug Most. ”His motor is one of the most important contributions, right there alongside Henry Ford’s vehicle and the Wright Brothers’ plane, as one of the most important engineering achievements of our time.”

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PBS/American Experience documentary ‘The Race Underground’ has first screening, October 1

Posted on 09/6/16

yawkeyTheater1I haven’t had too much to update on Michael Rossi‘s documentary “The Race Underground,” coming from PBS and American Experience, but now I do. The first screening of the documentary is happening Saturday evening, October 1, at 7 p.m., as part of the GlobeDocs Documentary Film Festival.

I’ve seen a rough cut of the film, but not the final version yet. What I saw, I loved, and Michael did an incredible research job on top of my own for the book. The movie focuses on the Boston subway, and is less about New York’s, which makes for a tighter, more focused storytelling experience.

GlobeDocs is an incredible collection of documentaries from around the country, so it’s an honor to have “The Race Underground” included. The event is free, but you still need to reserve tickets, which you can do by clicking here. It’s being shown at the beautiful WGBH Yawkey Studio (photo above), directions here. As with everything I’ve posted about “The Race Underground,” thanks for sharing the news, and thanks so much for all your support.

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Transportation Trivia Contest: Subways, ‘The Race Underground’ and the West End Museum

Posted on 08/16/16

immigrants-184x300So this is sorta cool. The West End Museum, which describes itself as “a neighborhood museum dedicated to the collection, preservation and interpretation of the history and culture of the West End of Boston,” is doing an event with me in September (Sept. 14 at 6:30 to be precise). It makes perfect sense because the first subway in America, Boston’s, was the result of a company created by Henry Whitney called the West End Street Railway Company. And Whitney is a key figure, of course in my book, “The Race Underground.” TheRaceUnderground

In advance of this event, we’ve put together a fun trivia contest. The link is here, go play!

And all the details on the event can be found by clicking here.

By the way, if you know Back  Bay, Beacon Hill, the South End, the North End, but you have no idea where the West End is or what the West End is, you should know! It’s a huge part of Boston’s history. Here is a description, from the museum:

The history of the West End is one of a largely immigrant neighborhood displaced or destroyed by ‘Urban Renewal‘ in a campaign that saw a third of Boston’s downtown demolished between 1958 and 1960, but it’s also the history of a diverse community that produced several influential people, boasted a unique culture and included many places of historical significance. 

Among the few famous Bostonians to come out of the West End include Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Sumner Redstone, and Charles Bulfinch.

This map outlines the West End’s boundaries.

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Why Squire Vickers (who?!) shaped New Yorkers’ lives as much as anyone

Posted on 06/30/16

9779816When you think of the biggest names who influenced life in New York City, names like LaGuardia, Rockefeller, Parsons, Belmont, Moses are usually among the first mentioned. Squire Vickers (an old shoot of him at right) is not on that list. But as a great story in the New York Daily News shows, he should be.

Here is how staff writer Keri Blakinger explains it nicely:

You’ve probably never heard of him, but an eccentric man from Rockland County is one of the people most responsible for the look and feel of the New York City subway system.

Squire Vickers, the system’s chief architect for more than three decades, oversaw the design of more stations than any other individual — and he left his stamp on the system, with signature tile station plaques and a distinct Arts and Crafts design that permeates the system to this day.

Essentially he oversaw the design of hundreds of the stations that were part of the system designed by another famous New Yorker, William Barclay Parsons, whose name is now familiar through the engineering firm he founded, Parsons Brinckerhoff, which designed, among many projects, the Cape Cod Canal and the Panama Canal. Parsons deserves the credit for designing the subway system, and even details like where to put the doors on the subway cars, but the little-known Vickers played a huge role in the layout and design of the stations passengers walk through. And those iconic plaques that instantly identify New York’s subway as unique.




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Greatest Subway Moments in Movie History

Posted on 02/25/16

This is pretty cool. New York Magazine’s Vulture website has compiled 20 great moments from the movies that take place on New York’s subways. Here is the link. I will save this list for when my book comes out as a PBS “American Experience” documentary, which is getting closer and more exciting.

Quick thoughts on Vulture’s list: Glad to see Pelham 123 high on the list, great movie, great subway scenes, a natural for a list like this. But since Vulture focuses only on New York subway scenes, I immediately thought of non-New York subway scenes. Here are a few classics.

The Fugitive fight scene with Harrison Ford.

I can’t find a clip from this, but the scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon rides the Red Line over the Longfellow Bridge. This scene is famous because it’s been cited as a gaffe, because the camera angles are not possible from the direction of the train. But still a memorable scene for Bostonians.

good-will-hunting-favorite-scene-1 2



Another great movie scene in a subway that became famous for not being accurate is No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner as a double agent in Washington, D.C.  The scene essentially made up subway stations in the Georgetown neighborhood, which anybody who lives in DC knows do not exist.



Back to New York, however, and one of the scenes Vulture lists definitely goes down as one of the spookier ones I remember watching. It’s from Ghost. Remember this?



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