The story of Steinway: Why a trolley from Brooklyn to Queens would return New York transit to its roots

Posted on 02/17/16

Mr-SteinwayIt would be called the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX. And in his State of the City address, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for this 16-mile, $2.5-billion streetcar line that would run along the East River and connect Astoria, Queens, with Sunset Park in Brooklyn. (This story on the wonderful Awl website has the details.)

It immediately stirred up debate about whether that transit project, of all transit projects being discussed in New York City, is really the one that makes the most sense and would serve the most people.

I won’t get into that debate. But what’s undeniable is that a trolley to Queens would be a quaint reminder of where New York’s subway, which opened in 1897, has some of its roots laid. And those roots are in Queens. It’s one of my favorite stories in The Race Underground involving one of my favorite characters.

His birth name was Wilhelm Steinweg (that’s him above). He was born on March 5, 1835, the fourth of six children in a tiny German village called Seesen. The father of those children, Heinrich Steinweg, made pianos for a living and one day he dreamed of bringing all of his children into the family business. But when his third son, Charles, was at risk of going to war as Europe was awash in revolutions, Charles fled for New York, joined the piano-making industry there, and wrote home to his family that they should come, too, because the piano factories in the city were thriving.

And so they did. In the summer of 1850, the Steinweg family sailed into New York’s harbor, and not long after that the family name was anglicized into Steinway and a piano manufacturing behemoth was born. One of Charles’ brothers, William Steinway, helped the family grow its business with a manufacturing plant in Queens. It was William’s ability to juggle so many tasks, to disarm anyone he came in conflict with, and to convince politicians to give him what he wanted, that caught the attention of New York politicians in the late 1800s, as efforts ramped up to get a subway approved and built. William Steinway was named to head New York’s Rapid Transit Commission of 1891 and the next decade, his relationship with the brilliant engineer, William Barclay Parsons, and their efforts to bring New York a subway, became an enormous part of Steinway’s legacy.

And it all started in Queens. This is from the great Henry Z. Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian: A desire to remove employees from Manhattan’s teeming humanity, particularly organized labor and “the machinations of the anarchists and socialists,” inspired William to purchase 400 acres across the East River in a bucolic, sparsely-populated area of Astoria, New York. With space for much-needed expansion, William set about creating the company town of Steinway where the firm could cast its own piano frames and saw its own lumber. Steinway & Sons pianos are still manufactured at this location. William approached the development of Steinway with characteristic thoroughness, wading through rainy salt meadows in “great India rubber boots” inspecting property, overseeing street surveys, and assessing employee housing construction later advertised as “country homes with city comforts.” Diary entries reflect William’s pride in creating a company town where workers could own brick homes, drink fresh water, and stroll under shade trees on Steinway Avenue—still the main thoroughfare in this part of Queens. He donated land and built a public school, fire house, post office and churches to further his vision. A network of horse-car railroads, streetcars, trolleys, and ferries provided access to the settlement and brought in additional income. What would become North Beach Amusement Park offered “respectable people” an alternative to Coney Island and the chance to experience evening festivities illuminated by the novelty of electric lighting.

And finally, here is the Steinway family at their beautiful stone mansion in Astoria, Queens.

William Steinway and family at Steinway Mansion, 1881. Original photographer unknown, Astoria, New York. Richard Ranft Sr., William Steinway, Paula Steinway von Bernuth as a girl, Elizabeth Ranft Steinway, and unknown.





So whether or not the BQX is the best move for New York may be debatable. But what’s undeniable is that a street trolley in Queens would have a certain karma for Gothamites, who owe a great deal of transit debt to a businessman who started in Queens.

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Is sleeping on the subway really so bad?

Posted on 02/16/16


It’s happened to all of us. You’re sitting on the subway, it’s the end of a long day, the vibrations of the tracks are surprisingly soothing, your eyes start to dim and finally, zzzzzzzzzzzzz. You’re out.

Is sleeping on the subway really so bad?

Apparently in New York City it is. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has vowed no more subway snoozing! Half the crimes on the subway, he reports, are committed on people sleeping. “Subways are not for sleeping,” Bratton said at a recent news conference. “I know people have gotten out of work and are tired but we are going to start waking people up.”

That might mean waking up a lot of people.

Check this out from the New Yorker piece titled: “Let us Sleep on the Subways!” Where once there were lonely cars at lonely times, now the subways seem as packed at four in the morning as at five in the afternoon. Saturdays and Sundays, where once one could always find a space on the sideways banquette of the E train, one finds it now as mobbed as at any weekday rush hour. This is no illusion or impression, either. The numbers are daunting. In 2014, around 1.75 billion—that’s right, billion—riders used the trains, the largest number since 1948. Much of the growth from the previous year was concentrated, unsurprisingly, in the rapidly growing neighborhoods of Brooklyn—or, to put it in plain English, in the unending tsunami of hipsters travelling to and from what were once quaintly called the outer boroughs. A generation has mastered the trains. Where it used to be impressive if a non-native New Yorker could work a transfer hookup involving much more than the Times Square shuttle, now newcomers talk easily of changing for the Q and hopping on the M and even of cruising out on the Z. A new world.

For those who demand to be left alone to their sweet subway dreams, there is clearly only one solution left: Demand your subway install one of these on every subway train! Sleeper cars for everyone!





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Boston’s Subway: From First to Worst!

Posted on 01/21/16

TrialRunOn September 1, 1897, America’s first subway opened in Boston, when a trolley disappeared underground at the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets and stopped at a station at the corner of Boylston and Tremont. (At left is a picture of a trial run the day before.)

On January 14, 2016, the Boston subway system recorded a very different milestone: The National Transit Database released data that showed the MBTA had 219 “major mechanical failures” in the year 2014. That’s the worst rate of breakdowns among all transit systems nationwide, and it’s four times the national average. Yikes.

The Red Sox went worst to first to worst in three seasons. What are the odds the MBTA climbs to first next year?

As reported in The Boston GlobeMBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo questioned the national figures, saying that “there is no uniform practice for reporting mechanical failures” to the National Transit Database. “What one rail service provider considers a failure, another one may not,” he said. He also said the agency would continue efforts to keep old trains and equipment from failing by either repairing or replacing them.

Also from the Globe:

The T’s light rail lines — the Green Line and Mattapan-Ashmont trolley — ranked third worst in terms of major mechanical system failures per train mile traveled among 23 light rail systems nationally, according to the 2014 National Transit Database, which is maintained by the Federal Transit Administration. The T’s heavy rail lines — the Red, Orange, and Blue — ranked as the sixth worst among 15 heavy rail systems nationally, the figures show. The commuter rail system ranked fifth worst among 24 commuter rail systems nationally in 2014, the latest year for which data was available.




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A Nice Award, a Great Honor, at the State House

Posted on 01/12/16








I was about to call for an Uber to take me downtown Tuesday when I looked at my watch and thought: Take the T. I was going to the State House to collect a nice award for “The Race Underground” from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, as one of its Non-Fiction Books of the Year (I was not the category’s big winner, that went to Elizabeth Kolbert for “Sixth Extinction).

So I walked up to the JFK/UMass station and took the Red Line to Park Street, which, of course, was the second station that the first subway in America stopped at on September 1, 1897, after first passing through the Boylston Street station. Park Street was also where a Boston Globe reporter stood in the early 1890s to count the street traffic as part of the subway debate. It was, needless to say, very congested. This is what I wrote about that moment:  A reporter for the Globe went out one afternoon, stood at the busy downtown corner of Park Street and Tremont Street in front of the towering, white Park Street Church and counted 303 streetcars passing by in a single hour, or five every minute.  A “mile an hour pace” is how the paper described the scene. 

Insert joke here about how much it’s changed now that those streetcars are underground.

That corner is also a historic spot for another reason. The same construction engineer, Solomon Willard, who built the Bunker Hill Monument oversaw the look of the Park Street Church in 1809. And it’s where “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was first sung in public and where William Lloyd Garrison spoke out against slavery for the first time.

Okay, history lesson over. Back to the awards.


It was a really terrific ceremony, in a beautiful part of the State House, what’s called Nurse’s Hall, beneath the golden dome. There were about 30 authors there, from categories like non-fiction, fiction, poetry, children’s and young adult. And all of us got certificates like these, really nice, signed by our legislators. And some of the local lawmakers even came and honored their local winners, like Sonia Chang-Diaz from Jamaica Plain (below, right). IMG_4240 IMG_4239






Below left was a fellow author I sat with and had a terrific chat with, Katherine Howe. She’s from Marblehead, and wrote what sounds like a terrific young adult novel called “Conversion,” about a present-day North Shore private school and a mysterious illness that brings back memories of Salem and witches. Katherine and I took the pictures of each other getting our awards.

All of the writers got a moment to speak and just thank the Mass Center for the Book for organizing the event and luncheon. I said a few words about the vital importance of libraries in our communities, for research, but also just for our kids, to constantly encourage them to browse the stacks and get lost in their imagination.

I did not do any T-bashing, tempting as it may have been. It’s hard to believe that two years after “The Race Underground” was published in hardcover and a year after the paperback that these moments are still happening for me. But I’m not complaining.

IMG_4222 IMG_4228





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NYPL releases new, high-res photos of America’s first subways under construction

Posted on 01/7/16

nypl.digitalcollections.a44288b4-9bd8-b31f-e040-e00a18060314.001.wnypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-a493-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wHistory buffs rejoice!

If you’re anything of a history geek like me, this is cool news. The New York Public Library, a place where I spent many long days and nights researching “The Race Underground,” in particular using its private papers of  engineering titan Frank J. Sprague, has released digitally more than 180,000 photos, postcards, maps and other items in the public domain. And in releasing them, the library is eagerly inviting people to do what I am doing right now: Download high-res-files, grab them and use them.

Naturally, I went poking around for any cool subway photos and found a bunch, one from Boston and lots from New York. Click on each image to see it larger. I’ve seen a few of these, but they are never easy to get access to. As the New York Times, a lot of these images have been available, just not in great resolution.

Here is what a library official told The New York Times: “We see digitization as a starting point, not end point,” said Ben Vershbow, the director of NYPL Labs, the in-house technology division that spearheaded the effort. “We don’t just want to put stuff online and say, ‘Here it is,’ but rev the engines and encourage reuse.”

I grabbed a few that appealed to me quickly, including one below in color of an early train coming out of Boston’s first subway, near Arlington Street, which I had never seen before (and trust me, I saw a lot of photos!). The others are mostly of New York’s subway under construction. My book has a lot more image (sorry, shameless plug), but these are pretty cool. Enjoy.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-0628-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.r nypl.digitalcollections.a44288b4-9bdc-b31f-e040-e00a18060314.001.r nypl.digitalcollections.a44288b4-9beb-b31f-e040-e00a18060314.001.w


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Who was the first Boston subway conductor, in 1897?

Posted on 12/10/15

First_car_into_Tremont_Street_Subway,_pictured_at_Allston_carhouseReading today about the Red Line train taking off without a conductor (“Red Line Train Leaves Station Without Conductor”) made me think about the first Boston subway ride, and who was the conductor on that train. Here is a passage from the chapter of The Race Underground where I describe in great detail that historic day in Boston, September 1, 1897, when Bostonians got their first ride underground.

I love some of the details I was able to collect from that ride, especially the story of the Somerville gentleman, C.W. Davis:

EACH CAR WOULD HAVE A MOTORMAN AND A CONDUCTOR, one to drive, the other to collect the tickets from the passengers.  Strapping James Reed, or Jimmy as he was known, short and muscular with a thick mustache and bronzed face after almost thirty years of railway driving, and Gilman “Gil” Trufant, one of the oldest and gentlest conductors in Boston, were two of the most experienced transit men in the city, and so it was decided that their Pearl Street-Allston car should be the first through the tunnel.  Reed grew up in a small brownstone on Tyler Street and attended public schools downtown until his family moved to the grittier Charlestown neighborhood.   He enlisted in the army for the Civil War, but when he was told he wasn’t old enough to shoulder a gun, he was made a drummer.  He came home frustrated after his enlistment ended, feeling like he had not done his part, but he quickly grew bored and re-enlisted, this time as a private, and his second stint earned him his stripes by taking part in some of the war’s fiercest battles.  When the war ended he came home to Boston and took up in the railway business.  He drove his first railway car in 1868 for the Middlesex railroad company, from Boston up to Malden, and later joined the Metropolitan and the South Boston companies, before Whitney’s West End merger eventually swallowed him up.  When the day arrived for Boston to unveil its subway, he was a natural choice to man the first trip.  He had a trustworthy face, weathered from years of being battered by the sun and snow and wind and rain.  And he knew his job so well he would entertain his passengers with a joke or by telling them exactly how many railroad ties there are in a mile, a trick he taught himself through three decades of driving. 

The night before, Reed had joined a big group of employees of the West End Street Railway company at the Public Garden entrance for a walk-through of what to expect.  Cars were loaded up with employees and driven through the tunnel in a chain, as instructors shouted out the regulations to follow about collecting tickets, stopping at stations, entering and exiting the tunnel and how to handle confused, unruly or other types of troublesome passengers.   


“CONCH SHELL TINTS streaked the eastern sky,” when the day’s earliest risers gathered at the depot in Allston.  When Jimmy Reed walked into the shed, looking nattier than usual in a new, trim-fitting uniform, a single-breasted dark blue coat with seven gold buttons and a cap with a straight visor and two bands of gold, he greeted his passengers and confessed with no hesitation that he was tired after a restless night of sleep.  Dreams of his trolley rushing to reach the subway tunnel first and on time kept him awake, he said.  He needn’t have worried.  One of the last passengers to arrive was the chief inspector for the West End Street Railway Company, Fred Stearns, who took up a spot on the car’s footboard so that he could warn boarding passengers to keep their hands and heads inside to avoid bumping any posts or trees.  He was the one who needed to worry.  After one final inspection to make sure the car was ready, the doors to the garage opened and the passengers let out a hearty cheer as the electric motor sent the Allston trolley on its way.  The nine rows of benches were not filled yet, but they would be soon enough.  Outside, a small group of onlookers waved their handkerchiefs and shouted out words of encouragement at the popular motorman.  “Get there, Jim, old man, and don’t let any of ‘em get ahead of you,” one cry went out.

Reed smiled.  But he turned serious right away as his car rounded a bend and he braked to a stop to allow another dozen passengers on board.   “All aboard for the subway and Park Street,” he shouted with confidence.  “Dling, Dling, Dling,” the bell rang out and the car pulled away again.  The journey from Allston through Cambridge to Boston took about twenty minutes most mornings, but the unusual number of passengers at this hour delayed it a few extra seconds at each stop. 

By the time the car reached Pearl Street in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, an older gentleman wanting to get on board found there were no seats left and he was told he’d have to wait for the next car.  Not a chance, he shouted up at those on board.  He announced that his name was C.W. Davis, that he came all the way down from Dickerson Street in Somerville to enjoy this privilege and that he deserved to make history with the rest of them.  Why?  Because he said that back in 1856 he had ridden on the first horse-pulled car of the Metropolitan Railway line and that he wanted to achieve another first today.  “The running schedule called for a car every half hour in those days,” he told his audience.  “And that was thought to be fast running.  People have learned to live and move faster in these days.”  The young men on board could not refuse the charming stories of Mr. Davis and they scurried to clear a space for the gentleman, who climbed up and hung on to an upright pole to secure his footing as the car pulled away.  When a photographer hollered at Reed to let the historic trolley sit for a minute at Pearl Street so he could photograph it, the motorman refused, too nervous about falling behind schedule, not to mention missing his opportunity to be the first car into the tunnel.


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