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.com
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.
A little historical trivia for you: What do these structures have in common: The Eiffel Tower, the Kremlin, the Washington Monument, the Royal Palace in Madrid. (If you get this right, call Alex Trebek immediately!)
The answer is they all have Otis elevators installed, whisking passengers to the top.
Why am I thinking about elevators? As Casey Ross reported in the Globe Wednesday, Boston is poised to get its newest skyscraper, and that will mean some slick, fast new elevators, no doubt.
From Ross: Developer Richard L. Friedman will formally kick off construction of the tallest skyscraper to be built in Boston in 40 years — a 700-foot tower at 1 Dalton St. that will include the city’s second Four Seasons Hotel and some of its most expensive condominiums. “This will be the highest quality ever built in the city,” said Friedman, chief executive of Cambridge-based Carpenter & Co.
A new skyscraper is a good opportunity to revisit why we have skyscrapers today at all, and the reason, largely, is because of Elisha Graves Otis. I wrote about Otis in the first 10 pages of “The Race Underground,” in my favorite chapter called “The Secret Subway.” Before he came along, in the mid-to-late 1800s, the tallest buildings were typically eight to 10 stories, not much more, as climbing any more stairs than that was not practical.
The chapter tells the story of Alfred Ely Beach and William “Boss” Tweed and their epic feud over a subway project in Manhattan. The American Institute Fair was a huge annual event in the mid 19th century, and that’s where Beach unveiled his subway proposal, and it’s also where that clever mechanic named Elisha Otis unveiled his.
It was at the fair in 1854, where I write about this moment: “Otis showed how climbing hundreds of stairs no longer had to be an obstacle for cities to grow up. His elevator, a new invention that was pulled up by ropes, could not only be safe, but it would herald in the age of buildings much taller than eight, ten or twelve stories. With a crowd standing around his elevator, Otis rode it to its highest level, and, for the riveted audience below, reached out and cut the elevator’s only rope. Instead of plummeting down, he fell only a few inches and then stopped, showing everybody how the safety catch he had installed worked.”
Today, Otis United Technologies is a worldwide leader in elevators, 150 years old with more than 60,000 employees worldwide. And it all started back at the American Institute Fair. After Otis finished his daring demonstration, sales of his elevator shot, ahem, up. He sold seven devices in 1854 and 15 in 1855, and kept climbing from there.
So the next time you step in to an elevator, push your floor button and watch as those doors whoosh close, then maybe say a little thanks to Elisha Graves Otis for saving you from trekking up a whole lotta stairs.
Thanks Kirkus Reviews, which earlier this year gave “The Race Underground” a beautiful starred review, for now naming it a Best Non-Fiction Book of 2014. Some amazing company I’m in, so it’s really special. Some of the fellow authors in the category include Jill Lepore, Walter Isaacson, Hampton Sides for “The Kingdom of Ice” (my personal favorite), Scott Stossell, Matt Taibbi, and Lawrence Wright. Wow.
Kirkus Reviews has been very kind to “The Race Underground” and it continues with this year-end news. It’s been named one of the Kirkus Reviews Best Page-Turning Non-Fiction Books of 2014. This link shows the impressive company, so it’s a huge honor. On the list is an amazing book I read this year, “In the Kingdom of Ice” by Hampton Sides. If you need another non-fiction thriller, I can’t recommend it enough. Another on the list is Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators.” Click through for the entire list.
Long before the giant tunneling machines nicknamed “Big Bertha” in Seattle and “Lady Bird” in Washington, D.C. and “Miss Colleen” in Maryland, there was the very simply named “Beach tunneling machine.” Designed in the late 1860s by a skinny, mustachioed, opera-loving inventor in New York City named Alfred Ely Beach, it was, as far as we know, the first tunnel-boring machine used in the United States.
Alfred Beach wanted to build a subway tunnel for New Yorkers, and the only obstacle standing in his way was a powerful one in the form of a 300-pound corrupt state senator known as Boss Tweed. So Beach did what he had to do in order to defy Tweed. He built a tunnel in total secrecy, right under Boss Tweed’s nose, with an army of workers digging in the middle of the night in the basement of Devlin’s Department Store. It was the ultimate David vs. Goliath tale.
The folks in Seattle who are steamed about how much money is being wasted because Bertha sits idle and stalled underground and no one has a clue how to fix it or move it should take heart. Maybe the story of Alfred Beach will give them hope. His story of perseverance and ingenuity is amazing. It’s the first chapter in my book, “The Race Underground,” and personally it’s my favorite.
Here is a quick excerpt:
The device he came up with was ingenious. It resembled a hollowed-out barrel, used a water pump to exert pressure and a sharp digging mechanism that could loosen 16 inches of soil with each push forward. He also designed a metal hood over the edge of the shield that would protect his workers from falling debris, or in the catastrophic event of a collapse.
In late December of 1869, Beach, his son, Frederick, whom he tapped to be the foreman of the project, and a small group of men started arriving at Devlin’s after the store had closed for the night. They brought down picks, shovels, covered wagons, bricks, lanterns and other tools. Following Beach’s instructions to tunnel south directly under Broadway from Warren Street and then curve slightly to just below Murray Street, the laborers worked quietly to avoid rousing suspicion on the streets above. Night after night, six men would stand inside the shield, while another half dozen would perform the more tedious tasks to polish the tunnel. Some carried out the dirt in the covered wagons, others laid the bricks to line the tunnel, and still others laid the tracks to carry a single car. The walls were painted white, iron rods were installed through the tunnel’s roof up to the pavement, and gaslights and oxygen lamps were hung. It was an efficient operation. But it was also scary work, too claustrophobic for some workers who simply walked off the job. The rumbling from a street railway’s wheels overhead created a terrifying roar that made the late-night work nerve-wracking. Still, thanks to surprisingly soft soil and the efficient tunneling shield, the digging went quickly. On a good night, one crew would dig forward eight feet.
Just like in Seattle everything was going smoothly. Until one night, Beach’s shield buckled and the ground shook. The soft dirt ended and the workers stared at a mysterious stone wall in front of them.
It was an old Dutch fort from before the Revolutionary War. Beach faced a dilemma. Either the wall had to come down or the project was over. And nobody knew if removing the wall would cause Broadway to buckle or collapse from above.
What did Beach do? Like I said, it’s my favorite chapter. There is a very detailed description of Beach’s shield here, and more details in my book, as well.
It took centuries for mankind to embrace tunneling, to believe that it was safe to go underground and travel through dark tunnels. But it’s safe to say those fears are long gone. Today tunneling is more popular than ever. Washington, D.C. is digging away to create a huge sewage system. A highway tunnel in Seattle is underway. The Second Avenue Subway in New York is a few years from completion. In Canada, workers dug under Niagara Falls to expand a hydroelectric-generation complex. In Russia, there’s a new wastewater tunnel under a St. Petersburg river.
All of these projects became possible because of what are now commonly known as TBMs, or tunnel boring machines. Each one has to be designed and built specifically for its project, because of the ground they must bore through, the size and shape of the tunnel needed, and other factors, making them enormously expensive. And when they get stuck, like Bertha, those costs become astronomical. Persistence and patience, two qualities that Beach exhibited in 1869 and 1870 in the pursuit of his secret subway, are two qualities that would serve Seattle residents well in these trying times.
Looking at the list of Amazon’s Top History Books of 2014, it’s an amazing list, so to see “The Race Underground” included is a huge thrill and honor. Here is a link to the History book category. And covers of some of the others, awesome!
A time capsule left behind in 1901 in Boston and just discovered inside a lion’s head statue has been opened, and among the contents inside were photographs of three Boston mayors, all of whom played significant roles in the birth of Boston’s subway, the first subway in America.
In particular, the photo of Nathan Matthews Jr., mayor from 1891-94, is telling. (The photo at left is not the photo inside the capsule) Matthews is considered “the father of the subway” in Boston, as I write about in great detail in “The Race Underground.” The other mayoral photos in the capsule were of Josiah Quincy, 1896-1899, who was in office on the day the subway opened and Edwin Curtis, who was mayor during the earliest days of construction in 1895.
Matthews was a big-thinking, populist mayor, who boldly pushed his city to punch above its weight. In his inaugural address, he said, “The city of Boston is no longer a New England town on a large scale: it is a great commercial and industrial city, the metropolis of New England, with a population greater than that of the whole state of New Hampshire.”
Matthews in particular feuded with a key character in the book, Henry Melville Whitney, the big businessman who first proposed a subway for Boston and became president of the West End Street Railway Company, but never aggressively followed through on building the tunnel that he proposed in 1887. In a speech he gave early in his tenure, Matthews chided Whitney: “Many schemes have been suggested during the past few years, none of which, it is safe to say, are entirely satisfactory. On the other hand, the demand for rapid transit is a genuine one, and should be met an early date.”
Ultimately it was met a decade after Whitney first proposed it, as this historic photo from Sept. 1, 1897, shows.
In writing “The Race Underground” I became fascinated with another race, a subplot to the subway story. This race involved engineers from around the world in the early 1880s, all of them determined to build the perfect electric motor. It was a fascinating story with great characters and details, but sadly after months of research I had to cut the chapter from the book. Yes, that hurt.
But there’s no reason I can’t share the chapter here on my blog. A few of these characters receive mention in the book, and one, the last one in this chapter, becomes a major figure in the subway story. Enjoy.
GRASSHOPPERS PLAYED A KEY ROLE in one of the first efforts to build an electric railway. A Kansas farmer named John Henry was left penniless in 1879 when he lost his land, his cattle and two stores to a grasshopper plague and so he set out to design plans for a car that could help farmers. After relocating to Kansas City, he took a job as a telegraph operator and saved money for almost five years, all the while tinkering with his idea. Finally, in 1884, with enough money raised, he borrowed an old mule car and got access to a track. He stretched two copper wires above the track. On top of the wires two small wheels were pulled, or towed, by wires that ran down to the mule car. Henry was all alone on his first test run, and it was a good thing. Sparks flew everywhere, the wheels spun out of control and the mule car derailed and crashed into a hill next to the track. A few days later, Henry made a second run, but it derailed too, only this time Henry along with two interested investors were thrown out of the mule car. It was obvious that he could not control the speed of the mule car with his electric current and when Henry fell back into bankruptcy, it was the end of his experiment.
As the 1880s began, the Underground was almost twenty years old, and yet little had changed with it since its opening. “A journey from King’s Cross to Baker Street is a form of mild torture,” is how the London Times described it. After years of tinkering, some of the world’s brightest engineers had begun to make remarkable progress in understanding not only how electricity worked, but what it was capable of doing. Thomas Edison would soon flip a switch in downtown New York, and the area all around Pearl Street and close to Wall Street would light up, an unofficial beginning to the age of electricity.
WHEN A GERMAN ELECTRICIAN named Werner Siemens unveiled a 2-horsepower dynamo mounted on to a truck at the Berlin Industrial Exhibition in 1879, it was the breakthrough that marked the beginning of Siemens’ contribution to the field of electricity. Over the course of just two years, Berlin saw the arrival of electric streetlights, an electric elevator and an electric streetcar, all powered by Siemens’ innovation. His achievements even extended to the German language, as he coined the German word for electrical engineering: “Elektrotechnik.” But his contribution to the electric train race was his greatest achievement. At the 1879 exhibition, his invention powered the small truck at a respectable speed, 8 miles per hour, and moved it 350 yards down a track while pulling eighteen passengers. More than 80,000 passengers took the ride, despite warnings that if they touched the third rail that carried 150 volts of electricity, they’d receive quite the jolt. Siemens took the public’s approval at the Berlin exhibition as a sign that they were ready for the real thing. Two years later, a far more ambitious line powered by the Siemens dynamo opened in a small town outside Berlin called Lichterfelde. It carried two dozen people and could zip along at eleven miles per hour, the top speed allowed in town.
The problem with Siemens’ invention was protecting people, especially children, and horses, from shocks as they walked across the rails. Siemens tried to reduce the voltage from 150 to 100, but it still produced a jolt to anyone who got too close, and even more frustrating, the first drops of rain would cause the trains to short circuit and come to a stop. The Siemens dynamo clearly worked as a power source, but perfections were still needed for it to safely operate an entire network of street railways. No metropolis would pour money into a gimmick that might electrocute the very people it was supposed to help move.
In 1884 two men in Cleveland working in the shops of the Brush Electric Company had some profound success. Edward Bentley and Walter Knight had been working for more than a year on an electric street railway. Their trick was to place between two rails an underground wooden conduit to carry two copper conductors. A slot in the conduit connected up to the streetcar and supplied the current needed for the motor that was mounted on the car’s bottom. The rails themselves had nothing to do with the electricity, and on July 26, 1884, Bentley and Knight opened the first electrical railway in America to accept paying passengers. It was an immediate bust.
The streetcars kept jumping the tracks. The wire belts that held the motor to the axle of the car snapped repeatedly. The connection between the conduit and the streetcar was almost always destroyed every time a car derailed. And getting more than one car to operate at a single time never worked. But America was desperate to believe in something that might help cities, and in September 1884, despite all the troubles in Cleveland, a New York millionaire invested his fortune in the Bentley-Knight Electric Railway Company. And for a few years, it paid off.
The Bentley-Knight company expanded, and landed contracts to build electric railways in New York, Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. In New York, its $214,000 bid to build a three-mile track for 37 street railway cars along Fulton Street downtown was accepted. The company sales pitch was that an electric railway system was cheaper over the long run than steam, cables or horses, cleaner than all of them, and faster and safer, too. The company estimated that to start up a five-mile double track, with forty cars, cost about $803,000 with cable, $462,000 for electric and $204,000 for horses. But to operate the tracks annually, it would cost about $100,000 for horses or cable, and only $52,000 for electric, a significant savings over time. Plus, if a city already had tracks laid, Bentley-Knight vowed to simply use those tracks rather than replace them.
It seemed so promising, but Bentley and Knight’s underground conduit never quite worked to perfection and after repeated use day after day it would break down, especially in bad weather. If they had been willing to make one concession to a new innovation that had come along, and tried installing overhead wires to carry electricity rather than putting the electricity underground, Bentley and Knight might have become pioneers in urban transit. But they were convinced that overhead wires were doomed, that the public would consider them unsightly and dangerous and not worth the investment.
AS CLOSE AS BENTLEY AND KNIGHT CAME to putting all the pieces together, Leo Daft came closer. A stubborn Englishman with a long face and a bushy gray beard, Daft opened a three-mile line in Baltimore that, for a brief period, was America’s first commercially run electric streetcar operation to work for more than just a few days or weeks. It was quite the adventure.
Daft was born in England in 1843 and tinkered as a young boy with telegraphs and photographs. They might have seemed like odd hobbies, except his father was an engineer who helped build ships and bridges and encouraged his son to work with his hands. When Daft left England and came to the United States in his early twenties, he opened his own photo studio outside New York City, but grew bored and turned back to engineering, and specifically the challenges of electricity. In Greenville, New Jersey he opened the Daft Electric Light Company, but he was really more intrigued by the problem steam locomotives were having. The steam trains had immense power, but slipped easily off their tracks. Daft’s early experiments led him to believe that electricity flowing through rails acted like a magnet and helped keep the wheels from slipping off. He grew determined to figure out a way to design an electric locomotive, and to use no more than 25 volts, reducing the risk of dangerous jolts to pedestrians and horses.
His first test came in Saratoga, New York on November 24, 1883, when he invited a list of lawyers, potential financiers and newspaper reporters to see the Ampere, a two-ton locomotive he had built in about six months and named after Andre-Marie Ampere, the famous French electrician. Its 25-horsepower motor was as powerful as he had hoped, and it ran on three rails, with the third one carrying the current that came from a dynamo, not unlike the one Werner Siemens had perfected. For his test run, Daft’s locomotive, with him manning the controls, managed to pull a single train car carrying 75 passengers smoothly up a steep incline at eight miles per hour. Success! And if he had stopped at the top, maybe Daft would have gone on to become the king of the electric streetcar. But he was overeager, because on his way down the hill he allowed his train to accelerate to fifteen miles per hour. The Ampere could not handle a sharp turn and it flew off the rails and landed on its side. Nobody was seriously hurt, and a reporter on the scene recalled Daft’s words: “We were going too fast.” Not only was the locomotive damaged, but Daft’s credibility was hurt, too.
It was difficult to ignore the irony when a steam locomotive was needed to bring back what remained of Daft’s experiment. But instead of losing confidence, he emerged feeling bolder. Within months Daft had two new locomotives up and running, and one of them, the Pacinotti, caught the attention of the Union Passenger Railway in Baltimore. Horses there were struggling with one particularly winding and hilly line in his city and the hope was that Daft’s contraption might just solve the problem.
Daft had little doubt his machine could conquer the hills, but he struggled to convince city officials in Baltimore. They brought in a scientist to examine the challenge Daft faced, and he came back with a daunting report. “The man who undertakes to operate this section by electricity in the present state of the art is either a knave or a fool.” If the Baltimore officials were hesitant before the report, they were flat out opposed after it. It was only when the general manager of their system threatened to quit if they did not give Daft a chance that they relented. They offered Daft a contract that any sane businessman would have laughed away. They told him he could electrify the hilly, three-mile line, but he had to use his own locomotives and pay for the entire experiment. Only if it worked for a full year would they buy his equipment. Daft agreed without hesitation.
On August 9, 1885, at one o’clock in the morning to avoid any embarrassing slip-ups in full view of the public, Daft conducted a trial of his system. It worked so beautifully that the next day it opened for paying passengers. They boarded the same 16-foot horse cars they rode on the other lines, but instead of a team of horses out front, there was a small black and boxy locomotive. Before anybody had a chance to wonder about their safety, they were being zipped down the Hampden branch at twice the speed the horses used to pull them. Daft was deliriously proud of himself and for years after his line opened, he boasted about how he had defied the opinion of that skeptical scientist, who had paid to ride Daft’s electrified line and conceded he’d been wrong.
True to the contract he’d signed, Daft was reimbursed for his efforts one year after his line began accepting paying passengers. But even though the tracks worked, they were flawed. Steady rains short circuited the system. And the low-voltage that Daft had started out using was not enough over the long term and when he increased the power to 120 volts, cats and dogs and even chickens that touched his third rail let out yelps of pain and often died from the shocks. Horses were not injured, but they seemed to sense the danger and either stepped gingerly over the tracks or refused to go near them. For more than three years, Daft’s electric streetcar line in Baltimore did just as he promised. It carried paying passengers up and down through a steep set of hills, and took an enormous burden off of horses in the city. By placing his electric motor at the front of the car rather than underneath it, as other inventors would do, his passengers felt safer knowing they could see the source of power that was moving them. But when the third rail became such a tiresome concern to city officials, they forced Daft to remove it at the major crossings and replace it with heavy gas pipes that were hung over the tracks. That only caused greater problems, and eventually in 1889, when Daft refused to make more changes and sold off his electric railway patents, his boxy locomotives were garaged and replaced by the old reliable standby, horses.
IF DAFT HAD A RIVAL, it was Charles J. Van Depoele, whose invention experienced more widespread acceptance. Growing up in Belgium, Van Depoele saw how the London subway had generated such excitement across Europe when it opened. He first took an interest in electricity while in college, experimenting with battery power, and when he came to the United States in 1869 and started his own furniture making business in Detroit, he continued to tinker on the side with some electrical experiments. Soon he was able to light his own shops and in 1881 he abandoned furniture altogether to set up the Van Depoele Electric Light Company.
Like many inventors of the day who enjoyed imagining the possibilities of electricity, he turned away from lighting and focused on electric motors, and more specifically an electric railway. His ideas were similar to the ones designed by Bentley and Knight, except Van Depoele was willing to look up instead of down for his power source. He attached a pole to the roof of his streetcar, which connected to an overhead conductor that ran between trolley poles. A spring at the base of the pole kept it in contact with the wire overhead. In the fall of 1883, Van Depoele installed an electric railway at the Chicago Industrial Exposition to move people into the grounds of the exhibition, and the following summer he built an identical one at the Toronto Agricultural Fair. One motorcar pulled three trailing cars, each able to carry sixty people, and on some days in Toronto ten thousand passengers rode his railway one mile to connect with a horse car line downtown. Quickly Van Depoele starting receiving interest from other cities. South Bend, Indiana, New Orleans, Montgomery, Alabama, Appleton, Wisconsin, Detroit, Minneapolis, they all wanted contracts with him, even though his idea had only been used at these exhibitions and had never been successfully tested on a large scale. No matter. Cities were desperate and he obliged them.
Between 1886 and 1887, Charles Van Depoele was well on his way to making history. He had a dozen electric street railways installed, sixty miles of track and nearly one hundred cars in use around the country. Nobody was close to his growth, and like his competitors he always emphasized the long-term cost savings a city would see with an electric railway. His Montgomery system, the largest of his operations, cut the city’s transportation costs by one-third and allowed it to move more passengers than horse cars and make more money. If he had any problem, it was keeping up with production demands.
But Van Depoele himself was not convinced of his own system’s merits. He was skeptical it would work on a larger scale, even as he was being flooded with requests to expand. And he wasn’t sure there was great money to be made in electric street railways. By 1887, Van Depoele was poised to do for electric street railway what Edison had done for electric lighting. But instead he wanted out. He went looking for a buyer. When Thomson-Houston, the same company that had snatched up Bentley-Knight, approached Van Depoele in the spring of 1888 and offered to buy him out and give him a permanent job in its railway department, he accepted. His company received a royalty of $25 for every streetcar that was equipped with his invention and the inventor himself got $5 per car. He was satisfied, even though Thomson-Houston had not been his first choice to take over his operations.
For several years, Van Depoele had been following the progress of a former naval engineer who was making great strides toward perfecting the electric street railway. Van Depoele was certain that if anybody was going to succeed where the others had failed, it would be Frank Julian Sprague.