The Race Underground



TO READ IN 2014!”

Sam Roberts in The New York Times said, “Mr. Most weaves together the egos, political hurdles and other daunting challenges in a sweeping narrative of late-19th-century intrigue.” The Economist raved, “Doug Most’s meticulously researched history reveals that getting the subways built was more a collaborative than a competitive effort.” Kirkus Reviews said, “It’s a story of blizzards and fires, gas explosions and dynamite blasts, of trenches tortuously dug, of sewer and water pipes rerouted and cemeteries excavated, of political infighting, of turnstiles and ticket-taking, of ingenious solutions to staggering problems.”

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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.

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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.

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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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