“The Week” says “The Race Underground” is one of “18 Books to Read in 2014”: Link
From Barnes & Noble Review: March 20, 2014: “Doug Most captures nicely my first experience with a New York City subway car back in the early winter of 1970: “clip-clopping along at five miles per hour and filled with an unbearable stench.” The memories are cruelly unforgettable of the local No. 1 train headed downtown, wheels shrieking—even at five miles an hour—like someone being repeatedly stabbed. “Most coaches had no ventilation, no source of heat…and faint light at best, so not only was the smell horrendous but passengers were cold and virtually blind inside.” Yes, I remember it was just so.” Full link here.
Commonwealth Magazine, Spring 2014: Doug Most’s recounting of the building of the New York and Boston subway systems, The Race Underground: Boston, New York and The Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway, is … a panoramic exploration of late 19th/early 20th-century American bravado—the sort of can-do attitude that not only built America’s first subways, but also built feats of engineering such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Cape Cod Canal. Full link here
The Providence Journal calls “The Race Underground” “superbly researched,” and “a book not to be missed.”
At other times, the author vividly describes such events as the Blizzard of March 12, 1888, when service on both the elevated trains and the street railways that were then providing New York City with transportation came to a halt, with icicles hanging from the tracks of the El. Full link.
The Atlantic: “The Fascinating History of New York & Boston’s Race to Build a Subway”
Most’s lively history goes beyond the tracks to explore the people who built them and places where they emerged. His core cast of characters includes transit siblings Henry and William Whitney, famed civil engineer William Parsons, “father” of New York rapid transit Abram Hewitt, and the forgotten developer of electric rail travel Frank Sprague. He also captures the spirits of the towns themselves as they struggle through fits and starts toward their underground future. Full link
The New York Post calls “The Race Underground” ‘Required Reading’
Makes today’s Yankees-Red Sox rivalry seem tame by comparison. Link here.
The Christian Science Monitor calls “The Race Underground” a Best Book of the Month
So readers must grip the strap and enjoy the ride. It’s possible early on to wonder how these vivid descriptions will lead to Most’s destination: the race to build the first subway. But Most’s narrative gains momentum and focus with the introduction of two brothers – Henry and William Whitney. Link here.
The Economist raves about “The Race Underground” in its February 15 issue:
“Doug Most’s meticulously researched history reveals that getting the subways built was more a collaborative than a competitive effort. It helped that two brothers from an old, rich and influential family were early proponents of subways. Henry Whitney in Boston and William Whitney in New York suppressed their sibling rivalry to work together to discover and recruit the country’s best engineers for their various transport ventures.” Full link
Ken Burns, filmmaker, creator of the PBS series The Civil War and many others
“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.”
Stephen Puleo’s rave review in The Boston Globe, February 9, 2014
It is a story of rapscallions and risk takers, engineers and entrepreneurs, dreamers, darers, and doers — and it is thoroughly researched and splendidly narrated by Doug Most in “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway.’’ Full link
Sam Roberts, The New York Times, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014
Mr. Most weaves together the egos, political hurdles and other daunting challenges (the “incredible rivalry” itself often seems tangential) in a sweeping narrative of late-19th-century intrigue.
“The blizzard of 1888 was the trigger that cities needed to finally acknowledge that the horse-pulled carriages, the steam-powered elevated trains, the cable-pulled trolleys and even the electrified street railways all suffered from the same flaw that could no longer be ignored,” Mr. Most writes. “They were at the mercy of the skies.”
Amazon.com: Best Book of the Month, February 2014:
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: While reading Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway, it quickly becomes apparent that the 19th-century world was a dirty, slow-moving place. Not only were the modern cities of the world filled with horses, they were filled with their excrement, along with all the billowing smoke and caked dirt that modern industry of the time could produce. The Race Underground offers a colorful and informative description of that bygone era. Famous names surface throughout the book–men like Andrew Carnegie, Boss Tweed, and Thomas Edison. But Most ties the story together through two less famous, more essential brothers: Henry Whitney of Boston and William Whitney of New York. When the city of London built the first subway, it might have seemed only a matter of time before one was constructed in a major U.S. city. The truth is much more complicated and fascinating than that. Most shows how getting through government intransigence and payola was as daunting as getting a hole carved through the earth. It was a time when great minds turned themselves toward bettering the world they lived in, but in some ways the past seems all too familiar. –Chris Schluep
THE RACE UNDERGROUND [STARRED REVIEW!]
Author: Doug Most
A deputy editor at the Boston Globe recalls the visionaries, moneymen, engineering wizards, and the economic and political struggles behind the creation of the subway in America.
In 1888, horses operated 90 percent of the 6,000 miles of America’s street railway, with all but a fraction of the rest run by cable-pulled streetcars or small steam locomotives. The urban transportation system—filthy, slow, dangerous and unreliable, straining at the explosion of immigrant populations, at the mercy of snow and ice—needed rethinking. As far back as 1849—34 years before the Brooklyn Bridge opened—Alfred Beach, publisher of Scientific American, had proposed the idea of a “railway underneath” New York. However, the psychological barriers to subway travel (“like living in a tomb,” critics said) and the formidable engineering challenges would take decades to overcome. By the time Boston and New York opened their subways—in 1897 and 1904, respectively—a remarkable story had unfolded, one Most (Always in Our Hearts: The Story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, the Pregnancy They Hid, and the Baby They Killed, 2005) chronicles with grand style and enthusiasm. Famous names flit in and out of his narrative—Boss Tweed, Thomas Edison, Edwin Arlington Robinson, piano manufacturer William Steinway and Andrew Carnegie—but he focuses on two lesser-knowns, brothers, both transportation magnates: Boston’s Henry Whitney and New York’s William Whitney, who tie together this subterranean transportation tale of two cities. It’s a story of blizzards and fires, accidental 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. Inventor Frank Sprague, who perfected the electric motor, financier August Belmont, crusading New York Mayor Abram Hewitt and engineer William Barclay Parsons also play prominent roles in this colorful Gilded Age saga.
An almost flawlessly conducted tour back to a time when major American cities dreamed big.
“Combine the propulsive energy of Devil In the White City with the meticulous detail of The Great Bridge and you get The Race Underground. Most’s addictive tour de force infuses a story that changed the course of American history with all the drama and excitement of a great thriller.”
Seth Mnookin, New York Times best-selling author of Feeding the Monster and The Panic Virus
“Imagine my disappointment when my college professor assigned Notes From the Underground and it turned out to be a mere existential novella. Finally, we get the book I wanted – The Race Underground – a history of Boston, New York and the building of America’s First Subway. Give me Doug Most over Dostoyevsky anytime.”
Dan Shaughnessy, author Francona, The Red Sox Years
“Two brothers. Two cities. Two subway systems. The Race Underground by Doug Most is a terrific book that makes us take a second look at our past and makes us wonder about possibilities for the future. This a love poem to the power of the human imagination.”
Leigh Montville, author of Evel: The High Flying Life of Evel Knievel
The Race Underground is a great American tale, filled with moments of surprising drama and unforgettable characters fighting against impossible odds. Doug Most hasn’t just written a book for history buffs and train lovers; he’s written something wonderful for us all.
Keith O’Brien, author of Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County’s Quest for Basketball Greatness
“The characters in The Race Underground give us an exciting first-hand view of this transformative time in the history of two great (and rivaling) American cities. Doug Most’s meticulous research into the tools and techniques used in early subway construction will satisfy the curiosity of those fascinated by the way things were built before the advent of modern power equipment.”
Joe McKendry, artist, author of the children’s book, Beneath the Streets of Boston: Building America’s First Subway
Library Journal, November 15, 2013
“Most (deputy managing editor, features, Boston Globe) depicts the highly charged competition between Boston and New York in trying to construct the first underground “subway” railroad in late 19th-century America. It is a remarkably well-told story filled with villains, heroes, and events of the Gilded Age. Adding more heat to this intercity rivalry were brothers Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York, who managed to push their own cities into successfully modernizing their transportation systems. Boston emerged the victor on September 1, 1897, with a system admittedly on a much smaller scale than initially envisioned. New York’s planned subway was, of course, much larger, taking longer to build, while plagued with misfortune (54 workers and civilians died during its construction) before it finally opened on October 27, 1904. While many books have been written about New York City’s subway, few have documented Boston’s herculean accomplishment in beating New York. Most deserves credit for setting the historical record straight. VERDICT This felicitous tale of American ingenuity and perseverance serves as a useful reminder today of our past commitment to improving our infrastructures as we now face the challenge of stopping their deterioration. Recommended for readers in American urban history and specialists in urban transportation.
—Richard Drezen, Jersey City
Amazon Vine, December 1, 2013:
In my twenties, I often rode the Boston subway from Arlington station to Park Street without having any idea that this short run was the first section of electric powered subway to be opened anywhere in the world. In The Race Underground, Doug Most tells this story as part of a compelling portrait of two great Gilded Age cities struggling to progress from a pre-industrial transportation system to a world powered by a newly harnessed source of energy.
New York and Boston experienced explosive growth in the 19th century. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York was transformed into a hub for American imports and exports. Population grew from a pre-Canal level of 170,000 to 1.2 million by 1880. New York and Boston were the first and fourth largest American cities at the time and each grew daily as immigrants flooded into their environs. Unfortunately, transportation infrastructure had changed little as this growth occurred. Horse-pulled streetcars had served for 50 years but “slowly began to cripple two great American cities.”
The New York Tribune argued that a traveler could journey halfway to Philadelphia in less time than he could traverse the length of Broadway. American Architect and Building News characterized Boston’s sidewalks as “jammed to suffocation.” In addition to the crowding was the stench from piles of manure which could include as much as 50 pounds a day for each of the thousands of horses in each city. “Urban transport,” argues Most,”had become the single biggest civic headache. Traffic was an outright obsession of newspapers and their readers.” And the only direction to look to ease the cities congestion was Down.
The Race Underground focuses most fully on how each city developed the public will to confront this problem. London’s first subway had opened as far back as 1863. New York and Boston were not ready to follow this lead, wrestling as much with financial and political questions concerning transportation as with engineering issues. The author follows New York’s flirtation with pneumatic and steam technologies before it finally passed the Rapid Transit Act of 1891. Even then, however, little progress occurred and a second Act had to be adopted in 1894. By that time, Boston passed a referendum by a narrow vote of 15,548 to 14,209 in July of that year to “construct and maintain one or more tunnels” in the city. The plan was for the city to build 1.8 miles of subway tunnels at a cost of five million dollars to be leased to a private company to operate.
The high point of The Race Underground is Most’s description of the historic build in Boston. Powered by Frank Sprague’s track, meters and overhead wire inventions and made attractive to users with station lighting developed by Edison, eleven Boston contractors employed a Cut and Cover construction process. Rather than boring up to 200 feet under the ground as in London, Boston engineers dug trenches from 25 to 50 feet deep, installed tracks and lighting, sealed water out and covered the tunnel. Amazingly, the first electric subway in the world was opened from Arlington Street station to the Park Street Church in less than 3 years at a cost of 4.2 million dollars. On the morning of September 1, 1897, the streets were deserted as all transportation took place underground and the Boston Globe headlined: “First Car off the Earth” in a special edition.
This book is another in a list of classic histories that have detailed transportation revolutions in the Industrial Age. While not as comprehensive as McCullough’s histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal or Ambrose’s account of the Transcontinental Railroad, Most’s book is a fast-paced, entertaining story of two cities overcoming cumbersome political processes to confront challenging but ultimately solvable problems. There isn’t really much of a New York-Boston rivalry here and little evidence of a real competition to be first to complete construction. The real challenge, then as now, as shown by Most, was in how to marshall public will to identify and confront obstacles to prosperity. In doing this, the author has written a rousing history that can also serve as a lesson to a era in which such public will is sorely lacking.
Publisher’s Weekly, November 25, 2013
“Constructing the tunnel will be simple, just like cellar digging,” said the original contractor for the New York City subway. Then again, if Most, an editor at the Boston Globe, teaches us anything in this extensive history of the origins of the American subway, it’s that such optimism is woefully misguided. In fact, construction is almost an afterthought given the back-and-forth political maneuvering that occurred before the subway could even pass muster. It’s surprising that the generation of innovators active in the mid-19th-century, who were famed for their industrial expertise and entrepreneurship, were slow to the races in building an underground rail system. When Alfred Beach, groundbreaking editor of Scientific American, first proposed the idea in 1849, he was nearly laughed out of his New York office; 14 years later, London opened its Underground. When Thomas Edison was approached by Frank Sprague, a promising young engineer convinced that an electric motor could spark a revolution in transportation, Edison showed little interest in the idea (though that didn’t stop him from taking credit when Sprague’s engine powered New York’s first subway in 1904). Most’s account too often zigzags, like the dealings he chronicles, and the New York/Boston rivalry doesn’t clearly emerge, but otherwise he delivers a fun and enjoyable read about a vital, transformative period.”
One Reply to “Reviews”