‘The Underland Route’ or the History of the Subway

In the 1860s in the years during and after the American Civil War, two railroad companies completed America’s first transcontinental railroad, colloquially called the “Overland Route”. This cut down the travel-time from cities such as Chicago in the East, to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West, from several weeks or even months by wagon-train…to a few days by steam-powered locomotive. Instead of stocking up on rifles and muskets, provisions and supplies…a person could pack his steamer-trunk or suitcase, buy a ticket and ride the rails in what was then a fast, comfortable and convenient way to travel.

Around the same time that the Americans completed their “overland route”, a hop across the pond called the Atlantic Ocean to England would see the British people’s first…”underland route”…and the birth of the modern subway system.

The London Underground: The World’s First Subway

The London Underground (more commonly called ‘The Underground’ or ‘The Tube’ today), is the world’s oldest and is one of the world’s largest subway systems. It’s famous all over the world for its stations, its red, white and blue logo or ’roundel’ and the similiarly-coloured, tubular railway carriages. It’s famous for being used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War and for appearing in a James Bond movie where an invisible Aston Martin is delivered to Bond on a flatbed railway carriage.

Beneath all this fame and glory and fortune, people tend to forget that the London Underground is the world’s first and oldest underground railroad and is now nearly a hundred and fifty years old and still running. The story of the London Underground is the story of the development of the modern subway system and the story of one is generally entwined with the other.

The Need to go Under

Subway systems are not built for their novelty aspect or because “they can”. In each particular city where a subway exists, there are reasons for their construction. But what was it that led to the whole idea of the “under ground” railroad to begin with?

To understand this, we must flashback to London in the 1850s and 60s. Here, we meet a city which is the center of an empire, which is increasing in population every day due to the vast changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution and which is suffering the consequences of such rapid population-growth…traffic congestion.

By the 1850s, railroads were fast becoming the most popular way to move around. It was quick, comfortable and convenient. While cities had several large railroad stations for big, main train-lines, the problem was that once passengers arrived in town, they clogged up the roads with horse-drawn carriages and taxi-cabs. It was reasoned that if there were trains right in the heart of town, they would be able to move people around more effectively and cut down on congestion. This wasn’t easy in a city as old as London, though. Railroad lines took up a lot of space and with congestion as bad as it was, threading railroad lines all over the road was hardly the best solution. Instead, it was decided that the best method of getting trains into the city was to go underground. It would be relatively easy to follow the roads, stops and stations could be easily planned and it would provide valuable employment to the thousands of unemployed people living in London in the second half of the 19th Century.

The First Subway

The first part of the first subway, the London Underground, was born in 1863 as the Metropolitan Railway and stretched from Paddington Station north to Farringdon Station, via King’s Cross. The man responsible for this new, quite literally groundbreaking task of an ‘under ground’ railroad was Charles Pearson, a London lawyer and Member of Parliament. Throughout the 1830s, 40s and 50s, Pearson had campaigned for an ‘underground railroad’ to help ease the increasing traffic congestion in central London during the mid-19th century. After numerous government meetings, debates and discussions, an act of Parliament was passed for the construction of the first stage of what would become the world’s first subway system.

The Metropolitan Railway under construction near King’s Cross Station; February, 1861

To make things easy, the Metropolitan Railway was constructed using the ‘cut-and-cover’ method of tunnel-construction. This involves digging a huge trench in the middle of the street, right down to the level where the railroad lines would go. The rail-lines would be laid and the tunnel walls and roof would be built above it. Once the roof was completed, the excavated rubble and soil was dumped back over the top to reform the original roadway, giving the process its name of ‘cut and cover’. While relatively easy, safe and quick to carry out, Pearson probably won himself a great deal of enemies by building his railroad this way – the Cut and Cover method meant that entire roads and city blocks had to be shut down for construction-purposes. Building the railroad took nearly three years, from February, 1860 – January, 1863. Unfortunately, Pearson wouldn’t live to see his masterpiece open for operation; he would die on the 14th of September, 1862, of dropsy. He was 68 years old.

Underground Trains

Having built the subway, it was now necessary to get trains into it. Obviously, conventional steam-trains were out of the question. They were huge, bulky, noisy digusting things, far too unsuitable for subway tunnels. Instead, an entirely new form of railroad locomotive had to be invented. While still coal-fired, steam-powered engines, these new machines were significantly smaller than their above-ground counterparts.

Metropolitan Railway A-Class subway locomotive. Engine #23 was made in 1864

The steam-engines developed for the London Underground were compact, fat, low-profiled tank-engines. Despite the obvious problems of smoke and steam from these newly designed machines, the London Underground proved popular with Victorians. Nearly 27,000 passengers were using the Metropolitan Railway within the first few months of its opening in January of 1863.

Electrification of Subways

It’s hard to imagine that from the 1860s until the early 1900s, the world’s first, oldest and at the time, biggest subway system, was pulled along using nothing but steam-power. In the crowded, cramped and claustrophobic environment of the London Underground, steam-power was hardly ideal. In fact, it was very uncomfortable riding in the Underground during this period and adequate ventilation had to be installed if the Underground was to maintain a practical, working public service for the people of London. Electrification of the Underground was proposed as early as 1880, but it wasn’t until about 1905 that electrical technology and understanding had progressed far enough to make this a practicality. Starting in the early 20th century, many of the original steam-trains that pulled carriages through the Undergorund were scrapped and replaced by modern, electrically-powered locomotives. Very few of the original Underground steam-locomotives from the 1860s and 70s survive today.

Under and Outwards

With the initial success of the original Metropolitan Railway, other underground railroad companies sprang up, almost overnight. Throughout the second half of the 1800s and the early 1900s, private companies dug and developed their own subway lines throughout London. As the 20th century progressed, the subway became more and more familiar and important to London. By the end of WWI, England had over a hundred big and small railroad companies. In the end, many of these were merged together with the Railways Act of 1921. Nationalisation of the railway system was completed in 1947 with the Transport Act. By the Second World War, the London Underground had grown immensely. By the early 1940s, there were many abandoned stations and stretches of the Underground which were never completed, due to a lack of money or a lack of necessity. Stations that were too close together were considered unnecessary and were closed down. Many of these were converted to air-raid shelters during The Blitz. Many of these stations still exist today and some are set aside specifically for filming-purposes by film-production companies, so that the actual London Underground won’t be disrupted by camera-crews and actors.

The Subway Goes Global

After the success of the London Underground, the subway began to spread around the world. The next subway opened in Glasgow, Scotland in 1891. The first American subway was opened in Boston, Massachusetts in 1897! The New York City Subway system was started in 1904. Previous to this, New York City had been serviced by its famous elevated railroad (commonly called the ‘El’). A horrific blizzard in 1888 dumped several feet of snow all over New York, which brought its above-ground train-service to a screeching halt.

Manhattan’s famous elevated railroad. Started in the 1860s, it lasted until the 1960s when it was gradually destructed. This photo was taken in 1944. The affect of heavy winter snowfalls on the New York elevated railroad was what prompted the construction of the now, world-famous New York City Subway in 1904

To prevent a repeat of this, the New York City Subway was constructed. Subways continue to be popular in countries where snow can affect above-ground railroad traffic, such as in Russia, Germany and Canada. While today subways are seen as modern, bright, fast and wonderful, or at times, a pain in the ass when your train comes late or it’s cramped or overcrowded, remember that they were born in an age of steam and steel, bricks, mortar and feverish industrial revolution.


2 thoughts on “‘The Underland Route’ or the History of the Subway

  1. Gerardo Cervantes says:

    I found a beautiful acid washed etching depicting a scene of San Francisco in1875. There’s a lot of buildings and signs, including one that reads, underland railroad ticket office under palace ??? No. 4. It is made of brass. I think is from the 50’s. If interested please write back. Thanks

  2. Gerardo Cervantes says:

    I found a beautiful acid washed etching depicting a scene of San Francisco in1875. There’s a lot of buildings and signs, including one that reads, underland railroad ticket office under palace ??? No. 4. It is made of brass. I think is from the 50’s. If interested please write back. Thanks


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