Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Potted History of the World

Welcome, welcome - a thousand welcomes - to the first of an infrequent series of posts about major historical events, major historical people, and major historical history stuff.

These won't be in chronological order because frankly, up until someone invented beer, history was boring as fuck. Instead I'll be choosing a random topic each time, as and when the mood takes me.

Chapter One - The New York Metro

Despite not being American, my grasp of that country's history is pretty impressive (even if I say so myself). So having visited the city several times recently to see Mrs RS, I decided to read up on the Metro - mainly to find out which century it was built in, as judging from most of the stations I went through I'd have estimated the 16th - and I was amazed by what I found.

The following is as true as I can make it.


Many years ago, like decades and stuff, America was divided between North and South. The South believed that everyone should drive pickups, whilst the North believed that everyone should drive pickups - except the poor, who should be provided with trains.

A vast and bloody war was fought, and for a long time it looked as though the South would win. Facing defeat (and the frequent bombings of its railroads), the North constructed a secret train system on the island of Manhattan. To avoid it being bombed, they placed it in a series of tunnels under the streets and this soon became known as the 'underground railroad' of the civil war.

To outwit its enemies and confuse would-be saboteurs, the operators of the underground railroad settled on an ingenious and fiendishly clever system. This is why some lines are named after numbers and some lines are named after letters. This is also why some lines are the same colour as other lines. See a yellow train? Ah, yes, - that's a N. Or a R. Or a Q. Or even a W. And a R doesn't run on a Sunday after 4pm, what are you buddy? Stoooooooopid?

It's not at all confusing.

Anyway, in the post-war years America was skint but was determined to expand the underground railroad. Digging tunnels was expensive, so the moment they dug under the East River and reached Long Island, they simply stopped putting roofs on the tunnels and left them as open culverts throughout the rest of the city. This cost-saving measure enabled the Metro owners to vastly expand the system in almost no time.

Sadly, as always, pedantry won out and the owners conceded that since the new tracks were not underground anymore, they couldn't call it the 'underground railroad.' In what was the first of its kind in the world, the Metro accepted corporate sponsorship from a sandwich company and changed its name to 'The New York Subway'.

*Fast forward a few years*

Everything was going swimmingly until the infamous New York Sanitation Workers strike of '73. With rubbish piling up in the streets, the forever resourceful inhabitants decided to combine two successful ideas into one - the landfill and the Subway - and simply threw their rubbish into the big hole in the ground that the trains ran through. In no time at all the tracks became nearly impassable.

This practice continues to this day, although New Yorkers prefer to refer to this act as 'recycling'. Here's a picture I took last time I was there:

The Subway operators needed a solution to get their trains through and a certain railway worker called Dwight T Gefluffenheim, inspired by the idea of 'recycling', came up with the remedy. This is why all New York Subway trains are fitted with Cow-catchers to this day. Here's another photo I took while I was there:

As New York got larger, so did the 'garbage' problem. The level was getting so high that the trains were carving their own tunnels through the rubbish. In 1989 one of the larger tunnels of this kind - the Brooklyn Used Nappy Central - collapsed, injuring several passengers. Eventually the Subway operators bowed to the inevitable and built all new lines on stilts, eg:

This is primarily because it's really hard to throw your rubbish up onto the track from street level.

And that's the true story of the New York Metro system - always innovative, always thinking and always going for that 'medieval dungeon' look.


Anonymous said...


Throwing all that trash down there is is how we provide for our homeless population.


For your Information....

The cow catcher on the front of the train was from the great depression when wandering boivne drunkenly stumbled onto the tracks...BAM! Voila!
Cheeseburgers for everyone!
Damn ingenius if you ask me.

Watch out Little Squirrel...you are rapidly becoming an American, despite your best British efforts.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I travelled in this system many years ago. The air conditioning was a bit chilly, but otherwise I had no complaints. Can you still pay for your journey with a token?

Jack said...

Oh, New York Metro/Underground/Tubey thing, how I love you. In searing 95 degree NY heat and near fatal humidity levels, you were my saviour with aircon. Despite the seedy Mexican 'guitar' band attempting to fleece me and that strangely sticky patch a little too close for comfort, you were there when I needed you most.

In honesty though, I couldn't help but feel that it made the London Underground feel amateurish.

Red Squirrel said...

Sweet Cheeks - I'm not sure about Bovine in New York, but the giant rats probably have some good eating on them....

gb - all done with a swipe card nowadays, though it's brilliantly only $2 for any trip. So much simpler than zones and the such.

Jack - I've had my scary moments on the Subway (see a previous post for psycho scribbly mental patient incident), but generally I'd classify it as trains = good, stations = squatville. The Tube is worse, but consistent :)

Pearl said...

The Underground Railway was actually started by Harriet Tubman, I believe it was, as a way of transporting American Blacks (then known as "slaves").

Following the Civil War (AKA the War Of Northern Aggression) and to Modren Tymes the subways have been used to move commuters, thugs, People Lacking in Hygiene, the homeless, the homefull, and several categories of people that we're not allowed to tell the Brits about under penalty of taxation.

I would tell you more if I could.


Charby said...

the underground out there terrified me. I couldnt understand it at all!
I couldnt work out where I was going, what line I needed to be on and not all the stations appeared to be marked on the maps.

Red Squirrel said...

Pearl - nah, the underground railroad was the only railroad in the US at the time. Southern-style railroad prohibition failed and only Metro chairman Elliot Ness brought the train back to the people.

Like I said, I've read up on this :)

Charby - if only each line was one colour eh? How simple would that be?

Charby said...

far too simple to work!

Anonymous said...

I spent ten of the last eleven years living in Manhattan and I don't even know when the damn subway was built. It SMELLS like it was built a thousand years ago from the decaying corpses of hookers. But it's a handy little network for sure, so long as you don't let any mentally disturbed people push you off the platform. Or so long as you don't ride the A train at 3am. SCARY.

Red Squirrel said...

TVA - it woould explain why all the hookers keep disappearing over there. The MTA keeps nabbing them to fill in the gaps....