In 1869, Alfred Ely Beach built a secret subway tunnel under New York City. It spanned the length of one block and air pressure pushed the little train forwards and backwards. It was New York City’s first foray into underground travel.
That first attempt at underground travel closed down three years later, and New York forgot about subterranean travel until the early 1900s.
I recently visited the old City Hall Station, New York’s first official subway station. It opened in 1904, showcasing stained glass, Roman Brick, arches, skylights, brass chandeliers, and tiled vaults. The station and all its intricate details, reflects the City Beautiful architectural design movement, which was founded on the belief that beautiful cities created model citizens.
The mezzanine above the platform was once home to a stunning oak ticket booth, and truthfully, the station feels empty without it. I found myself oddly disappointed that the ticket booth in all the black and white photos I’d seen of the station wasn’t there, but then again, part of me wished we’d all dressed the part and wandered the station in vintage clothes to match those arched, curved ceilings. Walking through that abandoned station in my jeans and snapping pictures with my phone made me feel a little like an urban archeologist and a time traveler, glimpsing into a dimly lit world that’s only a fraction of its former self.
The station was decommissioned in 1945 after newer, longer train cars could no longer safely stop at the curved platform. I read once that during World War II, the skylights were tarred over for safety concerns. The station still carries a little bit of that era, tucked away and hidden under a bustling city above.
There are only two ways to see the old City Hall Station. Riders of the six train can stay on and sneak a peak after the six train makes its final stop at Brooklyn Bridge (just make sure it’s making the loop back to uptown and not heading to the yard). For more than a glimpse, guided tours are offered by the NYC Transit Museum to members only. More information about tours of the old City Hall Station can be found here.