The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway by Doug Most

Book: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway by Doug Most Read Free Book Online
Authors: Doug Most
fellow passengers,” Brunel’s biographer wrote, “he soon produced a copy, so admirably executed in every minute detail, even to the seal, that it was deemed proof against all scrutiny.” His forged passport worked, and Brunel soon found work in upstate New York as a land surveyor. It was there that he had the fortune to meet the recently resigned U.S. treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. Brunel flourished with Hamilton’s assistance, and before long he had been hired as the chief engineer for New York City. During this time he designed a two-thousand-seat playhouse on Chatham Street in New York and he very nearly designed one of the most important buildings in American history. Brunel’s drawings for a new capitol building to be constructed in Washington impressed the judges of a $500 prize offered by Thomas Jefferson, but his design was deemed too expensive to build and the winner was a late entry by a little-known physician, painter, and amateur architect. Brunel stayed on as New York’s chief engineer until he felt the pull of home, and on January 20, 1799, he set sail for England.
    Brunel began to tinker, first on a writing and drawing machine, and then on a contraption that measured out pieces of thread and wound them into small balls of cotton. The cotton balls were soft and elegant, although exactly what purpose they might serve was not entirely clear. Had Brunel patented his machine, there is no telling the fortune that might have come his way. Instead, he failed to act, and the machine was widely adopted and used, and he received not a penny for his contribution. One bad business break after another eventually landed him in serious debt, and in 1821, Brunel, with a wife and three young children at home, was jailed at King’s Bench Debtors Prison. It was a humbling and humiliating experience.
    Just before his imprisonment, Brunel, by now fifty years old, had sketched out in detail an enormous, cast-iron, circular device. He called it a shield, and in his patent application he described it as a machine for “forming tunnels or drift-ways underground.” There was nothing else like it. With hydraulic presses rotating it and propelling it, this shield could push forward underground, excavating dirt and rock while supporting the ground above the hole that it dug. The shield, Brunel believed, was the future of tunneling, but from behind bars there was little he could do with it.
    In a letter that he wrote to authorities, Brunel begged for his release. He explained that he had refused offers in prior years to leave England to help another country with an engineering crisis, because his loyalty to his new homeland mattered most to him. “If I see honourable and personal employment here,” he wrote, “you may be assured that I shall not be wanting in zeal, but shall devote my future services and talents for the benefit of this country.” Every day he remained imprisoned he grew more dejected about the time away from his family. He wrote an emotional letter to his close friend, Lord Spencer: “My affectionate wife and myself are sinking under it. We have neither rest by day nor night. Were my enemies at work to effect the ruin of mind and body, they could not do so more effectually.”
    As Brunel’s depression deepened, the Duke of Wellington finally recognized the good that Brunel could do for their country. The duke ordered that the five thousand pounds Brunel owed be taken from the Treasury and used to free Brunel of his liabilities. In a gracious letter of thanks, Brunel wrote to the duke on August 21, 1821, and promised that the only way he could express his gratitude was in “preparing plans for the service of the British government.” As it so happened, the duke had just the project for him.
    On February 18, 1824, a group of men gathered at the City of London Tavern in the Bishopsgate neighborhood. With its low ceilings, flagstone floors, roaring fires, and cavernous dining room that could seat 350

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