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 Page A

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
people, it was one of London’s most popular restaurants. It was also an appropriate place to make history. That evening, after a long round of toasts, the Thames Tunnel Company was created. Its mission: to build the world’s first tunnel for vehicular traffic and to do it directly beneath the Thames River.
    *   *   *
    TRAFFIC IN LONDON WAS AT a standstill, particularly across London Bridge. Thousands of people were crossing the Thames River daily either on the bridge or by ferry, but the waits became interminable, and the merchants downtown were helpless as they lost business to the round-the-clock congestion. The city needed a thoroughfare to connect the two banks of the Thames, for pedestrians and for a steady line of carriages, too. A bridge was the obvious solution, but London already had those. Brunel proposed something bolder. Using his patented shield, Brunel suggested that he and his nineteen-year-old son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, would burrow a tunnel under the bed of the Thames. Until then, whenever workers had bored underground, the edge of a river had always marked the end of the line. It was a river, after all. Where else was there to go? Brunel dismissed that defeatist attitude. You go under the river, that’s where you go .
    *   *   *
    THE FATHER PUT THE SON in charge, and in 1826 their work began. Isambard Brunel was just twenty years old, a heavy smoker and Napoleon-like in stature, but his father entrusted him with the role of chief engineer on the project. The Brunel shield was an amazing machine, twelve linked frames made of cast iron, each twenty-two feet tall and three feet wide. Three compartments stacked on top of each other were able to hold and protect workers from falling debris. The compartments were fenced in on the sides and open in front, where the workers could stand and reach out their arms to work. A large screw on the shield’s bottom was turned to push it forward, and as it inched ahead, workers in the compartments efficiently bricked up the tunnel wall. Wheelbarrows carried the excavated mud to a long string of buckets that were lifted up a shaft. The process was smooth, but slow. On a good day, the shield pushed forward twelve inches at most, and each one was nerve-racking for the workers. The roof of the tunnel was just sixteen feet beneath the riverbed of the Thames, and that meant that water leaked and even flooded daily.
    On May 18, 1827, around five o’clock in the morning, Richard Beamish, a twenty-nine-year-old Irishman working as an assistant civil engineer on the Thames Tunnel, noticed that as the tide rose, the ground in the tunnel seemed to come alive. Occasional bursts of diluted silt leaked in, but that was not unusual. The workers that arrived at six in the morning were reluctant to enter the tunnel, but the day passed uneventfully. As night arrived, Beamish anticipated trouble, and he removed his polished Wellington shoes for a pair of greased mud boots and shed his holiday coat for a waterproof one. It was well into the evening when Beamish heard one of his most powerful men cry out for help, and he sent an equally strong worker to find him. A rush of water suddenly burst into the tunnel and lifted the men up, and quickly the water level began to rise up their legs and reach their waists. Beamish feared for the men working on the shield, but they managed to scurry down and to reach the bottom of the shaft, where they could climb a staircase to safety. That’s when Beamish looked down the tunnel and saw a sight he would never forget.
    “The water came on in a great wave,” he recalled. “A loud crash was heard. A small office, which had been erected under the arch, about a hundred feet from the frames, burst. The pent air rushed out; the lights were suddenly extinguished.” The men climbed the staircase in darkness, and as they reached the surface, they heard a hundred voices shouting. “A rope! A rope! Save him! Save him!”
    Below, one old worker

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