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 B

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
had been caught by the wave and was hanging on for his life. Without hesitating, young Isambard Brunel, whose father was out having dinner at the time and thus had no idea of the near catastrophe he was missing, grabbed a rope, slid down an iron pole in the shaft, helped tie the rope around his worker’s waist, and called for him to be hoisted up. Once he was up, the men conducted a roll call. “To our unspeakable joy,” Beamish wrote years later, “every man answered to his name.”
    *   *   *
    SUCH GOOD FORTUNE WOULD NOT last. On the morning of January 12, 1828, Beamish arrived around six and waited with the next shift while they downed some warm beer. Suddenly, a watchman rushed over to them. “The water is in! The tunnel is full!” Beamish grabbed a crowbar and broke down a locked door to a staircase that descended into the shaft. He had only gone down a few steps when Isambard Brunel, hurled up from the tunnel by the massive wave, landed in Beamish’s arms. “Ball! Ball! Collins! Collins!” Brunel muttered the names of men he had been with just seconds earlier, and now they were gone, along with four others who perished in the flooded tunnel. More than four thousand bags of clay and gravel were needed to plug the hole in the riverbed that had caused the disaster, but it almost did not matter. Calls for the tunnel to be sealed up poured in to Marc Brunel. The risk, the public cried, was not worth more deaths. But even though his own son was nearly killed and required months of recuperation from both a knee injury and internal wounds, Brunel insisted the work continue. “The ground was always made to the plan,” he said. “Not the plan to the ground.” But until more money could be raised, and the public reassured, Brunel and the Thames Tunnel would have to wait. A brick wall was erected in the tunnel, and it was turned into a tourist attraction for a small fee so that the tunnel company could at least recoup some of its costs. “The Great Bore,” as journalists derisively called the tunnel, was presumed dead.
    *   *   *
    ON MARCH 24, 1841, Marc Isambard Brunel was knighted. And nearly two years to the day after that, on March 25, 1843, the Thames Tunnel opened. What Brunel had predicted at the start would take three years to build had taken eighteen. “Another wonder has been added to the many of which London can boast,” the London Times wrote. “Another triumph been achieved by British enterprize, genius and perseverance.” The tunnel would not have been built had the Duke of Wellington not freed Brunel, who used a government loan in 1837 to restart the tunneling. A new and improved shield also helped, this one weighing 140 tons. It replaced Brunel’s original one and proved to be stronger, faster, and safer.
    For the opening ceremony, a “tunnel waltz” was composed, flags were raised, bells rang out, and, at four in the afternoon, a signal gun fired and a procession began moving down a spiral staircase into the western archway of the tunnel. Marc Brunel, who had suffered a stroke a year earlier that left him mostly paralyzed on his right side, insisted on attending the celebration and was greeted with cheers as he walked through the tunnel. The throng of thousands burst into song, and the words of “See the Conquering Hero Comes” echoed off the walls. More than a hundred burners atop lamp posts placed in the arches provided the light. The first day the tunnel was opened, fifty thousand people walked the entire length. But there were others who could not bring themselves to join them.
    Marc and Isambard Brunel had dug a tunnel beneath the Thames River wide enough to serve as a road for vehicles. They had proved that the underground could be safely conquered and that man no longer had to stop digging when a river stood in the way. But what the father and his son could not do, the London Times reported on the day of the Thames Tunnel’s opening, was wipe away centuries of man’s

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