Non-Fiction: “The Race Underground” by Doug Most

race undergroundFor this year’s selection for American History Month (because yes, I am making that a Thing and no one can stop me), I went beyond the Presidents that I don’t know and Teddy Roosevelt, and went for a moment in history that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been discussed: the inception of the subway system.

Occasionally, I think deep thoughts.  And some of those deep thoughts occur while driving.  For instance, I could be driving to Boston to see my friend Jen (don’t forget to buy her book!), and all of a sudden, I’ll realize that a hundred years ago, the road I’m driving on didn’t exist.  There was no I-95 in 1914.  There were barely cars during that time!  And it’ s not like Boston built its city up, around and over the existing T – those tracks had to be created.  Basically, sometimes the things we take for granted scare me.  But then I listen to the next episode of Welcome to Night Vale and I feel a bit better.

This book was shown in one of my Goodreads newsletters, and luckily, my local library had a copy for me and I was able to read it in time for American History Month.  According to the subtitle, the book is supposed to talk about the rivalry that occurred between Boston and New York with regards to their subways, but while the story was interesting and intriguing, I wouldn’t say it was a rivalry.  I mean, the greatest rivalry between Boston and New York is between the Red Sox and the Yankees.  I’m not even from Boston, and I’m not even a big Red Sox fan, and I grew up with a deeply-ingrained hatred of the Yankees — y’know, when I bother to think about baseball.  If there was a true rivalry between Boston and New York while they were building their subways, I would have expected to have seen some Bostonians down in New York, booing the tunnel diggers and telling them they suck.

What really happened was that, between bureaucracy, red tape, and a monopoly on the cable-car system of the day, New York wasn’t as quick to adapt to the concept of a subway as Boston was.  Therefore, Boston’s subway opened up first (in 1897) and New York’s subway didn’t open until 1904.  That’s it.

The book talks a lot about the different inventors and innovations that occurred leading up to the first American subways.  London had the first Underground system, and in its first inception, was steam powered.  That meant a lot of disgusting air and smoke in the tunnels, which made the rides very uncomfortable.  The American cities wanted to avoid that, so they kept going with their above-ground trollies and cable-cars.  But eventually, between population growth and the width of the streets, traffic jams were horrible (imagine your daily rush hour commute.  Now imagine that with horse poop.  You’re welcome) and something needed to be done.

Two brothers from Brookline, Henry and William Whitney, were instrumental in both Boston and New York in creating the subway systems.  Henry stayed in Boston and was one of the first men to consider a subway as an acceptable alternative (imagine, if you will, Boston full of elevated train lines.  I mean, yes, the Green Line is above-ground from Lechmere to North Station, but imagine that ALL OVER).  William married into the New York scene, and in-between being assistant secretary of the Navy (before Teddy Roosevelt – I just can’t quit him!) worked very hard in the transportation department of New York City, monopolizing cable-cars and eventually, getting the required charter for the team that would actually build the New York subway.

I enjoyed the book – I thought it was very thoroughly-researched, but it wasn’t boring.  Unlike The Story of Ain’t, this author was able to keep the narrative through-line throughout the book; I didn’t feel confused by all the “old white guys” that populate its story.  As someone who rides the T at least once a month (I live in Maine, I’m not a native Bostonian), I love that I’m able to recognize landmarks like the Park Street Station, and Tremont Street, and the Common, and know about Somerville and Brookline – all of those words mean something to me.  I can also appreciate how god-awful old the Green Line actually is, which is why I hate riding it.  (And now Government Center is closed for two years.  Because yes, it needs an update, but two years?!  That’s crazy!)

I do not have any familiarity with the New York Metro, however.  It is on my list of Places to Go, but as of yet, I have not gotten any closer to New York City than driving I-95 through it at 5:30 in the morning coming back from Florida two years ago.

If you’re from Boston or New York, or are just interested in the engineering behind building a subway system, then you’d probably like this book.  If you don’t fit any of those qualities … you probably won’t read it.  And that’s okay, too.

And before I go, here’s the true difference between New York and Boston:


Grade for The Race Underground3 stars

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