Today many are extolling the anniversary of the Tower Subway and claiming it its the first ever subway in the world to open.
Its nice that London has a first…..
Except it isn’t! It actually depends on what one sees as first – a public line, a demonstration line, or even a parcels only line….
The London Hydraulic Power Company’s Tower Subway opened on 2nd August 1870. That’s indeed very early in the history of tube systems, its two decades before the City and South London Railway.
But not as early as Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic transit line. That opened on 26 February 1870. What’s more, it worked longer than the Tower Subway! Beach’s Broadway Underground Railway ran for three years. The Tower Subway’s railcar which was cable hauled managed just five months of operation before being closed due to being uneconomic. After that the Tower Subway simply became a foot tunnel.
I suppose the difference here is the Tower Subway was a fully working subway line despite its short length, and complete with lifts at both ends. It went under the Thames, whilst Beach’s Transit line was simply a demonstration line and didn’t really go anywhere except from Warren Street station down the tunnel to a dead end and then back.
The very reason the Tower Subway remains in the public consciousness is aided by the fact its northern entrance is still to be seen opposite the Tower of London. With Beach’s New York subway line there’s simply nothing left.
We can say the Tower Subway was the world’s first public access subway, whereas Beach’s was the world’s first public demonstration subway. But Beach still beat the Tower Subway to the winning post by six months.
It all of course depends on what we mean by ‘subway’, ‘tube’ and ‘underground railway’ – and its a job for the pedantic. Just to take things to extremes, the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in New York is often said to be the world’s first underground railway, having opened in 1844! That beats the Tower Subway, Beach’s line and even London’s Metropolitan railway by many years!
The only reason the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel doesn’t get a mention is because it wasn’t specifically built to be an underground transit system. The Guinness Book of Records does however class the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel as the world’s first subway.
Just to take things further and being pedantic, we can point to the London Pneumatic Despatch Railway as being the oldest tube of all. Despite being a parcels only railway it did carry passengers who sought the thrill of lying in a pneumatic car and being hurtled below ground through dark tunnels at speed. This short system opened in 1863 and worked until 1874, surpassing both the Tower Subway and Beach’s Pneumatic Transit!
In the past a few on Twitter have celebrated the Tower Subway’s anniversary using pictures of Beach’s Pneumatic line! Ironic! 🙂
Source: Twitter. (Page since deleted – a screencap is used here.)