Building the City's First Subway Line Beneath City Hall Park

In April 1901, horses in City Hall Park help build the tunnel trench for the city's first subway line. Photo: Collection of The New York Public Library

Nov. 17, 2015

What was that double team of horses doing in the top photograph, digging a trench in front of City Hall, and a curving one at that? And why were all those dignitaries in the background observing so intently?

A seasoned subway buff might guess the answer.

The date was April 19, 1901, and work was underway on the city's first subway line, which was to lead from City Hall up Manhattan's East Side, across 42nd Street and then uptown to 145th Street on the Upper West Side. In this instance, work was starting on the tunnel for the subway loop that to this day curves around under City Hall Park to allow the #6 Downtown local train to turn around and head back uptown.

Not only was the subway to pass virtually under City Hall itself, but a station was to be built there. And so it was—a beautifully tiled and vaulted space that was once one of the finest in the system.

Up at ground level, the subway's entrance was marked by a kiosk (the word was adapted from the Turkish for "summerhouse") located right next to the steps of City Hall.

Indeed, it was from this station on the subway's opening day, Oct. 27, 1904, that Mayor George B. McLellan was invited to operate the first train for a minute or two. Not only did he take over enthusiastically, but he refused to yield the controls until the train was far uptown, as officials must have silently prayed that he would not wreck it.

For decades, the City Hall station remained in service; in fact, this writer remembers using it—and being awed by it—sometime in the late 1930s.

But even just a few years after its opening, with the East Side subway being extended south from Brooklyn Bridge to Wall Street and eventually to Brooklyn, the station had lost its importance.

Finally, at the end of 1945, it was closed down.

Today, the trains continue to rumble through the station, and in recent years it was cleaned and restored. There has been talk of opening it once again, perhaps for historical tours. Because of its proximity to security-minded City Hall, however, one wonders if that is very likely.

This article originally appeared in the 2003 July/August issue of The Tribeca Trib.