“A big humbug” — that’s how one critic described America’s first subway system. Other opponents were more extreme. It would release dangerous underground air, some said. It would disturb the dead, others said. A religious leader in Boston declared it a project of Lucifer himself. Why were people so opposed to this new form of transportation? To understand it, we have to rewind centuries — to a time when people thought that Earth was hollow, and that hell was directly under their feet.
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Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I'm Jason Feifer. Maybe you think you've seen bad traffic. Maybe you've sat around in some insufferable waits, but whatever you've seen, you've probably had it easy compared to the people of London in the 1820s. The place was just choked with congestion. And if you needed to cross over the Thames river, well, you might as well just drink beer until you pass out and try again when you wake up, because here's the thing, there were just too many people on foot or horse-drawn carriages trying to get around ane of the world's most important cities. And the only options for crossing the river were London Bridge or a ferry, and both were maxed out.
Jason Feifer: So in 1824, a group of men gathered at the city of London Tavern and they drank until they passed out. Kidding. Well, actually it probably did happen, but anyway, before they drank and passed out this particular group of men, I'm talking about men at that bar and they formed a company called the Thames Tunnel Company, which was going to push an ambitious solution to all of this traffic, build the world's first tunnel for vehicular traffic and do it underneath the river. It seemed implausible, insane, and it remained an insane idea for 19 years, as they labored to build this thing, there were floods, there were deaths. The project ran out of money for a while and had to be bailed out by the Duke of Wellington. But finally, finally on March 25th, 1843, the tunnel opened and the first Londoners were able to step inside. And here's how the London times reported it.
Voice Clip (London Times): The majority of the visitors went the whole distance; 1002 feet, many, however, proceeded only a little way, pausing and looking about with an air of suspicion, every four or five yards while some would not venture into the tunnel at all, but remained in the shaft or on the staircase. Yet amongst the majority, there was a perceptible anxiety and not withstanding that brilliance of the lights, the singular reverberations of the music, the shouting of the admirers of the undertaking and all of that means that were taken to give a [inaudible 00:03:23] to the event and the encouragement to the spectators, not withstanding also the physical heat that oppressed them. It was evident that there was a lurking, chilling fear in the breathes of many.
Jason Feifer: And what were these people afraid of? The tunnel could collapse. Of course, that seemed like a perfectly reasonable fear, no judgment there, but there's something else going on, something unspoken, something that may fly right past our modern ears, but would have been just understood by the people of the time. Something that for almost as far back, as we know, had kept humans from wanting to explore underground.
Doug Most: You know, for centuries, there was this sort of flat out fear of something down there.
Jason Feifer: This is Doug Most, journalist and author of the book, the race underground Boston, New York, and the incredible rivalry that built America's first subway. And we'll be hearing from him a lot this episode.
Doug Most: And whether you want to call it hell or whatever it was. But that down below, down below the earth's surface was where the evil spirits lurked. That's what people believed. That's where Lucifer lived. That's where bad things were down there. And that fear persisted for centuries be
Jason Feifer: Clear. Doug says, Lucifer probably wasn't foremost in the minds of most Londoners that day in the tunnel, but the 1800s were interesting times for going underground. We developed the technologies to do it, but we were in a transition pushing ourselves underground and therefore confronting the lingering fears, built up over centuries that something was down there, something scary, something waiting for us. It wasn't as pervasive then in the 1800s of say, it would have been 200 years prior, but it wasn't quite gone yet either. This is a kind of fear we haven't yet explored on Pessimists Archive. It's not the fear of the new so much as the fear of the unknown and actually, you know what? It isn't even that it's the fear of the known because for so much of human history, we were pretty sure we knew exactly what was down there underground. So to actually start digging and venturing down there meant confronting what we always knew to be true. Something that our religions and our stories and our most trusted thinkers kept telling us was true.
Doug Most: It wasn't even that long ago. And when I say the logo, obviously everything is relative, but as late as 1787. So if you just go back a couple hundred years, there was an author, an English author by the name of William Beckford who published sort of a very popular Gothic work. It was called Vathek, V A T H E K, Vathek. And in this work, he sort of wrote about this powerful, heroic figure who struck a pact with the original Satan and entered into sort of a subterranean place by way of a secret opening at a rock and down there, he was consumed by evil and filled with hatred. And this essay was described later as, I wrote as, "the first truly atrocious hell in literature."
Jason Feifer: These days, of course, the scariest thing most of us find underground is a delayed subway. And if you live in New York, that is every day, but the subway actually turns out to be a great way to understand this transition because the subway itself was resisted. Called "a project of the Devil" feared for unleashing some kind of toxic underground air and so on.
Jason Feifer: So in this episode, we are going to use the subway as a way to understand some really big questions. Like these: how did we get over our fears of going under? How did we bury the fears of being buried? How did we understand the underground? How many bad puns can I write in one transitionary paragraph of a podcast script? We are going to find out all of it. Well, you already have the answer about the puns. It was three, but for the rest, I think we need to start by going way, way back to the place where this all begins. Megadeath, take us there. (Metal music plays.) Yes, hell. Before we get to the subway or really any technology of any form, we need to understand the fear of the underground. And to do that, we need to ask a question that seems so basic that it sounds stupid to even say it out loud, but here we go, where is hell? And you know what? I'm not the only one asking that.
Voice Clip (Mary K. Baxter): Okay, first of all, where is Hell located?
Voice Clip (Mary K. Baxter): In the middle of the earth, and it's in the shape of a human body, and it's on it's back.
Andrew Rabin: That's from a TV show, featuring an evangelist named Mary K. Baxter. And I don't really know what to do with the part about the shape of the human body on its back. And also when the earth rotates is the body ever turned on its head anyway, whatever, I'm not a religious person. And so it came as news to me that for many centuries and clearly even today, people believed that hell is a physical place on the same planet as us. Like you can dig with a shovel and if you go far down enough, you reach Hell. Where exactly did that come from? There are plenty of theories, but the most compelling clue to me lies in how we once understood the earth in the first place we believed it was hollow.
Doug Most: That it was a hollow sort of orb. And that deep inside of its core breathe, sort of these undiscovered civilizations.
Andrew Rabin: So if the earth is hollow, it would seem totally logical that there's some way to get from one location to the other, from surface to inside. And that what lies between the two must be in some way, transitionary.
Natana Delong-Bas: There was concern that if you were digging up the ground, that that was somehow interfering with God's creation. Like you could dig up the surface for gardening or for planting things that was okay. But to do something beyond that ran the risk of playing with supernatural forces that you might not necessarily be able to control.
Jason Feifer: That's Natana Delong-Bas, who teaches theology at Boston College. And she also says that this is a simple matter of association by direction. In the Bible, the language used to talk about Heaven or movement towards God is always moving upwards. Moses went up the mountain, Jesus ascends to Heaven. And meanwhile, where do you bodies go after death? Down. Up good, down bad. In a world without modern science, that feels like a pretty helpful guideline. So to get a sense of how that played out in one long ago, civilization, I called up Andrew Rabin a professor of English at University of Louisville who studies the law and literature of early medieval England. And he said that if you want to understand their fear of the underground, you first need to understand just the way that they thought about everything.
Andrew Rabin: We think of the Middle Ages as irrational, but it's actually not. In the Middle Ages, they have a different sense of causality than we do today. We see something happening and where we say, what causes it? Why is this thing happening? They see something inexplicably and they say, "who is causing it?"
Jason Feifer: Here's an example; someone in the community dies. And soon after a case of tuberculosis breaks out, now they don't have germ theory at the time. So maybe somebody digs up the body and finds it swollen. And beginning to decompose as a body will do. And they think, "oh, this dead person caused the outbreak." And this would also seem perfectly logical because dead people had habit of springing back out of the ground at the time. Now that might be especially true if you live near a peat bog, you know the marshy areas where today they grow the peat that makes your scotch nice and peat-y. But back then, it's where they buried people.
Andrew Rabin: Depending on the circumstances of the peat bog, it will inhibit a decomposition. And, depending on the way in which the gases are bubbling, it might actually eject the body from the bog. In which case you come upon this deformed body that isn't decomposing in the way that you think or know it ought to decompose. And it's there sitting outside of the grave. That's the walking dead.
Voice Clip (Walking Dead): It's a real pretty picture you paint there, Rick. When do I get to see it?
Jason Feifer: It's a return of the AMC hit, The Walking Dead. But this time, just hour long videos of deformed corpses lying around in bogs. All right, so you've got a world in which people may spring back to life and yes, they might not be "walking" dead more like "overstaying their welcome dead," but all the same, they are not going away. And they seem to be causing bad things to happen. And so you, as a society need to take precautions. If a good person dies, that person is buried with a sword or shield or something in case they need it when they spring back to life. And if a bad person dies, hey, well, sometimes their head will be cut off or there'll be dismembered and the various pieces of their bodies will be buried in a disorganized way to make it harder to come back to life and do bad stuff.
Andrew Rabin: They're really afraid that your body's going to get out of the grave and walk. They'll actually take even more drastic precautions. One being actually sewing your body in a calf skin and submerging it in a lake.
Jason Feifer: Somewhere, Vladimir Putin is thinking, "Hm, yes that is a good idea." All right. So you're living in a world where you put dead people under the ground and it's possible they might come back to life. You also happen to be surrounded by dead things. It's kind of hard to imagine this in a world of pavement and concrete as we have now, but these people and, actually most people across time, we're just living on top of whatever civilizations came before them.
Jason Feifer: Andrew says it was pretty common to come across artifacts from prior civilizations, which of course these people had no real explanation for. And in England, the people of the middle ages were surrounded by all of these hillocks or little hills that prior civilizations had used as burial grounds. So without any context, though, then these are just creepy mounds, where if you go digging, you'll find bones. Now just imagine that. Imagine this thing is your neighborhood, and nobody can explain it, but it is filled with bones. That's pretty freaky. So given all that, if you lived at the time, you'd come to a pretty natural conclusion. The underground is just not a place you want to be, not a place you even want to mess with. Not even a place you want to really try digging into. And that means it's going to be a while before humanity can get to Ben Folds Five.
Ben Folds Five: We can be happy underground.
Jason Feifer: Now did ancient civilizations dig anyway? They did, of course. They mined, they made catacombs and so on, but it's worth noting that nobody physically put shovel to earth because they wanted to. They were slaves in say Rome or Egypt, basically digging until they died. It wasn't until the 1700s that tunneling technology really developed and we started building things that people could move through. And one of the first breakthroughs was making tunnels for canals to continue through.
Doug Most: These barges, which sort of go into these dark tunnels. If you want to think of a terrifying thought, these barges would go into these dark sort of canal tunnels. And the people on board, these barges would move their boat along literally by like touching the walls and touching them with their feet or with their hands.
Jason Feifer: But this turns out to be a really good way to transition into the idea of going underground. Because think of it, they're tunneling through mountains and rock, which means that they're going under a ground, but they're not going underground. We're kind of easing our way through it. If you know someone who went through a hole in a mountain, literally moving a boat along in the pitch, black by putting their hands and feet on its cold walls and they came out the other side, you might just conclude that Lucifer isn't in the mountain. And if he isn't inside the mountain, is he below the mountain below the river? London opens that world's first tunnel for vehicular traffic under the Thames in 1843 and skeptical as people are, they use it. And again, no Lucifer.
Doug Most: They sort of looked down that dark tunnel and said, "yeah, I'm not so sure I want to go through that." And I don't think it was because they were worried that they were going to encounter the devil, it was more because they'd overcome that fear, now it had transitioned to a fear of like, "is that thing going to stay up? And can I walk through that without the world collapsing on top of me?" And I think that that's where the transition from the fear of the devil to just fear of safety is where that happened.
Jason Feifer: One fear becomes another. Now, let's set superstition aside here for a moment. We'll come back to it because it's not solved that easy, but the big confrontation with the underground and the thing that would ultimately come to really normalize the idea of going underground, came with the subway. And that was met with a whole lot of resistance that we should understand. So first let's go to Boston, March 28th, 1895, about a dozen bundled up men with wheelbarrows have shown up on Boston common for a ceremony. Boston subway the first in America was going to break ground at 9:00 AM. But when the hour came, the city's mayor was nowhere to be seen. So someone went and called him, but instead reached an aid. "Where's the mayor?"they said, and the response:
Voice Clip (London Times): The Mayor is too busy to attend the proceedings. If necessary, he will send his private secretary.
Jason Feifer: Imagine being this guy's private secretary just sent off wherever the boss doesn't want to go; "oh, hello, good day to you. My presence is intended as an insult from the Mayor of Boston." Because here's the thing: the Mayor, like plenty of local politicians, was no fan of the subway and he wasn't alone. Two days later, a state representative named Jeremiah J McCarthy introduced a bill to stop it from being built. Here's what he told the Boston globe reporter.
Voice Clip (Jeremiah J. McCarthy): I regard the subway as a big humbug. It will rob the citizens of Boston of $20 million before it is completed. And rapid transit will not be secured. The subway if ever needed will not be popular with the people as they will not use it when opportunities afforded to travel overhead. Subways are damp and unhealthy and mostly constructive for crossing a river when no other way is offered.
Jason Feifer: All right, lots to chew over here. And in fact, this little rant contains a really good survey of all the reasons the people oppose the subway. So let's take them one by one first, let's start with this:
Voice Clip (Jeremiah J. McCarthy): As they will not use it when opportunity is afforded to travel overhead.
Jason Feifer: Pretty straightforward here. San Francisco had started experimenting with above ground trolleys in the 1870s and many politicians in other cities thought this was the solution. People would always prefer to travel above ground they thought. Because it's simple and familiar and sure trolleys would be really hard to build through Boston's windy streets. And it doesn't exactly free up space on the roads, but come on, it's familiar. All right, what else you got Jeremiah J McCarthy?
Voice Clip (Jeremiah J. McCarthy): Subways are damp and unhealthy.
Jason Feifer: We're in 1895 building America's first subway, but it's not the world's first subway. The world's first subway was actually back in London. It opened in 1863 and no other city immediately followed its lead. That's because the London subway was disgusting. There were no electric trains at the time. So this thing was a coal powered steam train, running underground. A British journalist named Fred T Jane wrote it and reported the experience for a publication called English Illustrated Magazine;
Voice Clip (Fred T. Jane): No time is wasted at stations on the underground. And a minute later, their train was off. Off in to a black wall ahead with a shrieking of 10,000 demons rising above the thunder of the wheels. The sensation altogether was all together, much like the inhalation of gas preparatory to having a tooth drawn. I would have given a good deal to have waited a minute or so longer. Visions of accidents, collisions, and crumbling tunnels floated through my mind, a fierce wind took away my breath.
Jason Feifer: Later, he said he was coughing, like quote "a boy with his first cigar," end quote. And at some point the driver turned to him and said:
Voice Actor (Driver): It a little unpleasant when you ain't used to it, what you ought to do is come on a hot summer day to get the real thing.
Jason Feifer: Now much had changed between then and the time that Boston was developing a subway. Electric powered trains were possible bringing the number of shrieking demons down from 10,000 to at least, I don't know, 3000, but anyway, London had made an impression that wasn't easy to shake. Now back to our friend, Jeremiah J McCarthy,
Voice Clip (Jeremiah J. McCarthy): The subway, if ever needed will not be popular with the people.
Jason Feifer: Now, here, we once again intersect with the supernatural. So by this time, the late 1800s, humans had done enough digging that it had become clear that all hell would not be unleashed by a giant hole in the ground. But the association of the underground and death still remained, and had transformed into this other thing; a fear of air.
Doug Most: The newspapers are sort of right about the air quality underground. And there was this fear that the air was going to be so filthy because there were these germs and there were these bad things down there, that the air was just going to be not healthy. And people were going to die down there just from breathing. The air.
Jason Feifer: Boston went out of its way to assure people this wasn't true. They brought in engineers and the best minds from MIT to test the air quality, but still concern persisted. And eventually the subway development played right into it.
Doug Most: It was rooted in this idea that the only reason you were supposed to go underground was because you were dead. That's what people still believed. That's the only reason you go underground. It's because your life is over and now I will put my body into the ground. Not when I'm still alive, not supposed to go down there when I'm alive, supposed to only go down there when I'm dead. And that's one of the reasons why Boston construction project, one of the biggest obstacles they did hit, was when they designed the route for the subway through Boston common and around the corners of Boston common and over there. Six months into the project, a worker was picking up some materials up from the ground, along the subway route. He picked up what he thought was a twig. And it turned out that what he picked up was a bone. And what they discovered was that the subway route was going right through a burial ground of 900 revolutionary war soldiers.
Jason Feifer: You know what's amazing is how not dissimilar this is to what was going on in the middle ages. You dig, you hit some bones and you think "oh, boy, what have I just disturbed? I guess the good news is that these bodies weren't being ejected out of the ground on their own in Boston, but still, now Boston has a stark reminder of how underground equals death. Work had to stop for six weeks while these graves were moved. And now you've got religious leaders even more ready to pounce. One of them a Reverend named Isaac J Lansing was once about to begin his sermon when a subway worker outside had accidentally cut a main waterline sending water shooting into the reverend's private office. He'd tell his members that the subway workers were sinning by working on the Sabbath. The subway he'd say is.
Voice Actor: An infernal hole, in more ways then one. It is, the Devil!
Jason Feifer: But the project continued. It had to, that was the thing. The subway may be scary, it may tap into fears we'd begun to culturally overcome, but that's still lingered inside of us. And yet doing nothing was not an option.
Doug Most: Cities were too crowded. They were just too overrun with people on the sidewalks. People were literally being edged off of the sidewalks, elbowed into the streets.
Jason Feifer: I wanted to know exactly how the people who built the subway had countered the resistance. Like how did they make their own case? And this one paragraph from Doug's book really put it into focus for me. So I'm going to set the stage here. This is before the subway is officially open to the public and the team that was creating it is bringing the Massachusetts governor down to see the subway for his first time. The team, the whole group of them descend the steps into darkness and then reached the bottom. As Doug writes, "everyone stopped moving suddenly nervous about taking an awkward step in a dark unfamiliar place and then without warning, someone flips the light on and boom." Here's what follows from the book, this is a direct quote, "of all the fears from citizens that had been expressed during Boston's long debate about a subway, one of the most often repeated ones was that walking down into a tunnel would feel like walking to your own death, dark, damp, scary."
Jason Feifer: "Those were just some of the words heard throughout the public hearings and yet here was a subway tunnel that was bright, clean, dry, and odorless with shiny white walls and a sparkling white roof," end quote. That's the answer, isn't it? That's the answer to it all. I'd asked at the beginning, how do you replace something people feel like they know with a totally new reality? If they know the underground is a terrible place, how do you get them to know it another way ? The answer is you create the exact opposite reality. This subway had to be perfect. They were meticulous about the drainage, knowing people would expect it to be damp. They were careful about the ventilation. Knowing people were concerned about the air, the fears weren't hindrances to producing the subway, they were a guide to producing the subway. I don't know if anyone at the time ever articulated this, but it seems evidently true.
Jason Feifer: People's fears offered a blueprint for exactly what the subway needed to be in order to be successful. When the people of the time saw nothing of the old reality, not one detail of it, they were able to replace it with something new. I imagine it's what we'll be faced with again sometime. When the everyday person steps into a driverless car or a Hyper loop train, or is sent off into space. Whatever our anxieties are about those experiences, they'll have to be integrated straight into the design of the vehicle. Boston subway opened to the public on September 1st, 1897. New York followed in 1904 with its own beautiful subway. And of course, it's funny for a New York resident like me to look back upon this, given that the subway I take to work every day is nobody's definition of bright, clean, dry, and odorless. But then again, that's no new observation.
Jason Feifer: The first day the Boston subway opened 250,000 people took it. Two days later, the Boston Globe ran a story about people complaining about the turnstiles and how crowded rush hour traffic was. The headline of the story; two words, "novelty over", just like that the new became the old. And that's our episode. Hey, let's stay in touch. If you haven't yet, please subscribe to Pessimists Archive on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us on Twitter at, @pessimistsarc, A R C, where we tweet amazing and hilarious snippets of old pessimism. Our website is pessimists.co, where we have links to some of the things discussed on this episode. And you can email us@firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to two archival readers you heard in this episode, our British accent came from Paul Blanchard who has a fantastic podcast called Media Masters. And Hey, you can go check out the episode I was on.
Jason Feifer: And our Boston accent comes from Roberto Scalese, an old friend of mine who's like a walking encyclopedia of Boston history and an extra big thanks to Doug most who you heard throughout the episode, his book served as the foundation for a lot of what you heard here again it's called, The Race Underground Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway. Thanks also to Andrew Rabin, who was making his second appearance on Pessimists Archive and to Natana Delong-Bas, Alex Dressler and Seth Porges, who first suggested this episode subject to me. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants, learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The other music you heard was by Daniel Burch and John Philip Sousa. The Pessimists Archive team this episode was Louie Anslow and Elizabeth Brier. Thanks again for listening. My name is Jason Feifer and we'll see you in the near future.
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