When New York City Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck lifted the first shovel of dirt from the ground outside City Hall on March 24, 1900, the city celebrated the beginning of its first subway tunnel. It was heralded as “one of the most important events in the history of the city,” according to a story that appeared in the New York Times the next day, which described the crowd as immense, unruly, and “eager for souvenirs.”
But the thousands of onlookers who gathered in excitement hadn’t seen the start of the subway’s construction at all. What they saw was a symbolic photo op.
The system’s groundbreaking actually happened two days later and over a mile away on Bleecker Street, when chief engineer William Barclay Parsons drove a pickaxe into the ground.
The image of a single engineer wielding a piece of technology no more sophisticated than a hammer isn’t what most people have in mind when they think of modern infrastructure projects. But it may be the fastest technology available to New Yorkers, even now—especially now, as the Second Avenue subway, a project that began planning in the 1910s, has been under construction since 2007, is not yet open. By contrast, workers laid over 9 miles of track across Manhattan in only four years after initial groundbreaking. “The fact that we still don’t have a subway under Second Avenue is kind of amazing,” says Polly Desjarlais, a senior educator at the New York Transit Museum.[…]