Book Talk: THE RACE UNDERGROUND, by Doug Most

the race underground doug most book
The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway
Doug Most (Facebook) (Twitter)
St. Martin’s Press (February 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 0312591322 / 9780312591328)
Nonfiction: history, 416 pages

A version of this post was previously published as a Starred Review in Shelf Awareness for Readers (February 18, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.

As industrial innovation and waves of immigration drove the dramatic 19th-century growth of New York and Boston, both cities needed to find new ways to move people around. Constrained by geography, they were running out of space for pedestrians, horses, carriages and street railways to coexist, and eventually, they looked in the same direction: below street level. In The Race Underground, Boston Globe editor Doug Most recounts the remarkable achievements in civil engineering that transformed two cities, along with the political and financial intrigues that accompanied them.

The Race Underground shifts its narrative between Boston and New York from one chapter to the next, and while Most doesn’t minimize the technological developments that made the subway possible, he’s more interested in the people responsible for bringing it to each city—and, sometimes, in the ones who stood in its way. The human-interest angle allows him to play up the competitive relationship between the Northeast’s two anchor cities as each tries to be first to take its transportation problems underground. (Spoiler: Boston does it sooner, but New York does it on a much bigger scale.)

As challenging as it can be to get around New York, Boston, and other major American cities where mass transit is part of everyday 21st-century life, it’s staggering to imagine what it might be like without it. (Actually, if you live in Los Angeles, you don’t have to imagine very hard.) The Race Underground tells the story of how we got there, and it’s an enlightening—and surprisingly exciting—ride.

Book description, from the publisher’s website: 

In the late nineteenth century, as cities like Boston and New York grew more congested, the streets became clogged with plodding, horse-drawn carts. When the great blizzard of 1888 crippled the entire northeast, a solution had to be found. Two brothers from one of the nation’s great families—Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York—pursued the dream of his city digging America’s first subway, and the great race was on. The competition between Boston and New York played out in an era not unlike our own, one of economic upheaval, life-changing innovations, class warfare, bitter political tensions, and the question of America’s place in the world. 

The Race Underground is peopled with the famous, like Boss Tweed, Grover Cleveland and Thomas Edison, and the not-so-famous, from brilliant engineers to the countless “sandhogs” who shoveled, hoisted and blasted their way into the earth’s crust, sometimes losing their lives in the construction of the tunnels. Doug Most chronicles the science of the subway, looks at the centuries of fears people overcame about traveling underground and tells a story as exciting as any ever ripped from the pages of U.S. history. The Race Undergroundis a great American saga of two rival American cities, their rich, powerful and sometimes corrupt interests, and an invention that changed the lives of millions.

From the Introduction:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the horse-pulled streetcar, clip-clopping along at five miles per hour and filled with an unbearable stench, slowly began to cripple two great American cities. In Boston and New York, there were too many people and no safe, reliable way for them to move from one neighborhood to the next. In the summer heat, carriages inched forward until the animals reared up their legs in frustration, and police had to come out swinging their clubs to restore peace. During the winter it was no better. Horses struggled to get their footing in the snow and ice and were driven to exhaustion or sometimes death. When a solution to the problem finally emerged–a subway–it was rejected time and again, either by corrupt politicians, selfish businessmen, or terrified citizens.”

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