The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway

America’s first subways: Boston loves New York; What America learned about building subways

Feb 15th 2014 | From the print edition

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway. By Doug Most. St Martin’s Press; 404 pages; $27.99. Buy from

IF THEY were not such rivals, New York and Boston could be twinned. Their strengths make a good fit: New York sees itself as the cultural and financial capital of America; Boston has claims to be its academic and intellectual centre. So the two cities make an impressive team when they channel their aggression, as they did in their earnest yet friendly race to build America’s first subway around the turn of the 20th century.

“The incredible rivalry” of the book’s subtitle is salesmen’s hype. Doug Most’s meticulously researched history reveals that getting the subways built was more a collaborative than a competitive effort. It helped that two brothers from an old, rich and influential family were early proponents of subways. Henry Whitney in Boston and William Whitney in New York suppressed their sibling rivalry to work together to discover and recruit the country’s best engineers for their various transport ventures.

Both brothers and both cities came to appreciate the truth of a business-school mantra: “It’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” The Whitneys and, when they dropped out, their successors, learnt a lot from the London Underground. This, the world’s first subway, was trapped for years in steam-age technology. Passengers complained that their trips were dark, dank and dangerous, that the foul air left them coughing “like a boy with his first cigar”.

Thanks to the genius of Thomas Edison, the subways in New York and Boston were well lit. They were also clean. Although Mr Most gives due credit to Edison he also celebrates Frank Sprague, an inventor of efficient electric motors. According to Mr Most, Sprague deserves to rank alongside Edison and the Brunels, England’s father-and-son transport engineers.

When London opened its underground system in 1863, the inhabitants of the two American cities were still reliant on horse-drawn public transport to get about. The horses were loved but so slow and smelly that people swarmed into city slums to avoid long journeys to and from work. Congestion worsened as immigrants poured into New York and Boston.

By the mid-1890s, Mr Most notes, New York’s Lower East Side was one of the most crowded places on the planet. Its tenements were “wet, cold and rancid, and vermin-infested”. Diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis were common, as a consequence of poor sanitation, the lack of lavatories, and bad ventilation. “Staying clean in a neighbourhood filled with horse stables, brothels, slaughterhouses and saloons was impossible.”

Speedy action was demanded, not just to build the first subway in America but also to make it easier for people to spread out from the inner city into the outer city and the suburbs. To save time and money the proponents of both the New York and Boston subways opted where possible for the cut-and-cover method rather than a circular tube. Instead of boring a tunnel far below ground they dug a trench. Once a section of the trench was long and deep enough, as Mr Most explains, steel beams were laid in a grid across the top to begin the process of building the roof of the tunnel and of rebuilding the surface of the street above.

Who then won the race? That would be giving away the climax of an exciting book. Nonetheless, without spoiling the story, it can be disclosed that rivalry between the two cities remained friendly. The winner did not crow. There were, Mr Most reports, no boastful proclamations, no processions, no celebratory spikes. But much that is worth reading about.

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About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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