Steinway Tunnel

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Steinway Tunnel
Concrete Benches on the No. 7 line (8510309583).jpg
(February 2013)
Line IRT Flushing Line (7 <7> trains)
Location East River between Manhattan and Queens in New York City
Coordinates 40°44′48″N 73°57′48″W / 40.7468°N 73.9633°W / 40.7468; -73.9633Coordinates: 40°44′48″N 73°57′48″W / 40.7468°N 73.9633°W / 40.7468; -73.9633
System New York City Subway
Opened June 13, 1915; 100 years ago (June 13, 1915)[1]
Operator Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Length 1.3 miles (2.1 km)
No. of tracks 2

The Steinway Tunnel carries the 7 <7> trains of the New York City Subway under the East River between 42nd Street in Manhattan and 51st Avenue in Long Island City, Queens, in New York City. It was originally designed and built as an interurban trolley tunnel (hence the narrow loading gauge and height), with stations near the current Hunters Point Avenue and Grand Central stations of the 7 <7> trains. It is named for William Steinway, who was a major promoter of its construction, although he died in 1896 before it was completed.

Initial work[edit]

The first plans to dig a railway tunnel under the East River, date back to the year 1885. On December 22, the East River Tunnel Railroad Company was founded. Its objective was to connect the Long Island Railroad (LIRR)'s tracks in Long Island City and the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad's tracks in the City of New York in the same tunnel. Back then, the New York metropolitan area was cut by large, nearly impassable water areas. In addition, plans to build the Queensboro Bridge were stagnant at the time.[2] However, the East River Tunnel Railroad Company went defunct, and so on July 22, 1887, Walter S. Gurnee and Malcolm W. Niven founded the New York and Long Island Railroad Company (NY&LIRR), and soon began planning for the tunnel.[2]

The tunnel was to begin on the New York side near the Hudson River docks in Manhattan, from there it would go east along 42nd Street to Grand Central and carry straight on under the East River. In Long Island City, the tunnel portals were to be between 5th Street (now 49th Avenue) and 4th Street (now 50th Avenue). It would go under Jackson Avenue and finally Thomson Avenue, intersecting LIRR tracks at Hunterspoint Avenue. The total cost of the 5.6-mile (9.0 km) tunnel was to be US$11.7 million.[2] The estimated total cost exceeded the financial capabilities of the company by far. So in July 1891, piano maker William Steinway started to fund the tunnel. In Astoria, Steinway had acquired, in addition to its factory, considerable real estate assets. He became a major shareholder and became the new chairman of the company. The tunnel was thus named after him.[2] Steinway advised the company to utilize electricity to power the tunnels, believing that the construction of the tunnel would increase the value of his properties within the vicinity.[2]

The route was finalized in the City of New York in 1890 and in Long Island City by 1891.[2] Construction was started on June 7, 1892, as a NY&LIRR project,[3] and the bottom of the tunnel shaft was reached in December of the same year.[4] As Steinway was the NY&LIRR's biggest stockholder, the tunnel was named after him.[3] However, soon after the start of construction, there were many complications. The project was difficult due to complex geological formations beneath the river, and there were frequent blowouts and floods. It was curtailed for a little while when five people were killed on December 28, 1892.[5] At the corner of Vernon Boulevard, Jackson Avenue and 50th Avenue, a 85-foot (26 m)-deep shaft was dug, and on December 28, during an attempt to heat frozen dynamite in the shaft, an uncontrolled explosion claimed five dead and twelve injured. Numerous surrounding houses were heavily damaged.[5] Due to high compensation claims, the Company was financially ruined. Attempts to raise additional funds failed because of the stock market crash of 1893.[5] Work was stopped as a result, and it was boarded up. Investors refused to fund the tunnel because they feared that it was unsafe.[6] Until Steinway died in 1896, some attempts were occasionally made to resume construction.[2]

The Belmont era[edit]

The Steinway Tunnel's Queens portals at left; to the right are the East River Tunnels' portals

In 1899, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), headed by August Belmont Jr., was awarded the contract for construction and operation of the first New York subway line and a takeover of Manhattan's elevated railways, to provide a monopoly on the city's subway services. In February 1902, the IRT bought the New York & Long Island Railroad and tram operators New York and Queens County Railway for a similar monopoly in Queens.[2][6]

Surveys and tunnel plans were prepared from scratch by the IRT.[6] For the proposed tram service under the East River, the plans for the tunnel were modified for dedicated tram operation. The tunnel's trackbed was raised, the gradient increased, and the route shortened. The tunnel was to turn at a loop at the corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan and go as far as Vernon Boulevard in Queens. There, the tram of New York and Queens County Railway was to be connected via a ramp. These three underground stations were Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and Jackson Avenue and Van Alst Avenue in Queens. The total cost amounted to $8 million.[2] The city objected to the tunnel project multiple times and after several disasters nearly stopped it.[7]

The westernmost of the four shafts for the tunnel was in Manhattan and was numbered #1, while the easternmost shaft, in Queens, was numbered #4. Construction began on July 14, 1905, when shaft #4 was sunk; shaft #2 on the opposite shore was sunk by September 1. Shaft #3 was sunk in the Man-O-War Reef, a granite outcrop in the East River that was expanded and renamed Belmont Island.[2] The tunnel was holed through on May 16, 1907, and were completed in September of that year, after 26 months of construction.[2]

Fifty tramcars were made available for operation through the tunnel. They possessed a 42 feet 5 inches (12.93 m)-long and 8 feet 11 inches (2.72 m)-wide all-steel superstructure with double-sided semi-open entrances at the ends, leaving multiple traction to. Power was a suspended from an iron rail on the ceiling, to which the car roof's 11 + 38 inch (279.4 + 9.5 mm)-high pantograph would attach. The cars were also fitted with rod pantographs for street operation.[2]

The tunnel was opened on September 24, 1907. While demonstration trolley car runs were conducted through the tunnels, Belmont did not have a franchise to operate a transit line.[8] The concession to operate the tunnels had expired on January 1, 1907, and the city of New York was unwilling to renew the contract. The city did not tolerate privately-operated subways and legally prevented the IRT from operating the tunnel with the trams.[2] So for the next five years, the tunnels, with trolley loops on both the Manhattan and Queens sides, remained inoperative. Belmont sold the tunnels to the city in 1913 in the wake of the Dual Contracts, which included the Steinway Tunnel as part of the new Flushing subway line.[2][8][9]

Subway operation[edit]

Vernon Boulevard – Jackson Avenue, one of three original subway stations in the Steinway Tunnel

The original IRT plan had been to resume trolley car operation,[6] but this was rejected in favor of a regular rapid transit train service.[2] The tunnels were measured, and it was found that only minor modifications were needed to allow for third rail installation. The loops and the ramp were unusable by regular subway cars due to the tight 50 feet (15 m) radius of the loops and the steep 6% incline. However, the roadbed did not have to be lowered, nor was special low profile rail required; even so, the duct banks in the tunnels were replaced. The platforms could be easily extended, and it was also found that the tunnel's width corresponded to the width specifications of the existing IRT subway's car fleet.[2][9][10]

Work began in 1913,[11] and the tunnels were modified to accommodate IRT subway cars in 1914. The first IRT Steinway test train between Grand Central and Vernon Avenue (today's Vernon Boulevard – Jackson Avenue station) ran June 13, 1915,[1] with a regularly scheduled shuttle service beginning June 22.[12] The planned metro route was to go from Times Square through the tunnel over to Long Island City and from there continue towards Flushing. The IRT was to operate this line, with the trackage east of Queensboro Plaza to be shared by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (later the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation, or BMT).[13][2]

Meanwhile, the construction work continued on the planned route. To the east of the tunnel, the Hunters Point Avenue subway station went up to the level of the Hunterspoint Avenue LIRR station. Immediately east of it was a ramp up to the elevated subway towards Queensboro Plaza. Hunters Point Avenue opened on February 15, 1916, and on November 5 of the same year, it was extended to Queensboro Plaza. Because of the lack of track connections to the rest of the IRT network, a provisional maintenance workshop was operated at the tunnel ramp until 1928.[2] To the west, construction began in 1922. The tunnel was extended to Fifth Avenue on March 23, 1926,[14] and Times Square on March 14, 1927.[2][15]

When Belmont modified the IRT Flushing Line to extend to Times Square and to Flushing, it was found that the loops could not be used for the extensions.[9] The loops on the Queens side of the tunnel were obliterated in the wake of new construction. The loop on the Manhattan side, however, is intact and currently occupied by maintenance rooms, although the ceiling third rail still exists in the loop.[9] The line from Times Square to Flushing was completed in 1928, when the station at Flushing opened.[16][2]

Since the tunnel ramps towards Queens were significantly steeper than normal IRT specifications, with a gradient of 4%, special rolling stock had to be procured for the Steinway Tunnel line. The "Steinway"-type subway car had the same dimensions as an ordinary subway cars of the IRT, but included gear boxes. Initially, twelve single-car consists were approved for the original shuttle.[17] Because of additional construction to the route, another 126 cars were added to the fleet.[2] The 50 "World's Fair"-type cars, used for the 1939 New York World's Fair, used the same type of gearboxes.[2] With the 1948 introduction of four-engined subway cars of types R12 and R14, the need for a special drive was gone, as the Steinway Tunnel could now be driven by conventional railcars. In the same year, BMT services stopped operating on the Flushing Line east of Queensboro Plaza, and the IRT was assigned exclusive operation of the line.[2]




Further reading[edit]