Tuesday, 9 September 2008
The Man Who Found the World's Oldest Subway Tunnel
One Sunday morning in December, at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn, Bob Diamond, founder of the Brooklyn Historic Railroad Association (BHRA), sets up a red electric generator and waves to the line of 60 people wearing boots and carrying flashlights on the sidewalk. His business partner, Gregory Castillo, lifts a manhole cover and steam rises, filling the air with mystery, history and urban mythology.
The group is preparing to descend into the world’s oldest subway tunnel, built in 1844 by the Long Island Railroad. One by one visitors climb down a ladder poking out of the manhole into a narrow seventy-foot long earthly and jagged entranceway. The crags of dirt and rock on either side are shoulder height and naked light bulbs dimly illuminate the steamy earth. A brick wall with a crudely cut entrance opens into a dark half-mile tunnel six stories deep —a subterranean locale.
The tour attracts many—from high school students to “strange New York” site seers. This year the tour has welcomed 3,000 people according to Diamond. For $15 per person, Diamond, a 48-year-old retired apartment complex manager in New Jersey, gives tunnel tours once a month. He has a long-term lease on the tunnel that is privately owned by New York City and the Department of Transportation.
Diamond rediscovered the tunnel in 1980 while he was a 19 year-old engineering student at Pratt in Brooklyn. In 1988 the city budget promised Diamond $2.6 million to transform the tunnel into an official museum. To pursue his dream he abandoned everything from his education to a career in electrical engineering. However, he never received the money nor went back to school. Instead he devoted 27 years to pursue his dream, only to find a dead end.
The tunnel itself is a steamy, earthy and dank lair that leads to a brick wall. Diamond set up a wooden staircase and lights along the four-block cavernous stretch, but some areas maintain a sinister darkness. Diamond’s Brooklyn accent bellows informatively and historically with comedic interjections. He says, the tunnel’s story is, “A history in the sense that everything I talk about [during the tours] was written in a newspaper at one time or another—so if you believe in what’s written in the newspaper it’s history. If you don’t believe in what’s written in the newspapers it’s urban mythology.”
Before the tunnel, Atlantic Avenue had a steam locomotive running on above ground tracks. Lacking good brakes it would routinely kill pedestrians according to articles in the Brooklyn Eagle dating back to 1844. The half-mile tunnel, from Boerum Place to Columbia Street, put an end to the accidents and street congestion. In affect, it was the first subway tunnel ever built.
In 1979, Diamond heard a radio program about a book that mentioned the tunnel and its mythical history. This sparked his interest and he began to rigorously collect information. He found a map in the Brooklyn Eagle from 1911 that confirmed the tunnel’s existence. However, city engineers and city transportation officials who tried and failed to find the tunnel urged Diamond not waste his time.
But that only fueled Diamond’s unrelenting curiosity. He refers to the seven-month long search not as an obsession, but more like a challenge. He said, “The more people, so called experts, that told me not to look for the tunnel because they couldn’t find it got me more determined to find it to prove they’re wrong.”
During the tour of the humid cave Diamond drips memories and adventure stories, relating his discovery to the “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In December of 1980 he went to the Brooklyn Borough President’s office and found a map of the city from 1850 and followed a blue dot—it led him to the manhole in the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. Diamond convinced the local gas company to block off traffic and he says, “With an air tank on my back, a gasmask and a 7-foot long crowbar I found the lost tunnel.” He says his main triumph wasn’t finding the tunnel, but doing something people said he couldn’t.
He created the BHRA to preserve and protect the tunnel soon after its discovery. The tunnel was registered in 1982 as a National Historic Place and Diamond has been giving tours since.
According to Diamond, “The tunnel being there is a monument of corrupt New York City politics.” Diamond and the Brooklyn Eagle affirm how the tunnel was supposed to be filled in completely in 1861. Urban developer Electus Litchfield, building in Park Slope, was paid $135,000 to do the job. Instead, Litchfield corked it off at both ends, sealed up the airshafts and took the money, leaving the tunnel intact for Diamond to find 118 years later.
The tunnel was soon forgotten and after a while people began to doubt its very existence. It became the subject of urban myths: a place for river pirates in the 1890’s to stash their gold and booty or in 1916 for German spies to mix mustard and surprise attack America. Diamond has been the only person in the tunnel since 1859, besides the FBI in an attempt to find the supposed German spies in 1916.
Despite his discovery, Diamond carries a half defeated air. He feels strongly about his hobby, which quickly turned into his life and job. Looking back on his decision to focus his entire life and efforts on a tunnel he says, “It is worth it when I see the looks on people’s faces when they come in the tunnel and they ooh and awe and say how wonderful it is.”
Although Diamond’s project didn’t receive money it was promised, the rough and rubble look of the tunnel might benefit him. Ross Mernyk, a “strange New York” buff, said he was taken by the tunnel’s roughness. He described the tunnel, “a scary, oppressive place, but historically fascinating.”
Despite the disappointments Diamond suffered from his life’s project he is positive. He said, “You don’t get anywhere with a pessimistic attitude. You have to be hopeful.” This attitude seems to be the light at the end of Diamond’s tunnel, or at least what’s been holding him up.
Regardless of Diamond’s disappointments he manages to inspire crowds. Karen Karbiener, a New York University professor, was moved by Diamond’s subterranean tunnel. Karbiener said the experience, “Reminds you that the city is a big place but also it’s a place that has a little corner, like a secret niche for everybody. Maybe a true New Yorker, the definition of that, is the person who finds that niche, and maybe it’s a café, but for other people it’s a tunnel that no one has been in since 1859.” Bob Diamond certainly found his own niche—a warm quiet mysterious niche that he can call home to his dreams.