“City Hall to Harlem in 15 Minutes”

On October 27, 1904, the New York City subway ran for the first time. After four years of construction, during which New York streets were dug up, the subway was built, and then the streets were covered up again, the way the city moved changed irrevocably. Today, about 2.4 million people ride the New York City subway each day. The NYC subway has the most stations of any subway in the world and is one of the only metro systems to be open 24/7/365.

The original subway system was built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). They hired contractor John McDonald on a $35 million contract to build the first line. Engineer William Barclay Parsons worked on the design. This line covered 9.1 miles and took passengers from City Hall to Harlem. On October 27, 1904, the line was opened with great fanfare by Mayor George McClellan. He ceremoniously stood at the controls and started the first train, enjoying the task so much that he drove the train all the way to 103rd St. The passengers were 15,000 invited guests, many of whom had worked on the completion of the metro line. According to a New York Times (NYT) reporter, “there were a great many who did not make the round trip from City Hall Park to One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street and back again, but got off at their own stations on the return trip in the most natural and matter-of-fact way, as if they had been doing it all their lives,” and New Yorkers have been riding the subway thus ever since.

At 7:00 that evening, the subway opened for public use. Over 150,000 people rode the subway between 7:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. that first day, each of them paying a nickel for the privilege. The same NYT reporter wrote, “it was astonishing, though, how easily the passengers fell into the habit of regarding the Subway as a regular thing . . . the men on the trains were quietly getting out at their regular stations and going home, having finished what will be to them the daily routine of the rest of their lives. It is hard to surprise New York permanently.”

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/The_New_York_Subway_Souvenir_(1904)
  2. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new-york-city-subway-opens
  3. https://blogs.loc.gov/maps/2022/05/what-goes-up-must-come-down-a-brief-history-of-new-york-citys-elevated-rail-and-subway-lines/
  4. https://time.com/3534565/new-york-city-subway-history/
  5. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/news/opening-day-nyc-subway-day-october-27
  6. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1904/10/28/118948832.html?pageNumber=1