Secret Subway: The Fascinating Tale of an Amazing Feat of Engineering by Martin W. Sandler

34643639Lynn: One of the best things about reading is learning cool facts to share. Secret Subway (National Geographic, May 2009) is packed with interesting facts and fascinating stories that will enthrall readers – teens and adults. How can you not love a book that shares the story of how the first subway was dug in secret under a department store?

Sandler begins by describing the truly horrific traffic congestion on the streets of New York City in the 1860’s. Commuting even a few blocks took hours and there were so many horse-drawn omnibuses in fierce competition with each other, freight wagons, and throngs of people that not only was there gridlock, it was literally life-threatening to try to cross a street. Onto this scene came a truly remarkable man, Alfred Eli Beach.

Young Alfred Beach knew that something had to change if his beloved New York City was going to thrive and prosper and he had a vision. Not yet 40, Beach had already done noteworthy things. Purchasing the struggling magazine, Scientific American, Beach transformed the journal into the respected and influential magazine it still is today. After helping struggling inventors as an editor, Beach launched a patent agency that would guide inventors through the notoriously difficult patent process, assisting such notable inventors as Allen Wilson and Thomas Edison. Beach was an inventor himself, developing the forerunner of the typewriter. It was Beach’s vision of a subway system for New York City however that reveals the broad scope of his abilities and foresight.

Huge challenges in three categories had to be overcome: the engineering and design of the subway system and tunnels, negative public perception and the determined opposition from one of the most powerful and corrupt individuals in American history. Sandler writes with equal skill about all three areas and engaged me as completely in the science and technology as in the descriptions of Beach’s maneuvers to outfox the infamous Boss Tweed. This riveting book reads like a thriller! I could go on and on about this superbly written and fascinating book but I’ll stop and let Cindy get a word in. I only have one quibble – I wish National Geographic would stop using that light colored font for the captions!

Cindy: Years ago I read Jim Murphy’s Blizzard: The Storm that Changed America and when I booktalk that with students I mention that it was the 1888 blizzard that was the impetus for the building of the subway in New York City. Now I know the rest of the story. Whenever I am driving through a tunnel, especially significant ones, I am amazed by the engineering involved. The thought of tunneling under the streets of skyscrapers on an island and under the river to Brooklyn is almost incomprehensible. Just as in the building of our state’s great engineering feat, the Mackinac Bridge, there were injuries and deaths before the project was completed. But there were miracles, too:

Marshall Mahey was working in a compressed air tunnel under the East River when it collapsed. Mahey was jettisoned out of the tunnel by the force of the compressed air but somehow survived. “I closed my eyes,” he later recounted, “and managed to get my hands over my head when I realized I was in sand and was being pushed by a tremendous force. I was being squeezed tighter than any girl had ever held me and the pressure was all over me, especially on my head…the last thing I recalled was seeing the Brooklyn Bridge while I was whirling around in the air!”

The scope of Beach’s ingenuity is inspiring, and I was cheering as he helped to bring down the corrupt “Boss” Tweed. The interesting side information about cartoonist Thomas Nast and the origins of Scientific American (who knew they used to publish poetry and religious articles before Beach took over and changed the focus to science and invention?) is a bonus. I’ve made one trip to NYC and marvelled at the mosaic tiles decorating the walls of the stations, but I never saw a grand piano or a chandelier like Beach used to outfit his sample waiting station! One last thing: I’m sorely torn between liking the idea of Beach’s pneumatic subway station being sealed beneath the streets of Broadway, and wishing that it had been recovered and put on display in a museum. I’d like to see them! I wonder what Beach would think of the busy streets of Broadway being closed to traffic and lawn chairs now being available for pedestrians where once it was life threatening to cross the street!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "Secret Subway: The Fascinating Tale of an Amazing Feat of Engineering by Martin W. Sandler"

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  1. hunt.jo@monet.k12.ca.us' Jonathan says:

    I adore this book! Wish it were getting more attention.

    Jonathan

  2. angela.craft@gmail.com' Angela says:

    I’m anxiously waiting for the library to get this in so I can read it sitting in the aforementioned blocked off Times Square (I love it there! Though I wouldn’t say it’s not life threatening anymore – tourists are scary)

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