The World’s Oldest Subway Tunnel

December 9th, 2009 § 0 comments

Atlantic Ave Tunnel

Squeezing into a manhole, climbing down a shaky ladder and through a claustrophobic vertical tunnel was all much less disorienting than the first footstep down onto muddy dirt at the bottom. Actually only five or six feet below the street surface—I was half expecting to climb down into a dark, expansive, and slightly fantastic underground world—I was still amazed how a few feet had left Atlantic Ave, busy with traffic, pedestrians, storefronts, and a Trader Joe’s, so distant above. Picking my way carefully through a standing pool of water in a hallway leading toward the main cavern, heightened the bizarre feeling of being underground. The drastic climate change from a crisp, cold, and sunny afternoon to the dank, humid heaviness underground made it seem like you had to gasp for air. Underground it seemed humidity had replaced the cold, as my camera fogged up and dripped with condensation.

New Yorkers do spend time below the city streets, but nothing about the Atlantic Ave Tunnel resembled the comfortable, rat infested fluorescent platforms we spend so much time waiting on. A few scattered light bulbs and a chorus of flashlights from tour-goers was all that was available to keep you from tripping on uneven ground or over some forgotten piece of equipment. Originally built in 1844 for the Long Island Railroad, the tunnel served trains on their way to Boston, and later horse drawn carriages trying to escape growing street traffic. The rails themselves were removed and sold when the tunnel was officially “destroyed,” and what remains now is a treacherous pattern of potholes, divots, mounds, and debris. The tunnel, or this portion of it, rediscovered by our overly anecdotal guide in the 1980s, stretches half a mile before hitting a crumbling wall. It is said to run to the waterfront, and it is even speculated that an old train might still be buried somewhere within. The history of the tunnels operating life gives the greed and self-destruction of city politicians and planners a somewhat amusing tone, perhaps because its history is intertwined with exaggerated old newspaper stories about great railroad deals, squabbles, and corruptions.

The whole experience felt not only like being in a place you don’t normally get to see, but like being in the kind of space you should not be able to see, like seeing inside the fridge when the light is off, or looking at yourself while you are sleeping. It reminded me of air travel, and wandering the cavernous tunnel felt like a less breathtaking, but equally strange, shift in perspective. The tunnel was so hard to photograph, with little for the camera to see or capture, and it is interesting that images alone fall short of describing the feeling of being four stories underneath Brooklyn.

Atlantic Ave Tunnel 1

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