The subway system seems an incomprehensible feat to me. How on earth did they dig so many tracks, so far down, so quickly? And in 1900?! The idea is baffling.

So this weekend, I headed to the MTA’s Transit Museum to try to figure it out. (And to check off something from my ’30 Before 30′ list!)

Appropriately, the museum can be reached by taking the subway stairs to the (decommissioned) Court Street station, just off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It’s around the corner from Borough Station.

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First up was an intro to how the subways were built. I had assumed that all the tracks were constructed by teams making one entry point and then burrowing through the ground, but actually, they often took out the entire surface of the street to build the tracks below, which meant propping up the buildings.

The photos of this were amazing. Images showed huge monuments or city sites held up by just a few metal beams. It really is astonishing that the buildings stayed standing (well, for the most part).

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It’s also pretty amazing how many of the workers stayed standing. Their jobs were so dangerous – some men could only go into the depths for half an hour at a time because of the pressure – and there seemed to be very little care for their health.


Next up was a display of the turnstiles throughout the years.

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But best of all were the subway cars – stretching from more than a century ago to the present day, with some overground trains from the 40s thrown in.

This one was among the oldest, from 1903:

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And these from 1916:

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Can you imagine how gross subway cars would be today if they still had wicker seats? Ew.

These followed, in 1927:

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Followed by these, stretching from the 30s to the present day:

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So interesting.

But I reckon the museum was missing two key things:

1 :: Personal histories. As well as showing technological advances, this is a museum of social history, but there were no first-person accounts of what it was like to work on the subway tracks or passengers’ reactions to their first rides. And I didn’t spot a death toll.

2 :: Messy, graffiti-covered subway cars. If you look at any grainy footage of NYC from the 70s or 80s – the pre-Ed Koch clean-up era – one thing that always stands out is the scrappy, graffiti-covered subway cars.  I wish there had been one in the museum – not to show the subway system in a bad light in any way , but to show how far it’s come.

Still, it was great seeing the ones they did have and it’s a brilliant day trip for kids and oldies alike. The museum seems a little bit dated, but it’s a great spot to hole up on a rainy day, so I’d definitely recommend it. Especially for a $7 entry free.

(But I must say though I still don’t feel any nearer to figuring out how on earth they managed to complete those subways…)

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The details: The New York Transit Museum is at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, open 10am to 4pm on Tuesday to Friday, and 11am to 5pm at weekends. $7 for adults, $5 for concessions. For more info, see their website.