I am a nerd for history and a nerd for weird stuff. I like the forgotten, I like the lost. I like things that have the feeling of the vaguely strange and secret. And I love, love, love my borough of Brooklyn, which has been home to me now for almost ten years. So this year for Halloween, Nathan and I decided to do something we’d been meaning to do for a while. We signed up for a tour of the world’s oldest subway tunnel, running under a stretch of Atlantic Avenue from Court Street to Henry Street. It was completed in 1844, relieved traffic along this (even back then) congested stretch of roadway with steam trains until 1859, and was sealed up two years later, but never demolished. The tunnel was re-discovered in 1981 by Bob Diamond, who conducts the tours. In its lost time, the tunnel did service sheltering bootleggers, pirates, even (according to less-likely legend) John Wilkes Booth, who, if you believe the conspiracy theories that have him escaping north to NYC and thence to freedom and a longer life than history books would have us believe, hid pages of his journal in an abandoned train in the tunnel that revealed the other conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.
So here we go!
First step: through a hole in the street.
We were told to bring flashlights, and this is why. At the bottom of the ladder is a little antechamber with a brick ceiling, well-lit. Then there’s a very small hole in the wall with stairs on the other side, also relatively well-lit.
After that, it looks like this.
Once you add in about a hundred people with flashlights and your eyes start to adjust, though, things are easier to see. By the end of the tour we could pretty well see where we were and what we were looking at.
There were two sets of tracks in the tunnel for steam trains. Below you can see where the railroad ties were on the south side of the tunnel (the wavy surface).
The ones on the north side are less-well defined because they were removed in order to fix the south tracks and their persistent snakehead problem. That’s right. Snakehead problem. Seems cast iron rails could warp in a seesaw motion, causing one end of the occasional iron bar to seesaw up as the other end was compressed and sending a piece of iron through the floor of the train and resulting in the potential for some gruesome occurrences. Snakehead problem.
This is the Henry Street end of the tunnel, which hasn’t yet been excavated. This is about the midpoint, so beyond this wall there are about six blocks of unexplored tunnel. Mr. Diamond suspects there is at least one abandoned train on the other side.
Then once again up the stairs…
…and up the ladder and out into the world.
The rest of my photos are below, for those who are curious and don’t mind indulging me as I attempt to get exposures in a dark space without a tripod.
If you’d like to see the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel for yourself, details and lots of more information and links are available at the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association’s tunnel website here. I highly recommend it.