These Historical Photos Of New York City’s Subway Construction Show What An Enormous Project It Was

Historic images show the massive undertaking to create the world’s biggest (and best) subway system.

New York City’s subway system has been running for over a century, its trains zooming under and above the five boroughs, transporting millions of commuters daily. It can be easy to not question its existence — since construction began on the subway in the early 1900s, it can seem as if the system has just always been.

Subway Construction: Then and Now,” an article published by the New York Public Library, brings us back to the time when the subway was first being built. In it, we learn of contractors building the first lines using a “cut-and-cover” method. This method, where routes were built just under a road surface supported by beams, facilitated rapid construction, as less drilling was necessary. However, not all subway construction was quite this straightforward. Workers faced a number of obstacles, both natural and human-made. Working around rock formations, groundwater, New York City’s sewer system, water and gas mains, steam pipes, and electric conducts were a fact of life for many of the construction crews. They dealt with dangerous challenges that required engineers to ensure the stability of buildings and monuments — often directly above the tunnels they were digging.

Construction followed a rigorous schedule: Mornings were for demolition; the midday crew would remove the debris with mule carts; and the night crew did the rock drilling. A report in the New York Times titled “Tunneling Below Second Avenue” gives insight into how the construction process affected the city: “Efforts were quick – they finished in four years – but their blasts smashed windows and terrorized carriage horses, tunnels collapsed, killing workers, and swallowing storefronts.” Subway construction began in 1900 and has expanded in fits and starts as recently as 2017, when the 7 line was extended to Hudson Yards.

These photos provide a moment to look back and honor the workers who died building the largest transit system in the world.

people breaking new ground for new york city subway stations
Workers look into camera for a portrait under some scaffolding and construction poles; text reads "subway excavation union square"
A torn-up road between rows of brick buildings show long pipes and workers for a subway construction
Men work underground, excavating a subway tunnel in NYC
An underground network of pipes and metal rods
Light shines from above in an underground brick-lined tunnel that resembles a cave
Subway portraits of workers building and excavating tunnels
Men work inside an underground tunnel, where large metallic circles cover the circumference of the cave
subway construction excavation nyc 1902
Workers excavate underground tunnels to build the subway system
Workers excavate underground tunnels to build the subway system
Wide city street is torn up with large metallic pipes and scaffolding placed underground
Workers excavate underground tunnels to build the subway system
Wide city street is torn up with large metallic pipes and scaffolding placed underground
Portraits of subway workers playing cards in a cramped cylindrical chamber
A tall structure of wooden scaffolding stands over a street constructed with scaffolding and pipes
A mule tethered to a cart of debris stands on train tracks, surrounded by wooden scaffolding and rocks
subway tacks above and underground construction
A partial collapse on a street covered in wooden planks shows the underground construction
A crowd of pedestrians stand beside a large excavator machine in a hole in the street, digging a tunnel
A group of subway workers stand in, on, and around a subway construction car on the train tracks underground
Two men stand by a street with above-ground scaffolding for subway construction
A view of a deep underground construction for subway excavation
An above-ground look at a sloped subway track leading undergound
Men wearing coats and hats walk down a staircase underground


Topics in this article