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
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Breaking ground for the new subway

Workers look into camera for a portrait under some scaffolding and construction poles; text reads "subway excavation union square"
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Portrait of workers excavating for the Union Square station

A torn-up road between rows of brick buildings show long pipes and workers for a subway construction
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

A view of an active construction site. Small spaces were blocked off (lower right) for pedestrian walkways during excavation work.

Men work underground, excavating a subway tunnel in NYC
Pullis, Pierre P./ The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Men dig through debris to create a tunnel in 1901.

An underground network of pipes and metal rods
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Excavation at the 59th Street–Columbus Circle station in early 1900

Light shines from above in an underground brick-lined tunnel that resembles a cave
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Partially complete underground tunnels

Subway portraits of workers building and excavating tunnels
Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Men working to secure a tunnel's foundation, 1907

Men work inside an underground tunnel, where large metallic circles cover the circumference of the cave
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Men working underground to form a stable tunnel

subway construction excavation nyc 1902
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

A construction site at 64th Street and Broadway, 1902

Workers excavate underground tunnels to build the subway system
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Excavators working underground in the tunnels.

Workers excavate underground tunnels to build the subway system
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Workers overlook the transportation of large debris for the line at 39th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Wide city street is torn up with large metallic pipes and scaffolding placed underground
Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Track construction using the cut-and-cover method, 1900

Workers excavate underground tunnels to build the subway system
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Men drill and break down large rock formations to make space for tunnels.

Wide city street is torn up with large metallic pipes and scaffolding placed underground
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Construction would shut down entire city blocks, 1900.

Portraits of subway workers playing cards in a cramped cylindrical chamber
Getty Images

Workers spent a few minutes in a decompression lock before emerging into a normal atmosphere from their labors in the tubes of the East River. The pressure or air in the tubes is 38 pounds; if the men who worked 90-minute shifts proceeded directly to the surface, they would suffer from the formation of nitrogen bubbles in their blood.

A tall structure of wooden scaffolding stands over a street constructed with scaffolding and pipes
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A construction hoist tower on Delancey Street in 1908

A mule tethered to a cart of debris stands on train tracks, surrounded by wooden scaffolding and rocks
Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group / Getty Images

A mule pulling away excavation debris for the Central Park subway lines, 1915.

subway tacks above and underground construction
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Construction of both above-ground and underground tracks

A partial collapse on a street covered in wooden planks shows the underground construction
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The Broadway site partially collapsed during the construction of the Fourth Avenue Line in Brooklyn on Sept. 29, 1915.

A crowd of pedestrians stand beside a large excavator machine in a hole in the street, digging a tunnel
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The construction of the Washington Heights subway extension on 126th Street in Manhattan, June 1, 1925.

A group of subway workers stand in, on, and around a subway construction car on the train tracks underground
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

A group of subway workers riding to their work location on a vehicle that also transports materials, which was also the first one to have ridden over the Eighth Avenue subway system in New York City, Nov. 27, 1929.

Two men stand by a street with above-ground scaffolding for subway construction
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Cut-and-cover construction.

A view of a deep underground construction for subway excavation
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Workers underground during subway construction

An above-ground look at a sloped subway track leading undergound
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Construction site with materials and mules at the ready.

Men wearing coats and hats walk down a staircase underground
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

Inspectors enter the "Queensboro tubes," which run from Lexington Avenue to Eighth Avenue, one of three four-track lines in New York, Sept. 29, 1925.