NBC's Matt Lauer reflects on the history of New York's subway on its 100th anniversary. Thomas Edison figured those subways would transform New York City, so he made rare pictures of opening day with his new invention, the movie camera.
100th Anniversary of the New York Subway
MATT LAUER, co-host: Talk about a tough sell. How would you like to have been the person in charge of convincing millions of people that heading underground was the best way to get around town? Well, it happened 100 years ago right here in New York City when the world's most famous subway system first got rolling. NBC's Bob Dotson takes a look back.
BOB DOTSON reporting: Picture New York City without skyscrapers. That's the way it was just a century ago, three and a half million people in gridlock. But in January 1904, New Yorkers were digging tunnels all over town. Soon, New York City subways were moving millions from homes to high rises. Thomas Edison figured those subways would transform New York City, so he made these rare pictures of opening day with his new invention, the movie camera.
Mayor George McClellan, the son of the Civil War general, took command of that first trip, while the subway's chief engineer peered nervously over his shoulder. `Your Honor, wouldn't you like to have a professional drive this thing?' `No!' yelled the mayor, `I'm running the train!' And then he doffed his hat to the boys in the new subway bar that had been open 10 weeks in anticipation of the grand day, and they rattled off to Harlem. The current mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, takes the subway, too.
You could be drag racing with Donald Trump in a limo. What the heck are you doing riding subways?
Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Best ways to get around the city. It really
is. It's--it's--it's safe and it's quick.
DOTSON: But no one, not even the mayor, travels in style down here. Only one man ever did. August Belmont, the subway's developer designed an underground limousine that had its own kitchen, chef, two waiters and a motorman.
Mr. STAN FISCHLER (New York City Subway Historian and Author): There was a lot of concern raised about health issues. We'd never had a subway before. To eliminate that problem, he hired a professor from Columbia University who was an expert on clean air. But before they did their tour, he loaded him up with steak and plenty of champagne. By the time mister professor did his test, it was a guaranteed A. It got an--an A for clean air. An inebriated A, but it was an A.
DOTSON: That plush car was eventually sold to a farmer who used if for a chicken coop until it was moved recently to the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut.
New York City's subways are America's subways. We all paid to restore them after decades of decline, $39 billion in taxes and bonds, the single largest public transportation renovation in US history. But here's something neat your money bought, a vacuum sweeper that travels the tracks at night, inhaling 80,000 cubic feet of subway dust and debris every minute, then automatically sorting what it sniffs into recycling bins. That's why the subway is cleaner than ever, even though it carries more of us in 10 days than the entire airline industry does in one year. Straighten out New York City subway tracks and they would stretch almost to Chicago. Yet Randy Kennedy, who wrote a book for the centennial, noticed something remarkable about the five million people who ride each year. Most get along.
Mr. RANDY KENNEDY: You--you might not like it, but when you're jammed up next to somebody, I think that it makes you more tolerant, and that it's made this city more cohesive and--and, you know, made it the city that it is.
DOTSON: A world apart from all the rest, yet inseparable from the subway
that made it unique. For TODAY, Bob Dotson, NBC News, New York.