10 Aug 2008 7:24 pm   //   Filed under: Brooklyn, Transit

Touring the abandoned Brooklyn railroad tunnel

“The world’s very first subway opened in London, England, on the Saturday afternoon of January 10, 1863.” – from A Century of Subways by Brian J. Cudahy.

Not to brag, but Brooklyn had a subway in 1844. Most people have forgotten about it, but I went underground and saw it today.

Atlantic Avenue Railroad Tunnel

Below Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn lies a forgotten, man-made cavern perhaps half a mile long, wide enough for two steam trains.

Bob Diamond, one of our city’s most irrepressible transit geeks, was so captivated by stories about the tunnel as a young man that he set out on a quest to find it. He rediscovered it and brought it to the public’s attention in the early 1980s. Today he runs the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association and leads occasional tours of his discovery. Jeremy and I, along with perhaps 150 other local curiosity seekers, joined him for a tour this afternoon.

The expedition begins by climbing into an open manhole, descending a ladder, and ducking through a narrow tunnel. A few steps away is a person-sized hole chiseled into a brick wall. Crawl through the hole and suddenly you’re in a massive chamber. A string of light bulbs provides just enough light to asses the vastness of this cavern as it recedes into the distance. Diamond leads the group, telling the story of the railroad’s folly. His life has been intertwined with the tunnel for over 25 years, and he speaks with the joy of someone proud to share his obsession with others. Along the tour, several actors in period costume put on a sketch based on the history of the railroad.

The Long Island Railroad, under the direction of Cornelius Vanderbilt, constructed the tunnel to transport people and goods from ferries along the Brooklyn waterfront to points East. (Remember, this was before the Brooklyn Bridge, and way before the Northeast Corridor.) LIRR trains from Brooklyn continued to a ferry that crossed Long Island Sound to Boston. The tunnel was a key link in this chain. Up to 40 feet below the street grade, it was built in just seven months. “The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent,” Walt Whitman wrote of the ride when he was editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. “How beautiful look earth and heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom!”

In 1861, as the LIRR terminus moved from downtown Brooklyn up to Long Island City, the tunnel was sealed at both ends and reported demolished. The Atlantic Avenue right-of-way was turned over to local trolley companies, to the benefit of developer Edwin Clark Litchfield, who was building a new neighborhood called Park Slope.

Today, Diamond calls the ghost tunnel “a monument to New York political corruption.”

We know a lot about the tunnel thanks to Diamond’s research, but some mysteries remain. Rumor says that a locomotive – possible two – was abandoned in the tunnel and buried beneath the street. Diamond thinks he knows where it is, but has no means to dig it out. A documentary film company that is working on a movie about the tunnel is trying to raise enough money to uncover the locomotive.