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Thursday, March 26, 2009

NYC History: The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel

Walt Whitman, writing just after the Atlantic Ave Tunnel was closed:
    The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences; of which, however, there will, for a few years yet be many dear ones, to not a few Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and promiscuous crowds besides. For it was here you started to go down the island, in summer….
…We were along there a few days since, and could not help stopping, and giving the reins for a few moments to an imagination of the period when the daily eastern train, with a long string of cars, filled with summer passengers, was about starting for Greenport, after touching at all the intermediate villages and depots. We are, (our fancy will have it so,) in that train of cars, ready to start. The bell rings, and winds off with that sort of a twirl or gulp, (if you can imagine a bell gulping), which expresses the last call, and no more afterwards; then off we go. Every person attached the road jumps on from the ground or some of the various platforms, after the train starts…. The orange women, the newsboys, and the limping young man with the long-lived cakes, looks in at the windows with an expression that says very plainly, “We’ll run along-side, and risk all the danger, while you find the change.” The smoke with a greasy smell comes drifting along, and you whisk into the tunnel.
    The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent. How beautiful look Earth and Heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! it might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals—the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large proportion—into some tunnel of several days journey. We’d perhaps grumble less afterward at God’s handiwork.

-Walt Whitman, “Brooklynania” #36, 1861 (Approx.)

    Underneath Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, stretching west from the busy intersection with Court Street, is an old Long Island Rail Road tunnel. At 21 feet wide and 17 feet high, it was big enough for two locomotives side-by-side. Today it feels more like a natural cave than a man-made tunnel. It once carried passenger trains filled with summertime crowds heading to towns and resorts on Long Island. But after it was closed in 1861, it remained essentially forgotten for well over a century, until a young Brooklyn historian in the 1980s found references to it and eventually tunneled into it.
    The train tunnel was built for a passenger railroad line that connected Brooklyn’s ferry landing at the foot of Atlantic Street with the Long Island Railroad station in Jamaica (now part of Queens). Since it was built for passenger trains and ran underground through a city (the city of Brooklyn), it is the world’s first subway tunnel—predating by many years the famous but short-lived Pneumatic Subway that Alfred Ely Beach built in lower Manhattan in1870. It was also one of the longest train tunnels in the world at the time.
    At the time the tunnel was built in 1844, both steam trains and the city of Brooklyn itself were still quite new. Though Brooklyn had existed as a town for many years, it was only in 1834 that the bill to incorporate it as a city was passed in Albany (over the heavy opposition of New York City). Steam locomotives as well were essentially an invention of the 1830s.  In 1830, Peter Cooper had demonstrated the first practical steam locomotive in the US, a small engine called Tom Thumb that managed to pull a passenger car at 18 miles per hour, showing that the new technology could be far superior to horse-drawn trains.  Over the next two decades, rail lines would not only revolutionize shipping through New York state, but would also facilitate incredible development in the towns and suburbs around New York City. Seeing both the massive immigration-fueled population explosion in New York, and the desire of the wealthier to get away from the crowded, dirt city center, developers began to lay out residential tracts in Brooklyn. Commuters could travel between the two cities via the South Ferry, a ferry line that would lend its name both to the South Ferry station in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn’s South Ferry station at the foot of Atlantic St.
    Companies were chartered to lay individual rail lines, and one of the earliest in Brooklyn was the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad Company, chartered in 1832, to lay tracks between what were then two villages. Tracks were laid along what is now the route of Atlantic Avenue, although at the time it was Atlantic Street and extended only slightly east of Flatbush.
    In 1834, the Long Island Rail Road was chartered as well, with plans to run from Jamaica (now queens) westward through Long Island.  The original goal of the Long Island Rail Road was to connect New York and Boston, using ferries to cross both Long Island Sound and the East River. (This plan would end up ultimately seeing little success, especially when an overland rail line was completed through Connecticut, but the company would handle passengers traveling to the new towns and summer resorts that sprang up on the island through the 1800s.) The Long Island Railroad would not finish laying the 94 miles of track that connected Brooklyn with Greenport, where a steam ferry took passengers to a connecting train to Boston, until 1844, the same year that the Atlantic street tunnel was built.  But in the meantime, the new rail lines gave unprecedented access to towns along its route, laying the groundwork for Long Island’s railroad suburbs.
    The first Brooklyn and Jamaica Company trains ran along Atlantic Avenue in 1836.  Within a year, however, the company had leased its tracks to the Long Island Rail Road, which was continuing to lay tracks further and further into Long Island.
    But steam technology was in its infancy, and the locomotives were both weak and dangerous. The engines sometimes exploded violently. From their inception, steam locomotives were not allowed in Manhattan south of 27th Street because of this; as the city expanded north so did the cut-off line, and Grand Central was built at 42nd street because that was the southern terminus for all steam-powered locomotives at the time. The city of Brooklyn likewise forbade any use of steam within city limits until 1839, and so trains were pulled by horses until out of the city limits. Regardless of the ordnance, horses would still have been during the first part of the journey, as the early steam locomotives were not powerful enough to handle the hill between the ferry landing and Court Street, and even after steam was permitted horses still were attached to the train to help it up the grade. (Which created its own problems, as the horses were easily spooked by the loud, clanking, frightening engines; the Long Island Rail Road eventually solved this problem by putting a passenger car in front of the engine, as a buffer between it and the horse teams.)  Local business and residents were not happy with the operation, especially as the railroad expanded. A letter to the editor in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle recalled that, before the tunnel was built, the railroad would send “their locomotives to Smith street, and there stationing one or more on the open street, belching forth their thunder and steam, rendering the whole neighborhood inaccessible; add to this the blocking of up Atlantic street, from Henry street to Smith street with carloads of manure, and the sidewalks and lots with heavy and obstructing material, all permitted to remain as long as possible…”
    Starting on May 24, 1844, the Long Island Railroad began work on the tunnel as an open cut, after the Brooklyn Common Council had authorized the construction of a tunnel “constructed of good materials, with sides having good and substantial stone walls, to be arched with brick or stone,”  The first trains ran through in December of 1844.  In its annual report of 1844, the Common Council described the tunnel:
The whole length of this structure is little more than half a mile. The walls are of massive stone, of the thickness of six feet, and ten feet high. The arch is of brick, twenty-two inches thick, the whole laid in hydraulic cement.
    Light and air came in through three ventilation shafts that rose to the surface, about 17 feet above the roof of the tunnel at the center. (These ventilators—“not to exceed four feet in diameter, and to be constructed with suitable iron railings at least four feet in height,” according to the charter, we capped to a depth of three feet when the tunnel was closed.)
    Although already in daily use for trains, the report noted, the tunnel was not entirely finished; it was expected that another $15,000 worth of work was needed, bringing the total cost of the project to $66,352. “This great work,” the report declared, “will greatly facilitate the operations of the Company, obviate many dangers, and as a work of art will embellish the city of Brooklyn.”  Implicit in this was the fact that lessening the visibility of noisy, smoke-emitting steam trains would help property values in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and that routing the trains through the tunnel would allow for expansion of residential development south of Atlantic Ave.
    Despite the tunnel enclosure, the smoke and noise along Atlantic still aroused widespread opposition from local residents, especially as Prospect Heights developed into a wealthy and prestigious suburb of New York in the 1850s.  New development south of Atlantic, which had been facilitated by the tunnel, now led to calls to close the steam rail line completely, as residents and business complained about the space the tunnel entrances took up in the middle of the street, and the barrier that the rail line created to north-south movement on the local streets. In 1858, Brooklyn banned steam locomotive operations within city limits, a measure aimed specifically at the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad line, and despite challenges the ban was upheld by courts the following year. A compromise with the railroad was reached when it was decided that the city would buy the tunnel for the sake of closing the steam line; local property owners adjoining Atlantic street would be assessed for a total of $125,000 to pay for closing the tunnel and repaving the street.  “The consummation of this work,” the Times declared, “offers a great improvement in the street, for which the owners of property can well afford to pay the assessment levied therefor. ” 
    Steam locomotives were completely eliminated by 1860, though horse-drawn train cars ran through tunnel for another year. But by December of 1861 the tunnel had been completely closed, and the street smoothed and restored to a full 120 feet wide.  The two ends were filled in with dirt, but most of the tunnel—about 1,600 feet—was left empty. The railroad tracks and ties were removed, and today the only hint of the railroad that once ran through the tunnel is the corrugated dirt floor, with shallow and time-rounded depressions showing where the railroad ties used to sit.
    A horse-drawn rail line was installed on the surface of the newly smoothed and widened Atlantic Street to connect to the Jamaica station. The Long Island Railroad, giving up on Brooklyn, built a new track (the LIRR Main Line) between its Jamaica station and a ferry terminal at Hunter’s Point in Queens County.
    Considering the incredible growth of Brooklyn over the next decades, perhaps it’s not surprising that the tunnel was so quickly forgotten. Between 1860 (when the tunnel closed) and 1880, the population of the city leapt from 279,000 to 599,000—meaning that well over half the residents had not been alive in Brooklyn when the tunnel had been active just 20 years before. By 1900, when the Borough of Brooklyn had over one million people, the number was somewhere between 5% and 10% of the population. This is the downside of urban development and growth: the past is quickly forgotten. But it does linger on in the realm of urban myth and legend. By 1893, it was the subject of a “romance,” a short story in the New York Times that began:

    “The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel!” exclaimed Bilderhouse, looking up from his writing table.
    “That’s what I said,” replied Furbish. “Don’t you know there’s an old, unused tunnel there, under the middle of the street, extending from the ferry almost to Flatbush Avenue?”
    “Don’t believe it. Never heard of it before,” said Bilderhouse, leisurely resuming his work.
    Fruitlessly searching for an entrance to the tunnel after a dying man tells of treasure hidden there, the hero of the story dozes off at a bar and dreams of the Keats poem “Endymion.” (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep.”)
    By 1911 the myth had expanded, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the tunnel might be infested with giant rats and “desperate men,” and that “the popular impression prevails today that it would be a good deal safer to go down into its darkness armed.”  In 1936 a squad of police did their best to get in, after the District Attorney received an anonymous letter that said “If you inspect the old tunnel you might find something interesting.” (It was thought that they might find the body of Bo Weinberg, a gangster who helped the infamous Dutch Schultz expand operations into Brooklyn during prohibition .) They tried cellars along Atlantic Avenue, rapping on basement walls with crowbars, but found no connection. “The place is supposed to be alive with rodents big as behemoths,” Captain John McGowan told the reporter, although Sahib Lineburgh, an inspector with the Transit Commission who had been in the tunnel 20 years before, called the stories “bosh.” When he went in during 1916, he said, he and his men drilled into it both at Court Street and Henry Street. “We put ladders down and went down, carefully, because we’d heard all those legends about poison gas, and pirates dens and rats big as cats.” But they found nothing, though they had to walk through an inch-deep, 56-year accumulation of mold—no rodents, no treasure, and no connection to any buildings on Atlantic Avenue.  The police eventually called on workers to dig an entrance from street level through the ceiling arch of the tunnel.  They found nothing, but the hole they made is still visible in the roof of the tunnel. Another exploration during World War II, due to  reports of German saboteurs hiding in the tunnel, was equally fruitless.  (The closest the old tunnel came to being opened up to the public was probably also during WWII, when the WPA suggested using it as an air raid shelter, but it was not pursued.  )
    Just one of the legends about the tunnel turned out to be true: that it was filled with poison gas. In the late summer of 1980, a 20-year-old railroad buff named Bob Diamond became the first person since 1941 to enter the tunnel. But a few feet in, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) tests found carbon monoxide.  Carbon monoxide is a well-known danger in tunnels; it’s slightly heavier than air, and over time the carbon monoxide released from cars can seep into underground spaces, creating an odorless, invisible, and absolutely deadly layer of gas.
    Bob Diamond would eventually work to open up the tunnel for tours to the public, which still enter through a nondescript manhole in the middle of Atlantic Avenue at Court Street. That summer, he was still just an engineering student and a railroad buff; he’d spent months researching the tunnel and eventually found plans for it at the Brooklyn Borough President’s office. But he approached city agencies and got them to agree to help him. What he found that day, before the trip was aborted because of the bad air, was the brick arch of the tunnel’s ceiling, creating an open space about three feet high over the dirt filling the tunnel. He couldn’t go any further that day, but he would eventually find that the majority of the tunnel was completely open and untouched.


Whitman, Walt. From "Brooklyniana," a series of twenty-five pieces in the Brooklyn Standard between June 1861 and November 1862. Found in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, edited by Holloway, Emory. Doubleday, Page, & Company, Garden City, N.Y., 1921

Wallace & Burrows. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000

Horton, Gail. “A Brief History of the Greenport Terminal of the Long Island Railroad” 1992. ONLINE AT http://www.rmli.org/Page/Grennport_History_detail.htm

"Long Island Railroad.” The Times And Commercial Intelligence, June 14, 1838 SCAN ONLINE AT http://arrts-arrchives.com/atlaverr1.html

"Steam on Atlantic Street (Letter to the Editor)." Brooklyn Eagle, December 29 1858, p 2

Brooklyn Common Council, March 29 1844, Ordnance granting permission to the Long Island Railroad Company to construct a tunnel through Atlantic street. SCAN ONLINE AT http://arrts-arrchives.com/tunnel.html

Rogoff, Dave. “Atlantic Avenue (Cobble Hill) Tunnel” May 1962 Bulletin of the ERA's New York Division, online at http://rapidtransit.net/net/faq/nyc/AtlanticTunnel.html 

Brooklyn Common Council Annual Report, 1844, p 177-178, SCAN ONLINE AT http://arrts-arrchives.com/tunnel.html

"The Atlantic Street Controversy with the L. I. Railroad Company." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 1, 1858, p. 2

"Brooklyn News." New York Times, December 23, 1861.

"The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel: A Romance." New York Times, January 23 1893, p. 10

"Old Tunnel Eludes Police Explorers." New York Times, July 19 1936.

Gordon, David. "A Transit Legend Lives In Brooklyn." New York Times, February 7 1973

“Eerie Brooklyn Cave May Be Air Raid Shelter.” 1940 article scanned at http://arrts-arrchives.com/tunnel.html

"A Tunnel That Can Keep A Secret." New York Times, August 6 1980.


  1. I have been looking at all the pictures and reading the stories. It is all wonderful! Thank you so much for the adventure. I never care to go to the top of a bridge again with you. That was to high for me!

  2. My wife and I went into this tunnel in August of 2010 on one of Bob's tours. Sadly, DOT has banned further access to the tunnel. This ban includes Bob himself. Another piece of history lost.

  3. Hey! i come across amazing things here!
    I walked there yesterday...not realizing there was a tunnel beneath my feet!!!