What I’m Reading: The Race Underground

The Race Underground by Doug Most is an account of the race at the end of the 19th century between Boston and New York to build America’s first subway. Actually, the title is somewhat of an exaggeration–it wasn’t much of a race, as Boston won it by 7 years (1897 vs. 1904). The real rivalry was between two brothers from Massachusetts who ended becoming the “transit kings” of Boston and New York in the 1870s and 80s and both had visions of building an underground railway. The Boston brother was named Henry Whitney and the New York brother was William Whitney. The NY Whitney is a little better-remembered today, as he gave the money to found New York’s Whitney Museum and served as secretary of the navy under President Cleveland.

I am something of a city buff and especially enjoy learning about their histories and their mass transit, so this book really hit a sweet spot with me. (See here for the last city book I reviewed, City of Scoundrels, about Chicago in the 1919.) However, I think most other readers might not get the same enjoyment out of it, unless they have a special interest in the topic area. The main flaw of the book is that there are simply too many people, and they are too hard to tell apart. Both cities had numerous subway boosters, engineers, and financiers who played a critical role in getting their cities’ first subway lines built, and Most doesn’t want to leave anyone out. He is admirably thorough, but by halfway through the book the sheer number of people to keep track of is quite large. It might have benefited by cutting out a couple of the less important figures.

A second flaw is a lack of maps. I felt this lack again and again, as various figures in the book discussed routing options for subways, or where the surface streets were most crowded, or where the soil was conducive for underground tunneling. Now I have a pretty good mental map of New York, much less so for Boston, and more than once during reading this I took to the internet to figure out just where these people were talking about. The simple addition of a historical map for each city would have made reading far easier–something for Most to consider if there is ever a second edition!

Having said that, I must repeat that I personally really liked the book, and for those who like to learn about subways or urban history this book will likely be up your alley as well. In fact, Most points out that there is a paucity of good sources concerning the early days of the Boston subway, so if you are interested in that, this book is pretty much your only option for a popular history on the subject.

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