Mechanical Engineering Magazine

Month of December, 1998

The Lost Tunnel of Brooklyn

By Henry Baumgartner

There had always been rumors, legends really, that there was some sort of tunnel underneath Atlantic Avenue, an important artery in New York City's borough of Brooklyn. A few people even claimed to be able to hear trains rumbling somewhere underground in the dark of night-or was that the plumbing acting up again? But no records of a tunnel could be found, and no one in living memory had succeeded in demonstrating a tunnel's existence, even on paper.

Walt Whitman spoke of "a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten."

In the late 1970s, Robert Diamond, an engineering student, became curious about the mystery and unearthed a map of the area in 1850; there, amazingly, was the lost tunnel. Pursuing this lead, he encountered massive resistance and disbelief from the city's engineers, who were understandably reluctant to believe that, unknown to them, a major railroad tunnel underlay one of the borough's main thoroughfares. But an item in the Brooklyn Eagle from 1911 mentioned a set of tunnel plans found in the borough president's garbage, and a duplicate copy proved to be moldering away in the borough's archives.

Diamond finally inveigled the local gas company into opening up a long-undisturbed manhole, right in the middle of a busy intersection. At first, he encountered only walls of dirt on all sides, but the ceiling of the chamber was arched and made of brick. Between the ceiling and the top of the dirt was enough space to crawl through, and eventually he dug through to a concrete wall, where a hole had been patched up with bricks and cobblestones. With help from the gas workers, he broke through, and suddenly he was greeted by a blast of cold air. Even after clambering down a portable ladder, they found themselves in a huge enclosed space. They had found what they were looking for.

What Diamond calls the world's oldest subway tunnel was constructed in 1844 by the Long Island Rail Road to cover a vital section of track running through a rapidly urbanizing stretch of what was then the growing city of Brooklyn. Passengers disembarked from the South Amboy, N.J., ferry at the foot of Atlantic Avenue and boarded the train. It carried them out to the end of Long Island, where they caught another ferry to Connecticut, ultimately linking up with the Boston & Providence rail line and cutting days or weeks off travel times to Boston.

The railroad was itself largely responsible for the area's growth. By the early 1840s, the dirt road at the edge of town where the tracks were laid had turned into a lively commercial street clogged with horse-drawn carriages and carts. Many of these vehicles found that the tracks made an ideal parking spot. Pedestrians, too, thronged the busy street, frequently falling on the tracks or being hit by trains. There were complaints about flames and soot. A tunnel under the street seemed best, but Brooklyn sits on a glacial moraine and has no bedrock to tunnel through. It was necessary to use the cut-and-cover method, basically digging a ditch and covering it over.

The tunnel itself took seven months to construct at a cost of $66,000- a considerable sum in those days. Stone for the walls came from excavations in Manhattan, and the trench was covered over with an enormous barrel arch of brick. Over this, the street was rebuilt. For tracks, cast-iron straps were attached to 6-by-6-inch timbers that in turn rested on stone cubes in place of ties.

The tunnel remained in use until 1861, at which time one Electus Litchfield contrived to obtain a contract to close the now-superseded tunnel and fill it in completely. It seems, though, that he confined himself to walling off the tunnel at both ends and filling in only the outer portions. This maneuver, of course, allowed him to pocket a tidy sum. Thanks to this ancient fraud, there is still a tunnel to explore.

Half a century later, with World War I raging in Europe and memories of the old tunnel still alive, the conviction arose that somehow the tunnel was crawling with German spies busily mixing up batches of mustard gas. To gain access, investigators started digging test pits on Atlantic Avenue and eventually broke through into the tunnel, but nary a saboteur was to be found. The manhole that was left as the sole means of access in 1861 was not noticed, and it remained unremarked in the middle of a busy intersection for more than a century.

Diamond, the tunnel's rediscoverer, is now trying to restore trolley service to the section of Brooklyn known as Red Hook through his Brooklyn Historic Railway Association. He hopes to hook up this line to one running through the old tunnel; he has already had to fight off a proposal to use the tunnel to carry sewage. If all goes well, the rumbling sounds beneath Atlantic Avenue may someday be heard once again, even by those without overactive imaginations.

1998 by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers

Mechanical Engineering Magazine


2002-2011 Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, Brooklyn, NY. All rights reserved.