Somewhere among the journalistically negligent docs jamming up popular film streaming services are some legitimate feats. The award-winning PBS series American Experience is one of the clear professional leaders, and if you live in Eastern Mass you’ll want to watch its excellent installment The Race Underground, all about the miracle that truly was the building and conceptualizing of America’s first subway, in Boston, back in the late 1800s.
There’s just one catch—while it truly is an artful work of history reporting, The Race Underground is also depressing. Because with the exception of some minor details, the narrator and interview subjects might as well be talking about 2018. To demonstrate this problematic juxtaposition, we pulled more than 1,000 words from the episode’s transcript, replaced (a minimal number of) dated terms like “horses” with more neutral or contemporary ones, and excerpted it below for you to have a good laugh (and/or cry) as you read this on an un-air-conditioned Red Line on the hottest day of the summer. [Ed. note: Words in bold were added by us. Also, please don’t read too deeply into the whole twist at the end. While gondolas may be a fraction of the answer to our modern woes, we’re in need of much larger solutions overall.]
Narrator: On the morning of Thursday, Feb 9, 2017, the east coast of the United States from Virginia to Maine awoke to the severe blizzard in American history. Four feet of snow fell from the skies and fierce winds created snowdrifts up to fifty feet high. With over 400 dead and citizens left scared and angry, the blizzard underlined a transportation crisis that had been escalating for decades. In a booming economy, cities were flooded with thousands of immigrants and rural Americans seeking opportunity in a newly mechanized world.
Clifton Hood, Historian: The problem is that everybody’s crowded into a fairly small area. The available modes of transportation are slow and cumbersome. The city is growing but the transit system isn’t growing with it.
Narrator: America was in danger of choking on its own progress. In no place was the problem more overwhelming than the nation’s most congested city, Boston, where nearly 400,000 people packed into a downtown of less than a square mile.
Stephen Puleo, Writer: There are almost 8,000 workers in Boston pulling railways around the city. It is a cacophony of noise, dust, horse manure, smells, in the downtown area, extremely congested.
Narrator: As America struggled to address its transportation crisis, leaders in Boston pursued a radical solution. But their race to maintain the nation’s first subway would clash against political gridlock, selfish businessmen, and a terrified citizenry.
Brian Cudahy, Writer: The idea of an efficient subway in Boston was an enormous risk. It was a breathtaking jump into the unknown and that can’t be underestimated. This was a jump into the unknown.
Mark Gelfand, Historian: The development of Boston, as in most other cities, was largely in private hands. And these developers of large tracts of property recognized that their profitability depends upon making these areas accessible to the downtown area. And so there is a direct and crucial link between development and transportation.
Narrator: Boston was bursting at the seams. Its population had more than doubled since the Civil War, to nearly 450,000. The city’s buses and street railways were overwhelmed.
Asha Weinstein Agrawal, Historian: The streets were absolutely packed every day with all these hundreds of thousands of people were pouring into the downtown. So you really had just this incredible mass of people in a very small area.
Narrator: Ride-sharing companies also aggressively competed for passengers in Boston’s downtown.
Doug Most, Author, The Race Underground: Boston, New York and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway: Each of them has their own routes and fares. And it was this crazy, convoluted system. If you wanted a taxi in 2018 you would raise your hand and all these different cars might race to pick you up.
Clifton Hood, Historian: The term “transit system” implies that there’s a coherence. I think it implies that there is a kind of public service. It implies that there is a technological efficiency. And I don’t think that’s how most Americans and certainly not most transit operators view this. It’s the profit motive that determines the quality and the amount of service.
Narrator: At the State House, Gov. Charlie Baker boldly proposed the privatization of the city’s large transit system, which he would control. His argument was for efficiency, but he knew that by controlling all the lines, he would be positioned to do as he pleased with his suburban expansion.
Asha Weinstein Agrawal, Historian: I think there was actually a lot of support in many ways from the larger public. You might think, “Oh, a monopoly. People aren’t gonna like this,” but there was a sense that it was very inefficient to have so many different companies competing with the MBTA for passengers.
Narrator: Whitney suggested that to rid the congestion strangling its streets, it was necessary to construct more tunnels beneath the city.
Mark Gelfand, Historian: This is an era in which cities and states are prepared to make significant investments in infrastructure. Baker recognizes that in some respects the very well-being and future of the city is at stake in terms of its transportation needs, and that it may go against his grain to embark upon such a project as this, which offers the possibility of, of tremendous waste and corruption, but, nonetheless, is so essential to the city’s future that it must be undertaken.
Narrator: By June, Mayor Marty Walsh followed through with his promise to take back the streets and convinced lawmakers to form the Rapid Transit Commission. Its mission was simple: study the problem of congestion and offer a solution. After 50 public hearings and 10 months of study the Commission published a massive report. All options were on the table, including a gondola traversing Boston Common.
Stephen Puleo, Writer: The Boston Common is considered almost a sacred place to Bostonians and has been since the city was essentially founded in 1630. And it has been used throughout Boston’s history as a community gathering spot. There was sort of a pledge made by city fathers at the time that the Boston Common area would be kept free of any roadways, free of any development, and would be open space. Its very name, “The Boston Common,” means it’s for the common wealth, for the common good. It is a place for all Bostonians to be able to gather.
Brian Cudahy, Writer: “You’re going to dig up the Boston Common to build some sort of a silly thing that we’ve never heard of before?” People were horrified. There was a lot of opposition to it.
Narrator: When the elevated plan was voted down, Matthews saw his chance and intensified his advocacy for a gondola. Armed with data from the Rapid Transit Commission report, he argued that such pods would cut transit time by two-thirds to one-half.
Mark Gelfand, Historian: The decision to build a gondola is remarkable in demonstrating how Americans were willing to try something new and place their bets on the future. That they understood that technology was reshaping their world and electricity, the tremendous potential of it, is going to be unleashed here in the sky.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.