Ever step into the subway and marvel at the colossal feat of engineering it took to connect New York City with a complex network of underground tunnels? If not, you should. Yes, on many days it’s far from a sterling example of public transportation, what with all the delays, derailments, and crumbling ceilings. But the vast, 115-year-old transit system was once just mounds of earth; decades of digging at the hands of construction workers created the subway that we know and have a love-hate relationship with today.
Now, you can see the open-heart surgery workers performed on our streets in a new photography exhibit at the New York Transit Museum. The show, “Streetscapes & Subways: Photographs by Pierre P. and Granville W. Pullis,” highlights a collection of photographs by brothers Pierre and Granville Pullis, who captured the subway system’s construction at the turn of the 20th century. Transit officials hired the duo to document the system’s inception, which they did with an 8 X 10 camera and glass plates, the height of image-making technology at the time.
For more than 30 years, the Pullis brothers photographed the guts of train tunnels and the New Yorkers who built them. Some 100,000 of their glass negatives created prior to 1925 managed to survive into the 21st century in a collection the New York Transit Museum calls one of, if not the, most comprehensive repositories of images of early subway construction.
But the photographs also transcend their original purpose; for modern viewers, they showcase long-forgotten streetscapes of row houses, theaters, and churches, and the bustle of every day life playing out on their doorsteps. These scenes of old New York, back when trolleys and horses traveled the roads side by side, chronicles the evolution of the city’s built environment at a key moment in its history.
The system as we know it first began running on October 27, 1904. We’ve come a long way since then—when a single ride cost 5 cents—and transit officials undoubtedly have much work ahead of them to improve the embattled public transportation network that each day serves more than 5.5 million people. Still, it’s worth appreciating the gamble taken on a preposterously ambitious vision that got us the subway in the first place, and the hard work that made it happen.
The exhibit is open to the public through January 17, 2021 at the New York Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn, which is located in a decommissioned subway station at 99 Schermerhorn Street. For more information on hours, admission, and directions, visit the museum’s website here.