I received this book as an ARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review; this in no way effected my views and on this book as described below.
Title: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway
Author: Doug Most
Genre: Nonfiction: History
In the late nineteenth century, as cities like Boston and New York grew more congested, the streets became clogged with plodding, horse-drawn carts. When the great blizzard of 1888 crippled the entire northeast, a solution had to be found. Two brothers from one of the nation’s great families—Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York—pursued the dream of his city digging America’s first subway, and the great race was on. The competition between Boston and New York played out in an era not unlike our own, one of economic upheaval, life-changing innovations, class warfare, bitter political tensions, and the question of America’s place in the world.The Race Underground is peopled with the famous, like Boss Tweed, Grover Cleveland and Thomas Edison, and the not-so-famous, from brilliant engineers to the countless “sandhogs” who shoveled, hoisted and blasted their way into the earth’s crust, sometimes losing their lives in the construction of the tunnels. Doug Most chronicles the science of the subway, looks at the centuries of fears people overcame about traveling underground and tells a story as exciting as any ever ripped from the pages of U.S. history. The Race Underground is a great American saga of two rival American cities, their rich, powerful and sometimes corrupt interests, and an invention that changed the lives of millions from Goodreads).
Thoughts: Last year St. Martin’s Press embarked on a new project. Each year, their nonfiction team has decided to choose one or two books each season of high quality narrative nonfiction to promote nationally in the hope that, with a national marketing campaign, more general readers will become aware of not only interesting books on a variety of topics but also that nonfiction books do not have to be boring; they can be fun! and engrossing! and have beautiful and moving prose just like fiction books!
I’m a big nonfiction reader so I was stoked when I heard about the efforts of St. Martin’s Press to promote more quality nonfiction. And I was even more excited when I went to get my mail one day and this was in the mailbox! Most tells the story of New York City and Boston as both metropolises in the 1800s are grappling with the crisis of urban transportation. In the 19th century, cities all over the world were growing at such a rate the their governing bodies could not keep up. Downtown New York City and Boston were gridlocked in a stranglehold of congestion as thousands of horses, wagons, carriages, pedestrians, omnibuses, and other contraptions clogged the streets and made intercity travel a nightmare. Citizens were frustrated and the cities themselves were at a breaking point. From elevated steam railways, electrics trolleys, bureaucratic stalling and hedging, and the engineering and mechanical issues and fixes involved, Most tells us all about how America’s two greatest cities of the time designed and built the world’s first modern subway systems.
I enjoyed this book; I read it over a week back in December and was entertained by the mixture of biography, history,and science Most uses to tell the story of the subway. I was especially pleased when I discovered that a whole chapter of the book dealt with the city of Richmond, VA- my hometown! Apparently Richmond had the world’s first practical and fully functioning electric railway system- who knew?!
Most did his research for this books and it really shows. There are some great stories in here, from Alfred Beach’s one-block long, fan powered subway built in secret in 1869 in under Boss Tweed’s nose, to Henry Whitney, who had the foresight to see that the solution to Boston’s urban transportation crisis was not elevated steam railway tracks running above the city but electrified rail travel underground. Perhaps what I liked best was the descriptions of how awful it must had been to travel in cities in the 19th century. Besides the masses of people, horses, and carriages, many cities had elevated trail tracks running above buildings in streets; their noise was deafening, their tracks blocked out the sun, their wheels spend hot sparks flying down below to the streets where they posed a very real danger to the people below, their smoke and steam was choking, and if there was an accident on the rails above there was a real potential for a catastrophe if the train fell off its tracks into the busy street below. I know today we have many devices that make life easier and more convenient but I rarely ever think about just how much they changed our lives. At one time London even had a steam train running underground- talk about an uncomfortable way to travel! One of my favorite parts of the book was when Most talked about just how hard and complicated it was to construct these underground tunnels. It was incredibly intricate and dangerous; just reading about what it took to drill under the River Thames in London in the 1700s made me wonder why anyone decided to attempt it in the first place!
While overall I did enjoy this book, and I was happy to read it, there was a downside. St. Martin’s wants to promote high quality nonfiction, a goal I wholeheartedly support. But while I enjoyed the history, research, and story told in this book, I sometimes felt that the writing left a bit to be desired. I felt the wording was sometimes either awkward or could have been written in a way to either be more clear or to make the narrative flow better. There are also a fair bunch of capitalization and punctuation errors, words without spaces, some misspellings and wavy type, but as I read an ARC I think these will be fixed by the time the books comes out next month in February.
My biggest problem with The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway is just that; I expected a race a race and a rivalry between the cities, but there was none. The title to me brought to mind the transcontinental railroad and the race between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific. But here there was no race or rivalry. Boston and New York had the same problem and, although they approached it different ways at first, they eventually decided on the same solution- a subway. They were both working towards the same goal and in some cases they even collaborated on some issues. The synopsis of the book also pits two brothers- Henry and William Whitney- against each other. Although they both did play a role in getting their respective cities to adopt a subway system- Henry in Boston and William in New York- by the time both cities built their subways they were no longer in the picture. I went into this book thinking that it would consist of an actual race between the cities, with the brothers at the helm, and that it would mainly deal with the actual construction of the two cities’ subways. This wasn’t the case. Although I wasn’t upset to find that most of the book focused on the process of getting the technology necessary for a subway invented and getting both cities to actually approve plans to build a subway, I confess to feeling a little misled in regards to expecting an actual ‘race’ and ‘rivalry’ between the cities.
Overall though I was happy with this book and found it both an entertaining and informative read. The Race Underground will be published by St. Martin’s Press in February 2014.