Coming to PBS’s American Experience tonight, Tuesday, January 31:
THE RACE UNDERGROUND
American Experience (January 2017)
The story of America’s first subway.
On September 1, 1897, the first passengers descended into the Earth, taking a ride on the country’s first subway line, in Boston MA. All told, 250,000 individuals braved the new technology that day, despite a long build-up of fears of gas explosions, superstitions of traveling close to the netherworld, and political obstacles that called into question whether the engineering project would ever be completed. Rossi reveals the origins of the MBTA and its architects, and if he employs the conventional PBS house style, dominated by narration and talking heads, the project nevertheless offers an illuminating look back at the dawn of this vital part of America’s public transport infrastructure. While the title suggests a competition between Boston and other cities, notably New York City, to achieve a subway system, Rossi’s film is almost exclusively concerned with the challenges faced by the former in pulling off their subway and barely makes mention of NYC’s own efforts – the latter did not open until 1904. At the core of Rossi’s film, which is based on urban historian Doug Most’s book by the same name, is Frank Sprague, a young inventor who revolutionized mass transportation with his electric motor-powered trolley cars. A largely unheralded figure in the shadow of the legendary Thomas Edison, who eventually bought his patents and slapped his name on them, Sprague persevered, with the support of real estate mogul Henry Whitney, despite a huge public fight over disturbing the Boston Common.