Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 10, 1863 --- The Underground

At six in the morning, the world's first underground railway begins operation.  The new Metropolitan Line runs from Paddington Station to Farringdon Street via King's Cross railway station.  The four mile route, which roughly follows the path of the Marylebone Road, can be covered in thirty minutes. 

Eight years in the building, employing "vast labor and stupendous resources," the line was built by the cut-and-cover method.  So often did the huge trench fill with rainwater - or, worse, sewage - that Londoners dubbed it "the Drain."  Regardless, success is thought to be almost certain.  There had been a "universal outcry at the impediments to circulation in London arising from the mighty tide of traffic passing through it." 

On this opening day, by nine in the morning the stations are packed with the curious.  By mid-morning, signs were posted indicating there was NO ROOM on the platforms or trains.  30,000 riders did manage to get on that first day.  The verdict: "Unanimous in the favor of the smoothness and comfort of the ride."  Cynics were not so easily impressed.  The Prime Minister, 78-year old Lord Palmerston, declared that at his age, he would prefer to remain above ground for as long as possible.  The Times haughtily opined that it is "an insult to common sense to suppose that people would ever prefer to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foil subsoil of London."  In fact, the air in the Underground was soon deemed to be dangerous.  After a woman's death in 1867, a coroner warned Londoners: "Avoid it, as much as possible." 

Yet, the Underground was to survive.  The Spectator said Londoners would rather ride the trains than the "horrible sarcophagi of London known as omnibuses."  Soon, a quarter-million rides per week were commonplace.  The monies generated led to a quick expansion - to Hammersmith by 1864 and Moorgate by 1865.  The new District Line was opened in the late 1860's following a Thameside route built into the new Embankment, linking South Kensington with the city at Mansion House.

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