Never Built New York, published courtesy of Metropolis Books.
By Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin
Rufus Henry Gilbert was among the most influential, and tragic, inventors to promote a mid-nineteenth-century transit scheme. Born in 1832 in Guilford, New York, Gilbert possessed an itinerant and brilliant mind. As a young man, he taught himself classical literature, mechanics, and mathematics; he apprenticed at a manufacturing firm but switched to studying medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, becoming a distinguished surgeon and doctor. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he signed up as a Union surgeon and was decorated for performing the first operation ever done under fire. By war’s end, he had risen to become medical director and superintendent of all U.S. Army hospitals, chiefly training other doctors––who became known as sawbones––in the terrible art of amputation. This was hardly the road to rapid transit.
After a stint working as an assistant superintendent for the New Jersey Central railroad, Gilbert at last devoted himself to perfecting rapid transit in New York City. Several iterations on, he came up with his Elevated Railway, for which he was granted a patent in 1870. Gilbert’s design was a hybrid––a combination of Alfred Beach’s air-powered underground and Charles T. Harvey’s cable-powered elevated––which had begun a brief experimental run on Greenwich Street in July 1868. Passengers would waft around town propelled by compressed air, moving through a double row of what Gilbert called “atmospheric tubes.” The elevated tubes, which he envisioned as eight or nine feet in diameter, were suspended from 24-foot-high, wrought-iron Gothic arches, held aloft on slender, fluted, Corinthian columns.
Gilbert put his stations about one mile apart and provided them with pneumatic elevators, “thus obviating the necessity of going up and down stairs for transit,” said Scientific American. He also planned a telegraph triggered by the passing cars, which would automatically signal arrivals and departures from all points along the line.
In 1872, the state legislature gave Gilbert a charter to build his elevated pneumatic railway. He was allowed three years to span nearly the length of Manhattan, from West Broadway and Reade Street in present-day Tribeca, along Sixth to the Harlem River.
Gilbert was not one to give up. He obtained at least two other patents for his “improved elevated railway,” which by 1874 had morphed from the exotic pneumatic into a more conventional steam-powered train––still running on an elevated track, now held aloft on a less-graceful Gothic arch adorned in trefoils.
In 1875, the state legislature freed the city’s mayor to appoint a Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners, which, in turn, authorized Gilbert to build his line on Second and Sixth avenues. Now he found backers, and on April 19, 1876, construction began at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street.
Two years later, on June 5, 1878, the Sixth Avenue El opened, and 30,000 riders overwhelmed the steam cars. Ten cents bought a ride from Rector Street to Central Park, via Church, West Broadway, and Sixth Avenue. The following day, Gilbert was stripped of his seat as a company director and, later, forced out altogether. His former partners, who were tied to “Boss” Tweed, swindled him out of his holdings and erased him from the company name, which became the Metropolitan Elevated Company.
The shady stock swap left the inventor impoverished and broken. He spent the last years of his life pursuing his victimizers in court. Gilbert was last seen on the streets of New York, hobbled, leaning on a pair of sticks as he walked to the elevated station at 72nd Street and Ninth Avenue. He died of his debilitating stomach ailments on July 10, 1885, just 53 years old.
Sam Lubell is a Staff Writer at Wired and a Contributing Editor at the Architect’s Newspaper. He has written seven books about architecture, published widely, and curated Never Built Los Angeles and Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. Greg Goldin was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine from 1999 to 2011, and co-curator, and co-author, of Never Built Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper, and Zocalo, among many others.