On this day in 1863 the London Underground opened with gas-lit, steam-powered trains between Paddington & Farrington; a novel solution and much anticipated remedy to the commuter congestion suffocating business in the city.
In early 1800s London, rail-line hubs were on the outskirts of the city, with no access to the city center. Commuters and travelers connecting to other rail lines had no choice but to navigate through narrow and crooked streets with horse-drawn carriage, horse-drawn taxi, and horse-drawn omnibus; or by foot. As more people moved to London traffic became unbearable and business suffered. In addition to space constraints, complicated land ownership proved a logistical nightmare for transportation planners seeking to alleviate the grid-lock. Many railway proposals came before Parliament only to be dismissed as unfeasible. Finally, City Solicitor Charles Pearson proposed a unique solution: use innovative engineering techniques to put the railway underground. This way, the city streets could be preserved above while commuters whisked through tunnels below.
Cleared to start construction in 1860, the Metropolitan Railway Company began to build the world’s first underground railway: a 3.7 mile line beginning at Paddington station with stops at Edgware Road, Baker Street, Great Portland Street, Euston Road, King’s Cross, and terminating at Farringdon station near Bank. The tunnels were crafted with the ‘cut-and-cover’ method: first a deep trench carved into the ground, then brick walls built up to support the tunnel, then finally capped with brick arches and roofs over which the roads could be repaved. Despite seeming the least destructive option, over 900 houses (mostly slums) were leveled to create the line.
Reactions to the new underground line were mixed. While most people enthusiastically awaited for a reprieve from the slough of street traffic and equine eliminations; others were pessimistic. In dance halls people scornfully called the project ‘The Drain,’ while some direly predicted that people in the streets would fall in and be crushed, or commuters might asphyxiate underground; or worst of all, that such newfangled abomination might pierce an opening into hell.
By May of 1862 London was buzzing with excitement over the new train line. The Metropolitan Railway Company promised smooth rides, and a smoke and steam free experience due to the ‘condensing engines.’ However, delays and one odious sewer flood pushed back the public opening from summer, to fall, to winter, then finally to Saturday, January 10th 1863.
The morning of January 10th, the London Underground opened to the public at 6am. The first class carriages had generous compartments and seats with arms to prevent overcrowding; while second class had comfortable leathered seats. Gas lamps lit all the carriages, burning brightest in 1st class so that patrons could read easily. However, once in motion the lamps flickered rapidly, disturbed by drafts. Soon crowds of people overwhelmed the stations and ticket booths, intent upon trying the underground train on its first day. By noon several stations stopped selling tickets as the wait was already over an hour for ticket holders in the stations. Each train was packed to full capacity – riders ignored 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class destinations in order to sit wherever there was an open seat. Despite assurances of a smoke and steam free experience, riders reported ample steam and noticeable sulfurous fumes, though few minded. By the end of the day, over 38,000 people had ridden the trains underground and agreed that the ride was indeed smooth and convenient.
Contributed by Odd Salon Fellow Isolde Honore.