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Sunday some friends and I donned sensible shoes, grabbed flashlights, and headed to the Trader Joe’s at Atlantic and Court in Brooklyn, where we stood in line in the rain waiting to climb down a manhole and enter the world’s oldest subway tunnel, which remained hidden from New Yorkers for over a century.

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Down we go!

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The half-mile long tunnel was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1844 as part of the Long Island Railroad. The idea was to get the train off the downtown streets, where accidents were apparently too common as locomotives chugged to and from the waterfront. The tunnel remained in operation until 1861, when developers had the bright idea that sealing it off and removing train traffic from the area would raise property values, a plan that backfired when commerce shriveled up along with the thoroughfare.

1844_Tunnel_View.jpgAmong the old timers who complained about the travesty being wrought by this would-be wave of gentrification was, believe it or not, Walt Whitman, who wrote about the tunnel in his “Brooklyniana” column for the Brooklyn Standard. Like most Brooklynites, he believed incorrectly that the tunnel had actually been filled in; he lamented the passing of the polyglot culture that had sprung up around the train tracks as engines plunged into the tunnel:

We were along there a few days since, and could not help stopping, and giving the reins for a few moments to an imagination of the period when the daily eastern train, with a long string of cars, filled with summer passengers, was about starting for Greenport, after touching at all the intermediate villages and depots. We are (or fancy will have it so) in that train of cars, ready to start. The bell rings, and winds off with that sort of a twirl or gulp (if you can imagine a bell gulping) which expresses the last call, and no more afterwards; then off we go. Every person attached to the road jumps on from the ground or some of the various platforms, after the train starts — which (so imitative an animal is man) sets a fine example for greenhorns or careless people at some future time to fix themselves off with broken legs or perhaps mangled bodies. The orange women, the newsboys, and the limping young man with long-lived cakes, look in at the windows with an expression that says very plainly, “We’ll run along-side, and risk all danger, while you find the change.” The smoke with a greasy smell comes drifting along, and you whisk into the tunnel.

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Our tour was led by Bob Diamond, the president of the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association, who discovered the tunnel’s location around 1980, when he was not quite 20 years old. Between the 1860s and 1980, the tunnel had been a thing of legend: The Times printed a “romance” about pirates living in the tunnel in the 1890s; H.P. Lovecraft wrote about “Persian vampires” roosting there in his story “The Horrors of Red Hook”; German saboteurs were feared to be plotting enormous explosions there during WWI; bootleggers were supposed to be distilling there; and an old-fashioned engine was supposed to be sealed in somewhere, possibly containing the missing pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Authorities believed the tunnel no longer existed, but Diamond persisted, scouring maps in the public library and hounding city officials and local historians until he located a small crawl space under the Atlantic Ave manhole cover and convinced the gas company to help him check it out. The gas folks, seeing that the hole appeared to be filled, were ready to bag the effort, but Bob climbed inside and crawled on his stomach below the street for several feet until he hit a dead end. He removed enough dirt with his bare hands to realize he’d found a brick wall, which he eventually knocked a hole through big enough to poke his head inside and see that he’d finally found the tunnel. Here he is describing the tunnel’s construction:

And here’s another quick video produced, apparently, by tunnel enthusiasts:

Diamond gives tours a couple times a year; judging from the turnout Sunday they’re fairly popular. According to his website, the next one’s scheduled for June 28. He has a lively style, a pocket full of entertaining anecdotes, a thorough-going knowledge of the area’s geology and history, and a sense of adventure that doesn’t appear to have diminished in the last 30 years. Highly recommended for folks who like a taste of the underground now and again.

The tunnel’s been thoroughly blogged elsewhere, including Forgotten NY. For a bunch of better photos than mine, check out these sites.