Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Secret Subway by Martin W. Sandler

Do you know what a pneumatic tube is? Banks use them. Hospitals use them. Mechanics use them too. [show air compressor and tools] Pneumatics is a type of technology that uses pressurized air or gas to make something move.

There was an inventor named Alfred Beach who took the idea of a pneumatic tube to a much grander scale. Alfred Beach thought a pneumatic tube could be used to transport people underground. Beach successfully demonstrated that he could transport mail from one building to another using the force of air pressure to propel a large cylinder through a tube. This gave him an idea. To solve the incredible traffic-jams of New York City, Beach thought he could solve New York City’s traffic jams by constructing a tube large enough to fit a subway car under the city’s streets. There was only one thing stopping him-a man named William Marcy Tweed.

Most people called him Boss. Boss Tweed was the most powerful person in New York City in the late 1800’s. Anything important that happened in New York City had to go through him first. “He was about six feet tall and, for most of his adult life, weighed over 320 pounds. He had a large bald head and sported a red beard. What struck most people on first meeting him were his bright blue eyes, which seemed to twinkle when he found something amusing. But when he was angry these same eyes turned to cold steel, as they did on the occasion when he actually stared down a person holding a knife to his huge stomach, causing the man to drop the weapon and flee.” There were more than a few that wanted to see Boss Tweed dead and out of the way.

Alfred Beach was also determined to find some way to take Tweed out of the picture. Beach was upset that Boss Tweed stood in the way of his dream. Beach couldn’t just simply ignore the power of Boss Tweed either. Tweed was the leader of a group of corrupt politicians known as Tammany Hall. They rigged elections, accepted bribes, and stole money from public projects. They were like their own little mafia organization.

In contrast, Alfred Beach was a man of honesty and integrity. He wouldn’t use violence or bribery to get his way. His principles wouldn’t allow him to play by the same rules Tweed used. But, Beach was faced with the reality of how things worked in New York City in the late 1800s. If he wanted to build his dream, his subway, he would have to pay Boss Tweed a large amount of money on the side to get permission to start construction.

To Beach he only had one alternative. He decided to build the subway in secret with his own money. The Secret Subway, known to Beach as the Beach Pneumatic Transit, went ahead without Tweed’s permission.

Beach and his men began the project like soldiers digging an escape tunnel in a prison camp. It would take coordination and stealth. Beach’s men would have to be sworn to secrecy. Thousands of tons of dirt would have to be removed and hauled out without anyone noticing. The noise itself would have to be muffled so as not to tip off someone walking a few feet above on the streets of downtown Manhattan.

You'll have to read the Secret Subway by Martin W. Sandler to find out if Boss Tweed eventually discovered what Beach was up to and what happened to the dream of having pneumatic subways instead of the types of subway systems we have today.

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