Monday, April 20, 2009

I've Outdone Myself Again


A lot gets me choked up lately. Maybe it's all the time I spend alone. Maybe it's all the daytime TV. Or maybe it's just the bronchitis that spontaneously erupted in my chest. I do always cry when I'm sick.

Regardless, I couldn't help but get a little emotional yesterday when I was standing at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn, staring at an open manhole surrounded by a few orange cones. I'd stood at that intersection in 2002, underestimating the number of people who would show up for an art installation by Ars Subterranea in an abandoned underground train tunnel, and was told there was no way I was going to get in. There were people lined up as far as the eye could see, seemingly down each side of each of the four spokes of the intersection. Looking at that open manhole, I knew I was missing out.

I found out last year that the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association had started doing tours (apparently, again) of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, which they tout as "the world's first subway tunnel," but every month, something prevented me from going. Either I was travelling for work or I found out too late about it or the reservation list was full, and every month I suffered the pangs of missing out like I first experienced with the tunnel six years before.

The BHRA took the winter off but they're back on schedule and I finally booked a tour of the Atlantic Tunnel, which can only be accessed through said manhole in the middle of a busy Brooklyn intersection.

Once I finally got there, I wondered how many more of these urban archaeological excursions could possibly be on my Bucket List? At one time in my life, as I crossed an item off, another one would be added, but now I seem to be making my way more quickly down the list than I'm adding to it. Maybe I'm just preparing to maybe leave New York when my lease is up in August. Or maybe I've one-upped myself so many times that there just aren't that many more activities that could trump the prior one?

The Atlantic Tunnel certainly trumped our tour of the abandoned City Hall station, and our visit to the Brooklyn trolleys last summer (which were rebuilt and restored by the same guy who rediscovered the Atlantic Tunnel in 1980, Bob Diamond).

And not just because it's harder to get into and because I've been trying for nearly seven years.

Or maybe that is why.



When Bob Diamond first cracked open the manhole cover in 1980 (well, actually it was the gas company), it led to a four-foot drop filled with loose, sandy dirt. Bob knew there must be more to it than that so he used his feet to feel around and submerged himself in the dirt, finally finding a wall that he broke through, leading into the infamous tunnel that, at the time, no one was really sure even existed. (It was falsely reported that it had been destroyed, but it was actually only sealed off in order to save money.) Bob had been warned of poisonous gas, flooding waters, and maneating rats, but what he actually found was a half-mile long tunnel made of Manhattan bedrock and red brick, stained black by the steam trains that once ran through it.

The dirt from under the manhole was pitched through the hole in the wall and now supports a wooden staircase that you have to climb down into the tunnel. Crawling through the hole in the wall - its edges still jagged from when they first burst through - felt like when I used to lock myself out of my Newell Street apartment all the time and would have to break in through the window. Except on the other side this time, it was dark, dank, wet, dirty, and deep.





There are a few incandescent bulbs that light the way, but mostly you're led by your own flashlight, which doesn't always catch the unevenness of the ground below or the rubble that's scattered about. The left side of the tunnel still shows the impressions of the train tracks that once lie there, but the right side has been smoothed out by the horse-drawn wagons that trotted alongside the trains in the tunnel's later years. I kept looking for traces of human (or even animal) life, but all I saw were bricks and a wheelbarrow. It's strangely preserved down there, unlike a lot of abandoned sites that have fallen prey to vandalism or construction. At places like the NYS Pavilion or Bannerman Castle you usually find folding chairs and barbeque kettles among wooden two-by-four's and tool chests. But down in the Atlantic Tunnel, it's just dirt, and the slightest cool breeze that chills you colder as you advance deeper towards the other sealed end. You think about the rumors of dead bodies behind the walls and the spirits of workers who may have perished there. It's not deep enough for the bends, but who knows what ailments might befall a construction worker using the cut-and-cover method (inspired by the Old Croton Acqueduct)?

Even for Bob Diamond himself, more mysteries lie ahead. He's trying to get funding to break through the other sealed-off entrance to the tunnel (the westernmost terminus), hopefully with the help of some documentarians who are trying to get some attention and financial backing for the project. Another rumor states that there's a train engine sealed off back there. What you can see now is some pipes (water or sewer, you'd better be prepared to find out), a shoddy job of cobblestoning it up, and another huge pile of dirt. The dirt is practically sand down there, an indication of how close to the water's edge you are (strategically located to connect underground trains to the Brooklyn harbor industry for transporting goods). As Bob reminded us, all of Long Island (including Queens and Brooklyn) is made up of topsoil dragged across New England by a glacier long ago...

And he may finally get those trolleys up and running on a brand new Brooklyn above ground rail system. I've got to say, I'm pulling for the guy. He's trying to avoid regret too.

Lots of further reading at the BHRA website.

For more photos, click here.