As Boston and New York City competed to build the country’s first subway system in the 1890s, a high-powered sibling rivalry fueled the contest, and a Jamaica Plain company dug the tunnel that made Boston the winner.
The dramatic personalities who built the T and transformed Boston come to life in the new book “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, And the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway.” Author Doug Most, a Needham resident and an editor at the Boston Globe, started writing it five years ago while living in JP.
“It’s not an academic book. It’s not a history book,” Most said in a recent Gazette interview. “It’s about people and characters.”
“We tend to take for granted, when riding things like the subway, the work that went into it,” Most said. “It was built with horses and guys with picks and shovels in the dirt digging a gigantic hole.”
Many of those guys were from JP, as was Meehan & Jones, the engineering and construction firm directing them. Led by Michael Meehan and J. Edwin Jones, the company was based in a Rockview Street building that, Most said, no longer exists.
An 1895 Globe article about the start of subway construction under Boston Common, posted on the history website “Remember Jamaica Plain?”, called Jones and Meehan “interesting local characters.”
Meehan’s brother Patrick was a major JP landowner and developer who got the family immortalized in the name of Meehan Street in Stonybrook. Jones performed engineering surveys for Arnold Arboretum and Muddy River fix-ups, and also conducted a topographic survey of Franklin Park.
When Boston, finding its streets choked with horse carriages, trolleys and other traffic, proposed a subway system, Michael Meehan was among the early opponent of the plan before agreeing to build it.
“The subway, he believed, would provide only minimal relief, and it would hardly be enough to justify the exorbitant cost of building it,” Most writes in the book.
Meehan and Jones bid on the construction project all the same, and were not happy when they turned out to be the second-lowest bidder. The lowest bidder was a Brooklyn firm. In true JP fashion, Meehan and Jones lobbied hard against letting the business go to a New York company.
“They said, ‘This isn’t cool. You should keep it local,’” Most told the Gazette.
With a little help from political corruption, Meehan & Jones won the bid and made good on the local promise.
Meehan had two simple standards for hiring workers on the subway project, Most writes: “The first was to be citizens of the country. The second was to come from the same neighborhood as Meehan, Jamaica Plain.”
“[Meehan] made no secret of his desire to pick people from JP” to work on the project, especially fellow Irishmen, Most told the Gazette.
Many JP residents joined the giant construction camp, nicknamed “Meehanville,” that dug the original subway section between the Boylston and Park stations on what is now the MBTA’s Green Line. They finished the three-year project early and under budget, though some workers died in accidents.
“The Race Underground” has other details of JP interest, but its main storyline follows a much grander tale of power and ambition.
Henry and William Whitney, brothers from Conway in Western Mass., ended up driving the development of subways in both Boston and NYC.
In that era, many different companies operated streetcars on Boston streets. Henry, a major Brookline property owner, bought them all up, creating the world’s largest streetcar company. He had the original vision for running a trolley down the middle of Beacon Street, which still operates today, but he thought even bigger than that.
“He proposed digging a subway tunnel under the Common,” Most said. “Henry Whitney became a key figure in the eventual construction of the subway in Boston.”
“At the very same, William was experiencing a very different meteoric rise in New York,” Most continued.
A power player in Democratic politics, William worked on Grover Cleveland’s successful presidential campaign and became secretary of the Navy.
“William Whitney could have been elected president if he wanted to,” Most said, but instead competed with his brother in the streetcar game. “He became king of public transit in New York,” Most said.
While both cities got subways, Boston built one first in yet another chapter of the urban rivalry epitomized by the Red Sox vs. the Yankees.
“We tend to think of it as a sports rivalry,” Most said, “but there are so many ways [the cities] are linked.”
The book follows their intertwined stories and offers several pages of historic photos.
Most previously wrote the 2005 true-crime book “Always in Our Hearts,” about a young couple who abandoned and killed their unwanted baby, a case that led Boston and other cities to adopt so-called “Safe Haven” laws.
“The Race Underground” will be published Tues., Feb. 4 by St. Martin’s Press. Most will discuss the book on Feb. 4 at the main Boston Public Library branch in Copley Square, and Feb. 18 at Brookline Booksmith. For more information, see dougmost.com.