Sunday, August 05, 2007

Atlantic Avenue Tunnel Tour

The world's oldest subway tunnel is open for tours again! After an aborted attempt to take the tour last week (canceled due to rain), it was on again today. Here's the entrance to the tunnel on a normal day at the corner of Atlantic Ave and Court St in downtown Brooklyn:
Don't see anything? That's because the entrance is through a manhole in the middle of the busy intersection (about 10 feet in front of where the yellow cab is in the picture above). Here it was today, blocked off and set up for the tour:
You carefully cross into the middle of the intersection and make your entrance down a ten foot ladder into a maybe 50 foot long tunnel with low ceilings, dirt floors and pipes you must duck under.
At the end of that short tunnel is a wall with a small opening cut out. You squeeze through that opening and head down a set of wooden stairs to the cavernous main area of the tunnel:
The tunnel is massive! It goes on for about a half mile directly below Atlantic Avenue. It was built in 1844 by the Long Island Rail Road and sealed up in 1861 under a complex series of events that led to the building of Park Slope and the tunnel not being destroyed as it should have been.

The lower part of the tunnel is made of huge blocks of stone taken from Manhattan (near the UN area) while the upper part is an archway of brick. Visible on the brick is soot from the steam locomotives that ran through this tunnel. The hole in wall at right in the picture below is from the FBI, who broke through in 1916 under suspicions that the Germans were hiding munitions in the tunnel. Nobody set foot in the tunnel again until 1980.
In 1980, after much research, Bob Diamond (pictured below), rediscovered the location of the tunnel entrance which many believed did not actually exist. Much of his evidence came from old newspaper articles, including some written by Walt Whitman. The story is fascinating and Bob leads the super informative tours under the auspices of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association. The tour gives you a wealth of fascinating historical tidbits.The floor of the tunnel is dirt but still has bumps where the rail ties for the train tracks used to be. At the far end of the tunnel is another sealed off wall. Bob believes that behind the wall is an intact locomotive from the 1840's. Bob and the BHRA are trying to get the tunnel reopened for trolley use as part of a larger system of transportation in the downtown Brooklyn area. He's a great storyteller and the I'd highly recommend the tour for anyone interested in a missing piece of local history. Bring sturdy shoes and a flashlight!