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Descent Into the Past: The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel

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Quick, where's the oldest subway in the US?

If you said Boston, give yourself a gold star. By the usual definition—a commuter railway under a city—the cradle of liberty is also the birthplace of the subway in the United States. The Park Street station of what is now called the "T," just steps from speedster Paul Revere's grave in the Old Granary Burial Ground, opened with fanfare in downtown Boston in 1897, seven years before the New York City subway system debuted.

But if you take a bit of poetic license and stretch the definition a bit, taking "subway" to mean any train that traveled through a tunnel underneath city streets, New York actually takes the prize, and by many decades.

The city of Brooklyn, which later became part of a unified New York City, dug, in 1844, a half-mile tunnel under Atlantic Avenue (the city was much smaller then) to carry freight from the port without knocking over pedestrians. Trains used the tunnel until 1861. Then it was closed. Walt Whitman, who'd been editor of the Brooklyn Eagle during the 1840s, wrote that it would soon be "utterly forgotten," and how right he was—though it popped up in folklore over the years, the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel more or less vanished from the collective consciousness of the city.

Train enthusiast Bob Diamond rediscovered it about 20 years ago, and today you can climb down through the same manhole he used back then and explore the tunnel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, on a guided tour. How often do you get to climb down a manhole in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the biggest city in the country and enter a dark, silent netherworld that was all but forgotten for more than a century? This is one of the most fun—and certainly unusual—outings you can have in the City of New York. (Bring a powerful flashlight.)

The photos here were taken with my low-quality point-and-shoot. Search the Internet for "Atlantic Avenue Tunnel" and it's easy to find better photos and more information.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.