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‘The Race Underground’ Surfaces At Ventfort Hall

Doug Most, a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, is the author of The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Build America’s First Subway, published in February by St. Martin’s Press. Named one of the “18 Books to Read in 2014” by This Week magazine, the book traces the development of the Boston and New York subway systems, a complicated, terrifying journey filled with thrilling breakthroughs and horrific tragedies.“It’s full of American history, a little death and destruction, and a lot of drama,” says Most, who will be presenting an illustrated lecture, “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground” as part of Ventfort Hall’s Tea & Talk series on July 8.  In anticipation of his appearance, we asked Most about his inspiration and thoughts on writing the book.


Rural Intelligence: What inspired you to tackle this topic?
Doug Most: I love a good story and I love exploring how we got to where we are today. We take so much of our history for granted, and the subway is a perfect example. We go underground now and think nothing of it. We’re not nervous, or scared, or hesitant. But as I learned, that was not always the case. Centuries ago man was terrified of the underground. Overcoming that fear, embracing the underground, and then constructing incredible tunnels, was a huge achievement for society. I was excited to tell the story of the people who did it.

RI: Your book promos emphasize the story of the two brothers each racing to build a subway in their respective cities (NY and Boston), but the cast of characters that were involved is enormous, all the way from public figures to the immigrant workers who risked their lives to work on the projects. Was there a character that most intrigued you?
DM: There were so many. The Whitney brothers you mention, from Conway, MA, were fascinating. William Whitney could have been president if he wanted. And Henry Whitney was Boston’s most powerful businessman. My favorite surprising characters are both in New York. William Steinway, the man who gave us the beautiful piano we know today, was a key figure in New York’s subway. And the amazing story of Alfred Beach building a secret subway right under the nose of Boss Tweed and the citizens of Gotham was a fun tale.

RI: With all the descriptions of the smells, sounds, dangers and fears of the time, The Race Underground does a great job of transporting the reader back to the late 19th century. While you were writing, did you ever feel like you had one foot in the past and one foot in the present?
DM: I tried to do that, for myself and my readers. I very much wanted to take people back to that era, so they could understand that the reason the horse-pulled carriage needed to be replaced was it was slow, dirty and smelly! I wanted people to feel like they could see, hear and smell those horses. No matter how badly they smelled!

RI: It almost strains credulity that the subways were built by men using pickaxes and shovels. The Boston subway was built in two years. How long did the Big Dig take — 15 years? Discuss!
DM: Not only did the Boston subway, the first leg anyway, take 2.5 years, it was finished under budget. Just like the Big Dig, right? Okay, never mind. Yes, costs were contained more carefully then, but workers also earned only $1.20 a day. Imagine that?!

RI: You’ve said that holding the actual letters written between Thomas Edison and Frank Sprague was an emotional experience. Were there any other research “moments” like that?
DM: That was my favorite, probably. But visiting a distant relative of Henry Whitney in Connecticut and seeing her pictures of her great grandfather was cool. So was digging through the private papers and letters of William Whitney at the Library of Congress. The reporting and research was great fun. My favorite “find” was a book from 1938 of stories of people who survived the Blizzard of 1888. It was an incredible collection and I never expected to track it down, but I did and when it arrived in the mail it was like a gift from the heavens. That book alone almost single handedly wrote that entire chapter!

RI: How did Boston and New York differ in their approach to and acceptance of the subways? Did they mirror the personalities of the two cities?
DM: Boston was definitely more reluctant embracing it. But that’s also because Boston was first in America. By the time New York opened 7 years later, people understood the subway could be safe and reliable and helpful to a city. The biggest difference came on their opening days. Boston was very subdued, quiet, no big celebration. New York pulled out all the stops, a huge party, befitting New York!

RI: Your book is meticulously researched and told in a chronological manner, but you probably didn’t uncover your research in chronological order. How did you organize your massive amounts of material?
DM: One word: Timeline. I created an Excel spreadsheet and every time I found a date, I entered it there. That gave me a timeline of more than 2000 entries, and it was hugely helpful. A writer friend of mine suggested that and it was a great tip.

RI: There are characters with quite a few ties to the Rural Intelligence region. The Whitney brothers — William and Henry — were born in Conway, MA, just outside the RI region; Frank Sprague went to Drury High School in North Adams and his son Robert Sprague founded Sprague Electric of North Adams. Have you been able to find out much about William Whitney’s history with Ventfort Hall?
DM: I only learned about it after they invited me, so I am now trying to dig up more. I have an old biography on Whitney and hope to see what it says. I was thrilled by the invitation, can’t wait to come.

RI: How has writing this book changed your experience of riding on the subways in either city?
DM: I just appreciate the subways more. I ride them and stare at the tunnels, at the walls, the tracks, the stations and think about the work that went into building them. I hope other people take that away from my book, a special appreciation for the workers who gave us marvels of engineering like subways and bridges.

RI: This story could actually make a pretty compelling movie. Any interest — by you or anyone else?
DM: One can only hope!

Tea & Talk: “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground”
Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum
104 Walker Street, Lenox, MA
(413) 637-3206
$20 advance registration, $25 at the door

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/28/14 at 08:48 AM • Permalink