subway, subway tunnel

Abandoned Subway Tunnels Offer Clues to the Past

September 19, 2010 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
One man’s quest to explore Brooklyn’s abandoned subway tunnel sheds light on other hidden railways around the U.S., and reignites interest in President Lincoln’s assassination.

Diamond’s Quest

Native Brooklynite Bob Diamond has become a well-known proponent of the borough’s hidden underground railways. After hearing a radio show discussion about Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth’s missing diary pages, possibly hidden in a tunnel below Atlantic Avenue, Diamond set out to uncover the secrets in 1979.

According to Alison Lowenstein for American Way Magazine, Diamond eventually uncovered “the world’s oldest subway tunnel” below the intersection of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue, and now leads tours of the space. The diary pages remain undiscovered, but Diamond plans to continue searching in the tunnel, in hopes of finding them.

He believes further exploration could also reveal “a steam locomotive lying on its side” somewhere behind a tunnel wall at the intersection of Hicks Street and Atlantic Avenue, according to Yonette Joseph for The New York Times. It all sounds like a movie, and in fact, film director Trey Nelson has expressed interest in making a documentary about Diamond’s underground pursuit.

Writing for The Brooklyn Paper, Kristen V. Brown mentions the possibility of National Geographic’s involvement in “financing, producing and staffing an archeological dig,” but no confirmation was given. Brown also briefly mentions the “The Cosgrove Report” by G.J.A. O’Toole. The historical novel claims that the missing pages of Booth’s diary “were hidden in a steel box under Atlantic Avenue.” 

The Atlantic Avenue tunnel has hosted even more intriguing happenings. According to Brown, the Bureau of Investigation “broke into the tunnel in search of bomb-making German soldiers” in 1916. And in 1925, Red Hook science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft used the tunnel as inspiration for “Horror At Red Hook,” a fictional vampire tale.

The Missing Diary Pages

Many others, including Journal of the Masonic Society editor Chris Hodapp, are curious about the missing pages. Hodapp addressed the topic following heightened interest due to the 2007 release of “National Treasure II: Book of Secrets,” a Hollywood film that weaves Booth’s diary into its plot.

Lafayette Baker was the man who found Booth’s diary and delivered it to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “who promptly locked it away,” Hodapp writes. The diary resurfaced “[d]uring Congressional hearings that attempted to link Lincoln's vice president Andrew Johnson to the assassination,” but 18 pages had disappeared. Hodapp speculates that Booth might have used the pages as scrap, or that Baker could have torn the pages out.

The History Channel features a short video reenactment of Booth fleeing the scene of his crime, and keeping a diary of “his own point of view on the assassination,” which was “exaggerated.”

Atlantic Avenue Tunnel

Built in 1844, the half-mile long Atlantic Avenue Tunnel is officially the oldest subway tunnel in the world. The space was cleared in seven months using “only hand tools and primitive equipment,” according to the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (BHRA). The site provides further details about the tunnel, including why it was built, as well as historic photographs and articles.

In 1982, Diamond formed the nonprofit BHRA in an effort to restore and protect the tunnel. The BHRA was responsible for acquiring the tunnel’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the organization aims to return trolleys to Brooklyn’s streets. Based in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the BHRA maintains 16 trolleys, including a functioning line that travels along Red Hook’s historic waterfront. A crew of volunteers, trained technicians and laborers are responsible for all trolley maintenance and other BHRA functions.

Lincoln Assassination

Abraham Lincoln worked his way from a log cabin to the White House, teaching himself law and earning the faith of the electorate through his ability to communicate.

On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre, and died the next day.

Other Hidden Subway Tunnels

New York isn't the only city with a secretive, underground past. As Rob Lammle explains in Mental Floss magazine, there are unused subway tunnels in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati. Each secret subway tunnel has its own unique story, detailed by Lammle. Cincinnati’s tunnel has never been used, due to interruptions like World War I and the Stock Market Crash, for instance.

Jake Mecklenborg is the man behind, which exhaustively details the abandoned underground tunnels in the Ohio city. Sections include “Planning and construction,” as well as “What might have been.” Mecklenborg also provides information on past attempts to complete the subway, and discusses future uses for the tunnel. Photographs of construction and different stations are also featured.

One particular stretch of Boston’s subway network is also intriguing, as Noah Bierman explains for The Boston Globe. A now abandoned station “midway between the street-level entrances to the modern Broadway Station above and the platform below” was only used from 1917-1919. The station has been used as “something of a test kitchen for the subway system” since then, Bierman writes. For example, after the 9/11 attacks, “firefighters simulated a burning train emergency in the tunnel.”

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