Imagine you’re charged with taking a subway for a ride. Now imagine that subway was the first subway ever. A pretty daunting task! Mayor George B. McClellan had the honor of operating the first NYC subway train on October 27, 1904, and was pretty excited about it!
The IRT had just opened, and McClellan was supposed to start the train from the City Hall Station. After that, he was to hand the controls to the IRT motorman. However, he was having so much fun that he refused to give up the controls, and steered the train all the way to the 103rd Street station in Harlem! From the New York Times, October 28, 1904:
“Are we ready?” asked the Mayor.
“All right,” responded [IRT general manager] Mr. Hedley, who kept his hand on the emergency brake lever. “Slow at first, remember!”
The Mayor’s wrist shot out about an inch, and the train began to move at 2:35:30 o’clock. Slowly it rounded the loop and entered the big Brooklyn Bridge Station, but just as it emerged toward Elm Street there was a violent jolt, a sudden stop, and the passengers were thrown forward as though the train had struck an obstruction.
“What’s up?” asked the Mayor.
“It’s all right,” cried Mr. Hedley, “turn it the other way.”
The train shot forward over a switch to the express tracks, and was passing through the Worth Street Station before those who were watching the motorman became aware that the sudden stop had been due to the emergency brake. The silver controller’s bad fit caused it to come in contact with the brake lever when the Mayor turned it too far to the left, and Mr. Hedley had made a quick readjustment to prevent a recurrence of the jolt.
“Shall I slow her down here?” inquired the Mayor-Motorman as the curve into the Spring Street Station came in sight.
“You’re going slow enough,” was the reply, “but aren’t you tired of it? Don’t you want the motorman to take hold?”
“I’m Running This Train!”
“No, Sir! I’m running this train!”
The Mayor said later that his knowledge of automobiling had helped him to “catch on” in a hurry. As the train flew past the down-town stations his confidence grew. Mr. Hedley never let go the brake control, and Vice President Bryan stood behind the motorman, but it looked as though the Mayor was well able to take care of things alone.
Eventually the Mayor relinquished the controller, and the train made it from City Hall Station to 146th Street in twenty-six minutes flat! Unfortunately, workmen were also quick to start placing ads in the subway stations. “It was noticed when the train had come down as far as Forty-second Street that workmen were beginning to place big framed advertisements along the floors of each station. . . .The car advertisements have been in place for some time, but until then the stations had depended upon their beautiful mural ornamentation for decoration. Everybody in the train was expressing regret that the fine appearance of things was to be marred.”
The New-York Historical Society was gifted the silver controller of the first train by Mayor McClellan. It is inscribed with “Controller used by the Hon. George B. McClellan, Mayor of the City of New York, in starting the first train on the Rapid Transit Railroad from the City Hall station, New York, Thursday, Oct. 27, 1904. Presented to the Hon. George B. McClellan by August Belmont, President of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.”
The silver controller is currently on view in Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York, open through September 23, 2012.