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The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway

3.6 of 5 stars 3.60  ·  rating details  ·  603 ratings  ·  151 reviews
In the late nineteenth century, as cities like Boston and New York grew more congested, the streets became clogged with plodding, horse-drawn carts. When the great blizzard of 1888 crippled the entire northeast, a solution had to be found. Two brothers from one of the nation's great families-Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York-pursued t ...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published February 4th 2014 by St. Martin's Press
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I won this book as a Goodreads "first reads" giveaway and was excited to get into this one as I thought it would be to my likings; an interesting subject, a competitive backstory with political innuendo, a host of turn of the century power broker types all with an angle to work. Unfortunately for me, the book just never hit on all cylinders. There were places I found interesting tidbits but as a whole I wasn't captivated to the level of enthusiasm I had for the Eric Larson books that the marketi ...more
I won this book in exchange for an honest review.

I unfortunately could not bring myself to finish this book.

I found several challenges with this book. Of what I have read, I have found this book to be fraught with convoluted chapters, a multitude of secondary characters who appear for no more than one chapter and absolutely no flow. The author will begin a chapter and I would find myself saying, what does this have to do with anything? In a way I can applaud Mr. Most's use of detailed historica
Doug Most tried to tell what could have been an epic story but turns it into a muddled story which focuses more on the politics of building the first subway then on the great engineering story which it was. He says in one sentence what he misses when he says how the great failure of the London subway was that it was not copied for 30 years. This makes for a weak story from could have been epic. It does make some great points along the way which raised my hope, for example when he talks about the ...more
Rachel Jackson
The marketing blurb for The Race Underground, a book I won in a Goodreads advanced reading giveaway, sets up a historical thriller nonfiction novel, almost, on par with Erik Larson and his reporting and narration of important historical events with a flair for creating interesting characters. Well, I hated what little of Erik Larson I have read, and I was disappointed by Doug Most's book in the exact same way. Like Larson, Most's book has a general disconnect of events, shoddy writing and poor p ...more
I really enjoyed this well researched and well written look at the development of the subway as the primary means of transportation in the late 19th century. Most has done a great job of portraying the problems, the solutions, and all the people and politics involved. The book was well written and flowed well. I often dislike nonfiction because it tries to follow too many threads unsuccessfully, but not so here. I read an advance readers copy-i hope the final edition has maps and photos! That wo ...more
The book was an interesting read but I felt that its title really misrepresented its contents. A race? It took decades for each city to get its subway from its first public statement to its first shovel in the ground, and each city, especially New York, tried several other options before they basically reached a point where an electric subway was the only option to fix their traffic and population growth problems. Various obstacles mostly came about through someone or group's greed, self-interes ...more
The race underground covers the history of the first subways in America which centers around Boston and New York. A rivalry of two brothers growing up at the height of the gilded age would bring for the luminaries in public policy, urban revitalization and science to develop an electric based mass transit system to improve life in both cities. From the crowded world of horse drawn streetcars, elevated rail lines and carriages came the vision for a public funded (but privately administered) subwa ...more
Aug 03, 2014 Sam rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: history
Doug Most's history is solidly founded, but The Race Underground is burdened by unnecessary pretensions to tension and superfluous human-interest flourishes that seek to emotionalize a titanic tale of infrastructure but just get in the way.

Firstly, the incredible rivalry advertised in the subtitle doesn't stand up over the book's 416 pages. New York City and Boston both sought solutions to overcrowded, polluted streets. In the same roughly 60-year span they made halting progress towards the day
Growing up in Boston, I spent the better part of my youth riding the "T" - starting in the early 50's right until I graduated college in the mid-60's. I loved the subways and found the maze of underground, elevated and surface lines a fascinating way to get around and see different parts of the city. For a pittance (a dime I think) I could ride around all day and go from bus to elevated to subway to trolly and back again. Wow. A lot of fun for a 10 year old exploring on his own (if only my paren ...more
Doug Most's "The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway" covers an interesting period in history, when major cities were looking to find other modes of transportation to serve their citizens due to congestion and limited places to leave carts. The two Whitney brothers decided to look underground for a solution, and the subway was born.
The book almost felt disconnected at times. It could have flowed better, as it was choppy and hard to
Ever read a good book that just seem to be all over the place.
If not and you wold like to then this is the book for you.
I did enjoy the story but it felt like it was not focused, as if threw everything and everyone that was a thing at the time in to the story. I felt like I was in mid 1800's late 1800's and the 1902 from sentence to sentence.
I enjoyed the pace and the story but really felt like it could have been better at focusing on the main story.
Robert Melnyk
Fascinating story about the building of the Boston and New York City subways. The book deals with the history leading up to the construction of the subways, including all the technical/scientific battles waged as to what was a better way to go, subway, vs. elevated trains, vs. cable cars, etc. It also details all the political infighting that goes on with these types of decisions, and describes all the various people involved in making such a massive undertaking a reality. Very interesting book, ...more
Full disclosure: I received a free ARC of the book from the publisher.

It's a competent book, but not necessarily an engrossing one. I never really got any sense of sustained dramatic tension. This is partly a result of the structure, which is somewhat jumbled. But more than that, it just isn't a fundamentally dramatic story. There weren't apparently insurmountable engineering problems in either city, and in no sense did they "race" each other to finish a subway first. (In fact, the process in bo
Gary Van Cott
This book was mentioned in an Alumni magazine I get. I was surprised to find that our library system had several copies. It is the first non-fiction book I have read in ages (I usually read mysteries set outside the US). This book is ok, but has several deficiencies. The principal one is the lack of any maps or graphics. How you can exclude them from a book which includes street railways, elevated trains and finally the subways is a real mystery. They are easy to produce these days. I also found ...more
Jon Frum
As a fan of Boston history, I looked to this book for its Boston-centric content, and as such, I may be different than the average reader. I have to agree with the negative reviewers here, in that the book is a jumble of stories, not all particularly well told. I did learn something about the building of Boston's subway, but I was left with the feeling that I had missed much of the story. For instance, a map of the downtown Boston horsecar system would have been nice, at a minimum. Little was sa ...more
Ray Campbell
This is a history of the development of mass transportation in urban America in the 19th century. The book covers the technology, sociology and history beginning with horse drawn street cars. To make the story personal, and as a device to create continuity, Most traces the family background and lives of several key players. While the focus is clearly on New York and Boston, Most covers London, Philadelphia and other cities because significant developments inform what ultimately happens in New Yo ...more
When Alfred Beach described the idea of an underground urban train system in 1849 in Scientfic American, he was ridiculed. “It’s better to wait for the Devil than to make roads down into hell,” as one critic put it.

Nearly fifteen years later, when London’s Underground opened in 1863, Americans still weren’t entirely taking the idea seriously. An underground train system seemed like a useful—and lucrative—proposition, but no one had managed to muster the leadership or funding for an equivalent sy
Jennifer Marie
I found this book totally fascinating and very interesting. I rarely read nonfiction, but when I do it tends to be this type a historical book. This was even more fascinating for me because I live in Boston. Worth reading if you like history!
I finished this book several days ago and started another one immediately so I forgot to post my review. This is one of the most extensively researched books I have read that is not about a single person. The lives of those involved in the creation of the subway systems in Boston and New York are as fascinating as the actual technology to create and build the underground systems. Doug Most does a masterful job presenting the lives and passions and inventiveness of entrepreneurs, scientists, engi ...more
Yume Kitasei
First of all, let's get one thing straight, because this is something reviewers seem to be hung up on. Subways take a long time to build. Second, this book is not really about a race, in the sense that if cities were competing to be the first, the book does not really focus on that competitive aspect much. This book is about the history of the political and social arguments that both stymied and paved the way for the construction of Boston and New York's subways. It also looks at Henry and Willi ...more
New York City had 1.5 million people in 1888. At that time there were cable cars and elevated trains, however, the major mode of transportation utilized was horse drawn vehicles. There were traffic jams and accidents just like today except that they were with these horse drawn carriages. Imagine the filth and stink experienced by the people of New York. And New York was not alone. Other large cities had similar problems.

This is a story of innovation, politics, and tragedy. Thomas Edison had inv
philip maiuri

to think that just a little over a century ago a race was on to build a transportation center through two of our major cities. They faced similar political problems and money issues we face today but a few stubborn and truly visionary ( & capitalistic )men found a way to get
a task done that is still in use today. Few cities could have had the tenacity to see this through.
I enjoyed the synergy of both people's strength and skills: from the engineer's strict design,the general
I just finished reading this wonderful book. Although I have ridden Boston's subway for years, I never thought of it as much more than a way to get from here to there, often on time. Now cruising the subway from Copley to Government Center and beyond, I will appreciate the long effort to bring the 1890's subway into being. I will recall the many historical characters who figured in the risky business of subway making. Although the title suggests a rivalry between Boston and New York (imagine tha ...more
This is a fascinating history of the development of the Boston and New York subways, a long and tortured tale. This book will appeal to history buffs, urban planners, science and engineering geeks, and fans of Beantown and the Big Apple.

Who knew that one of the great challenges was convincing people to descend underground, a place they associated with the dead? Who knew that Boston construction actually met obstacles when crews encountered hundreds of bodies and tombs under the Common? Who knew
Michael Lewyn
I found this book to be chock-full of engineering detail- so much so that I often found it a hard read. Having said that, some parts were still enlightening. For example, in passing the book discusses an 1888 blizzard that killed 200 people in New York City alone, and more in the midwest - a reminder that natural disasters are not just a 21st-century problem.

In addition, the book explains the rapidity of the shift from horse-drawn streetcars to electric streetcars to subways and autos. Dependenc
Mark Schlatter
It is hard for me to resist a good piece of nonfiction on building something big. Most does a good job of covering the construction of both the Boston and New York subway systems as well as the huge cast of characters involved.

A few things that I really liked:
1) Most puts as much emphasis on the politics of building a subway as the engineering --- if not more. In the late nineteenth century, most transit systems (omnibuses, streetcars, etc...) were privately owned. But Most clearly shows that no
Zeb Kantrowitz
The majority of this book is devoted to the Whitney brothers of Boston who were instrumental in the creation of committees that led to the building of both the first Boston and New York (IRT) subway systems.Most first gives us a history of the two brothers and then diverges to discuss the first men to bring to the public’s attention the need to create an elevated or subsurface means of transportation. By the 1880’s traffic in both cities had become so congested that the average speed (even for h ...more
This book had a lot of good information but there were many times it failed to hold my interest. It might simply be that my interest in the subway was not as great as I had imagined it to be when I bought this book. I had to force myself to keep reading so that I didn't miss out on the parts of the book I was interested in. The biographies of the various people involved in constructing and funding the subway were interesting. I found it interesting to read about the various ways in which less im ...more

I love subway systems. It's so nice to arrive somewhere with a great subway system and have it be easy to use. People complain about the NYC subway and ease of use sometimes, but it gets you pretty much everywhere so it's hard to complain. Before reading this book I could see why it would be difficult to build a subway technically, but I never thought that people would be opposed to it - without realizing of course that people are always opposed to everything. It's also odd to think that the cit
Georgina Lara
I really enjoyed this book. For me, the introduction of "minor" characters midway was not at all off-putting, in fact I thought it added to the drama and the sense of actually being there. You can see the endeavour from the point of view of the politician, the engineer, the rich entrepreneur as well as the boy who worked shining shoes near the construction site. I also found it incredibly interesting how the author mentions the great inventors of the time and how it all came at the precise momen ...more
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