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

3.61  ·  Rating details ·  1,195 ratings  ·  229 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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3.61  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,195 ratings  ·  229 reviews


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Hana
I love trains and I love urban history so this history of the Boston and New York underground railroads was tailor made for me, especially since the two subway systems have been part of my life for over 50 years.

The Race Underground is not just a story of railroads, it's also a mini-history of Boston and New York packed (perhaps too closely for comfort) with memorable characters like Henry Melville Whitney who ran his father's Metropolitan Steamship Company. In the late 1860s Henry began buying
...more
Josh
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
Scott  Hitchcock
Apr 23, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
3.5*'s

This was really well done and very educational. I really loved how the author incorporated all of the human elements into the story and created a sense of tension by doing so. Being from the Boston area and also being very familiar with NYC it was fun trying to picture the turn of the 19th into the 20th century culture, landscapes of both cities and the technological levels they were dealing with.

I would read Mr Most again.
Nancy
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
...more
Rachel Jackson
Feb 13, 2014 rated it did not like it
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
Rick
Mar 12, 2014 rated it it was ok
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
Sam
Aug 03, 2014 rated it liked it
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
...more
Chelsey
Apr 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
There's some fascinating information in here, but it's bogged down by insignificant details about people minorly involved in transit developments. I also feel a bit misled by the title - there didn't really seem to be that much of an actual rivalry.
Viridian5
Jan 02, 2015 rated it it was ok
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
Andrea
Dec 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Richard
Sep 22, 2017 rated it liked it
This is the true story, not so much about THE building of the Boston and New York subways, but about HOW they were able to be built. Politics, greed and corruption put up many struggles against the city planners who had their visions of solving the horse-drawn streetcar traffic above the surface, as well as overly supersticious citizens who shuttered at the idea of having to ride their own Underground.

This book goes into greatly detailed biographies of the characters at play, which would be a be
...more
Julia
Aug 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Whenever I travel to a city with a subway system, I marvel at how in the world such a thing could have been built over a century ago. This book gives so many amazing insights into how it was done, and lots of anecdotes about the politics and financing that went into several of the major cities' history of building their own subway systems. My only criticism is that the time-line bounces around a lot, and jumps from city to city so much that it was hard to keep track of what was happening where a ...more
Howard
Feb 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Richard
I was pretty disappointed with this book. I find the subject matter very interesting (the development of the subway systems in Boston and, especially, New York) and really wish this had been a better book. The book includes excerpts from reviews (as many books do) and one reviewer from The New York Times compared it to David McCullough's The Great Bridge and Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. Unfortunately, it's more Larson than McCullough.

Author Doug Most seems too interested in letting us
...more
Gary Van Cott
Mar 05, 2015 rated it liked it
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
Brian
Dec 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jon Frum
Jan 20, 2015 rated it it was ok
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
Brandi
Nov 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
...more
Robert Melnyk
Feb 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Shawn
Jan 18, 2014 rated it liked it
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
...more
Michael
Mar 24, 2015 rated it liked it
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.
Jennifer Marie
Feb 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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!
Amanda
May 28, 2016 marked it as didn-t-finish
Interesting material, but too dry. Even by my standards.
Sara
Dec 21, 2014 rated it liked it
Interesting book and I learned a lot but it got really slow at certain points
Msimone
I picked up this book because subway travel like electric light preceded my birth and so I never realized how life changing those inventions were in the 19th century. Overcrowded city streets polluted with the stench of horse manure from coachmen were dangerous and unclean. the overhead street cars powered by steam then electricity were not much improvement to travel safety nor were they immune to snowstorms that shut them down. The underground in the 19th century was a complex undertaking to tu ...more
Austin
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Halfway mark for the 2017 challenge! I'm mostly on schedule but definitely having more trouble keeping up with a new job and not so much in the way of down time. But, I'm really appreciating that the challenge encourages me to find time to read when I otherwise would not have time. On the "The Race Underground."

In a version of the library of babel where every person gets their own library designed for their particular quirks and interests, this book would be right on my shelf. I'm many brands of
...more
Jeff Lanter
Oct 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I was searching my local bookstore for something that grabbed my attention and wasn't too expensive, when I saw this. I enjoy riding the L to work (for the most part anyway) and I like NYC's subway as well and thought a book about their history would be really interesting. Unfortunately, this book is pretty uneven and doesn't provide a lot of depth on the subject matter.

The author tries to be a storyteller and really immerse you in the details of the story which is appreciated but sometimes it
...more
Amy
Sep 18, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: microhistory
The title of this book is completely misleading. There is no race here. Quite the opposite really - two cities trying their hardest to avoid putting public transportation underground until it was obvious there was no other reasonable option (and even then, could hardly find a contractor willing to attempt it). There was also absolutely no rivalry. The book is overfull of unnecessary and uninteresting detail (and I'm saying that as somebody with three engineering degrees including one in civil en ...more
Doug Banks
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
As a longtime Bostonian who rides the T daily, I found this book a fascinating history - and more importantly a remarkable lens through which we can evaluate the politics of transportation policy today. The rivalry between New York and Boston, in these pages, is much more one of "co-opetition" than a race, but it worked well from a narrative perspective and kept things from moving along.
The author, whose prose I've read for years in the Boston Globe and its special publications, does fall prey t
...more
Steve
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
An engaging story about Transportation, Subways, Boston, and NYC. I read this in the space that I'd normally read fiction to unwind, and the story was as engaging as any good fictional story. Most makes it clear that building the subways was as much about politics and people as it was about technology. The only minor flaws I found in the book were a couple of confusing sections where I wasn't sure if I missed a connection between two ideas or if it was in fact missing, and that it was sometimes ...more
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Doug Most is the deputy managing editor for features at The Boston Globe. He is the author of Always in Our Hearts: The Story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, the Pregnancy They Hid and the Child They Killed. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Runner's World and Parents and his stories have appeared in Best American Crime Writing and Best American Sports Writing. He lives in Needham, Massachu ...more
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