Thursday, January 29, 2015

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

A book about the building of Boston's subway? Sounds cool. Unfortunately, this book isn't the one we've been waiting for. When three of five praising blurbs on the back cover are from Boston Globe colleagues, you have reason to be skeptical. And sure enough, this book does not pay off it's title.

The 'race' - between New York and Boston to build the first subway in the country - turns out never to have happened. Both cities saw the benefits of getting streetcars off their gridlocked roads. The author does try to connect the two efforts by virtue of the efforts of the Whitney brothers, one in each city. Except that they seem to have had little contact during the relevant period. And more importantly because Henry - Boston's Whitney - ended up retiring from his West End Railway Company before Boston build it's subway.

There is a photo section in this book, but you can see much more today on the Internet with a few keystrokes. I was surprised by the absence of streetcar line maps - one would have made the need for a subway clearer in one view.

I get the sense that this book started as an effort to write about the opening of Boston's first subway, and got extended to the New York/Boston thing by an editor wanting a larger possible market for sales. As the author points out, there are already books about the New York system, so it's a shame that this effort didn't end up Boston-centric.

If you know nothing of the building of Boston's subway, or at least the opening of the first section, which is all that's covered here, this book is worth a look. I'd get it at the library.

The Race Underground

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