The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Spooky.
It is not often in the city of New York these days that a regular guy can truly influence the history of the city. But Bob Diamond is just one of those people. The story of the Atlantic Avenue subway tunnel is one that goes back through the annals of New York history, but it is also one that has a modern chapter, of Bob Diamond’s quest to unearth and expose the tunnel as a significant New York landmark.
Let’s jump back in history a little bit. If you think the argument today between bikers and joggers in the city is a big deal, then transport yourself to Atlantic Avenue in 1844. The street at the time was an extremely busy artery in Brooklyn. So much so that there was actually a Long Island Railroad train running down it. Because of the foot traffic, and the fact that it often took a train up to eight city blocks to stop, people and carriages kept getting hit. It was a major problem at the time (and the Brooklyn Dodgers were even once famously named the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers). To avoid this problem, mostly to make sure his trains were not delayed, the head of the LIRR, Cornelius Vanderbilt, decided to build the world’s first underground train system under Atlantic Avenue.
The Tunnel was built in about seven months, using a cut-and-cover method: cutting into the tunnel and then covering it with a wood frame and then bricking it in. There was even a murder that supposedly occurred during the construction, which was done almost entirely by Irish Immigrants. One day, when the workers were told by a British contractor that they would have to miss church and work on Sundays, one of the Irish workers pulled out a gun and shot the contractor dead. Legend has it that the workers then buried his body behind the wall, where it rests to this day.
The tunnel was only open for about 15 years, and the last train ran in 1859 when, due to political reasons, it was shut down. Luckily for us, the contract to close and fill in the tunnel was given to a greedy man named Electus Litchfield. Instead of filling in the entire tunnel, Electus filled in only the ends, capped the holes in the street, and paid someone off to say that it had been filled.
Legends and stories persisted about the tunnel for the next 100 years. Walt Whitman once wrote: “The old tunnel, that used to lie there underground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten.”
But the tunnel was not to be forgotten, because of one Bob Diamond. In 1980, as a 19 year old engineering student, Diamond heard a story on the radio about the lost journal pages of John Wilkes Booth being buried in an old subway tunnel hidden under Brooklyn. This was the type of story that had spread around every once in awhile since the tunnel had been filled up, but nobody had yet to find it. Fortunately, Bob had the youthful exuberance that only a young engineering student could have, and so he decided to search for it.
An Engineering Diagram of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.
And search he did, hunting through all of the newspaper articles printed in Brooklyn in the 19th and 20th centuries, until he came across an article published in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1911. It was a full page article about the tunnel, which told of a set of plans located in the borough president’s office. When he arrived at the office, he was told than the plans were not there, but he persisted and asked if he could look through an old locked box of papers. After breaking open the box, he found plans for the tunnel, with a small circle on it, possibly representing a manhole.
Bob Diamond Discovering the Tunnel Entrance in 1980.
So on one early morning in 1981, with the help of the department of transportation and some friends, Diamond opened a small manhole cover on the corner of Atlantic and Court street. As they looked down the hole, there was a floor of dirt, appearing that the tunnel had indeed been filled in. But he had come this far, and Diamond wanted to make sure. Crawling through a small trench of space he began to dig with his hands until he uncovered what looked like the brick ceiling. Diamond smashed through the bricks, sending a rush of cold, stale air into his face, and revealing a 15 foot drop. He had found the tunnel.
Entrance to the Tunnel.
Because of the find, Diamond was put in charge of the tunnel, and he now leads a crusade to save and improve it. He brought in lights leading all the way down the tunnel attached by a generator and created a stairwell to get down to the bottom from the manhole. He now leads monthly tours to explore the tunnel, explaining his story along with the history of the tunnel. There is even another mystery that he hopes to uncover, about what is on the other side of the far wall of the tunnel. 6 blocks of the tunnel are currently blocked off by a wall of dirt and this is where Diamond believes an old locomotive with the lost pages of John Wilkes Booth diary could be located. It seems that Diamond’s exuberance had nothing to do with youth at all.
Far end of the tunnel where it is believed an old locomotive lies with the missing pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Too dark back there to focus correctly unfortunately.
Bob Diamond is trying his hardest to preserve an amazing part of New York history, of our country’s history, and of the history of subway technology. He has constantly had to fight people from trying to stop him along the way. He hopes to one day open up the end of the tunnel, lay tracks down and run a locomotive tour down the tunnel. I can’t imagine a more fitting way for the tunnel to end up, just as it had started.
To visit this one of a kind New York tour, you can find the tour schedules here.
Ceiling of the Tunnel. Perhaps where Bob broke through?
Boarded up hole in the ceiling.
Writing on the walls.
Tour group with flashlights moving.
Flashlights moving down the tunnel.