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The Race Underground

Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

by Doug Most

The Race Underground by Doug Most X
The Race Underground by Doug Most
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2014, 352 pages
    Feb 2015, 432 pages

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There are currently 26 reader reviews for The Race Underground
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Lora O. (Antioch, CA)

Moving People Forward Into the Future
I have ridden subways to work for many years, but never before I read The Race Underground by Doug Most, did it occur to me to wonder how it came about. This wonderful book explains the history of mass transit, from the beginning of an idea by futuristic thinker Alfred Beach in Scientific American to the reality of the subways in Boston and New York around the turn of the century. More exciting than any fiction, there is an amazing cast of characters, including engineers, scientists, businessmen, politicians, bankers and the laborers themselves, and included some of the brightest, most imaginative minds of the past two centuries. The development of the subway systems in these cities, as well as the rest of the Country and Europe depended on economy, the recessions and banking troubles, availability of renewable energy, political infighting, corruption, immigrant labor, population growth in the cities, environmental questions, protests and even the weather.

This exciting book conveys a constant sense of motion, a dizzying energy going forward, the growth of new science and technology at a faster pace into the future. I loved the vivid descriptions of the city streets in the horse and carriage days, and can only imagine the joy when finally the cleaner, faster way of moving people was finally in place. This book is so rich and full of history and was much more satisfying than a novel. I believe this could lead to rich discussion in a book club - there were so many fascinating facets to the story, but there are a lot of issues also about growth, government's duty to the citizens and the future of mass transit versus the automobile.

I don't usually comment on the format of the book, but wanted to mention that this book was so well organized, with sections of 2 to 3 pages on a certain topic, within the chapters. This made it very easy to put the book down and pick it up again, without re-reading many pages., unlike many books on history.
I would have liked to see maps of the streets of Boston and New York, to get a true picture of types of plans that were being discussed
Anita S. (Boynton Beach, FL)

American ingenuity
While riding the New York subway, I often wondered how it was built. Not only did this book answer, but also told a great story. It was a fascinating book that read like a novel.
The subways were built with the help of many men who saw the need for underground transportation and had the intelligence, fortitude and money to make it happen. To me it showed the great entrepreneurial spirit of America. The stories of all these men made for a great read. I believe that anyone would love to read this book. It has clarity along with great story telling. I recommend it highly.
Andrea S. (Lafayette, IN)

Fascinating Look Back
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 would make the book really great!
Christopher R. (Brooklyn, NY)

A smooth ride
I was fortunate to receive A RACE UNDERGROUND by Doug Most as part of the First Impressions program. I enjoyed this book as a vivid depiction of the journey that brought the US its first two subway systems in Boston and New York. Despite being non-fiction, its light, engrossing narrative provided many elements of a good fictional novel: heroes, villains, tragedy, to name a few. The earlier parts of the book serve to present the players involved in building the first US subways. It was fun to learn about some of the "heroes," like William Barclay Parsons and the Whitney brothers as well as "villains" like William Tweed. I enjoyed the alternating Boston-New York chapters. It allowed the narrative to flow and provided the feeling of a true race. The book covers subway travel from its very beginnings in London to today. There is a lot of wonderful detail about the modifications that had to be made in order to make subway travel a viable option. The author includes a mention of Hurricane Sandy and how it crippled the NYC subway system as well as a brief note of current innovations in locomotive technology. As mentioned in the acknowledgement section, the book gives more coverage to Boston's first subway as there has been much more written about New York's. In the end, THE RACE UNDERGROUND is a riveting story of sacrifice and ingenuity. I truly gained an appreciation for what it takes to change history.
William Y. (Lynchburg, VA)

Review: The Race Underground
As is the case with virtually all modern urban areas, their downtowns choke on traffic as cars, buses, trucks, and an array of other vehicles fight the gridlock that expanding populations of both people and their conveyances have created on city streets. The problem is hardly a new one and was in many ways worse before the advent of motorized traffic. By the second half of the 19th century, countless horses, mules, and donkeys pulled carriages, wagons, buggies, and coaches. With few regulations in force, they had long since begun to crowd unwary pedestrians and hinder the smooth flow of business; in addition, the omnipresent animals created unhealthy hygienic problems everywhere.

City governments recognized that something had to be done to alleviate the situation, but politics, tradition, and strained budgets blocked most proposals. In England, London unveiled the first subway in 1863, and despite many engineering problems, it would prove successful and lead other metropolises to think seriously about taking traffic off their jammed streets, but the changes came slowly.

Doug Most's fascinating The Race Underground chronicles how two American cities, Boston and New York, led the way in tackling the challenge of creating subways of their own. Decades after the debut of London's system, Boston in 1897 opened the first limited sections of its own metropolitan subway, and New York followed in 1904.

For those interested in social history, this book covers all the bases, from new technologies to popular journalism. Most provides numerous asides about the personalities involved in these massive undertakings and the myriad difficulties they faced, as well as detailing the inconveniences suffered by Bostonians and New Yorkers as their downtowns were first torn up and then ultimately improved with this new form of mass transportation. Writing in an appealing style that does not burden the reader with needless technical detail but entertains with vignettes of everyday urban life, The Race Underground quickly becomes a non-fiction page-turner of the best kind.
Annette S. (Duluth, GA)

The Race Underground
In the late 19th century the urban areas of the United States saw rapid population growth. Immigrants and people from rural areas moved to cities like Boston and New York. With this population surge came problems of streets congested with horse-drawn carts and at times traffic was brought to a standstill. Also, in the winter of 1888 a great blizzard crippled the Eastern seaboard and forced cities to find a solution to their transportation problems.
The Whitney brothers - one from New York and the other from Boston believed the problem would be solved by a subway system They each pursued their dream of his city being the first U.S. city to have a subway and the underground race began. When it was completed it changed the lives of millions.
If you enjoy reading Erik Larson and/or David McCullough you will enjoy this book by Doug Most.
Charlene M. (Murrells Inlet, SC)

#1 book to read this year
Inventions and inventors, the New York and Boston subways - what do they have in common? Doug Most's The Race Underground is the story of how two brothers and past inventions and their inventors led to two of the greatest achievements of man. The Race Underground is a superbly written history of world-wide ingenuity, which culminated in twos cities triumph over congestion, graft, politics and proving America as a world innovator. One of my favorite books.
Lucy (Massachusetts)

Brought an era to life
I typically do not read non-fiction books, but living in the Boston area, this book caught my interest. Doug Most brought the late 19th century to life. His attention to detail and the way he wove the background of the characters and was incredible. His writing style was incredibly interesting and filled with detail about life in Boston and NYC in those times. He adeptly, but not laboriously detailed the challenges, obstacles - successes and failures of the brilliant men that brought the subway to America. Tremendous research - there are passages that make you just want to read it aloud and share the interesting facts. It was very entertaining as well as being tremendously informative. I would definitely recommend this book.

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