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Dug In 1844
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New York Boasts Oldest Subway Ever

By James Donahue

It took New York history buff Bob Diamond eight months of research and some crawling around in dark spooky places, but in 1980, after hearing about its possible existence on a radio show, he found a sealed-up railway tunnel under Brooklyn.

Since then, the half-mile-long tunnel with its standard gauge railroad tracks, has gone on the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest subway tunnel in the world, even though it was never built for subway use.

Diamond promoted the project and got some backing. The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association was formed in 1982 to preserve, publicize and provide public access to the historic tunnel. In 1989 the tunnel was registered as a protected historic site by the National Register of Historic Places.

Known as the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, it was built in 1844 to allow the Long Island Railroad trains operating between Boston and New York to safely enter the city without killing people and animals in the street. Or so the story is told.

Diamond gave up his studies as an engineering student to devote his life to restoring and maintaining the tunnel. But in recent years he has been battling with the city over efforts to build a proper entrance, to continue offering public tours and even entering the tunnel. It has been a legal fight apparently involving safety issues since the site is located directly below one of the busiest hubs of the city.

The trains followed the tunnel under the riverfront area that is now Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, now among the more densely populated parts of the city. The concept of driving a steam engine and train through an underground tunnel was so new to the railroads in 1944 it was said a man riding a horse always preceded the train through the dark tunnel.

The tunnel was sealed in 1861 after Brooklyn banned steam locomotives within city limits. Sealed with it, Diamond believes, was an historic circa-1836 “Hicksville” steam locomotive that was retired from service in 1848 and parked in an adjoining tunnel that Diamond was never able to enter. A scan by a magnetometer in 2011 revealed a massive metallic object the size of a steam engine located where Diamond believes it was buried. Excavation of the site has been denied by the city.

To get to the tunnel, Diamond persuaded the local gas company to open a manhole at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. Equipped with an oxygen tank, he found his way through a two-foot gap under the street and crawled about 50 feet where he reached a concrete wall, plugged with bricks and stones. He used a crowbar to open a way through and entered a giant chamber. Diamond and his friends build a staircase leading down into the tunnel from there to accommodate visitors.

Between 1982 and 2010, before the city banned access to the tunnel, Diamond offered public tours. It is said that thousands of people, including local police and fire fighters, followed him into the abyss. To get there, everyone entered the manhole, climbed down a ladder, then crawled through the shaft, then through a tiny doorway that opened to the staircase.

Diamond has always sought to restore a public entrance to the tunnel, restore the passageway and make it part of a new trolley line, and build a museum around the tunnel’s history. Digging up the historic locomotive would be part of the museum.

It appears that modern political issues, fear of litigation and other matters are preventing Diamond’s dream from becoming reality.