Crime and Corruption in the World’s Oldest Subway Tunnel

Black and white shot of the tunnelPhoto:
Image: superfem

Once each month, the busy intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn, New York, gets just a little bit busier. Orange traffic cones are set up and cars are necessarily diverted to ensure the safety of an influx of tourists. In a single file outside the Independence Bank, the crowd isn’t interested in visiting this old institution; instead, the people’s sight is fixed on a single, open manhole in the middle of the street. They want to crawl through that opening and into the depths of the city to hear the tale of crime surrounding the oldest subway tunnel in the world.

Click and drag to take a look around the busy intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street (Independence Bank is to the left)

A young engineering student named Bob Diamond discovered the 170-year-old subway tunnel after a year of investigative work. Diamond was tipped off about the tunnel after listening to a radio show with guest G.J.A. O’Toole, author of the Cosgrove Report in 1980. During the show, O’Toole discussed Lincoln’s assassination and made a comment about the lost journal of John Wilkes Booth being hidden in a forgotten tunnel underneath Atlantic Avenue.

Diamond proceeded to contact the show announcer as well as O’Toole to learn more about this mysterious tunnel, but to no avail. Playing detective, Diamond went through old newspapers to find out more and even visited the borough president’s office where he broke through a locked box of unmarked papers to find ancient deeds, Dutch histories and – most importantly – the plans for a 1,611-foot-long tunnel under Atlantic Avenue.

Diamond continued on his quest and found the aforementioned manhole. His hopes of finding the tunnel were almost dashed when he discovered only dirt underneath. But his perseverance paid off when he got down on his belly and used his bare hands to dig through to a brick wall. With a metal pole, he smashed through the brick to reveal the hidden 17-feet-high, 21-feet-wide tunnel.

Climbing down the ladder
Entering the manholePhoto:
Image: Steve and Sara

A warning before stepping through a hole in the wall to the tunnel proper
Warning: Watch Your StepPhoto:
Image: Steve and Sara

The hole in the wall
Hole in the wallPhoto:
Image: Steve and Sara

At last, Diamond had found what he was looking for. To this day, Diamond still leads the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel Tours, taking eager sightseers one by one down a ladder into a dark, cavernous tunnel underneath the city. There he tells of the mysterious and sinister history of the tunnel…

Watch Bob Diamond on a tunnel tour

The Tunnel’s History

The world’s first subway tunnel was built in 1844 by the greedy Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt, director of the Long Island Rail Road. Vanderbilt’s train schedule was compromised by pedestrian traffic. It wasn’t that the train was late due to frequent stoppage to ensure the safety of passersby; rather, the train was so slow to brake that many an innocent pedestrian suffered an early death, thus halting the train’s movement. While having no care for the dead or injured, Vanderbilt meant to divert the train’s path with a tunnel to make sure his train arrived on time, all the time.

Tunnel drawingsPhoto:
Image via Curious Expeditions

The building of the tunnel was not without death either: A 1844 Brooklyn Eagle article claimed that Irish immigrants working on the tunnel shot and buried a British contractor in the tunnel wall when he told them they’d have to work on Sundays and forgo church!

Train entering tunnelPhoto:
Image via Curious Expeditions

And so the tunnel was built; but its use was very short-lived. Vanderbilt, greedy as he was, left the tunnel and the rail company in search of steamship riches in the late 1950s. He hired unscrupulous Electus Litchfield to shut the tunnel down, but instead of filling it up and closing it off forever, Litchfield decided to do the minimum required by closing off the ends, capping the holes and hitting the high road with the $130,000 he was given for the job (a huge sum in 1961)!

View of the tunnel where people now enter
Empty tunnelPhoto:
Image: Steve and Sara

For the next 120 years, the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel lay dormant and dark, forgotten by all save the FBI, local police, the odd reporter and those of ill-repute; the tunnel has been suspected as a haven for mushroom growers, bootleggers, bomb-making German terrorists, spies and of course, the location of John Wilkes Booths’ hidden diary.

View of the tunnel to the other end
Image: Vidiot

These days, Diamond is still unraveling the mystery of the tunnel. As much as he’s shared with the public, he still hasn’t uncovered the entire length of the tunnel. The journey he takes tourists on ends at a large wall that divides the ‘opened’ tunnel from the rest; six blocks of the old tunnel still exist behind. Diamond hopes to get behind his wall this year and is tracking progress with a documentary called What’s behind the Wall, about his efforts to bring a buried story to surface.

Check out the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association website to find out when the next tunnel tour will take place.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4