The Grand Central trolley loop is one of the least known, least talked about, and least documented abandoned tunnel segments in the NYC subway system. These rare photos show the present day (2012) state of this obscure location.
The present day #7 subway line, had it been completed when originally planned in 1885, would have been the first subway route in the USA. Very early on though the plans and ownership (it was being built as a private enterprise) changed hands. Eventually William Steinway (owner of the piano company which still exists in Astoria, Queens) became a backer of the project, with excavation finally begun in the spring of 1892. This initial tunnel boring attempted was prone to flooding (which is of little surprise, being the fist sub-aquatic subway tunnel in the city). An accidental explosion occurred on Dec. 28, 1892, killing 5 workmen. This combined with a financial panic in 1893 brought the project to a standstill.
After this false start, and the death of William Steinway, August Belmont came to own the company & tunnel project. Belmont of course should be a familiar name to anyone who knows their NYC subway history: his company was the one that built the original IRT subway line.
Belmont's team got the 'Steinway tube' project back underway and completed as a trolley car line. The city government wasn't pleased about this, since the enterprise was entirely privately run. Belmont was never granted a franchise to operate this new trolley line - that didn't stop him from hosting several rides through the tunnel though. The first run was on Sept 24, 1907, for Belmont and several of the project's engineers. Only a few more test trips were made. When Belmont sold the tunnels to the city, it was decided to convert them to rapid transit tunnels matching the specifications of the IRT line.
The rapid transit cars of course could not fit around the tight turns of the original tunnel loop tracks (located in LIC and under Park Avenue in Manhattan) and the tunnel was expanded in both directions - west from Grand Central to just past Times Square, and east in Queens onto an elevated viaduct - the present day 7 line to Flushing. The Queens loop was completely obliterated with the construction of ramps to the new elevated line. On the west end though, deep below Grand Central, the loop track was merely bifurcated by the new (present day) tracks towards Times Square. One segment of the loop was re-purposed as a pump room, while a larger section, just south of the present day Queens bound 7 line, was left abandoned.
(For an absolutely exhaustive history of this tunnel, check out nycsubway.org's page, from which many of these facts are culled)
As anyone who's been to this site already knows, I have a thing for subway tunnels. I've been in subway tunnel segments here in NYC that some people at the MTA refuse to believe even exist. For me, getting to the Grand Central trolley loop was a decades old dream. I first noticed its existence in the late 1980s. Riding the 7 back to queens, I'd often ride up front to look out the window. I noticed a very dark looking set of tunnels from the passing train, but could never quite see what was back there. I was hooked: within my lifetime, I would absolutely have to visit this tunnel and find out.
The problem of course was the location. Both 5th avenue and Grand Central are busy stations at all hours of the day and night. Just getting to the loop would be an act of death defiance as well, given that the active tunnel one needs to walk down in order to access the abandoned loop is on a steep hill, with next to no clearance on either side of the track, and fewer places to hide should a train come along. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most dangerous in terms of risk of getting caught or killed), I would say this one is a 9. (for a lot of people, it's probably a 99 - as in, "what are you, fucking stupid?").
You only live once though.
After a lot of planning myself and a fellow 'volunteer track inspector' made our decent onto the tracks, and quickly make our way to the destination. Arrival was well timed and perhaps a little surprising, as we stepped passed an opened cage door from the live track into a completely black abyss forgotten by time. Here lays the remains of a tunnel which in the end, only saw a handful of trains. Just think about that for a minute: this tunnel was built deep below the present day heart of NYC, and was barely used before it was rendered obsolete. That such a large dark empty space exists under present day Manhattan is indeed a wonder.
Decades of iron filings coat the floor and walls. Indents are surprisingly found along the walls, to allow space for workers to stand as the trolley car would pass. High above the tunnel floor is another safety feature: the remaining 3rd rail supports. The trolley car drew electricity from a third rail suspended from the ceiling. Countless accidental deaths (caused by stepping on the third rail) in the subway tunnels in the century since could have been avoided had this design been widely used in the rest of the system.
At the end is a large concrete block. Far above one can see the orange glow of streetlamps filtering through a tall ventilation shaft. There is a ladder down several feet that connects to the rest of the loop connecting back to the Queens bound 7 track. This small loop segment is full of trash from the overhead grating.
Dirty, tired and content, we made our way back to the surface. happy to again count ourselves amongst the few and proud to ever see such an obscure location in person.
(For more subway tunnel adventures and abandoned obscure goodness under NYC - get the book)