The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel (Locations Project)

Though many people walk along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, very few know what Walt Whitman knew, that below Atlantic Avenue once ran the world’s oldest subway. The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was once part of the Long Island Railroad before it was closed and sunk into relative obscurity. Construction began in 1844, and the tunnel was ordered to be closed in 1859. In 1861, two years after the Tunnel was officially closed, Whitman wrote about it in the Brooklyn Standard as “a passage of Acheron-like solemnity” that would cause us to “grumble less…at God’s handiwork” (307).  After Whitman’s nostalgic musings about the tunnel, it practically disappeared from the hearts and minds of Brooklynites for over 100 years. It was not until 1979 that the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was once again opened to the people of New York by a man named Robert Diamond. Bob heard rumors of the Tunnel and set to work to rediscover it; he did so in 1980. The information that exists between the time of Walt Whitman’s writings on the tunnel and the rediscovery of it by Bob Diamond is full of both facts and creative fantasy.

There were two main reasons why the Tunnel was built. The first reason was for the safety of pedestrians; the street level trains were unable to brake in time and had caused the deaths of two youths. Steam trains did not begin operating in the United States until 1830. Therefore, locomotive travel was new and dangerous; both because pedestrians were unfamiliar with steam trains and because the system of braking had yet to be refined. In 1844 “C. Davis and others, and of William Cook and 170 others” brought forward petitions “requiring the Long Island Rail Road Co. to remove the cars and engines from the street to the wharf and ground near the foot of Atlantic St., and cut through, or tunnel through, the hill on said st…” (‘Common Council’, 2). The safety of Brooklynites was the most plausible reason for moving trains underground, but another source has a different reason for moving the train system underground. The second reason is stated in an article in the Brooklyn Eagle from 1911. According to the article, “The old subway was built that the beauty of Atlantic Avenue, planned to become the finest business highway of any street in any city in America, might not be destroyed”(‘Oldest Subway’, 3). For these reasons the corner stone of the two-train tunnel was laid on May 24th, 1844 and it was open for travel seven months later on the 2nd of December, 1844.

The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was built by mostly Irish immigrants using the cut and cover method. Cut and cover is a method where a trench is excavated and roofed over. The street was dug up for roughly 12 blocks, a wooden frame was built, a barrel vaulted brick roof put in, and the street relayed. From start to finish the tunnel ranged from one foot to thirteen feet under the street. The entrance to the tunnel was between Boerum Place and Court Street; thus the tunnel is only a foot under Court Street. From there it quickly descends as it gets closer to the East River. Its dimensions are seventeen feet high and 21 feet wide. The terminus of the tunnel is around what was then Emmett Street but is now called Willow Place. Where the tunnel ended is where the train then came above ground and ran for another block and a half; it made a turn and ended between Columbia Street and the East River at a station. Passengers then were within walking distance of the Ferry house. The July 23rd, 1911 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle reported that as of then, the old station still stood but was being used as a double store.

Opening day of the tunnel, December 2nd, 1844, was seen as a day of celebration in Brooklyn. Guests were invited to ride the newly opened rail along with the president of the Long Island Railroad and other important officials. Upon “[r]eturning to the depot, a collation was spread out for their entertainment, at which His Honor the Mayor of Brooklyn presided” (‘Opening Of The Tunnel,2). One engine operated in the front to pull the train while another operated in the back to push it. Because of this dual engine process, the LIRR train was the fastest mode of transportation in the United States at that time. The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was part of a longer route named the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad which ran from the village of Jamaica to the then named East River Front.

Even though one of the reasons why the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was built was because it was a safety precaution, one should not be led to believe that just because the train was now underground it meant that there were no longer any train-related accidents. There were multiple deaths from the outset. The Brooklyn Eagle states that one man died from falling into the tunnel during construction (‘Petitions’, 2), while the Brooklyn Evening Star writes that one worker was killed during a cave-in (‘Accident’, 2) and an overseer was murdered by a disgruntled employee (‘Reported Murder In Brooklyn’, 3). Another death occurred in 1854 when a man threw himself in front of the train as it began to enter the tunnel. His body was severed into two (‘Shocking Accident’, 3).

These accidents did not decrease the popularity of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Initially, Brooklynites patronized the Long Island Railroad with relish. Yet, for all its initial popularity and profit, the tunnel was closed after sixteen years. The Brooklyn Eagle sites financial trouble in more than one paper. The May 31st, 1896 edition states that, “[i]n 1850 the Long Island road passed into the hands of the supreme court of New York on the foreclosure of a mortgage…” (‘Atlantic Avenue Tunnel’, 18), and the July 23rd 1911 edition states that it was “sold out under foreclosure”. The second reason why it was closed was because of a group of people who organized against the use of steam power on Atlantic Avenue. Their voice was powerful because “[l]egislation went through Albany for the old tunnel from South Ferry to Boerem place to be closed. This was on June 6, 1859” (‘Oldest Subway’, 3). The Long Island Railroad Co. was paid $125,000 to relinquish their rights to the use of steam power within city limits. The tunnel finally closed in the year 1860.

After its closing, the Tunnel was mainly remembered by people who were filing lawsuits against it. Several suits were brought up by men who “were assessed for the closing Atlantic avenue tunnel in 1860…”(‘Long Litigation’, 4). Disgruntled Brooklynites who wished for faster transportation would write into the Brooklyn Eagle with suggestions of re-opening the tunnel (‘Proposition To Re-occupy’, 3). A few men tried to purchase the tunnel (‘The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel’, 3).

But it seems that only one man wrote about the tunnel with nostalgia. That man was Walt Whitman. In 1861, Whitman wrote columns for the Brooklyn Standard. He titled this collection “Brooklyniana”. One long excerpt he wrote was his thoughts about the tunnel. Whitman writes:

The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and the darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences…The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent. How beautiful look earth and heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals-the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large portion- into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less, afterward, at God’s handiwork (306-307).

Whitman realized that the tunnel could give people perspective on life, even if it had outlived its monetary usefulness. What was once supposed to be the seat of splendor was slowly fading out of the minds of most people. By 1902 the articles pertaining to the tunnel had dwindled to reference of dirt being taken from the tunnel to be used to fill stagnant pools of water (‘L.I.R.R.’s New Terminal’, 9). As years went by the tunnel lived on through legends and rumors. People knew or heard of its existence, but by 1911 not only was the question of who owed the tunnel unanswerable, but the entrance to the tunnel seemed to be lost entirely (‘Oldest Subway’, 3 ).

Something as large as the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel can never be forgotten entirely. The tunnel transformed through imagination into a source of literary inspiration. In 1893 a fictional story was published in The New York Times entitled Atlantic Avenue Tunnel- A Romance. This story tells of two friends who go looking for the tunnel after one hears a death-bed confession that it exists and is filled with treasure. They do not find the entrance to the tunnel, much like the 1911 reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle. In 1925 H.P. Lovercraft wrote a story titled The Horror at Red Hook. It is a story of horror and the occult involving a detective who discovers the occult activities in a tunnel underneath a cellar. The cellar collapses on top of the detective and the villains, yet the detective mysteriously lives. The folklore and legends surrounding crime and the Atlantic Avenue tunnel appears to come from the fact that the Atlantic Avenue area had fallen into hard times and developed into a slum called “Smoky Hollow”. The reality of the gangs and slum life, coupled with the mysterious presence of the hidden tunnel allowed for creative writing to flourish. A second fact that may have fed into the folklore of the tunnel being used as a denizen of crime is that a blind distillery was being operated in it at one point. A bar room in an Atlantic Avenue store had a pipe underneath it that led to the distillery (‘Oldest Subway’, 3).

The truth of the tunnel is hidden. Relative obscurity prevailed until very recently. In 1979 whispers and rumors of the forgotten Atlantic Avenue Tunnel reached the ears of a 19-year-old Brooklynite named Robert Diamond through a radio show. Diamond set out to do what so many before him had failed at; he went to find the entrance to the tunnel. Diamond found a copy of the plans in the borough president’s office. He used these plans to locate the entrance; a manhole at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. When Diamond opened the manhole he found a wall of dirt. This did not deter him and he began using his hands to dig into the tunnel. Under the dirt was a cheap brick wall that Diamond quickly broke through with a metal pole. The other side of the wall revealed a gaping hole that was the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Excited with his discovery, Diamond got together a group of volunteers to aid him in hollowing out the tunnel, in order to allow entrance deeper into the tunnel. Now, 30 years after Diamond first heard of the tunnel on the radio, he still holds tours once a month so that interested people may see the tunnel that was almost completely forgotten, save for rumors and fiction writing (Diamond).

There is still some mystery surrounding the tunnel, though, as part of it is still blocked off. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle there is an old woodburning locomotive still buried in the depths of the tunnel; Diamond believes this train is what is buried in the yet unexcavated section of the tunnel. Diamond writes on his website, “[a] ccording to oral tradition, back in 1861, an obsolete locomotive was being used by Mr. Litchfield to haul dirt fill for sealing up the tunnel.   The crank axle broke, and without the means to repair or remove it, they just left the engine in the backfill at the western end of the tunnel.  Perhaps this explains why the tunnel was not fully filled in. Without the means of hauling in more fill, Litchfield decided to simply wall off the tunnel at both ends instead of fully filling it in” (Diamond). Until the entire tunnel is excavated, what really is hidden behind the wall will remain a mystery.

From the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel’s inception on December 2nd, 1844 there has been a rich history that is both factual and fictional, even if for many years the tunnel was silent. Originally built for the safety and beautification of Brooklyn, it was not without its own share of accidents and tragedies including one murder. The tunnel was very popular and profitable in the beginning but was in operation only until June 6th, 1859 because of financial trouble and public outcry against steam power. It is after the closing that the tunnel’s history becomes more of a mystery. Once boarded up, people tried for many years to find an opening and failed. Writers saw the tunnel as a source of inspiration for stories that may have had some grains of truth in them. The slums and crime that arose around the area where the tunnel exists were also a source of inspiration for these writers. It was not until 1980 that the tunnel was rediscovered by a young Brooklynite named Robert Diamond. Diamond and volunteers dug through dirt and brick in order to re-enter the tunnel and make it accessible for tours. New Yorker’s with an interest in the underground history of the Atlantic Tunnel can now come and explore, and even contemplate the ongoing mystery of what lies in the unexcavated portion of the tunnel or whether re-opening the tunnel would be profitable for Brooklyn and the Long Island Railroad.

Barrel-Vaulted Tunnel Barrel_vault_top_force

Works Cited

Whitman, Walt. The Uncollected Poetry And Prose Of Walt Whitman: Much Of Which Has Been But Recently Discovered With Various Early Manuscripts Now First Published. Ed. Emory Holloway. 1st ed. Vol. 2. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921. Print.

“Common Council.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 16 Jan. 1844, Vol. 3 ed., No. 29 sec.: 2-2. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Brooklyn Has The Oldest Subway In The World.” The Brooklyn Eagle 23 July 1911, Vol. 71 ed.: 3-3. Print.

“Opening Of The Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 05 Dec. 1844, Vol. 3 ed., No. 294 sec.: 2-2. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Petitions.” The Brooklyn Eagle 17 Sept. 1844, Vol. 3 ed., No. 226 sec.: 2-2. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Accident.” Brooklyn Evening Star 11 July 1844: 2-2. Print.

“Reported Murder In Brooklyn.” Brooklyn Evening Star 29 May 1844: 3-3. Print.

“Shocking Accident On The Long Island Railroad.” The Brooklyn Eagle 27 Sept. 1854, Vol. 13 ed., No. 226 sec.: 3-3. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 31 May 1896, Vol. 56 ed., No. 151 sec.: 18-18. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <>.

“A Long Litigation Over the Matter of the Asessment for the Closing of the Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 28 Feb. 1873, Vo. 34 ed., No. 5 sec.: 4-4. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Proposition to Re-occupy the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel- Railroad Management.” The Brooklyn Eagle 12 Aug. 1873, Vo. 34 ed., No. 190 sec.: 3-3. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.” The Brooklyn Eagle 5 July 1876, Vol. 37 ed., No. 158 sec.: 3-3. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“L.I.R.R.’s New Terminal At Rockaway Beach.” The Brooklyn Eagle 29 Dec. 1902, Vo. 62 ed., No. 359 sec.: 9-9. Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

“Atlantic Avenue Tunnel – A Romance.” The New York Times 23 Jan. 1893: 10-10. The New York Times. Web. 1 Dec. 2009. <>.

Lovecraft, H.P. Weird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1997. Print.

“Interviewing Bob Diamond.” Personal interview. 6 Dec. 2009.


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