The Underground Secrets Of New York City’s Subway System

Snaking just below “the city that never sleeps” is one of the world’s oldest and busiest subway systems. With more than 115 years of history behind it, the New York City Subway system is filled with some pretty amazing secrets and facts. Whisking about 5.6 million passengers through the city’s five boroughs every weekday, the iconic transportation system has plenty of gems (some hidden, some not) to explore. So stand clear of those closing doors and read on to learn about some of the subway’s secrets.

Lots Of “Ghost Stations”

Worth_St_Station_2015-07-06
3am.nightly / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
3am.nightly / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Deep in the ground under New York City are many “secret” subway stations and tunnels that have been abandoned for a variety of reasons over the years. Some of them were eventually reopened, some have been repurposed, and some just sit unused like they’re part of a ghost subway system.

In fact, the very first NYC subway station to open to the public in 1904 is no longer in use. Fortunately, The New York Transit Museum offers guided tours of the amazing space.

“Miss Subways” Beauty Pageants

beauty-pageant
Wcnghj/Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0
Wcnghj/Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0

Two hundred women have held the title “Miss Subways” since the 1940s. That’s because between 1941 and 1976 there used to be a beauty pageant sponsored by the New York Subways Advertising Company.

To be eligible, women had to be residents of New York City and actually use the subway system. Those with a girl-next-door look were preferred; the man in charge of selecting winners wanted “no glamour gal types or hand-painted masterpieces.” Pageant winners got tons of exposure: Miss Subways’ picture would be viewed an estimated 5.9 million times a day by riders!

There’s Some Incredible Art Down There, Like This Roy Lichtenstein Mural

New York City Architecture And Monuments
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

There are lots of unexpected works of art to discover throughout the NYC subway system. One famous piece that’s often overlooked is a mural that was created by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the most influential pop artists in American history.

The mural, showing the skyline of a futuristic city, was commissioned by the MTA and is located in the Times Square station at 42nd Street and Broadway. At 6 feet high and 53 feet long, it’s not hard to miss although many people don’t know its impressive origins.

He’s The Voice Behind “Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors, Please”

Charlie Pellett is New York's subway voice
Christina Horsten/picture alliance via Getty Images
Christina Horsten/picture alliance via Getty Images

One of the most recognized voices in New York City belongs to a man whose face most people have never seen. His name is Charlie Pellett, and in addition to being the voice of the subway system, he’s a veteran news anchor and reporter for Bloomberg Radio.

Pellett’s firm yet friendly voice commands people to “stand clear of the closing doors, please” and also apologizes for “unavoidable delays.” He does this work on a volunteer basis.

A Fake Brownstone In Brooklyn Heights Hides A Subway Ventilator

joraleman-brownstone
Ehmorris / Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain & Autopilot / Wikimedia Common, CC BY-SA 3.0
Ehmorris / Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain & Autopilot / Wikimedia Common, CC BY-SA 3.0

People passing by the townhouse at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights might notice something odd-looking about it, such as the blacked-out windows. That’s because it’s not really a house at all. In fact, the building actually conceals a large subway ventilator connecting to the railroad tracks below.

The brownstone’s neighbors have lived next door since 1991 and say that they’ve gotten used to the whirring sounds the ventilator’s spinning blades make.

Those Light Globes Are Color-Coded

New York City Subway service L closes down
Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images
Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images

Those globe lights at subway stations throughout the city are actually color-coded. They were designed in the 1980s to help passengers identify the different types of subway entrances by using red, green, and yellow globes.

The different colors would indicate whether a specific subway entrance was open 24/7 with a token booth, open with a part-time token booth, or whether it was just an exit point with no booth at all. Today, the lights are just green and red, and the general rule “green means go” and “red means stop” applies.

A Hidden Musical Instrument Entertains Passengers Who Know How To Use It

There’s a pair of musical instruments that are “hidden” in plain view in the tunnels of 34th Street subway station. Called REACH: New York and designed by artist Christopher Janney, the unique green instruments hang on opposite sides of the tracks and appear to be part of the building’s ductwork.

But there’s more to them than that! The bars are filled with holes that have motion sensors, and movement triggers a sound from the instruments. Each sensor plays a different sound, such as a frog croaking, xylophone tones, or bird calls.

The First Subway Car Ran On Pneumatic Power

Beach-Pneumatic-Transit
Unknown photographer – New York Historical Society, Bildnummer 70265, Public Domain
Unknown photographer – New York Historical Society, Bildnummer 70265, Public Domain

In 1870, an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach debuted the city’s first underground mode of transportation, which was a single-track line with one car that went from Warren Street to Broadway in Lower Manhattan (only about 300 feet). Instead of running on electricity like today’s modern subway trains, this first one ran on compressed air and water pressure.

The “Beach Pneumatic Transit” never took off as a means of transportation and only lasted from 1870 until 1873. Pneumatic technology is still used today as a delivery system that pushes mail or paperwork from one part of a building to another.

Now Abandoned, The Old City Hall Station Used To Be The Crown Jewel Of The Subway

city-hall
joebehr / Flickr/Creative Commons
joebehr / Flickr/Creative Commons

Designed by the architects George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, City Hall was the first NYC subway station to open to the public in 1904. The station was spectacular, featuring work by Gutzon Borglum, who was the sculptor responsible for Mount Rushmore!

The station is full of innovative vaulted tile ceilings, dramatic skylights, arches, and chandeliers. Service to the old City Hall station was discontinued in 1945 but urban explorers can take tours through the New York Transit Museum. You can also see the incredible space for free if you stay on the downtown 6 as it turns around at the Brooklyn Bridge stop.

Aretha Franklin Has The “Respect” Of The Subway System

Subway station
Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images
Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images

When the Queen of Soul, singer Aretha Franklin, passed away in 2018, some of her fans put up tributes in subway stations bearing the name “Franklin.” The MTA removed the signs within a couple of days.

Before her funeral, however, the transit authority changed its tune and installed permanent tributes to the legend. Now, plaques with the word “respect” hang above all Franklin Avenue (Brooklyn) and Franklin Street (Manhattan) signs.

There Are Almost 850 Miles Of Subway Tracks

New York Cityscapes And City Views
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

In total, there are nearly 850 miles of tracks in the New York City Subway system when you include tracks that are used for non-revenue purposes, such as the subway yards. If it was possible to place all of those tracks from end to end, they would reach almost all the way from NYC to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

And as for cars, in 2016, the subway system had a total of 6,418 on its roster.

People Came Up With A “Creative” Way To Steal Tokens Out Of Turnstiles

People Waiting to Use New Subway Token
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

Before Metrocards came along, subway passengers paid for their rides with tokens. It wasn’t long before some unscrupulous thieves came up with a pretty yucky way to get their hands on those tokens without paying for them

The ruse involved stuffing paper, such as a gum wrapper, into a token slot and waiting for someone to insert their payment. The thief would then put their lips over the blocked slot and suck the token up into their mouths. This crime became an epidemic in the 1980s, with The New York Times reporting that more than 60 percent of repair calls in ’89 involved stuffed token slots.

One Abandoned Station Houses An Illegal Art Show Called “The Underbelly Project”

underbelly
vandalog / Flickr/Creative Commons
vandalog / Flickr/Creative Commons

At an unfinished station in Williamsburg at South 4th Street, two street artists curated an underground gallery they refer to as an “eternal show without a crowd,” since few members of the public will ever see it.

Installations in the unique and illegal gallery include a mural saying “WE OWN THE NIGHT,” a dining table in the middle of a track, and a painting showing Mickey Mouse on a respirator. A total of 103 artists, some quite famous, contributed to the project which had to be completed in one night due to the dangers involved with working in such a space. The Underbelly Project is a favorite destination for urban explorers in the area.

800,000 Riders Were Trapped In The Subway During A 1965 Blackout

Policemen Leading Subway Passengers to Safety
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

On Tuesday, November 9, 1965, lights began to flicker on and off in New York City. Power failed completely in Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany and then the blackout spread across the region. At the time, it was the largest power failure in history, and even worse, it struck during the evening rush hour.

More than 800,000 riders were trapped in the city’s subway system. Five thousand police officers and 10,000 National Guardsmen were called to duty during the outage. Evacuating that many passengers was quite a feat, especially for people who were stuck under the East River.

You Can Take A Special “Nostalgia Ride” During The Holidays

U.S.-NEW YORK-SUBWAY-HOLIDAY NOSTALGIA RIDE
Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images
Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images

As an extra special and nostalgic holiday tradition, the New York Transit Museum offers New Yorkers rides on a vintage subway train. The 1930s train is called the “Shoppers Special” and it operates every Sunday between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, for the price of a regular ride!

Even the ads adorning the train are vintage. People are so excited to see the decorated train pull up each year that many of them get dressed up in period costumes just for the ride.

A Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist Used A Subway Station As His Lab

Portrait of Physics Scientist Victor Franz Hess
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

In 1936, an Austrian scientist named Victor Hess received a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of cosmic radiation. He immigrated to New York during World War II and worked as a professor at Fordham University, continuing his experiments in radioactivity.

Hess used Washington Heights’ 191st Street station, the deepest in the system, as his laboratory and measured radiation levels in the granite between the station and Fort Tyron Park, 180 feet above.

Vintage Color-Coded Tiles Can Help Passengers Get Around

Bergen
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the subway system’s early days, designers at the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad came up with a brilliant color system to help guide passengers.

Station tiles in different colors let subway riders know where they were just by taking a quick glance. For instance, if you were riding from Manhattan to Queens, the station tiles changed from “Scarlet Red” to “Grape” to indicate that the train had crossed the river. And all nine local Brooklyn stops had signs with “Light Green” surrounded by a “True Green” border. This vintage color coding can still help riders get around today!

Armored Money Trains Used To Collect Fares From All The Stations

money-train
Nick-D / Wikimedia Commons/Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Nick-D / Wikimedia Commons/Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The MTA converted some subway cars into special armored two-car “money trains” in order to collect fares from all the different stations. The money was all brought to a secret room located at 370 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

The money trains ran from 1951 to 2006, made obsolete when the Metrocard became the method of payment. Two of the former money cars are now on display at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn.

A Teenager Once Took A Subway Train For a Joyride

Coney Island
James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images
James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1993, a 16-year-old hijacked a train and took it for a joyride after posing as a transit worker. He managed to drive around for three hours, making all the stops for the train’s passengers, before he was arrested. He was only caught after entering a curve too fast and triggered an emergency brake.

Twenty years after his crime, Keron Thomas spoke with the Daily News. “I never did it for fame,” he said. “It’s not something that I’m proud of, but I don’t want people to get the wrong impression. … I just wanted to drive a train.”

“The Commuter’s Lament”

lament
evan p. cordes from I A M A H O B O, etats unis – JUST GO HOME / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
evan p. cordes from I A M A H O B O, etats unis – JUST GO HOME / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Eagle-eyed commuters might have noticed a strange poem in the corridor between the Port Authority and the Times Square subway stations. It’s a rather depressing poem, split into eight parts and hung overhead. “Overslept. So tired. If late, Get fired. Why bother? Why the pain? Just go home. Do it again.”

Written by Norman B. Colp, the poem is appropriately called “The Commuter’s Lament” and conveys a bleak message many subway riders can relate to.

Where Do The Trains Go When They’re Not In Use?

subway closed sign
COREY SIPKIN/AFP via Getty Images
COREY SIPKIN/AFP via Getty Images

Even in the city that never sleeps, there’s less of a need for subway trains overnight and on weekends. The trains that aren’t being used (or are being cleaned or serviced) are stored in a variety of places throughout the city.

Some are parked in underground subway yards, the largest of which is the New York City Transit Complex at Coney Island, which has three subway yards and repair shops. Other trains are parked in express tracks and tracks that were never completed.

You Can Visit A Tribute To The “Alligator In The Sewer”

gator
Ludovic Bertron / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Ludovic Bertron / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Just one of the many unusual works of art that can be found throughout the NYC Subway system is a bronze manhole cover with an alligator “crawling” out of it. Created by sculptor Tom Otterness, the piece is a tribute to a 1935 event that was covered in The New York Times. “A group of teenagers in East Harlem caught an eight-foot alligator underneath a manhole on 123rd Street,” read the story.

Since then, there have been many other alleged sightings of reptiles in the sewer system. This commemorative manhole cover can be found in the 14th Street/8th Avenue subway station.