On the clear spring afternoon of April 14th, 1923, the 96th mayor of New York City swung a silver pick axe into the ground at Owl’s Head Park, in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. John Francis Hylan, who was nicknamed “Red Mike” for his championing of the people of New York against the interests of Rockefeller and Standard Oil. The silver pick axe he was wielding broke the ground on what was to be the first connection between Brooklyn and Staten Island, a subway tunnel that was never finished, and still lies undetected and incomplete underneath Owl’s Head Park.
This story begins with a chance encounter I had with an MTA map dating from 1912. The map depicts a plan of the NYC subway but with a startling addition: a subway line of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company, that had a train line leaving the Fourth Avenue Line of the subway, turning left at 67th street, heading under Owl’s Head park underneath the Verazzano Narrows to connect with the Staten Island railway system. The underwater subway line never came to fruition, but work was begun in 1923 on the Brooklyn end. After Mayor Hylan ceremoniously broke ground on the shaft head in Owl’s Head Park, construction of a 24-foot wide tunnel began, which would carry train cars underwater towards Staten Island. Hylan said it was going to be big enough to “take an elephant,” and that it was “one of the greatest improvements the great city of New York has ever undertaken.” The sandhogs, New York’s legendary urban miners, blasted their way 150 feet out underneath the Narrows before political disputes and lack of funding saw the project cancelled.
The subway was never completed, the abandoned tunnel head was covered up, and today lies dormant somewhere in Owl’s Head Park. The building of the Verazzano Bridge and the Staten Island ferry saw the subway plans permanently shelved. If the train line had gone ahead, would Staten Island have seen the same population explosion and urban growth of Brooklyn? Perhaps, but the answer lies buried somewhere beneath a small, out of the way park in Bay Ridge.
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