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Tunnel vision: how an obsessed explorer found and lost the world's oldest subway

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The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences.

— Walt Whitman, writing about the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in 1861


Bob Diamond had been guiding tours in an abandoned subway tunnel under Atlantic Avenue for almost 30 years when he was blindsided by a phone call from a New York Daily News reporter asking him how it felt to get kicked out.

Diamond was confused. His relationship with the city was getting increasingly rocky, but he had a contract for use of the tunnel.

“Look, it’s a misunderstanding,” he told the reporter. “They didn’t kick us out. Why would they?’”

But the reporter was right. The next day, December 17th, 2010, Diamond got a letter from the Department of Transportation (DOT) informing him that his contract had been revoked. The letter included a note from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) that “strongly recommends … that the present use of the tunnel is discontinued forthwith” due to safety concerns. There was no other explanation.

The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was sealed in 1861, shortly after Brooklyn banned steam locomotives within city limits. Legend has it that the tunnel was reopened in the 1920s when it was used for mushroom growing and bootlegging, and in the 1940s when the FBI opened it looking for Nazis. But soon after, it was lost. In the 1950s two historians attempted to find it and failed.

When Diamond rediscovered the tunnel in 1980, he was just a 20-year-old engineering student on a scholarship. The media made him a hero. He decided to restore the tunnel for the city instead of taking an engineering job. Gradually he built a career — and an identity — around the 169-year-old underpass.

Suddenly, all that was gone.

History

If you went on one of Diamond’s tours, which ran between 1982 and 2010, you could see why the FDNY was concerned. He’d lug three plastic orange barricades out to the middle of Atlantic Avenue, pry off the manhole cover with a crowbar, and steady a thin ladder into the narrow shaft, the only entrance to the tunnel. Tourists would line up in the middle of the busy road, descending one by one into a tight passageway. It led to an Alice in Wonderland-sized doorway that opened up on a large staircase, built by Diamond and his colleagues in the ‘80s. The stairs lead down into a massive, spooky hall that is 2,570 feet long, 21 feet wide, and 17 feet tall.

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Zoom_leftThe Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. The red dot marks its only entrance, which was recently sealed by the city.

The tunnel was built in 1844 as part of the Long Island Railroad, a commuter line that delivered passengers from Boston to New York. The train ran through the riverfront area that is now Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, which soon became the most densely populated part of Brooklyn. The neighborhood’s Court Street and Atlantic Avenue intersection was so thick with pedestrians that a tunnel had to be dug so the locomotive could travel under it without killing any children or livestock. Trains in those days didn’t have good brakes.

The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel holds the Guinness world record for "oldest subway tunnel," predating the Tremont Street subway in Boston from 1897, the 312-foot Beach Pneumatic Transit tunnel in Manhattan from 1869, and the first subway in the London Underground, which was built in 1863. "Trains actually passed through it, preceded by a man on horseback," wrote the Brooklyn Eagle in 1911. "Later [it was] used by smugglers and thieves."

The stairs lead down into a massive, spooky hall that is 2,570 feet long, 21 feet wide, and 17 feet tall

Diamond first heard about the tunnel on a radio program about The Cosgrove Report, a historical novel in which John Wilkes Booth hides pages of his diary in an abandoned tunnel between appearances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Diamond didn’t find the diary, but he did find the tunnel after eight months of research in city archives.

Diamond persuaded Brooklyn Union Gas Company to open the manhole and lend him an oxygen tank. He climbed into the 2-foot gap under the street and crawled for about 50 feet until he reached what appeared to be a dead end. He noticed, however, that the dirt didn’t quite reach the ceiling. Just beyond reach was a concrete wall plugged up with bricks and stones, which he broke through using a crowbar. Suddenly, cold air rushed in from the massive chamber on the other side. "I was just laying there on my stomach laughing into the walkie-talkie because I couldn’t talk," he says. "I was so shocked that it was really there."

He may have found something else, too. According to Diamond’s research, there is a 177-year-old steam locomotive sealed in a chamber at the end of the tunnel, a circa-1836 "Hicksville" that was retired from service in 1848 and declared "not worth repairing" in 1853. A scan completed by a magnetometer-imaging contractor in early 2011 revealed a buried metal object the size of a train.

Diamond may be right again, but the city has refused to authorize an excavation, saying it would be too disruptive to rip up such a busy street.

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A lifelong drive

There is an iconic newspaper photo of Diamond at age 20, taken just after he discovered the tunnel. He is crouched in a claustrophobic underground crawlway a few feet below the street, dried dirt on his lean arms and back, looking like an urban Indiana Jones.

Diamond has a strong Brooklyn accent and speaks in Wikipedia sections. He lives with his girlfriend Sharon and a gray shaved poodle in the same South Brooklyn apartment he used to share with his mother, which is now cluttered with mismatched furniture and piles of books on every table. He’s ballooned steadily since the ‘80s — you can see it in the newspaper pictures over the years — and his hairline is receding. He doesn’t like to travel far but maintains a train buff email list, which he blasts multiple times a week with articles about the tunnel and other rail-related news from Brooklyn and around the country.

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Bob Diamond excavating the tunnel entrance in 1980. He gained access to the tunnel in 1981.

Diamond has wanted the same thing for the tunnel ever since his discovery: to restore the passageway so it can become part of a new trolley line, and to build a museum about the tunnel’s history. He also wants to dig up the locomotive.

With the help of an energetic young attorney named Gabriel Salem, Diamond filed a lawsuit against the DOT and the FDNY in December, 2011 in order to regain access to the tunnel, seeking damages of $35 million. The case has already stretched on for nearly two years. A judge opted to dismiss all but one tiny count of the suit in February, 2013, but Salem filed an appeal in November. Now it’s up to the city to respond.

City officials all declined to speak to The Verge about the tunnel, citing the lawsuit. Senior counsel Warren Shaw, who is handling the case on behalf of the FDNY and the DOT, sent a statement by email. "To provide broader context, city officials revoked consent for the tunnel tours in 2010 due to safety concerns," he wrote. "Subsequently, several city agencies, including the law department, discussed with the plaintiffs the possibility of developing procedures under which the tunnel tours might resume. The plaintiffs ended the negotiations by filing their lawsuit."

Salem says, effectively, that’s bullshit. He claims the city was stringing Diamond along with contradictory demands, such as asking for engineer-approved plans without allowing engineers into the tunnel to inspect it. "Even if the tunnel’s not safe, there needs to be a hearing given," Salem says. "They can’t just take it away."

City battles

Thousands of tourists, including members of the fire and police departments, visited the tunnel with no injuries. If it was unsafe, it should have been a simple matter to build a second egress and make other adjustments to get it up to code. So why did the city kick Diamond out?

The letter revoking Diamond’s contract from the DOT was the culmination of a decades-long power struggle between city officials, a local economic development corporation, and Diamond’s ragtag nonprofit. That battle appears to have ended in a stalemate.

In 2009, the city started cracking down

As he got older, Diamond started to look less like a boyish American hero and more like a thorn in everyone’s side — especially after his Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (BHRA) won a $2.6 million grant from the city in 1987 to restore the tunnel and build a museum. Diamond began clashing with city officials and members of the Atlantic Avenue Association (AAA), a local development corporation he began working with to fulfill a condition of the grant. The conflict grew increasingly heated, as AAA tried to impose its vision for the tunnel and disagreements arose over money.

A few days before Christmas, someone broke into a BHRA warehouse and smashed the windows on a 19th-century trolley, painting its walls with a skull and the words "fuck you, Bob." The police never found the perpetrator, but Diamond blamed the AAA, claiming they were trying to push him out of the tunnel project.

City officials including Jack Lusk, special assistant in the mayor’s office, tried to calm Diamond down. The goal was to "keep Diamond involved" in the tunnel restoration, Lusk told the New York Daily News at the time, because "he feels very proprietary about this."





The $2.6 million was never spent due to the disagreements between Diamond and the AAA, and the museum was never built. That’s now part of Diamond’s lawsuit, as is another dropped city contract to build a trolley line that connects to the tunnel.

Despite the skirmishes in the late ‘80s, Diamond continued giving tours in the tunnel without much interference from the city for over two decades, and in 2008, the DOT renewed his contract to work in the tunnel. But the following year, a History Channel episode about the tunnel goosed demand and a new wave of eager tourists began congregating in the middle of Atlantic Avenue. The DOT started started cracking down.

The city’s sudden disapproval of the tunnel may have had to do with the changing neighborhood

First the agency slapped Diamond on the wrist for blocking traffic on Atlantic Avenue, and then for attempting to construct a second entrance without permits. The DOT also told Diamond that BHRA had to stop charging $15 for his tours, saying any money it earned had to be a donation. The agency then demanded that Diamond file a schedule of all future visits and tours.

Meanwhile, the tunnel enjoyed more attention than ever. In 2010, National Geographic signed a contract with BHRA to film a documentary about digging out the locomotive. The summer film festival Rooftop Films hosted a film screening in the tunnel. Diamond and BHRA had hired reenactors to play out scenes from tunnel lore, including the story of how its foreman was killed during construction and the tale of Sadie the Hudson River pirate.

When Rooftop Films scheduled a second underground screening, the city decided it had had enough. The FDNY shut down the event due to safety concerns and the DOT canceled Diamond’s contract less than a week later. National Geographic canceled its project, too, citing changes in content strategy.

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Zoom_right Top: The corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, where the tunnel entrance is located, in 1922.
Bottom: The same intersection today.

The city’s sudden crackdown on the tunnel may have had something to do with the changing neighborhood. "When he first started giving this tour, that area of Brooklyn was kind of rundown with abandoned buildings," says Larry Fendrick, who runs SubChat, a forum for "railfans," or train buffs. "The whole neighborhood is completely different now. It’s a lot more upscale than it was 20 years ago."

Diamond became reclusive after he was exiled from the tunnel, withdrawing from the railfan community. He has bouts of paranoia, occasionally slipping into diatribes about the United Nations. The villains in his story keep changing, from the DOT and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to National Geographic, who he believes forged his signature on a permit application.

Without the income from the tunnel tours, Diamond is struggling to pay rent, relying on his girlfriend to pay his phone bill and save him from eviction. He survives on food stamps and Social Security disability payments, which he receives due to post-traumatic stress disorder he says was caused by the war over the tunnel. He recently developed a temporary stutter after reading that former deputy mayor for economic development Daniel Doctoroff had casually endorsed the idea of running a trolley through the tunnel, the plan Diamond has been fighting for all along.

Lately, Diamond has been fixated on a group of stodgy archeologists called PANYC, who he believes have been undermining him since the beginning. "I told them about the tunnel. They pretended to be friendly. As soon as they went inside, they were whispering to each other, giving sneers and dirty looks at me," Diamond says. "They hate me because I have no professional credentials."

Time to wait

There’s not much else Diamond can do besides wait for the city’s response to Salem’s appeal. He started a petition to reopen the tunnel for tours, which is up to 674 signatures, mostly Brooklyn residents and railfans who took the tour or were planning to before it got shut down. "It's pretty silly that all of a sudden, the tunnel has become a death trap and needs to be closed for the public good," writes Richard D.

It’s been almost three years since Diamond last saw the inside of his tunnel — he'll be arrested if he tries to enter

While Diamond is encouraged by the sympathetic responses, he knows it won’t get him anywhere with the city. With the lawsuit filed, he’s distracting himself by reading about technology and the history of transportation, and occasionally making it down to Connecticut Muffin, where he loiters with his best friend and BHRA president Greg Castillo when they can scrape together a few bucks for coffee.

The city declined to answer most questions about the tunnel, citing the lawsuit. However, it appears there are no plans for the tunnel, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. When The Verge asked for permission to go inside, both the DOT and the FDNY denied the request. "The tunnel is not accessible for this purpose due to safety concerns," a representative for DOT says in an email. A week later, in late 2013, the manhole was welded shut.

It’s been almost three years since Diamond last saw the inside of his tunnel. If he tries to enter, he will be arrested.

He tries to avoid walking by it, but sometimes he’s forced to drive past it to get the highway.

"It’s like the main part of my life is gone," he says. "That tunnel was me, it was part of my persona. I’m not myself. I’m just wandering around without a purpose."



Photographs courtesy of: saschapohflepp, superfem, Brooklyn Historic Railway Association / Bob Diamond, rduta, R/DV/RS, and the New York Public Library.
Portrait of Bob Diamond by Michael Shane.

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