We showed up at shortly after 2:30, and took our places in line with more than a hundred others–hipsters, adventure-seekers, film freaks, the merely curious. We all wore sensible shoes and had gone to the bathroom; we slouched against the wall of the Brooklyn Heights Trader Joe’s, all of us, like a gaggle of Yuppie-esque employment hopefuls, as traffic pounded by on Atlantic Avenue.

A tall blonde with a killer smile handed us a release to sign. It absolved the City of New York, the Borough of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, the President of the US and God Herself of blame, should the “unimproved archeological site” we were about to enter collapse or explode. I suspected the form also covered rabid drivers who might pick us off as we made our way to that manhole in the intersection. The manhole through which we were expected to descend.

It was a slow process, like pouring rocks down a funnel. We hung out in small groups until we were called. When the long green light at Atlantic Avenue turned briefly red, we followed our leader through the crosswalk, out to the stripe in the middle of the road, where she left us cowering behind a file of orange traffic cones as buses and trucks and gypsy cabs sped past so close, we could have touched them if we had a deathwish. We dribbled up to the manhole one by one, and climbed down on a shaky ladder held by a volunteer.

Down, down.

Once below, we ducked under a girder, struggled through a doorway hacked into a packed-earth-and-brick wall, fired up our flashlights and stepped down uneven wood-plank stairs. We gingerly picked our way over the corrugated hard dirt floor, which had been covered by tarps, and found a place to sit.

Canned music played: Train in Vain; Train in the Distance; Railroad Blues; Last Train to Clarksville. A movie screen hung up front, white and empty in the strained light thrown by a line of bulbs wired to the high, round brick walls.

Welcome to Tunnel Vision.


The event, a slate of train-related short films shown in the oldest subway tunnel in the world, was scheduled to start at 3 p.m. and run to 5:30. We were all seated by 4. The music halted. The screen sputtered and filled with the image of a chugging locomotive–L’arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, one of the first “moving pictures”–a brief black-and-white film by Auguste and Louis Lumiere that, when shown in 1895, sent theatre-goers fleeing in fear of being run down.

And we were off.

Trains, trains, trains. We watched shorts about subways, about the long-gone Third Avenue El, about color and shape and form set to the rattle of wheel against track. We watched D.W. Griffith’s The Girl and Her Trust, a drama about the theft of a staggering $2,000 by “tramps,” that featured a handcar racing a locomotive, set to a stirring original score played live, next to the screen, by four superb musicians.

Tunnel Vision. It was unique. It was nostalgic. It was informative. It was entertaining. It was tough on the butt.


The last act on the menu was a presentation by Bob Diamond, who unearthed the tunnel thirty years ago. He runs the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, which preserves it as the aforementioned “archeological site” and maintains public access to it.

Diamond was a college student in 1979, when he first heard of the mysterious train tunnel on a radio show.

The story was that the Long Island Railroad Company ran a steam engine down the surface of Atlantic Avenue in the 1830s to carry passengers between Brooklyn and Long Island. This new technology had a major flaw: the train couldn’t stop in time when something or someone found its way onto the track. Which which was happening more and more frequently, because the city of Brooklyn, and the Atlantic Avenue neighborhood, were growing rapidly.

People in the area objected strenuously to the LIRR’s inadvertent population control measures. So the railroad company plucked their locomotive from the public eye and sent it underground.

The company sank the line  into a trench, and covered over roughly a third of a mile of it, the Atlantic Avenue tunnel, with an arch of brick whose inside dimensions measured 17 feet high by 21 feet wide, and accommodated two lines of track. According to Bob Diamond, the process was a monument to immigrant labor working with primitive tools; he says it took seven months.

The tunnel opened in 1844, and trains ran through it for fifteen years. Then bad publicity caught up with the locomotive again: a public backlash against steam-driven transport in general cited its legacy of collisions, fires, explosions–disaster scenarios that didn’t inspire confidence in a train chuffing beneath a busy street. The line was discontinued in 1859, and the tunnel sealed in 1861–but not well, because the fellow who had contracted to fill it merely blocked up the ends and, history insinuates, pocketed the rest of the project’s take.

Which was fortunate for Bob Diamond.

After he heard the radio broadcast, he spent months tracking the tunnel’s history and looking for an entrance. He finally found a set of plans languishing in an office. Politicians and municipal engineers alike hadn’t realized they were there. Perhaps this was because the railroad branch lived and died well before 1898, the year that Brooklyn ceased to be a city in its own right and became a borough of New York City.

Diamond located his manhole and, with the help of the city and the gas company, he and a few fellow volunteers unsealed it in 1980. And found–a dirt wall. Which they chipped away with picks and shovels. “All that dirt you see around the steps,” Diamond told us, “That’s what we cleared away to get through. You’ll see a lot of beer cans there–those were ours. Cheap beer–we were students.”

Legends abound. The tunnel might’ve been used by river pirates, counterfeiters, moonshiners and–during WWI–German spies brewing mustard gas. Old newspaper articles hint of elephantine rats and leonine feral cats. Rumor claimed abandoned steam engines still squatted on the track.

But Diamond found nothing. Just the tunnel itself. Even the tracks and ties had been spirited away.

Now, he and his Brooklyn Historic Railway Association run public tours every month or so. And, thanks to Tunnel Vision, the brainchild of three movie lovers–Alice Moscoso, Erin Stamos and Mimi Zora–he has helped stage the ultimate Underground Film event.

And there we were, in the tunnel.

A far more pleasant experience than it would’ve been 150 years ago.

For some terrific information about the tunnel, its history and lore, check out: http://brooklynrail.net/