APTA | Passenger Transport
November 8, 2010

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Steinway: More Than Pianos--Subways

Pianos—rather than the New York City subway system—are usually what come to mind when one hears the name Steinway. On Dec. 17, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History will help expand the public’s association with that storied name when it unveils its online edition of The William Steinway Diary, 1861–1896.

The diary—written over 36 years, nine volumes, and 2,500 pages—records William Steinway’s emergence, not only as a piano innovator, but also as a key figure in the structural development of New York City during one of the most dynamic periods in American history. The web release will coincide with a related exhibition, A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary, 1861-1896, which will showcase Steinway’s chairmanship of the New York Rapid Transit Commission, among other topics.

It was Steinway’s development of the company town of Steinway, in modern-day Astoria, Queens, which first involved him in the world of 19th-century transportation. The need for access to greatly expanded Steinway & Sons facilities—and a reliable means for workers to travel to and from their homes in Steinway and points beyond—led to the creation of a network of horse-car railroads, streetcars, trolleys, and ferries.

This background made him a natural choice for New York City’s Rapid Transit Commission, charged with exploring a subterranean transit system to replace horse cars and elevated rail lines. As commission chairman, Steinway worked closely with Chief Engineer William Barclay Parsons, founder of Parsons Brinckerhoff, to develop elaborate plans for a system powered by electricity—a radical idea for the time.

Although entrenched interests thwarted progress during Steinway’s lifetime, the two men laid the blueprint for what would become the New York City subway system. Today, MTA New York City Transit’s 7 subway line travels through the Steinway Tunnel under the East River to Queens.

Steinway’s role in the development of rapid transit is just one of the hundreds of topics that can be explored through this voluminous diary.  With the launching of the William Steinway Diary web site, scholars and the public will be able to read and search a complete transcription of the diary alongside high-resolution scans of each hand-written page. Pending further funding, later installments will include more than 30,000 interlinked annotations—one for every three words in the diary—prepared by museum curators and editors with more than 100 volunteer researchers, including the diary’s donor, the (now) late Henry Ziegler Steinway. This effort is one of the longest-running and most extensive volunteer projects at the Smithsonian.

The diary will be on view in the museum’s Albert H. Small Documents Gallery from Dec. 17, 2010, through April 8, 2011.  When it becomes available to view on Dec. 17, it can be accessed here. For more about the project, contact Anna Karvellas.

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