With my interest in subterranean transit systems – remember my novel Subway Hitchhikers? – I found myself fascinated with Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subways.
His 2014 book is an ambitious project, filled with some detailed but rambling asides as well as more than a few slips I wouldn’t expect from a Boston Globe managing editor. (I doubt the family ever settled into a 16-acre farmhouse, and I know that Springfield is more than an hour from Boston today while in the period he referenced the trip would have taken days. Etc.) But his description of the technological developments, urban congestion, corrupt politics, personal financial empires, and similar forces that led to the creation of what we take for granted in our largest and greatest cities can be a gripping tale.
Equally fascinating for me, though, has been a connection that emerges out of Watertown, a Boston suburb just west of Cambridge. Crucial to Most’s story is John Whitney, a 1635 arrival to the town, which was at one time the second largest settlement in Massachusetts. Two of his descendants, brothers born further west in the state, provide the “incredible rivalry” in Most’s history, but it’s the original Whitney I find suggesting yet another ambitious history. He’s the root of a most remarkable American family.
The Methodist church where my choir rehearses weekly in Watertown was founded by Whitneys, and when the current building was erected in 1895, no expense was spared. There are impressive touches. And when one of the boys from this line moved to Detroit, he became that city’s wealthiest resident by age 28.
The deep pockets that shaped the space we sing in came from the inventor of the paper bag, it turns out – and, more important, the inventor of the machine to make it.
He’s far from being the only significant inventor or investor in the family. Eli Whitney, for one, created the cotton gin that allowed slavery-based plantations to flourish in the American South.
I get the sense that the list of inventions and inventors is a long one.
More recently, the investor John Hay Whitney owned the New York Herald-Tribune in a period when it evolved into my favorite newspaper ever, even if it was the paper’s final five years. (He also owned the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade magazine.)
Don’t overlook the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, another family legacy, or Joan Whitney Payson, an acclaimed collector who left the Portland, Maine, art museum rather than New York’s MOMA a marvelous trove of Impressionist paintings, a move that shocked much of the art world but, well, we live only an hour from Portland – we celebrate her independence.
Come to think of it, there’s one twist of note here. Watertown is still not served by a subway.