The Underground Railway

An Interview with Film-Maker Michael Rossi

/ by Noah Charney

Over a fifteen-year career, film-maker Michael Rossi has told stories of America that have slipped beyond the sightlines. Part of an award-winning PBS (Public Broadcasting Servce), a non-profit public American television network (in a nation of for-profit private networks), he has produced programs for children (the acclaimed “Design Squad Nation”) and adults (“The Rise and Fall of Penn Station,” among many others). He is a regular contributor to the American Experience series, into which his latest film falls, telling the dramatic story of America’s first subway system, in “The Race Underground.”


How did you come to this project on the origins of the American subway systems?

I was commissioned by American Experience to make the film. Mark Samels, the Executive Producer of the series, conceived of the film after reading Doug Most’s book “The Race Underground.” Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first underground film that I’ve worked on. I co-produced The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, which premiered in 2014.


You tell the story of Richmond and Boston. I imagine there are similar adventure stories with the New York subway system. Did you encounter any good stories over the course of your research?

I originally intended to include both the New York and Boston subway stories in the film, but given the constraints of a one-hour program, it was difficult to give both stories their due. Ultimately, I felt the story of Frank Sprague and the birth of America’s first subway was compelling enough to carry the film.


New York, like Boston, dealt with innumerable obstacles to get its subway system built. The simple fact that New York is larger than Boston meant there were that many more political hurdles and interest groups lobbying for their own cause. The original New York subway plan was larger and the tunnels were deeper. In fact, New York’s construction involved the cut and cover method as well as deep tunnel boring featuring the use of explosives and the Greathead shield method of mining.


Your film is part of the American Experience series, but I’m curious about parallel stories in Europe. What was happening in Europe around the time that Boston received the first major subway system in the US?

Other countries were pursuing subway systems at around the same time. And Sprague was one of small number of engineers racing to be the first to perfect the electric motor for use in transit. It is also important to note how truly groundbreaking the 1892 Rapid Transit Commission Report was, representing the first truly holistic look at the transportation needs of a large region. John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, grandfather of President John F. Kennedy and a member of the 1892 Commission, visited the London Underground as part of the comprehensive research behind the report. His lasting impression was that of the unbearable noise, which he compared to “the roaring of the ocean after a storm.”


Various subway systems have unique feels to them. Even the scents are different—the Paris Metro has a distinctive scent which I remember learning, perhaps apocryphally, was due to a specific perfume being pumped into the tunnels. Which subway systems have you encountered around the world, and what aspects did you find distinctive?

I’ve lived in both Boston and New York. Being from Massachusetts, the T is near and dear to my heart and I’m very familiar with each screeching, squealing turn. Traveling through the tunnels of Boston has an almost cozy feel to it. What strikes me about the New York subway is how truly ubiquitous it is. It literally entwines the five boroughs physically, economically, and emotionally. Walking the streets and sidewalks in Manhattan or Brooklyn, one can’t help but hear, smell, and feel the subway beneath them.


Did you encounter any stories about the origins of the London Underground or Paris Metro?

The London Underground was the first subway in the world, opening over four decades before Americans experienced the underground in Boston in 1897. As mentioned in the film, however, the idea of roaring coal-powered steam engines belching smoke and soot inside the London tunnels was not emulated worldwide. The great minds of the world, like Frank Sprague, were convinced there had to be a better way.


Your documentary shines light on an overshadowed but brilliant inventor who was muscled out of the story by Thomas Edison. What drew you to him?

Despite Sprague being overshadowed by Edison, he dreamed to be just like him. In 1878, when Edison’s incandescent light blub cast its light upon the world, Sprague was just starting out as a graduate from Annapolis. He yearned to be a heroic inventor like Edison, someone who could change the world, but was forced to complete his two-year service with the US Navy. It’s hard not to be drawn to this part of the story. Here is Sprague, filled with ambition and ideas, literally floating out at sea, miles and miles away from where he wants to be: at the center of the electric frontier. In the end, I believe we all want some level of recognition in whatever field or industry we pursue. That ambitious energy held by so many is encapsulated tenfold by Sprague.


Is there a specific filmic or narrative technique on which you draw in order to present the story of someone who should be a famous, household name, but is not? For instance, I’m considering doing a book about a wildly amazing and influential Slovenian 17th century baron whom nobody outside of Slovenia has heard of, and I’m needing to present him in terms relatable and intriguing to Western audiences. One way I’m doing so is by finding any connections he has to household names and drawing them out. I wonder if you have a parallel approach in making a documentary film on a lesser-known individual?

As you point out, the secret to any successful story is to connect with your audience. A film about Frank Sprague certainly benefits from his interactions with the world’s most famous inventor, Thomas Edison. But his story also gets at two extremely visceral themes: the mysterious, invisible power of electricity and the uneasiness and fear we hold towards the underworld.


What is your next project?

I’m in the midst of editing my first feature-length documentary film, The Master Palindromist, which follows the exploits of Barry Duncan, a self-proclaimed master of reversibility honing his skills in an effort to reassess his life, and possibly change the world. 

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.