Bob Diamond, the ‘Tunnel King’ of Brooklyn, Dies at 61

Bob Diamond, an engineering-school dropout who discovered a long-forgotten rail tunnel beneath Downtown Brooklyn and later spent more than 20 years trying to revive the borough’s trolley system, only to be stymied by bureaucratic wrangling and his own eccentricities, died on Aug. 21 at his home in the borough’s Kensington section. He was 61.

His girlfriend and only immediate survivor, Sharon Rozsay, said the cause was a stroke followed by a brief illness.

Mr. Diamond had just withdrawn from the electrical engineering program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1979 when he overheard a radio interview with an author who claimed that John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, had not been captured and killed but had in fact escaped and managed to stash his diary in a secret rail tunnel in Brooklyn.

The outlandish story caught Mr. Diamond’s imagination, and, lacking any clear career path, he dove into the hunt for the hidden railway. Evidence of a tunnel emerged immediately as he pored through old newspaper microfilms at the New York Public Library, and later as he perused topographical maps at Brooklyn Borough Hall. But where exactly was it?

After more than a year of searching, Mr. Diamond finally pinpointed one possible entrance, at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street.

He received permission to enter, and one day in 1981 he and several city officials popped open a manhole cover across from a bank that is now a Trader Joe’s. Mr. Diamond dropped in — but the hole was only three feet deep. There was, however, a narrow space headed west, toward the East River. With an oxygen tank in tow, he belly-crawled about 70 feet until he found the top of a brick arch.

He cleared away enough dirt to open a hole beneath the arch, then dropped a rope ladder over the edge and climbed down. His flashlight beam disappeared into the darkness — the brick-arched tunnel was about 1,600 feet long, 17 feet high and 21 feet wide.

“My first time inside the tunnel was akin to landing on the moon,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Pratt Institute magazine Pratt Folio. “I think I have a sense of how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin must have felt setting foot on its surface.”

The tunnel, he established, had been built by the Long Island Rail Road Company in 1844 and apparently ran to the waterfront, but it was closed in 1861 because of the company’s financial difficulties. Almost immediately, it had become a part of Brooklyn lore: One article from The New York Times in 1893 claimed it had been used by river pirates to secrete their ill-gotten wares.

With the city’s permission, Mr. Diamond started giving paid tours of the tunnel, one of the many ways during his life that he made ends meet. He occasionally worked with local theater troupes and art galleries to stage shows and performances inside it.

Discovering the tunnel was more than a lark. Since he was a child, Mr. Diamond had dreamed of bringing back Brooklyn’s trolley system, which had once covered 300 miles of the borough’s streets but had been discontinued in 1956. He envisioned the tunnel as a new terminus.

In 1982 he founded the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association. By the early 1990s the group had acquired several vintage streetcars and free rent on a warehouse in Red Hook, a waterfront section of the borough that at the time was run-down.

The mid-1990s found the city swooning over a streetcar revival — plans were in place for a line crossing Midtown Manhattan — and Mr. Diamond quickly secured over $300,000 in federal and local grants. Working with volunteers, he soon had about 1,600 feet of track laid along the cobblestones of Red Hook. He even invented a transformer that allowed the trolleys to draw power from the city’s electrical system without having to use a substation.

On May 1, 1997, Mr. Diamond piloted a short line of Pullman cars about 600 feet along the waterfront in Red Hook. By then he was something of a living legend in the borough, known as “the Tunnel King,” and dozens of reporters and onlookers came to watch.

“It was a great relief when nothing exploded,” Mr. Diamond told The New York Times. “Then it was an out-of-body experience. I was watching something that no one has seen in Brooklyn since 1956.”

But the trolley went no farther. A change in administrations at City Hall, the rapid gentrification of Red Hook and Mr. Diamond’s failure to raise private donations, which the city said were required to keep the grants going, brought the project to a halt.

In 2002, the city announced that it was withdrawing support. The next year the developer who had given Mr. Diamond free rent evicted him. In May 2003, city work crews removed several tons of railroad ties and cobblestones that he said he had collected with his own money.

Later that year Mr. Diamond was emerging from a tour of the Atlantic Avenue tunnel when he was met by police officers, who handcuffed him and served him with a summons, claiming that he did not have permission to enter.

He told reporters, without evidence, that someone in the Brooklyn borough government was out to get him, perhaps in cahoots with a former volunteer who had broken off to form his own nonprofit trolley association.

The city removed all but a few feet of trolley track in the fall of 2003, but left several of his rail cars. In January 2004 he invited a reporter from The New York Times to take a trip on what remained. He called it “the world’s shortest trolley ride.”

Robert Stephen Turin was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 6, 1959. His father, Max Turin, worked in the garment industry, and his mother, Elsa Brill, sold cosmetics. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother, who raised him, changed the family name to Diamond.

Bob won a scholarship to Pratt after drawing the school’s attention with a proposal for a satellite that could beam solar-derived electricity to earth. But the scholarship required him to work part of the year for Kodak, based in Rochester, N.Y. — practically the Arctic north for a Brooklyn boy — and he left after a year.

Mr. Diamond taught for a time at City College, Ms. Rozsay said, but he rarely held a regular job. After losing access to the Atlantic Avenue tunnel, he and Ms. Rozsay moved to Long Branch, N.J., where she owned an apartment building he helped manage. He began abusing drugs and alcohol and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He eventually got clean, and he and Ms. Rozsay returned to Brooklyn in 2006. The next year the city offered him renewed access to the tunnel, and for the next three years he led up to 400 people a month on a tour below Brooklyn’s busy streets.

He also became obsessed with rumors that a locomotive, used to pull cars along the underground line, was still hidden behind a wall in the tunnel. He and a team from National Geographic looked for it using a metal detector, but before they had definitive evidence the city once again barred him from the tunnel, this time claiming it was a fire hazard.

Mr. Diamond filed a lawsuit claiming breach of contract, but it fizzled.

In the 2010s he consulted on a new proposal for a streetcar line running along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts, but that too failed. And he never gave up his obsession with the Atlantic Avenue tunnel, or his dream of bringing streetcars back to his hometown.

“That was one of the amazing things about Bob,” Brian Kassel, the vice president of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, said in an interview. “His persistence, his willingness to go on the quest even when it seemed quixotic.”

Mr. Diamond in recent years found a new subterranean object of desire: a short pneumatic-powered rail line that had been built in the 1870s beneath City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan. Most historians said it had been demolished. But Mr. Diamond was unconvinced. Given his track record, he must have figured, who could say he was wrong?

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