Like every other major metropolis, New York City has tunnels for people, tunnels for cars, and lots of tunnels for trains. But it also has something rather more unique: tunnels for cows. Or does it? This is the story of New York’s lost, forgotten, or perhaps just mythical subterranean meat infrastructure.
The first time I came across a mention of the city’s cow tunnel(s) was in Raising Steaks, historian Betty Fussell’s study of beef and its role in American culture. The underground structure (or structures, depending on whose version of the story you believe) was supposedly built at the end of the nineteenth century: an infrastructural response to the cow-jams that had begun to block streets in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan. (The increased quantity of cattle arriving in the city was due, in part, to another infrastructural innovation: the railway.)
As the railroads massively increased cattle traffic to Manhattan, the Pennsylvania Railroad built holding pens in New Jersey, whence barges would ferry cattle across the Hudson to slaughterhouses along Twelfth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. Traffic was so heavy in the 1870s that a “Cow Tunnel” was built beneath Twelfth Avenue to serve as an underground passage, and it’s rumored to be there still, awaiting designation as a landmark site.
Cowboy on 13th Street and 11th Avenue in the Meatpacking District circa 1911, George Grantham Bain Collection, via Shorpy.com
Fussell goes on to note that, soon afterward, the invention of refrigerated train cars (the first effective design entered service in 1880, developed by engineer Andrew Chase for Chicago meatpacker Gustavus Swift) made the city’s extensive livestock handling and slaughtering facilities—including, presumably, the Cow Tunnel—redundant, although several Manhattan processing facilities were still slaughtering live cattle (now transported by truck) well into the 1960s.
In any case, the very existence of a cow tunnel (or tunnels) is shrouded in uncertainty, with rumors varying as to its/their location.
It might be beneath Twelfth Avenue, either at 34th Street or 38th Street—or perhaps both—but it also might be somewhere on Greenwich, Renwick, or Harrison Streets, near the present-day entrance to the Holland Tunnel.
It could even be as far afield as Gansevoort Street in the West Village.
According to second-hand reports collated by a utilities engineer turned self-published mystery writer named Brian Wiprud, the tunnel is, variously: oak-vaulted; lined with fieldstones; built of steel; demolished to make way for a gas main; or perfectly preserved.
In his story, “Bum Steer,” a three-page article dated June 1997 from the Tribeca Trib and available online as a badly photocopied set of PDFs, Wiprud says that he first heard about the cow tunnels from “a Con Ed inspector named Fred”:
The way this story goes, he was watching a crew install a drainage basin on Greenwich Street when they came upon a wall of wood about ten feet down. Thinking it was just some old trench sheeting, they tore a hole in the wall and found a void. A laborer went into the hole with a torch and came out saying it was an oak-vaulted tunnel ten feet wide by eight feet high that trailed off an undetermined distance in either direction. It was then that an old man from the neighborhood stepped up to the trench and said, “Why, I see you found the cattle tunnel.”
In the past decade, other, slightly more authoritative sources than Fred have come to light. A 2004 archaeological study (PDF) by engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff, produced for the MTA and Department of City Planning in advance of the Hudson Yards/No. 7 Line extension work, confidently reported the location of two cow tunnels underneath Twelfth Avenue, one at West 34th Street and one at West 39th:
The Manhattan Abattoir had a dock at the foot of West 34th Street in the 1870s, and cattle were brought to their slaughterhouse between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues beneath the streets via a cow tunnel. Sometime between 1928 and 1930 a two-story concrete cattle pen was built at the southeastern intersection of West 39th Street and Twelfth Avenue. Another underground cattle pass was built from the shoreline to this pen to allow cows to be driven under, instead of across, Twelfth Avenue.
The report’s authors note that the tunnels may well “represent a distinct method of construction”—one that is optimized for cows rather than pedestrians—and that only one other comparable cow tunnel has been found in the United States: a “barrel-vaulted brick tunnel,” constructed to connect stockyards in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1857. “Given their potential distinctiveness as some of the few remaining subsurface features representing the 20th century meat industry in Manhattan,” the report concludes, “if intact, the cattle tunnels may meet the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Bingo! The tunnel(s) must be real.
Pennsylvania Railroad Pier 78 Cattle Pens—January 28, 1932. Photo by P. L. Sperr, New York Public Library Digital Archives.
But no: not only are the tunnels actually outside the Hudson Yards study area, and therefore not eligible for further archaeological investigation as part of the study, but the primary evidence cited for their existence actually turns out to be based on an 1877 engraving in Harper’s Weekly, collected in a coffee table book published in 1980.
Desperate for confirmation, I turned to the digital archive of Sanborn maps, a treasure trove of large-scale American city maps dating from 1867 to the present. Designed to help fire-insurance agents accurately assess risk, they include information about construction materials and building use, as well as all vents, pipes, windows, and doors in a given area.
They show that the west end of 39th Street was indeed a hive of beef-related activity: nick-named Abattoir Place, the block was filled with slaughterhouses, hide stretchers, bone-boilers, lard renderers, and even a specially designated “offal dock.”
However, although the Pennsylvania Railroad “Float” dock and receiving shed are clearly marked, there are no cattle tunnels to be seen.
I called Amanda Sutphin, Director of Archaeology for the City of New York, who said, “I’ve heard stories that people have seen them in the Gansevoort Market area but I haven’t come across anyone who could confirm it,” and referred me to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Andrew Berman, the group’s executive director, who led the fight to get Gansevoort added to the National Register of Historic Places, replied promptly and apologetically that he was “not aware of the existence of such tunnels, sorry.”
Finally, I tracked down Cece Saunders, the founder and president of Historical Perspectives Inc., the archeological consulting firm that co-authored the 2004 Hudson Yards/No. 7 Line study. From a ferry, on her way back from a dig in Staten Island, she assured me that the cow tunnels were indeed fact, rather than fiction, and that she would scan and send me the blueprints to prove it.
It turns out that the initial research into Manhattan’s cow tunnels was conducted by Faline Schneiderman, the firm’s vice-president, while preparing a contextual study for the New York State Department of Transportation’s Route 9A Reconstruction Project in 1992.
In a sub-section on the area’s meat marketing and processing facilities, Schneiderman reports on the construction of a cow-tunnel at West 38th Street with reference to its initial permit (#MAN.673-a from the NYC Department of Docks, issued in 1932) and, of course, the blueprints:
Livestock continued to be shipped to Manhattan for slaughter through the twentieth century. The Pennsylvania Railroad was active in transporting livestock via rail to Jersey City and then across the Hudson to Manhattan. The company served a set of slaughterhouses located along West 39th and 40th Streets off of Twelfth Avenue. Sometime between 1928 and 1930 a two-story concrete cattle pen was built at the southeastern intersection of West 39th Street and Twelfth Avenue. […] In addition, an extant tunnel was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1932 to allow cows to be driven under instead of across Twelfth Avenue, at West 38th Street. [emphasis added]
But there the trail ends: “No archaeology has been done there,” confirms Lisi de Bourbon at the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, “and no members of our staff have any documentation of the tunnels.”
In other words, no one knows whether West 38th Street cow tunnel is still down there, intact — an abandoned, inaccessible cylindrical void amidst the tangle of utilities, foundations, and sewage pipes beneath our streets.