Are Underground Cow Tunnels an Urban Myth?

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
May 23 2014 10:14 AM

Are Underground Cow Tunnels an Urban Myth?

From The Manhattan Abattoir by V.L. Kingsbury, 1877.
From The Manhattan Abattoir by V.L. Kingsbury, 1877.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.

This week's edition—about cow tunnels—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.

The westernmost part of Manhattan, between 34th and 39th streets, is pretty industrial. There’s a bus depot, a ferry terminal, and a steady stream of cars. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was cow country.

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Cows used to be ferried across the Hudson River from New Jersey, herded across 12th Avenue (now the West Side Highway), and brought to this part of town to be made into beef. 

You’ve heard of the Meatpacking District. This was like the meathacking district. It was nicknamed “Abattoir Place.” It was a hive of bone boilers and hide stretchers and lard renderers. There was a disassembly line for every single part of a cow.

As more and more cows were ferried to the slaughterhouses in Manhattan, it became impossible for passing herds to coexist with 12th Avenue traffic. Not only did the number of cows increase, but so too had the number of carriages, trains, and eventually cars. Cows were in the way. There were reports of epic cow jams.

That’s why people invented cow tunnels. Or at least the story of cow tunnels. At one point there might have actually been tunnels made expressly for cows to march underneath 12th Avenue to the abattoir. Or people might have just invented this crazy story about cow tunnels because everybody loves a good, vaguely plausible urban myth. We have tunnels for cars, subways, electrical cables, and the Internet. Could there be subterranean infrastructure for cows, too?

Writer Nicola Twilley first heard about cow tunnels in a book called Raising Steaks by Betty Fussell.* Fussell writes: “Traffic was so heavy in the 1870s that a ‘Cow Tunnel’ was built beneath Twelfth Avenue to serve as an underground passage. It’s rumored to be there still, awaiting designation as a landmark site.” Just that little mention. Nothing else. Thus began Nicola Twilley’s quest to figure out whether the cow tunnels ever actually existed.

Twilley found an article by Brian Wiprud, a utilities specialist for the structural engineering firm Weidlinger Associates. It’s Wiprud’s job to figure out how to get from point A to point B underground in New York City if, for example, Con Edison is cutting a trench for electrical cables. Wiprud investigates all kinds of anomalies found underground when doing digs. Anomalies like cow tunnels. In 1997 Wiprud published an article in a local newspaper called the Tribeca Trib.

Under the headline “Bum Steer,” Brian wrote about talking to a Con Ed worker named Fred, who says he was watching a work crew install a new drainage basin downtown, nowhere near the site of those old slaughter houses. They dig and dig and finally hit this kind of wooden barrier. They break through it and it’s hollow. And then an old man from the neighborhood steps up and says, “Why I see you’ve found the cow tunnel.”

Wiprud asked around about the cow tunnel. He found that a lot of people had heard of it, but it seemed that no one was consistent on a) its location, b) what it was made out of (wood, brick, etc.), or c) when it was constructed.

Even Wiprud realized that he was not consistent about how he told the story. Over time he began telling the story as if he had seen it himself—which, according to his own 1997 article, he hadn’t! With every telling of the cow tunnels story, the facts seem to bend.

So could their existence be proved?

Is the illustration (above) of a cow emerging from a tunnel evidence? Yes—but not definitively. We can’t see where the tunnel is located. And it’s an engraving, not a photograph, so artist interpretation is a factor. And the proportions are all askew—either the cows are giants or the worker is tiny.

Faline Schneiderman of Historical Perspectives Inc. offers more compelling evidence. In 1991, the state was planning to redo Route 9A and contracted Historical Perspectives to do a historical study of that former meat processing area at 12th Avenue in the upper 30s. Schneiderman researched a bunch of old maps and documents, and she wrote the final report.

From the final page of Faline’s report: “An underground cattle pass was built and used by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. It extended about 200 feet beneath Twelfth Avenue in the shoreline to the block between West 38th and West 39th Street. The tunnel was built in 1932 and may still be present.”

(Schneiderman clarifies that her report indicates that this tunnel was 200 feet long and beneath the avenue, not that it was 200 feet below the avenue). Schneiderman found a blueprint for the tunnel, indicating that it was 9 feet wide, 7 feet high, and probably ran between 5 and 20 feet below the street grade.)

And we know that this tunnel was actually built, not just planned, because it’s on other maps that were made of the area later.

Some people swear that it’s still intact. Others have said that we might be able to find an entrance in one of the piers in one of the buildings without having to excavate the roadway itself. But this is all right next to the Javits Center and the Lincoln Tunnel. So If a cow tunnel was there once upon a time, it was most likely pulverized during all of that construction.

In her research, Twilley found evidence for another cow tunnel at 34th Street. A New York Times article from 1875 read, “There runs a tunnel under Twelfth Avenue where the animals are brought into the shambles. In fact, the cattle are never seen by the outside public from the time of their landing until they are converted into beef.” It seems that may have been the pivotal moment when Americans began to become detached knowing where our food comes from, when the way cities get fed becomes mysterious and invisible.

To learn more, check out the 99% Invisible post or listen to the show.

*Correction, May 23, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of author Betty Fussell.

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