Cow Tunnel Quest Update

As regular readers will know, Edible Geography has been on the cow tunnel beat, on and off, for some years now.

Cow Tunnel Engraving 460

IMAGE: From “The Manhattan abattoir,” an engraving by V. L. Kingsbury, 1877, published in Harper’s Weekly, via the New York Public Library. Note the rather tiny cowboy: another unsolved mystery.

Quick refresher: the semi-mythical cow tunnel or cow tunnels are the subterranean part of Manhattan’s lost meat infrastructure, built to ease urban cow-jams at a particular historical moment — a time when live cattle were being brought to the city for slaughter in increasing quantities thanks to both its expanding population and the invention of the railway, but before the widespread adoption of cheap, reliable refrigeration meant that dead beef could travel long distances, meaning that abattoirs could be re-located outside densely populated areas.

PRR cattle pens 460

IMAGE: Undated, uncredited view of cattle at the Pennsylvania Railroad pier and Twelfth Avenue, via Trains Magazine.

When we last checked in, the location, and, indeed, the very existence of these tunnels was shrouded in mystery. According to rumour, they were, variously, “beneath Twelfth Avenue at both 34th Street and 38th Street, but also somewhere on Greenwich, Renwick, or Harrison Street near the present-day entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and even as far afield as Gansevoort Street in the West Village.” A 2004 study (PDF) by engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff and archaeologists The Louis Berger Group and Historical Perspectives, Inc., produced for the MTA and Department of City Planning in advance of the Hudson Yards/No. 7 Line extension work, claimed that, “if intact, the cattle tunnels may meet the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.” It seemed as though the cow tunnels were a Freudian urban myth—an agricultural subconscious, haunting the city.

However, at the request of new Gizmodo Editor-in-Chief Geoff Manaugh (who also writes BLDGBLOG, a fellow Future Plural partner site), I opened up my cow tunnel case file again, and dug up some exciting new evidence — including blueprints!

Cow Tunnel Section

IMAGE: Blueprint Section of the Underground Cattle Pass c. 1932, Figure 2, Route 9 A Reconstruction Project, Contextual Study: Meat Market, March 1992. Prepared for the NYS Dept. of Transportation, in cooperation with the FHWA, by Historical Perspectives, Inc., Westport, CT. Right click and view the image to see it full size.

Cow Tunnel Plan

IMAGE: Blueprint Plan of the Underground Cattle Pass, c. 1932. Figure 3, Route 9 A Reconstruction Project, Contextual Study: Meat Market, March 1992. Prepared for the NYS Dept. of Transportation, in cooperation with the FHWA, by Historical Perspectives, Inc., Westport, CT. Right click and view the image to see it full size.

The cow tunnel in question was built in 1932, to connect the Pennsylvania Railroad’s two-story concrete cattle pen at the southeastern intersection of West 39th Street and Twelfth Avenue to the slaughterhouses of West 39th Street, which, at the time, was nick-named Abattoir Place. Although its blueprints and construction permit exist, the mystery continues: no one knows if tunnel survived the construction of the Javits Center and Lincoln Tunnel, and Lisi de Bourbon at New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission confirmed that “no archaeology has been done there and no members of our staff have any documentation of the tunnels.”

Sanborn Map

IMAGE: West 39th Street and Twelfth Avenue area, from the Sanborn Atlas of New York City 1908-1947 vol. 5, published in 1947. Right click and view the image to see it full size.

You can read the full story at Gizmodo, where commenters have also shared tales of abandoned cow tunnels in Vernon, California, and legally upheld cow paths in Chicago’s Loop.

Many thanks to Cece Saunders of Historical Perspectives, Inc., Amanda Sutphin, Director of Archaeology for the City of New York, Lisi de Bourbon of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Andrew Berman and Amanda Davis of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Zachary Davis at The Louis Berger Group, and my editor, Geoff Manaugh, for their help with this story.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 17, 2013 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    The tiny cowboy is hardly an unsolved mystery. Size inflation in 19th century art was common. Another example can be seen here.

  2. Posted December 16, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Under the engraving by Kingsbury, your caption stated ‘note the tiny cowboy,’ actually, as one who is familiar with cattle, the cowboy is about the right scale to the size of the cattle, and hence, is not ‘tiny.’

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