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Cow Tunnels NYC MysteryImage via New York Public Library

In the late 1870s, there were about two million cows being herded in the streets of New York City. A rumored solution to the traffic that persists to this day was a series of underground passageways to herd cows from the dock to a slaughterhouse. To this day there are no photos or detailed etches of what these tunnels looked like, though hearsay descriptions abound.

Nicola Twiley explores the mystery for her website, Edible Geography finding, among other things, that thetTransportation engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff identified the location of two cow tunnels in a 2004 Archaeological Documentary Study for the Hudson Yards area. The firm lists one at West 34th street in the 1870s and another built in 1932 at West 38th street, but the source of their claim comes from John Grafton’s book New York in the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed not from their own archeological finds.

Men at an all-you-can-eat meat and beer event called the Beefsteak in the late nineteenth century. Courtesy of The Butcher's Case. Men at an all-you-can-eat meat and beer event called the Beefsteak in the late 1800s. Courtesy of The Butcher’s Case.

Meanwhile, author Brian Wiprud shared possible materials used to build the tunnels in his 1997 Tibeca Trib article Bum Steer. A Con Edison worker told him the tunnels were, “oak-vaulted,” another said people  they were steel lined and the last, a Nynex man, suggested fieldstone. Wiprud searched to confirm what he heard but found no evidence that such tunnels even existed.

Still, cow tunnels to move cattle under a dense urban area makes sense given the volume of them. The Eighth Census of the United States notes that New York had, “more than half of the milch [milk] cows in the Middle states,” in 1860. That was literally a little over one million cows–plus 730,000 of New York’s,”other cattle,” for beef.

The official Sanborn maps of New York City have no evidence of the cow tunnels but during the reconstruction of Route 9A (the West Side Highway), there was a permit and blueprint of such a tunnnel at West 38th Street. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has no official records of the tunnel’s existence, but also says there has not been any archaeological work done.

Parsons Brinckerhoff does not verify the preservation of the passageways, but suggests, “if intact,” the National Register of Historic Places should include them. Sounds like a job for spelunker!

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