The New York City subway carries many secrets, like any extensive system that was built over time. But the NYC subway also comes with it quite a bit of lore–from its urban explorers who have explored every nook of its vastness, the technological feat it was to build in some of the toughest Manhattan schist, and its evolution from high-class experiment to mass ridership.
No list of subway secrets can be complete, so we see this article as an evolving entity. We’ve started with our favorite secrets but encourage you all to comment and Tweet at us (@untappedcities) with other hidden gems. Special thanks to Matt Litwack, author of Beneath the Streets: The Hidden Relics of New York’s Subway System for contributing his finds to this piece.
Disused platform and subway entrance at Chamber Street
Photo via Twitter user Tim Wallace
As we’ve mentioned before, New York City’s original pneumatic tube mail network has a fairly interesting history, transporting mail–and once, even a cat–throughout the city from 1897 to 1953. There are some remnants of the 27-mile postal system (which linked 23 post offices) still viewable to the intrepid, but images like this early-twentieth-century map reveal the extent of the unique delivery system and the promise it once held, as well as how some destinations on the network have evolved.
Diagram of how the vacuum system would be used in homes and how the waste would be handled in the cleaning plant. Image from Science and Invention’s August 1922 issue, sourced from Paleofuture.
It’s hard to imagine NYC without its current sewer systems, but before the advent of remotely monitored sewer systems, the city not only directly monitored its sewers, but it was also considered perfectly acceptable to dump raw waste into the ocean before the Ocean Dumping Act was enforced in 1991.
Even with these modern-day waste issues, however, the city sewer system has improved a great deal since the turn of the 20th century. Before modern sewage, New York once had piles of trash lined up on the streets, creating a strong fecal odor composed of horse manure and urine.
Pneumatic tube system discovered by an Untapped Cities reader on 86th and Lexington Avenue
Untapped Cities Twitter follower, @justinr592, submitted this photograph he snapped of a pneumatic tube system from his office on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. He also tweeted, “From the pneumatic tube map you have up, it seems like the Gracie [Mansion] area. Hmm…”
Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic tube subway in NYC that ran from on Broadway from Warren and Murray Streets
We’ve been so pleased with the fact that the Hyperloop plan has brought our favorite forgotten technology to light: the pneumatic tube system in NYC. Gizmodo and Curbed gave Untapped some great shoutouts to our pieces on the tube system and where to find the remnants today. The pneumatic tube system was used for a covert, secret construction of a subway in 1870 by fantastical inventor Alfred Ely Beach. It worked, but was shut down by Boss Tweed three years later. Pneumatic technology is also used in the New York Public Library stacks and for trash under Roosevelt Island.
“N.Y. Post Office Pneumatic Tube” c. 1912. G.G. Bain Collection via Flickr.
Earlier this year, we looked into the pneumatic tube system that used to carry mail between post offices in New York City. The system was 27 miles long and connected 23 post offices, and included tubes over the Brooklyn Bridge to connect the General Post Office in Brooklyn to Church Street in Manhattan. The USPS stopped using the system fully in 1953. Last week, Untapped reader @Charlesinist asked us “Anyone know where I can see remnants of the old US mail pneumatic tubes in NYC?”
Today, we’ll show you where some remnants of the system are and where pneumatic tubes are still used in the city.