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.
Untapped Cities writer Brian Orce sent us this photo of a quirky lighthouse atop a building in the Bronx, which he noticed while stuck in traffic along the Major Deegan Expressway. How did a beacon of the sea come to guide the commuters of New York City?
The building at 945 Summit Avenue was once the headquarters of H.W. Wilson, a publishing company, known for its Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. The lighthouse was part of the company logo, symbolizing the mission of H.W. Wilson: “To give guidance to those seeking their way through the maze of books and periodicals, without which they would be lost.”
The interior of the building still made use of pneumatic tubes, the once ubiquitous means of delivering mail in New York City, but is unclear if those details were kept after its conversion into the headquarters of Tuck-it-Away storage, who painted the lighthouse orange. H.W. Wilson merged into EBSCO Publishing in 2012, while Tuck-it-Away lost the famous eminent domain battle with Columbia University in West Harlem, forcing the move to the Bronx. The Bronx Times reports that Tuck-it-Away is considering a business incubator in the space as well.
I’m often asked what my favorite weird/obscure fact about New York City was. Ironically, as the founder of Untapped Cities, this question frequently proves difficult because there are just so many amazing things about this city. So I went back into my memory archives, thinking what about New York City impelled me to create Untapped Cities. The pneumatic tube mail system is top on that list.
The first pneumatic tube mail system was installed in Philadelphia (sorry New York) in 1893. New York City’s came in 1897, first only between the General Post Office at Herald Square) and the Produce Exchange on Bowling Green (now demolished). Each tube could carry between 400 and 600 letters and traveled at 30-35 miles per hour. In its full glory, the pneumatic tubes covered a 27-mile route, connecting 23 post offices. This network stretched up Manhattan’s east and west sides, from Bowling Green and Wall Street, all the way north to Manhattanville and East Harlem. Anecdotal stories indicate that the system may have extended into the Bronx, with sandwich subs reportedly being delivered via pneumatic tubes from a renown subway shop in the Bronx to downtown postal stations. The system even crossed boroughs into Brooklyn (using the Brooklyn Bridge), taking four minutes to take letters from Church Street near City Hall to the General Post Office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza).