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.
The map, created in 1908, shows the existing and proposed pneumatic tube lines in Manhattan at the time–a surprisingly far reach, from 125th Street to the General Post Office (now Cadman Plaza) in Brooklyn that was built into the Brooklyn Bridge. The Manhattan tubes’ southern terminus was the Alexander Hamilton Custom House, now home to the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, which had completed construction only one year prior. The map also notably names Grand Central Terminal (home to its fair share of quirks) as Grand Central Depot, which it was called until 1913.
Dotted lines indicate proposed tubes running down the east side of the island, and from West 17th Street to the Foreign Branch of the U.S. Postal Service off of Morton Street. Ernest Ingersoll’s A Handy Guide to New York City (1897) details the Foreign Branch as one of many offices used “primarily for the sale of stamps, the registering of letters, and the sale of money-orders,” while also noting the availability of pneumatics in the basements.
Although they still saw limited use until 1953, by 1918 the tubes were already viewed as overly costly by the government and were being phased out for the cheaper method of automobile transportation. (There was also an ill-fated proposal 1922 to build another pneumatic network to transport waste throughout the city). To see how the mail network evolved, compare this early image to the map below of the completed system in Kate Ascher’s The Works.
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