You may not know that there are over 2000 bridges and tunnels in NYC. You are more likely to know the names of a few of them – Lincoln, Holland, Midtown and the Brooklyn Battery to mention a few.
However, did you know there is a tunnel for cows?
As the railroads massively increased cattle traffic to Manhattan, the Pennsylvania Railroad built holding pens in New Jersey, whence barges would ferry cattle across the Hudson to slaughterhouses along Twelfth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. Traffic was so heavy in the 1870s that a “Cow Tunnel” was built beneath Twelfth Avenue to serve as an underground passage, and it’s rumored to be there still, awaiting designation as a landmark site. Historian Betty Fussel
Is there a long forgotten tunnel that was built to transport cattle in Manhattan?
This is the story of a lost, forgotten, or perhaps just a mythical subterranean cattle infrastructure. This underground tunnel was supposedly built at the end of the nineteenth century: an infrastructural response to the cow-jams that had begun to block streets in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan.
Where are they?
The tunnels might be beneath Twelfth Avenue, either at 34th Street or 38th Street—or perhaps both—but it also might be somewhere on Greenwich, Renwick, or Harrison Streets, near the present-day entrance to the Holland Tunnel. All west side along the Hudson river) It could even be as far afield as Gansevoort Street in the West Village.
I found a reference to the cow tunnel written by Brian Wiprud, who speculates that the tunnel is, possibly oak-vaulted; lined with fieldstones; built of steel and most likely demolished to make way for a gas mains or it might be perfectly preserved.
One story about the tunnel comes from a laborer who when working in a trench came across a wall of wood He tore it open and went in and came out saying it was an oak-vaulted tunnel ten feet wide by eight feet high that trailed off in both directions.
Another story has an old man from the neighborhood who looked at the trench and said, “Why, I see you found the cattle tunnel.”
Since then, a slightly more authoritative source confidently reported the location of two cow tunnels underneath Twelfth Avenue, one at West 34th Street and one at West 39th:
There was a dock at the foot of West 34th Street in the 1870s, and cattle were brought to their slaughterhouse between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues beneath the streets via a cow tunnel. Sometime between 1928 and 1930 a two-story concrete cattle pen was built at the southeastern intersection of West 39th Street and Twelfth Avenue. Another underground cattle pass was built from the shoreline to this pen to allow cows to be driven under, instead of across, Twelfth Avenue.
A side note
The only one other comparable cow tunnel has been found in the United States: a “barrel-vaulted brick tunnel,” constructed to connect stockyards in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
However it turns out that the initial research of cow tunnels reports on the construction of a cow-tunnel at West 38th Street. In addition, an extant tunnel was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1932 to allow cows to be driven under instead of across Twelfth Avenue, at West 38th Street. But there the trail ends: “No archaeology has been done there,”
In other words, no one knows whether West 38th Street cow tunnel is still down there, intact — an abandoned, inaccessible cylindrical void amidst the tangle of utilities, foundations, and sewage pipes beneath our streets.
People might have just invented this crazy story about cow tunnels because everybody loves a good, vaguely plausible urban myth.
Until they are found, I will side with the group that thinks we have yet to find them.
However, it is for you to decide