Cow Tunnels

Roman Mars: This is ninety-nine percent invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[music]

Sean Cole: Oh there’s a horse.

Roman Mars: And this is friend of the show, Sean Cole.

Sean Cole: And that was thirty-ninth and eleventh in Manhattan. And there’s a horse–

Roman Mars: A horse drawn carriage, of course. They aren’t just random horses wandering around Manhattan. They probably were at some point–

Sean Cole: But I’m actually going to meet a woman to talk about cows.

Roman Mars: It’s hard to believe now.

Sean Cole: Now this area is really industrial. There’s a bus depot.

Roman Mars: But this part of Manhattan, the western-most part, between say thirty-fourth and thirty-ninth streets. This was cow country.

Sean Cole: So we’re talking the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. You had cattle being herded across Twelfth Avenue, which is now the West Side Highway. Nicola Twilley is the woman I wanted to talk to about cows. She writes a blog called Edible Geography.

Nicola Twilley: There are pictures of Twelfth Avenue showing the cattle here, showing cowboys, which is crazy.

Sean Cole: Get a long little dougie.

Roman Mars: And cows were brought to this part of town, to be made into beef. You’ve heard of the meatpacking district? Well, this was like the meat-hacking district.

Nicola Twilley: It was nicknamed Abattoir Place. And it was a hive of bone boilers, and hide stretchers and lard renderers. So this, if you can picture it, it would’ve been a disassembly line for every single part of a cow.

Sean Cole: The cows would be ferried across the Hudson River from New Jersey.

Roman: On a cow boat.

Sean: And land at a dock here. And at first, marching a few cows across Twelfth Avenue to the slaughterhouse was fine, you can hold up traffic for that.

Roman Mars: But then came more cows, and more cows.

Sean Cole: And more folks in their carriages, and then the train came through, and cars.

Nicola: All of the sudden, cows are in the way. I mean, cows move at a different pace and so there were reports of epic cow jams on Twelfth Avenue.

[laughs]

Sean Cole: What does a cow jam look like? That sounds horrible.

Nicola: [laughs] I know, I know. I think it was just people felt like the pace of cows and cowboys and cow droving on Twelfth Avenue was no longer suited to modern life, so.

Sean: So–

Roman Mars: So–

Sean: This is what we’re here to talk about today.

Roman Mars: I cannot wait.

Sean: Me neither. Here we go!

Nicola: That’s why people invented things like the cow tunnel.

[music]

Sean: A cow tunnel.

Nicola: Cow tunnel.

Sean: Oh, it’s the best!

[laugh]

Roman Mars: Let’s hear it again.

Sean: Cow tunnel.

Nicola: Cattle tunnels.

[music]

Sean: Say it again!.

Nicola: Cow tunnels.

Sean: [laughs] It’s just whenever you say it, it’s just funny.

Nicola: [laughs] I know. But I mean, you have to love them. Cow tunnels.

Sean: Cow tunnels in Manhattan or as Nicola called them in piece she wrote for Gizmodo, the lost cow tunnels of New York City. And when Nicola says that people invented things like the cow tunnel, for the purposes of this story, that really could mean one of two things. Either people invented the tunnels to march the cows underneath Twelfth Avenue to the abattoir, or people invented this crazy cock and bull story about the cow tunnels–

Roman Mars: More bull than cock in this case.

Sean: Because everybody loves a good vaguely plausible urban myth. And so, Nicola Twilley has been on a years long quest to figure out whether the cow tunnels ever actually existed.

Roman Mars: Because after all, the idea of cows loping along under your feet in New York City, at least how we think of New York City now, is insane.

Sean : And this is a woman who writes a blog that’s generally about food and place. And if anything exists at that same intersection, it is the cow tunnel.

Nicola: It’s just a dedicated infrastructure for animals like that.

Sean: Or it’s a new genre of architecture.

Nicola: Exactly.

Sean: The cow tunnel.

Nicola: When you think about all of the tubes and tunnels and weird things that are underneath the street, we have tunnels for cars, we have tunnels for subways, we have all these tubes filled with electrical cables and the internet and all these. I mean, why shouldn’t the cows have their own subterranean infrastructure too?

Sean Cole: Nicola first tapped in on the cow tunnel story by chance.

Nicola Twilley: So I was reading a book called, Raising Steaks by Betty Fussell.

Sean: It’s Fussell, actually. Steaks of course is spelled S-T-E-A-K-S.

Nicola: Yes. The kind that could be porter house or, yeah.

Sean: or T-bone.

Nicola: Exactly.

Sean: Or sirloin.

Nicola: And any of the above. Rump–

Sean: Strip line rump.

Nicola: Rump.

Sean: I like saying “rump” [laughs]

Nicola: Exactly. Skirt.

Sean: And she’s reading along and there’s this one little passage on page twenty-two.

Nicola: You could miss it quite easily, if you are reading too fast. It’s sort of two-line thing. And she says, traffic was so heavy in the 1870s, that a “COW TUNNEL”, in quotation marks was, and capitalized actually, was built beneath Twelfth Avenue to serve as an underground passage. And it’s rumored to be there still, a waiting designation, as a landmark sight. And then she just carries on, you know. As late as 1880, horror wits writes, blah blah blah.

Sean: That’s, what? That’s literally one sentence.

Nicola: Exactly. And I thought, that’s weird. I wonder if they’re still there. So I googled it.

Sean: And then what did you find?

Nicola: I found, Brian Wiprud, I think is how he pronounces his name.

Brian: Yeah, that’s how I’d pronounce it.

Sean: Brian Wiprud is a utility specialist for Weidlinger Associates in New York. It’s a structural engineering firm.

Brian Wiprud: What I do for Weidlinger is figure out how to get from point A to point B underground in New York City.

Sean: Like if Con Edison is cutting a trench for electrical cables, they need a navigator.

Brian Wiprud: As well as investigate all kinds of anomalies and strange things that they find underground when doing digs.

Sean: So Brian went searching for the truth about cow tunnels more than ten years before Nicola. In 1997, he published an article in a local, local newspaper called The Tribeca Trib. Which is what Nicola found in her web search. The head line was Bum Steer. I will summarize it here. Brian’s talking to a Con Ed worker named Fred.

Roman Mars: Just Fred.

Sean: Just Fred.

Roman Mars: No last name.

Sean: And Fred says, he was watching a work crew install a new drainage basin downtown.

Roman Mars: Which is by the way, no where near the site of those old slaughterhouses.

Sean: They dig and dig and then finally, they hit this kind of wooden barrier. Wooden. They break through it, and it’s hollow on the other side. And then a quote, unquote “old man from the neighborhood” steps up and says, “Oh I see you found the cow tunnel”. So Brian walks this story around, asks a whole mess of people and everybody has heard of the cow tunnel. But when they talk about it, the facts are never the same.

Nicola: But A, it’s somewhere different and B, it’s made of different items, and C, it was built at a different time.

Sean: And when Brian finally circles back to Fred, Fred says, “Well, actually I never saw it. It was a buddy of mine who saw it”.

Roman Mars: So again, that’s how Brian told the story in his article in nineteen ninety-seven.

Sean: Sitting in his office with me in 2014, he told it this way:

Brian: We were digging some test pits for Verizon.

Sean: Wait, but so you were there and digging and–

Brian: Right. And so we dug down about five feet and there’s this brick curved surface that looks like a vaulted roof.

Sean: So now, the story has completely changed in Brian’s mind. Suddenly, he’s the one watching the work crew, not Fred. And in this telling, the blockage they hit while digging is brick, not wood. And he talked this way for another ten minutes before he finally stopped and said, wait a second.

Brian: You know what, you sort of caught me in the beginning of this because I was like, gee I could’ve sworn I saw on the news. You know what, I’m taking back the article. I didn’t.

[Laughs]

Brain: So I’m doing the same damn thing Fred did, aren’t I? Yeah. Want me to tell you how big it is and where it goes? I see cattle tunnels everyday, man. There’s one over there. I know, I started doing the same damn thing.

Sean: This is what happens with the cow tunnels, and why the truth of them is so hard to get a hold of. It’s like, as soon as you start to retell the story, it gets loose and begins to bend. It’s like and instant fish tail except it’s about cows. And somehow, the folklore of it, just stretches further and further out until nobody can remember how the story started. And so when Nicola Twilley wrote her first blog post about the cow tunnels in two thousand ten, she went solely off of Brian’s article, which uncovered nothing and that one line in that Betty Fussell book. But around the same time she hit publish, a little shred if hard-ish evidence popped up. The cow tunnel version of the shroud of Turin. It’s a coffee table book called New York In The Nineteenth Century. You have it here?

Brian: Yes and there’s a picture in here that shows–

Sean: This is an eighteen seventy-seven engraving from Harper’s Weekly of a cow tunnel at Thirty-fourth street.

Brian: Cattle being driven up through a tunnel, looks like a wooden tunnel, and it say, Tunnel From The Dock.

Sean: Huh. Emerging from– it’s almost like the–

Brain: Emerging from the tunnel and there’s a cattle hand in there with a little whip keeping them moving.

Sean: And then they’re strung up by one foot and summarily executed.

Brian: Yeah, exactly. And the rest of the pictures get kind of gruesome.

Sean: Yeah.

Brian: But–

Sean: Wow. So that seems to be evidentiary.

Brian: Yes. Right there is a picture of a cow tunnel. And it’s like okay.

Nicola: Well, I don’t know about that though.

Sean: This is Nicola Twilley again.

Nicola: I mean, you can’t actually see where the tunnel is.

Sean: But there’s a cow emerging from a tunnel.

Nicola: It’s an engraving, not a photograph.

Sean: But there’s a cow emerging from a tunnel!

[laughs]

Nicola: Well, and the cowboy in the picture is about two feet tall. So there’s all kinds of problems with it. The cow is about ten times his size, so I don’t know. I wasn’t buying it. I needed more, I needed more.

Sean: So she did what she said bloggers like her never do, when they’re researching a topic. She called people.

Nicola: I talked to the City’s director of archaeology, and she sort of let out this sigh as if she’d been asked this question before. [laughs]

Sean: Oh really?

Nicola: Well, after I read about them the first time and sort of bubbled up on a few blogs. And I suppose those people were actually doing their job and called her.

[laughs]

Nicola: And she had said, what to them probably, what she said to me which was “no evidence, never found anything.”

Sean: And the woman was like, why don’t you talk to the head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation? They got the meatpacking district preserved.

Nicola: So I talked to him Andrew Burman. Very nice, very apologetic, “Sorry. No evidence of cow tunnels.”

Roman Mars: Geez.

Sean: I know.

Nicola: So I am about to really, fully write these things off as a myth when I decide to call Cece Saunders.

Sean: Of Historical Perspectives Incorporated, which basically consults with big projects, construction projects and that sort of thing and they gauge whether they’re historical, archaeological, important stuff in the area. That’s why.

Roman Mars: Important stuff. [laughs]

Sean: Yeah. that’s my dumbed down, layman’s take on it.

Nicola: She calls me back from a ferry on the way back from Staten Island. She’s just been doing a dig. “Oh of course they exist. yeah, no question. Like, don’t be ridiculous, I’ll send you the blueprints as soon as I get home.”

Roman Mars: After all these, there are blueprints?

Sean: Yeah.

Faline: I don’t have an original at this point, but I have the copy that we put into our report that we did when we studied the reconstruction of Route 9-A, otherwise known as the West Side Highway.

Sean: This is not Cece Saunders.

Faline: Correct. I am Faline Schneiderman. I have never been Cece Saunders.

[laughs]

Faline: But I’ve worked with her for about 26 years.

Sean: And Cece said, Faline was basically the cow tunnelian at their shop. So back in 1991, the state contracted Historical Perspectives to do an historical study of that former meatpacking area at Twelfth Avenue on the upper 30’s. This is when the state was looking to redo Route 9-A. And Faline wrote the report. So she did a ton of research, looked at all these old maps and documents and built up this picture of the kinds of structures that used to be along 12th Avenue there.

Faline: Tenements, warehouses, cattle tunnels–

Sean: Stop right there. On the very, very last page of Faline’s report about that meatpacking area, page 28.

Roman: Could you just read what it says here?

Faline: Sure. Well, “an underground cattle pass was built and used by the Pennsylvania railroad company. It extended about two hundred feet beneath 12th Avenue and the shoreline to the block between West 38th and West 39th Street.” Pardon my bad grammar back in 1991, It was not meant to say that it was two hundred feet beneath 12th Avenue. It was two hundred feet long and beneath the avenue.

[laughs]

Faline: Misplaced modifier. The tunnel was built in 1932, and may still be present.

Roman Mars: Wait a minute, 1932?

Sean: I know.

Roman Mars: That’s late.

Sean: Yeah, and you know, that was during when all of this construction is going on in the city, or being planned at least. New bridges and tunnels, cars are more and more a factor, and you still got cows needing to get again like two hundred feet from the dock to the slaughterhouse. So that New York could, at the end of a long day of building, have steak for dinner.

Roman Mars: And so how big was it?

Sean: The tunnel? 9 feet wide by 7 feet high.

Faline: And that was as retained from a New York Department of docs, permit number Manhattan.673-A.

Sean: Wow.

Faline: Yes, so.

Sean: That seems pretty iron-clad.

Faline: Well yeah. I would say it wasn’t iron-clad, concrete clad but yes.

[laughs]

[music]

Nicola: To actually see a blueprint–

Sean: Again, Nicola Twilley.

Nicola: It was sort of a lottery winning moment. I felt pretty good.

Sean: It’s like finding like the designs for the Lost City of Atlantis.

Nicola: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, it really– I was pretty stoked.

Sean: And so what did you think then?

Nicola: Well really, I thought I have to go out there and dig.

[laughs]

Sean: So where, like roughly–

Nicola: Roughly here.

Sean: Roughly here. After looking over the blueprints, Nicola paused for a minute to write up a new blog post and then went out to the area where the tunnel had been to see if there might be any sign of it. Any hope that it might still exist.

Nicole: Some people swear it’s intact.

Sean: That the tunnel’s intact?

Nicola: That the tunnel’s intact. People have said that if we might be able to find an entrance in one of the piers, in one of the buildings without having to excavate the roadway itself, I mean I don’t know. There’s the West Side Highway construction. When you think about the Javits Center, when you think about the Lincoln tunnel that we’re standing right next to–

Sean: Most likely. If cow tunnel there was once upon a time, it was pulverized in all of that construction and any void was filled in.

Roman Mars: Wait, so you have a blueprint of it. So how do you know it was actually built, instead of just a plan?

Sean: It’s on other maps that were made of the area later.

Roman Mars: Oh, I see.

Sean: And it’s in the nineteen fifty-three port series from the Army Corps of Engineers. Which I don’t really know what that means but there it is. And actually in a research, Nicola found evidence for that other tunnel at 34th street that was in the Harper’s Weekly picture. There’s this New York Times article from 1875 that talks about it. It says, there runs a tunnel under 12th Avenue where the animals are brought into the shambles. In fact, the cattle are never seen by the outside public from the time of their landing until they are converted into beef.

Nicola: And that’s what’s so interesting, it’s such a pivotal moment. We are beginning to become completely detached from where our food comes from. These are– cities are becoming things that somehow get fed mysteriously and invisibly at this precise moment. And apparently, there’s also one other cow tunnel of historic importance in Boston that also no one knows whether it exists or not.

Sean: Au contraire, Nicola Twilley. Au contraire.

Roman: So wait, the train right now is going through what used to be a cow tunnel?

Charlie: No.

Roman: Oh.

Sean: We do know whether the cow tunnel in Boston exists. And it does, except it’s in Cambridge Mass. I stood on the bridge up above it with Charlie Sullivan.

Charlie Sullivan: The way this neighborhood developed, the cattle mark was established over on Massachusetts Avenue quite early, before the railroad came through. And farmers would drive their cows here over the roads.

Sean: Charlie is the head of the Cambridge Historical Commission. He says there used to be cow pens on either side of this bridge, the Walden Street Bridge. And a cow tunnel, called the Walden Street Cattle Pass was built so farmers could drive the cows from one pen to another.

Charlie Sullivan: They didn’t want to let them loose on Walden Street so–

Sean: Because they might–

Charlie: Because they would get loose.

Sean: Like loose, loose? They may like–

Charlie: Yeah, loose, loose. It’s you know–

Sean: –walk into Harvard Square and go have a cappuccino.

Charlie: Cow– right, yeah.

[laughs]

Charlie: Cows have minds of their own.

Roman: Anyway, this cow tunnel is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sean: But other than a plaque that mentions it, you’d never know it was tucked underneath the railroad bridge. Off limits to the public, next to an active rail line, which is fenced off so that people don’t get hit by trains.

Roman: So in short, the commission preserved a structure that no one can see nor has any access to?

Sean: Correct.

Charlie: The only way is to try to hop that fence.

Sean: Do you want to do that? It would be fun.

Charlie: It would be fun.

Sean: Interesting way to spend the morning.

Charlie: I’m not sure that I’m able to do it.

Sean: Okay, that’s okay.

Charlie: But feel free.

Roman Mars: Please tell me that you hopped the fence without him, please tell me that you hopped the fence without him.

Sean: This is not going to sound too wonderful. So when Charlie was well out of sight and couldn’t be accused of aiding and abetting–

Roman Mars: Yes!

Sean: And I am in, like Flynn sort of. And I climbed down this steep embankment through all this thickets.

Roman: Oh my God, here it is. I can see it. A cow tunnel. Oh Lord, this is exciting.

Sean: It was basically a bricked dome, original brick from 1857.

Roman: Oh man, it’s covered in graffiti. And gated with a big black gate. Moo. No echo.

[music]

Sean: Cow tunnel.

Roman Mars: Ninety-nine percent invisible was produced this week by Sean Cole with Sam Green’s man Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman, and me Roman Mars. We are project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced in beautiful downtown Oakland, California out of the offices of Archsign. An architectural firm who, if the need arises, will design you the most beautiful cow tunnel you’ve ever seen.

Sean Cole: Cow tunnel.

Comments (37)

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  1. risto

    Your link at the bottom to Edible Geography links to Wiprud, just a note.. Awesome show! Thanks!

  2. Nick

    OMG, is there an address to that Cambridge Plaque? I’m a Bostonian, and really want to see it. How close is it to Mass Ave and Walden?

    1. Sean Cole

      Hey Nick,

      It’s at Walden and Mead. Not far from Mass Ave.

      Best to you,

      — Sean.

  3. Great show. My parents were friends with an older couple who lived in Cambridge, MA. About 20 years ago I was chatting with the husband, who’d grown up in Cambridge. He said that when he was a boy he’d seen cattle driven through Harvard Square. I’m guessing that would have been about 1910-1915.

  4. Paul

    The NYC GIS has complete aerial photography for the city from 1924 and 1951, and I immediately went sleuthing on it after I finished this episode. You can see a lot of context clues for the 1932 tunnel by toggling between the two sets of images. The 2-story slaughterhouse appears on the 38/39th Street block, though by 1951 12th Avenue is elevated on a viaduct.

    It’s interesting to note that in 1924, 12th Avenue doesn’t exist as a major artery between 30th and 48th Streets, and uptown traffic dead-ends into a railyard at 37th Street. The whole area is dominated by at-grade rail lines, which is why it’s unsurprising that most of 12th Avenue and large portions of 11th Avenue and 34th Street were lifted onto viaducts; a simpler and less exciting method than cow tunnels.

  5. Mingus Mapps

    I believe you can get a good look at the Cambridge Cow Tunnel from the Fitchburg commuter train. If you are heading toward Fitchburg, the tunnel comes about a half mile after Porter Square station, on the north side of the train.

    Before it was renovated, a homeless guy lived in the tunnel, which I suspect is one of the reasons it is gated off now.

    I’ve heard Old Timers talk about cattle drives through Union Square, Somerville, which is about 1 mile from this tunnel. And Bernard, one of the posters above, mentions cattle drives through Harvard Square, which is also nearby.

  6. Isabelle Laliberte

    If you like cow tunnels, you ought to jump over the pond and make a visit to where I work, Smithfield Market, in London. Meat has been sold on this site for over 800 years (yes, 800!) and it is still an active meat market in the middle of central London.

    When the current meat market opened in 1868, it came with the modern convenience of underground train tunnels to bring in the cattle instead of having them walk to the market on Cowcross street. The tunnels are still there, and you can see them on the websites below. Have a look at these sites:

    http://www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2012/05/25/photos-the-railway-tunnels-underneath-smithfield-meat-market/

    http://www.londonreconnections.com/2012/in-pictures-a-walk-on-the-widened-lines/

    Enjoy!

  7. Laurie

    The 99% Invisible episodes are a true highlight of my week. I even got my husband listening to them, too.

    Thank you.

  8. Randolph Peters

    You guys should get out of the city once in a while. I sure hope those tunnels were for “steers,” not milk producing “cows.”

  9. Auntie Jpeg

    There is a cow tunnel under I-205 (or is it I-505) between Vacaville and Winters to enable the dairy cows go between pastures & the milking barn.

  10. Dennis Rockwell

    Very cool! I see the Cow Tunnel under Walden Street in Cambridge most days while riding by on the train. I’ve been wondering what that brick arch was all about…

    Thanks for answering a question I’ve had for years, but never bothered to do anything about! I’ll have to go Read The Plaque!

  11. DMORG

    Extremely impressed as usual folks at 99% Invisible. Thanks for sharing the information. You guys are great!

  12. Jacob

    I was on a site visit about 6 or 7 years ago for an affordable housing development site in the Bronx, at the corner of E 156th St & Brook Ave, next to an abandoned rail line. The guides describing the site (who I believe were from the city) said that there were a series of cow tunnels under Brook Ave to take cattle from the rail line to the slaughter houses on the other side of Brook Ave. I think they were closer to E 153rd, though. The site now contains the affordable housing development called Via Verde, and I’ve never heard anything more about the cow tunnel. If anyone is interested, I’m sure someone involved with that development knows more about it.

  13. Julie Scott

    Re: cow vs. man size/proportion in the engraving

    I have seen, with my own eyes, in Northern California, a cow (perhaps a bull?) that was taller at the shoulder than the farmer leading him/her from one pasture to another. The bovine was the size of a small elephant. I kid you not. I was gobsmacked.

  14. Paul Wagoner

    A few years ago the Walden Street bridge (over the railroad tracks) was rebuilt. My job was nearby and I watched some of the work. I noticed elaborate old-school brickwork apparently under restoration and wondered what the story was. It is fun to find out, and I am glad they could preserve the tunnel. The bridge is about a quarter mile from Porter Square, the Wikipedia article of which yields more cattle-tunnel lore. Origin of Porterhouse steaks? Maybe.

  15. Cristina

    Please, PLEASE refrain from using the RadioLab-like techniques of repetition, fake laughing etc. – it’s so dumbed down. Ugg, not another one of those radio shows.

  16. e

    Those seem like pretty normal-sized beef cattle in the engraving, btw, so the scale might be perfectly normal.

  17. Bob Salmon

    They could lead to an underground moo-vement.

    A related thing above ground rather than under it. In the UK, there are several different types of pedestrian crossing, all named after birds or animals – pelican, zebra etc. In Newmarket (the home of UK horse racing, 13 miles east of Cambridge, with its cow tunnel under Fen Causeway) there is the rare pegasus crossing:

    https://leapschoolofmotoring.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/pedestrian-crossings/

    Given that so many expensive horses cross Newmarket roads every day, and given how many people’s livelihood depends on racing – directly or indirectly – it’s not really a surprise that the riders get their own button up too high for pedestrians to use.

  18. Lem Apperson

    In Newport News, VA, when Interstate 64 was built*, it split a large dairy at Jefferson Ave. The Commonwealth built a tunnel under the new highway for the cows.

    I remember as a child, traveling on Jefferson, seeing the cows being led through the tunnel. It was fascinating to see cows disappear into the ground.

    Not the diary is no more. The site contains a mall, a hotel, offices and a large residential area. On each side of the Interstate are large ponds where the cow tunnels were allowed to flood.

    Approximately 1950-1955.

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