Explored everything NYC has to offer above ground? Then it’s time to check out NYC’s unknown sprawling underground. This is part two of our series Underground NYC. Part one was published last Sunday.
4) The Freedom Tunnel – Upper West Side, Manhattan
Situated beneath Riverside Park, the Freedom Tunnel has long been a fixture in New York City urban-exploration lore. Freight trains operated through the tunnel until 1980, and when regular operations on the tracks ended, the stretch became a haven for graffiti artists. Rumor has it that the tunnel got its name from Chris “Freedom” Pape, a notable graffiti artist who produced stunning work in the space. Jennifer Toth’s 1995 book The Mole People takes a harrowing look into the sprawling shantytowns that sprouted up throughout the tunnel. In 1991, Amtrak began using the tunnel once again and began kicking people out of the hidden passage en masse. The Freedom Tunnel still draws plenty of urban explorers, but it's no longer the city-beneath-a-city that it was decades ago.
5) The 12th Avenue Cow Tunnels – Meatpacking District & Chelsea, Manhattan
During the 19th century, the westernmost part of Manhattan at around 35th Street was filled with slaughterhouses. Cattle would be ferried over from New Jersey, and then herded up 12th Avenue (now the West Side Highway) to meet their demise. But as the city’s population grew and car traffic expanded, the cows would cause infuriating traffic jams. The solution: subterranean cow tunnels to shepherd the bovine without interrupting the traffic at the street level. While this sounds amazing, the history of these passages is anything but clear. The folklore surrounding the cow tunnels is fraught with inconsistencies—reporters have dug up unconfirmed illustrations of 12th Avenue cow tunnels from the 1870s, and the New York City director of archaeology told a Gizmodo writer that there was no evidence of their existence. But after a whole mess of research, reporters dug up an official blueprint for a “cow pass” dating back to 1932, confirming the existence of a 200-foot-long passage beneath 12th Avenue. The blueprints are dated 60 years after the period when cow tunnels were rumored to have originally been built, but they confirm that at least one existed. The tunnel was likely destroyed in construction during the 20th century, but many claim that it’s still intact. The story of New York’s cow tunnels goes to show that even the people who are most knowledgable about the history of the city’s underground are still unsure of exactly what was—or still is—hidden beneath our feet.