Is there a “Cow Tunnel” somewhere beneath 12th Avenue right now, just waiting for landmark designation? According to Edible Geography, historian Betty Fussel discovered that cattle traffic was so heavy in the 1870s that a tunnel was built to increase the flow to slaughterhouses along 12th Avenue and 34th Street. The underground passages were eventually made redundant when refrigerated train cars were introduced, but they’re rumored to still be there!
There’s one reference to the tunnel from 1997, when author Brian Wiprud wrote about “watching a crew install a drainage basin on Greenwich Street when they came upon a wall of wood about ten feet down. A laborer went into the hole with a torch and came out saying it was an oak-vaulted tunnel ten feet wide by eight feet high that trailed off an undetermined distance in either direction. It was then that an old man from the neighborhood stepped up to the trench and said, ‘Why, I see you found the cattle tunnel.’”
With little proof of their existence via a quick check of the Google Machine, and the DoT and NYCT pointing us towards dead ends… we still wanted to believe. So after some more digging, we found a PDF from 2004 showing a correspondence from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation—the two agencies allegedly assessing the architectural and cultural uniqueness of the cattle tunnel. On page 73 it says:
“The Manhattan Abattoir had 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.“
The document lists two historical underground cattle passages from the 1870s that are listed as still being in existence, one at West 34th Street and another at West 38th Street, both along 12th Avenue. And in 2004 the agencies noted, “Given their potential distinctiveness as some of the few remaining subsurface features representing the 20th century meat industry in Manhattan, if intact, the cattle tunnels may meet the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.” We checked in with the LPC to find out what’s taking so long, and will update when/if we hear back.
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