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Historic cow tunnels of New York


1877. Upper right, “Tunnel From Dock”. Part of image: The Manhattan abattoir. By Kingsbury, V. L., artist. Harper’s weekly : a journal of civilization. Link.

The development of urban foodways in New York City

Archaeological Documentary Study No. 7 Line Extension/ Hudson Yards Rezoning, New York, New York
April 13, 2004


Historically, meat marketing and processing facilities in Manhattan were established along the shoreline to facilitate the movement of livestock and feed since the waterfront, with accessible transportation routes, was ideal for receiving goods from Long Island, upstate New York, New Jersey, and eventually the Midwest. Manhattan’s supply of beef in the 19th and 20th centuries came from local slaughterhouses, with livestock arriving by rail at terminals on the west shore of the Hudson River. Large stock pens were maintained primarily in New Jersey, where the cattle were kept until needed by the slaughterhouses in Manhattan.

When needed, livestock was loaded onto special stock barges that were brought by tugboat across the Hudson. In the mid-20th century, beef slaughtered and prepared outside of New York City began to impact the slaughtering business on Manhattan, with the majority of City slaughterhouses and processing facilities closed sometime in the 1960s.

Prior to the 1830s, there were 13 public markets south of 14th Street. Curiously, as the city expanded northward, the Common Council neglected to license the construction of more markets, and unlicensed meat shops and peddlers sprang up. Licensed butchers unsuccessfully fought to oust the unlicensed meat vendors under the premise that their meat was uninspected, diseased, and unfit for public consumption. Their efforts were futile and more private, unmonitored butchering facilities and markets were established.

A major catalyst in bringing the livestock industry north into the project area in a more formal sense was the Pennsylvania Railroad Co., which transported livestock via rail to Jersey City and then across the Hudson to Manhattan. The company served a set of slaughterhouses located along West 39th and 40th Streets off of Twelfth Avenue, and another set at West 34th Street. 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 (Grafton 1980:208, 209).

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. On the western end a covered ramp was entered from inside Pier 78, leased by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Pens were built on the pier itself to handle the livestock before the animals were moved through the tunnel to the West 37th Street yard. Here, then, are at least two of the historical livestock facilities that are within the project area:

Resource, Dates, Location,

Underground Cattle Passage, ca.1870s-Present, West 34th Street
Underground Cattle Passage, ca.1932-Present, West 38th Street
Two Slaughterhouses, ca. 1879-ca.1920, West 39th and 40th Streets

The cattle tunnels at West 34th and West 38th Streets are unique features. A possibly similar tunnel has been studied in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the underpass was noted in a survey of architectural features (Krim 1977:15). The barrel-vaulted brick tunnel was constructed in 1857 to enable cattle to move from west of the bridge to stockyards east of the bridge, and is still present. Since the underpass predates the West 38th Street cattle tunnel by 75 years, it will not provide a precise comparative database for assessing the architectural and cultural uniqueness of the cattle tunnel.

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. Specifically, these features may be considered “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history”, namely the development of urban foodways in New York City. They may also represent a distinct method of construction since it was used for livestock as opposed to pedestrians. However, both these tunnels lie directly outside the Hudson Yards study area.

See the complete study here.

See also The Return Of The Agricultural Unconscious here.

1 comment

1 GENE DONOVAN { 03.13.12 at 7:15 am }