The Strange Tale of New York City’s Forgotten Cow Tunnels

The forgotten cow tunnels of New York City's Meatpacking District (Image: New York Public Library via Gizmodo; mysterious cow tunnels)

The Big Apple is an epic place filled with all manner of stories that contain varying degrees of truth and folklore. Over the years many dedicated investigators have uncovered the fact behind many of NYC’s most baffling urban legends. But doing so isn’t always easy, and some legends are hard to crack.

Gizmodo took a stab at deciphering the truth behind one such tale, which writer Nicola Twilley stumbled upon in the book Raising Steaks. Written by Betty Fussell, the book examined how the beef industry shaped early American history. According to Fussell, livestock traffic around the Meatpacking District of Manhattan was all but unbearable, so a tunnel was dug beneath Twelfth Avenue to move cattle from the docks to the city’s slaughterhouses.

It seems plausible enough. Yet for a long time, there was no confirmation on whether or not the cattle tunnels actually existed. Then, in 1997, mystery writer Brian Wiprud published an article in the Tribeca Trib highlighting his efforts to find the mysterious tunnels.

Wiprud claimed the tunnels were large, well-preserved structures that endured in the gloomy world beneath Manhattan. But any solid evidence for such a grand subterranean structure remained sketchy, and enigmatic lost tunnels make for popular urban legends in many cities across the world.

Eventually, the findings of a 2004 study were released by city planners. The documents appeared to reveal that there were, indeed, old cow tunnels under Twelfth Avenue (at 34th and 39th St), which had been built between 1928 and 1930. Presumably abandoned some time thereafter, their existence was forgotten with the passing decades.

NYC's Meatpacking District today (Image: Gryffindor; NYC’s Meatpacking District today)

Gizmodo dug deeper, but again found evidence for the tunnels’ continued existence was lacking. Yet old city maps showed eerie names such as “Abattoir Place” and reference to an “offal dock”, and revealed that the area around 39th St had been packed with slaughterhouses, bone-boilers and other grim-sounding relics of the past.

Finally, Twilley contacted Historical Perspectives, Inc., and obtained 1930s-era blueprints apparently proving that a cow tunnel had indeed been built by Pennsylvania Railroad, beneath Twelfth Avenue at West 38th Street. Finally, the mysterious New York cattle tunnel seemed to be real. But no-one knows whether it’s still there, and no archaeological survey has yet proven or debunked its existence.

For now, New York’s abandoned cow tunnels remain an intriguing mystery, echoing a cityscape that has changed dramatically over the decades. What’s more, major infrastructure projects like the Lincoln Tunnel make it hard to imagine that a long-forgotten livestock tunnel could survive intact, and tales of eerie time capsules haunting the urban underworld make for compelling urban legends.

As Gizmodo writes: “…perhaps the cow tunnels represent the city’s agricultural unconscious, returning in the form of rumor and legend—the lost slaughterhouses of Manhattan, haunting the imagination of the city long after the last odors of lard-rendering and puddles of blood have been cleaned away.”

Fan of New York urban legends? If so, explore 76th Street station, a mysterious subway that’s rumoured to exist beneath Queens – but never confirmed.

 

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