Pneumatic tube mail in New York City

“N.Y. Post Office Pneumatic Tube” c. 1912. G.G. Bain Collection.

The pneumatic tube mail was a postal system operating in New York City from 1897 to 1953 using pneumatic tubes. Similar systems had arisen in London, Manchester (and other British cities) in the mid-1800s and Paris in 1866 but following the creation of the first American pneumatic mail system in Philadelphia in 1893, New York City’s system was begun, initially only between the old General Post Office on Park Row and the Produce Exchange on Bowling Green, a distance of 3,750 feet

Eventually the network stretched up both sides of Manhattan Island all the way to Manhattanville on the West side and “Triborough” in East Harlem, forming a loop running a few feet below street level. Travel time from the General Post Office to Harlem was 20 minutes. A crosstown line connected the two parallel lines between the new General Post office on the West Side and Grand Central Terminal on the east, and took four minutes for mail to traverse. Using the Brooklyn Bridge, a spur line also ran from Church Street, in lower Manhattan, to the general post office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza), taking four minutes. Operators of the system were called “Rocketeers”.

The first dispatch was sent by Depew from the General Post Office to the Produce Exchange Post Office and included a bible wrapped in an American flag, a copy of the Constitution, a copy of President William McKinley’s inaugural speech and several other papers. The bible was included in order to reference Job 9:25, “Now my days are swifter than a post” (KJV) The return delivery contained a bouquet of violets and, as reported the following day in the New York Times, the round trip took less than three minutes, most of which was taken in unloading and reloading the canister at the other end. Subsequent deliveries included a variety of amusing items including a large artificial peach (a reference to Depew’s nickname), clothing, a candlestick and a live cat.

The installation in the Borough of Manhattan was constructed by the Tubular Dispatch Company. This company was purchased by the New York Pneumatic Service Company, who continued to operate the tubes under contract to the postal service. Construction after 1902, starting with the line between the New York and the Brooklyn general post offices, was completed by the New York Mail and Newspaper Transportation Company. Stock in these companies was owned entirely by the American Pneumatic Service Company.

The service was suspended during World War I to conserve funding for the war effort.

The high operating costs of the pneumatic system ultimately proved its downfall. By 1918, the federal government considered the annual rental payments ($17,000 per mile per annum) made by the post office to be ‘exorbitant’ and endorsed a new alternative with greater capacity–the automobile–as the transportation method of choice.

The Brooklyn section alone cost $14,000 in rent per year and $6,200 in labor. After successful lobbying by contractors the service was restored in 1922. Service was again halted between Brooklyn and Manhattan in April 1950 for repairs on the Brooklyn side and was never restored. In 1953 service was halted for the rest of the system, pending review, and has never been reinstated.

And what’s left of the pneumatic tubes? Not much, if at all. The location of the tubes within a city’s underbelly basically guaranteed its destruction once no longer in use. According to The Smithsonian National Postal Museum, “Installation of the tubes was problematic, with previously laid pipes for sewage and gas limiting the size and thus the amount and kind of mail a pneumatic tube could carry. Water table levels also presented difficulties.” Kate Ascher also notes that there was a time when remnants of the pneumatic tubes were still being found, but not often any longer.

Statistics

  • Each canister could hold 600 letters and would travel up to 35 miles per hour.
  • At the peak, the system carried 95,000 letters a day, representing 30% of all mail in the city.
  • The total system comprised 27 miles of tubes, connecting 23 post offices.
  • The canisters used were 25-pound steel cylinders that were either 21 inches long and 7 inches in diameter or 24 inches long and 8 inches in diameter.
  • It had set hours of operation: 5am to 10pm on weekdays, and 5am to 10am on Saturdays
  • The size of the carriers in New York City was 24 inches long, 8 inches across
  • 95,000 letters were moved daily, about 1/3 of all first class letters
  • It took 4 minutes to get from the General Post Office to Grand Central using a tranverse tube that cut across Manhattan
  • It took between 15 and 20 minutes for mail to get from Herald Square to Manhattanville and East Harlem
  • It took 11 minutes to get from the General Post Office to the Planetarium Post Office, near the Museum of Natural History