Weird Underground History of NYC: The Introduction

Excerpts From the Book: Underneath New York – By Harry Granick

IMAGINE GRABBING MANHATTAN by the Empire State Building and pulling the entire island up by its roots. Imagine shaking it. Imagine millions of wires and hundreds of thousands of cables freeing themselves from great hunks of rock and tons of musty and polluted dirt. Imagine a sewer system and a set of water lines each three times as long as the Hudson River. Picture mysterious little vaults hidden just beneath the crust of the sidewalk, a sweaty grid of steam pipes 103 miles long, a turn-of-the-eighteenth-century merchant ship buried under Front Street, rusty old natural-gas lines that could be wrapped twenty-three times around Manhattan, and huge, bomb- proof concrete tubes that descend almost eighty stories into the ground.

It’s all down there: the planned and the unplanned, the infrastructure and the archaeological surprises. There are old pneumatic tubes that once moved letters around the city; snapping turtles swimming in the sewers; and a six-lane highway built in the late 1960s underneath Chrystie Street, then sealed, abandoned, and forgotten. There’s a city beneath the streets, but most New Yorkers don’t bother themselves with it, until a steam pipe explodes and kills three people the way one did in August of 1989, or a water main breaks and flushes out the Eighth Avenue Subway, as one did a month later. Even in those dramatic cases, even when newspapers fill their pages with graphs and charts, people only get a neat little outline—a meticulous diagram of a sloppy bowl of linguine. Computer graphics are too calculated to capture the randomness of the world beneath the avenues. Abstract Impressionists would do better.

The world beneath Manhattan is a cake of endless layers, a foundation as deep as the Chrysler building is high. On the top lies a three-inch strip of asphalt. Next comes almost ten inches of coarse concrete. After that, soil, a nasty soil that soaks up chemicals from the street. In another inch or three come the wires—telephone and electric, streetlight and fire alarm, and, the newest addition, cable TV—all buried in casings and kept close to the curbs. Gas lines puff away another foot below; water mains gurgle four feet under; steam pipes are buried six feet deep. Every sewer pipe is different (they’re installed at an angle so that sewage is always flowing down), but they’re generally above the vaults of the subways, which vary in depth from a few dozen inches (the Lexington Avenue line) to eighteen stories below (191st Street on the Broadway local). Water tunnels—running between 200 and 800 feet—mark the farthest man- built depths.

Every so often, there are the scares. In the ‘seventies, for example, before cleaning up asbestos became a profitable business, New Yorkers were worrying about red lead paint on their water pipes. But somehow, in its hodgepodge way, the underground keeps pumping and flowing and growing. It never gives out.


“A lot of water leaks are caused by city borings,” says the water department’s Doug Greeley. “A contractor went through an 18-inch gas line with a backhoe,” says Con Edison’s Bob Greis. “We’ve dug in some places with spoons,” says Ed Moloney, an engineer with Vollmer Associates, a firm known for its knowledge of the under- ground.

Moloney, a kind-faced Irishman dressed in shirt-sleeves and a tie, knows better than most how crowded it is down there. He helped engineer the Van Wyck Expressway, the Cross Bronx, and the Grand Central Parkway, and by the end of the ‘fifties was working on a daily basis with Robert Moses’ office. In the late ‘sixties, Moloney signed on with Arnold Vollmer, an engineer and landscape architect, whose firm had become familiar with buried cables and wires after digging thousands of holes for the trees along the city’s sidewalks. At Vollmer, Moloney set out to document the path of each and every utility beneath the 2,000 or so intersections from 60th Street south to the Battery—a herculean task. He came up with a system for measuring the density of utility lines, representing the least dense areas with green, more dense areas with yellow, and those stuffed completely with red. And what did he find? “A lot of red,” he says, “particularly in lower Manhattan.”

Moloney’s expertise is so widely known that the F.B.I, once called him to find out if terrorists might make use of the sewers to rough up Fidel Castro while he was speaking at the United Nations. Moloney figured that, yes, it was possible, but that the terrorists would have to bring their own air and pray for clear weather. Rain, Moloney told the agents, would simply wash any attack away.

When Moloney and his colleagues at Vollmer are hired to plan a new installation underground, the first thing they do is sift through the archives: Con Edison maps, phone company maps, and utility maps drawn during the New Deal. Next, they dig a couple of test pits—especially in the tighter areas—to see if what’s supposed to be there actually is. “Now you know what should be under there,” Moloney says, “but you ask, How does this gas main run from this valve to that valve? Does it go straight or up and down? From our experiences we have a good intuition of how they’re laid.” At some points in the city, pipes and wires and ducts are packed thirty and forty feet thick. That’s when Moloney and his crew really start to worry about hitting something. That’s when they start breaking out their spoons.


“Here, men from Wall Street and famous producers live,” says Raj Patel, pointing from the base of the Central Park Reservoir toward Fifth Avenue’s apartment buildings, “and over there lives Jackie Kennedy. But they don’t know how it works. If you don’t go downstairs you don’t know.”

That said, Patel lifts a carpet in the middle of the Central Park Reservoir’s pumping station and climbs down a spiral staircase that’s a century and a quarter old. Patel seems a small man to be controlling the two huge water mains that run down Madison and Fifth Avenues, but his is the perfect size for crawling between the pipes that inject chlorine in the water and the regulators that measure the quality of the 70 million gallons that rush through these 48-inch pipes every day. He weaves his tour around the pipes and through the old brick- lined tunnels while talking like a doctor about the city’s flow.

“It’s very heavy in the morning between 6 and 8 o’clock,” he says, pointing to the small electric meters. At exactly 12:15 on this afternoon, the Madison Avenue line registers a jump of a few thousand gallons. Maybe a few hundred people just flushed some- where on the Lower East Side. Maybe a lot of people just started fixing lunch. Either way, for as long as he’s worked the pipe, Patel still revels in the system’s genius. “New York is very lucky,” he says, in an accent half-British, half-Indian. “Ninety percent of its water is supplied by gravity.”

For a long time, New York wasn’t so lucky. Until the eighteenth century, water was drawn mainly from one spring-fed pond. Population and industrial growth ruined a good clean thing (the dead cats and dogs people threw into the ponds didn’t help either), so Aaron Burr built a reservoir near what is now Chambers Street and laid about five miles of hollowed-out tree-trunks—a lot of which are still in place—to carry water underground. Unfortunately, Burr’s water wasn’t very tasty, and the city soon set out to import its supply. In the summer of 1842, a thousand thirsty citizens gathered and cheered as water from the upstate Croton Reservoir rolled down a 33-mile tunnel to the holding reservoir built at 42nd and Fifth, where today the New York Public Library stands. One hundred years later the city finished two more fifteen-foot-wide water tunnels from the Delaware and Catskill watersheds.

Doug Greeley is the Department of Environmental Protection’s man in charge of plugging up leaks in the roughly 6,000 miles of water mains that run under the city today. Once, city workers created leaks on purpose. “In the old days, when there was a fire, the firemen would dig down until they hit an old wooden water main, chop a hole in it, use the water, and then plug it up when they were finished,” Greeley says. Since tree-trunk water pipes have been abandoned, the city relies primarily on cast-iron mains to carry its water. Most of the time, things go relatively well, considering the number of joints that could possibly leak. “We like to think of ourselves—and I’m not trying to rip off the Navy, but they call us the silent service,” he says. “No one thinks about water mains as long as they work.”

Water mains leak about 5,000 times a year and break about 500 times, but the breaks are what make the headlines. Their causes have mostly to do with the very unmysterious trends of age and wear. “They take a beating,” says Vollmer’s Ed Moloney. “There’s lots of traffic, and trucks are pounding the pavement from up top. And then below you have the continuous vibrations of the subways.” Says Thomas Cowan, the man who manages Con Edison’s gas- engineering division, “Now you’ve got tractor trailers.”

As for the leaks, some of the water gets into basements, but most goes into the sewers. So when Doug Greeley’s team isn’t busy with a break, they look for leaks, either with electrical current sent through fire hydrants or with microphones that listen for the hiss of stray water. Of course there are distractions (“You get affected by buses honking their horns,” Greeley says, “by subways, and in some cases you get affected by high heels walking down the street.”), but they only need to dig within a few feet of the leak. With some of these newer microphones they’ve been known to call the trouble within a few eighths of an inch.

When all else fails and the water leak just keeps on leaking, Greeley’s team turns to the single map that probably decorates the office walls of more underground technicians than any other— Egbert L. Viele’s 1874 Topographical Atlas. The Water Map, as it is better known in underground circles, shows all the streams, ponds, and rivers that in many cases still flow underneath the streets of the city. Water-main leaks sometimes follow old stream beds and show up a few blocks away, or the old streams themselves sometimes show up. Minetta Brook is an example. It used to run from Sixth Avenue at 16th Street through Washington Square and into the Village. A couple of years ago it made a brief comeback in a basement in the West Village.


“Watch the ladder,” says Joseph Iacono, the superintendent of emergency operations for Con Edison’s Manhattan division, from underneath First Avenue. At the bottom of the vault he’s standing in is an oil-filled, fireproof transformer bringing power for the neighborhood down to a manageable 13,500 volts. “You talk about Toledo, Ohio, and a couple of poles and some wires,” Iacono says, “but it doesn’t work that way here.”

The electricity humming peacefully along in front of him has traveled a long way from the waters of Canada, from the atoms split upstate at Indian Point, or from the various other generators in northern New England. It zips at the speed of light over high- tension lines and dives underground just north of Manhattan. There, the electrons are bumped up to a cool 138,000 volts before moving on to transformers (like the one we’re standing in now) in one of Manhattan’s 31 networks. Power comes down again to 120 volts by the time it gets to the average apartment’s wall socket, but not before passing through a manhole somewhere.

Manholes can leak, rats can chew, and the splicers who climb down to handle 1,500-degree soldering irons may come close to fainting in temperatures sweatier than one hundred degrees. One wrong rat nibble, one splicer screwup, one small fluctuation in the flow of power, and Manhattan gets mad. “It may be as little as five cycles,” says Richard Peck, Con Edison’s chief electrical distribution engineer, explaining that there are sixty cycles in a second’s worth of electrical travel, “but that’s enough for these computer outfits on Wall Street. Sometimes they know about it as fast as we do.”


Robert Greis, the man in charge of Con Edison’s gas-operations division, uses a flattened web of copper wiring as a paperweight on his desk. The copper was melted, he says, by a couple of thousand volts of electricity, and it burned right through a cast-iron gas main, necessitating one of the 6,500 gas-pipe repairs Con Edison sees to annually—between 30,400 emergency calls and 30,000 inspections— in Manhattan.

On his way to one of those repairs, Greis mentions that five years ago, fourteen percent of the gas Manhattan imported via pipeline from Texas and Louisiana just sort of disappeared, vanished into the air. Flame ionization units are today’s best defense against leaking gas: backpack-size gas detectors that test air samples by burning them. They are so successful, in fact, that in 1989 gas losses dropped to five percent.

Today’s leak was caused by a tired old pipe joint. It was discovered by a concerned citizen named J. R. Thomas. Three years ago, Thomas drove Greis and his mechanics crazy by calling in reports of gas leaks just about every day. And he wouldn’t just say he smelled gas in the kitchen: he’d phone about entire city blocks. When a citizen calls, Con Edison has to dig, so mechanics would spend days drilling test borings around each and every one of the blocks Thomas suspected. Like a quiet water leak, a bad gas leak can be hard to find. “We’ll have gas in a manhole,” Greis says, “and find out that the leak is two blocks away.”

So after a few months of daily telephone calls and the corresponding required inspections, Con Edison finally asked Thomas about his methodology. It turned out that he doesn’t even use his nose; he pinpoints gas leaks by studying variations in the color of the building’s facade. Despite his unorthodox methods and the sarcastic mumbles from the guys forced to dig near every poorly painted building on the Upper East Side, Con Edison pays close attention to Mr. Thomas’ calls. Greis says, “We can’t ignore him. He has a fourteen percent hit ratio.”

Back in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were about fifteen gas companies in New York, and they each had their own gas mains. Since 1970, Con Edison has retired 50,000 feet of old mains. But what does it do with them? Mostly leave them where they are— although the oldest working ones date from 1874. “A lot of other services will run lines through abandoned mains because they’re the only thing left in town,” Greis says.

The lines that Greis’ crew first runs into on today’s repair outing are definitely not their own and definitely not on their maps. Because they are buried in a shallow tube and seem relatively new, the crew’s best guess is that they’re cable TV lines. After they figure out which pipe is which, they spray-paint Con Edison’s signature blue on the street (“If the road depresses, they’ll know who to come after,” Greis says), jackhammer a little, and finally vacuum the dirt from around the tired leaky joint.

With a trench so small and tools so surgically efficient, the average joint-repair operation looks more like a visit to the dentist than pipe repair. In a matter of minutes the joint is sealed with a hard rubber cover and a bucket of sealant. A cast-iron pipe old enough to be a grandfather becomes as good as new, at least for a few feet. “Tech- nology, in the area of natural gas, anyway, has improved a lot in the last few years,” says Greis, driving off down Fifth Avenue in his blue-and-white van.


“There are a whole lot of geological provinces that come together in New York City,” says John Sanders, a geologist at Columbia Uni-versity, speaking of the rocky world underneath Manhattan’s pipes and wires. “There are at least three major different kinds of geologi- cal stuff that focus here.” We’re talking real underground now. We’re talking farther than humans have ever dug. We’re talking about the rocks that hold Manhattan up, about the faults that run under Dyckman Street, the Harlem River, 125th Street, and the East River. We’re talking about Manhattan schist.

Schist is what they call the bedrock in which the World Trade Center and all of midtown’s skyscrapers are rooted. Notice, Sanders says, the skyscrapers don’t live in Chelsea: there the schist is buried deep underground. Basically, it rises up in Central Park, stays there through midtown, then runs down about 100 feet below the surface about halfway between the Battery and Canal Street. It’s just high enough again for the World Trade Center to stand, but there are no skyscrapers in the once-swampy land called the Bowery. Sewers work best there. In fact, the sewer once billed as the New World’s largest was built in the swampy area between the mouth of the Holland Tunnel and the foot of the Manhattan Bridge. For a long while, it connected the city’s two rivers until it was paved over and became known as Canal Street.

Archaeologists in Manhattan still bump into remnants of the old canals when they’re digging underground. They bump into the old locks and ship slips, too, especially near the southern tip of Broad Street, which used to be a southern tip of water. One archaeologist even bumped into a boat from the late seventeenth century. “It didn’t surprise me that we hit wood,” remembers Joan Geismar, an archaeologist who was excavating the site. “It surprised me that the wood turned out to be a 25-foot-wide and 92-foot-long ship.”

The bow of the ship is now sitting in a Newport News, Virginia museum, but the stern still lies buried under Front Street’s utility cables. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Geismar says, developers leased unused boat slips from the city, docked their worn-out ships, loaded them with junk, and sank them. A good percentage of lower Manhattan is landfill, and a good percentage of the landfill is boats. Says Ed Rutsch, an urban and industrial archaeologist who works in the city, “You can stand there and tell people about it, but when you have an actual ship and you pull it out of the muck it really blows their minds.”

For his part, Rutsch has all but nailed down the whereabouts of the wall they named the city’s financial district for. He caught a glimpse of it while digging near 60 Wall Street. Of course, the middles of city streets are generally off limits to archaeologists, who work mainly at the mercy of history-minded developers and the zoning board’s variance requirements. Nevertheless, Rutsch has been able to put together a picture of the palisade that stood some 300 years ago—a long row of tall sticks designed to keep out attackers. He has found 200-year-old coins and once came pretty close to finding Alexander Hamilton’s latrine. Underground latrines and privies, by the way, are generally considered archaeological gold mines in Manhattan. “When people lost things in them,” Rutsch says, “they tended to do a minimum of feeling around.”


Talk long enough to the engineers, the archaeologists, the repair crews, and invariably they start to tell stories—weird accounts and bizarre findings. There’s the story about the engineers who, near the intersection of Bowery and Canal, accidentally discovered a small hidden room decorated with mirrors on its walls and ceilings. There’s the story about the tunnel diggers who ran into a 10,000- year-old standing forest buried 200 feet beneath the Upper West Side. A mud slide or glacier probably buried it, and the workers who discovered it had to use chain saws to cut it down.

There’s the story about how many dump-truck runs it took to haul off the dirt dug to make room for all the rooms and passageways under Grand Central Station (400 runs a day for about five years). There’s the one about a horse that fell into a sewer and a few minutes later appeared on the shore of the harbor, and the one about the four boys who almost fell into a sewer themselves when on February 10, 1935 they pulled out a 125-pound alligator.

There are the structures that were closed, or never built, or built and never opened: dozens of public restrooms below the theater district haven’t relieved a tourist in years; a City Hall subway station has been retired, too short to host a modern train; a downtown trolley terminal has been closed, though it’s still visible under Essex Street on the J line. In a cabinet somewhere there are plans for a triple-decker subway-and-car tunnel, complete with a glass ceiling designed to double as a Broadway sidewalk. And Mrs. Henry J. Hibshman still remembers her late husband’s unrealized energy- crisis scheme to pump water deep into the city’s cold ground and draw it back up to cool buildings in the summer. A PATH-train tunnel ends only a few dozen feet from where it starts in Greenwich Village, still quite a ways from its once-intended destination, Astor Place. A private entrance several stories below the Waldorf once allowed President Franklin D. Roosevelt secret passage to trains carrying him back to Hyde Park. And escalators in buildings along Water Street still wait patiently for the Second Avenue subway line to be finished.

In 1912 the workers digging the BMT accidentally discovered the city’s very first subway line, forty-two years after it was closed and forgotten. A 312-foot-long, 9-foot-wide pneumatic tube, it was built by Alfred Ely Beach, inventor and editor of Scientific American, who furnished its frescoed waiting room with a chandelier and a grand piano. For a few weeks in 1870, a 100-horsepower fan blew Beach’s primitive subway cars through a tube 21 feet below Broad- way between Warren and Murray Streets, until Boss Tweed shut it down.

Then there are the people—the longtime engineers, the eccentric citizens, the Italians who dig for Con Edison, and the Irish who build the tunnels. Teddy May was a subway official who liked to walk the tracks for pleasure on Sunday afternoons, often with a potato in his pocket to ward off back pains. Smelly Kelly, the famous Transit Authority leak finder, made his reputation sniffing out eels from a pipe in the bathroom of one subway station and elephant dung in the tunnel near another. Six hundred volts from the third rail, his story goes, barely knocked him down.


Surrounded by picks, shovels, tired old iron rails, and thousands of volts of electricity, Clarence Cook is worried about only one thing. “I’m not afraid of walking on the track,” he says in his soft Caribbean lilt, “and I’m not afraid of the third rail. I’m just afraid of meeting some stranger in here. That’s the scariest part, especially when you’re alone. I think some of these criminals know the system better than I do, and there are certain areas that I just don’t like to walk by myself. Like between 28th and Canal on the Lex. That’s where you meet ’em. They don’t usually trouble you, but it’s just a bad thing.”

Commuters ride the subways, criminals stash loot in them, and lately the homeless live in them. Between May of 1988 and May of 1989, forty-three homeless people died in the subway system. In November 1989, on a balmy autumn day, there were 750 homeless people in the system at one time, according to the transit system, which attempts an occasional census of subway residents. At times the number has gone as high as 2,000. Track workers run into them all the time—on platforms, in the tunnels, and in abandoned stations like the ones at 18th, 91st, and Worth Streets. “At Chambers Street one night,” says J. J. Wilson, “they were cleaning an unused platform and they opened a door and this guy came running out balls-ass naked and ran down the track. When they looked in, this guy had bottles of urine and whatnot in there. This guy was living in there.”

This evening, while taking my first subway tunnel walk, I’m not worried about being surprised as long as I’m with J. J., a stocky, 17 year veteran who has walked, inspected, and fixed a good portion of the system’s 720 miles. I feel safe, that is, until a train comes along. It is pitch-black, and the first thing we hear is the sound, a windy rumble coming up behind us. We wear reflector vests and carry electric lanterns, but the train only gets closer and our fashion accessories just don’t compare. It passes peacefully, nevertheless, and as we turn a bend in the tunnel, light leaks toward us. In a few feet we are on the edge of a 27-man work crew—a “gang” loud with the clang of iron and bright with sheets of light bulbs revealing the tunnel’s roof and floor. The third rail has been shut off, but the crew treats it as if it were still alive. They lift 1,300-pound, 39-foot rail lengths into position; they replace ties, soaked rotten by the system’s poor drainage; and they see a few rats.

“That’s like everyday stuff, rats,” Cook says. “There’s some huge sizes down here. We don’t call them rats. We call them track rabbits.”

“I was down near 14th Street once and they was running all around me in circles,” says J. J., who claims they stay out of the tunnels and close to the platform garbage. “They didn’t bother me, but there was some big suckers.”

It’s almost two in the morning, and we head uptown on the Broadway line. Subway gangs get all their work done at night while the commuters sleep, so work is just picking up when we stop near 137th Street. A gang pours molten metal in between two track rails to smooth the trains’ rides. The heat of the metal warms the damp tunnel. The gang takes cover a few feet down the track as the small black crucible prepares to explode with fiery steel. “Fire in the hole!” somebody shouts, and everyone looks away.


It’s hard work maintaining the subways, and even harder work building them. The tunnels are often dug straight through solid bedrock. When they’re not, they go through wet silt, and men work in muddy rooms of pressurized air, under metal shields that keep water from collapsing the tunnel in progress. One of the most famous subway-construction accidents happened during rush hour in 1915 on Seventh Avenue. Great holes were regularly blasted with explosives, but on that day, the boss blaster, a Tyrolian named August Mezzanotte, a.k.a. August Midnight, made a mistake. An uncontrolled explosion ripped a hole in the avenue two blocks long, killed seven people—two of whom tumbled thirty feet down, along with the trolley car they were riding in—and sent Midnight running straight to his nephew’s house thirty blocks away. When he finally mustered the courage to return to the scene of the blast, “he seemed,” as one newspaper put it, “highly nervous.”

In July 1880, in another historic accident, nineteen men, mostly Swedish and Irish, were buried alive in what was to have been the country’s first subaqueous tunnel. They were digging just below the muddy bottom of the Hudson and had made it almost 100 yards toward Manhattan from Jersey when the tunnel collapsed with little more warning than the hiss of leaking air. The eight men who escaped did so in a small iron air lock and only because one of the others stayed behind to hold back the water and watch the door close on himself and the others. After the accident, a crowd stood for ten days watching as the shaft was drained and the men dug out.

Alfonse Panepinto drives his Port Authority van across the same field where the crowd once stood until we reach the site of the collapse. We climb through a modern-day emergency exit down toward the abandoned tunnel. A PATH train passes a few dozen inches to our left in the branch built after the accident. It has only 7,240 feet to go under the Hudson River until its Christopher Street stop. To the right lies the shaft that marks the underwater workers’ tomb. “We could start a natural steam bath down here,” Panepinto says as we enter, not really exaggerating the tunnel’s humidity. The air is as thick as a sauna’s and the lens on my watch fogs. We hear absolute quiet, save for the faithful clank of a water pump. We crawl through the small iron air lock and the open rectangular doors on it that seem out of a submarine. It is completely black, but with a flashlight we see the bricks that line the ceiling, a puddle of river water, stalactites, and a rusted green-and-white beach chair. We stop at the concreted end of the dead tunnel.

Daniel Gallagher worked with the Gaelic descendants of the PATH-tunnel victims on tunnels all over the city: the 63rd Street East River subway tunnel and the 138th Street sewerage interceptor, to name just two. “You don’t think about working underground,” he says in his brogue. “You get used to it. Most people don’t even care. Everybody knows what a skyscraper looks like, but most of them don’t know what a tunnel looks like. We were down a thousand feet in some cases.”

Gallagher’s retired now, his lungs worn out from the job, but his son Brian still works in the hole, as he puts it. He’s a strong, ruddy- looking kid with red hair and a membership card from Local 147 of the Compressed Air and Free Air Tunnel Workers union. He makes roughly $1,000 a week. “I want to make my money and get out,” 26-year-old Brian says. “This is too dangerous.”

At the moment, Brian is standing on the edge of the D.E.P.’s latest and most extensive water project—City Water Tunnel No. 3, twenty- four-feet wide and 800 feet down at its deepest point. Dug through solid rock, it will connect all of Manhattan with its next century’s supply of water. The tunnel’s working shaft has been closed now for almost six months since it was finished, and the sandhogs, as they’ve called themselves for decades, are deciding who’s going to go down first. They trade swears in brogues thicker than bedrock, but the head sandhog, Tom, who speaks mostly Gaelic, finally picks two men from the crew. They are placed in a bucket the size of a small trash barrel and lowered 80 stories into the ground on a wire dangling from a crane. The wind, Brian says, is pretty cold at the bottom.

A few hundred yards from the hole is a trailer. Inside, the site’s chief engineer, Jack Ledger, sits among oddly shaped rocks, photos of the tunnel captioned “The Doors of Hell,” and a few old copies of The Standard Handbook of Engineering. Ledger talks about how things are winding down now after nineteen years. Engineers and geologists come from all over the world, he says, to see the hole dug so incredibly deep, a tunnel designed to survive the winnable atomic war imagined in the ‘fifties. He even brought his kids.

“I wanted to bring the whole family down, you know?” he says. “To me this is the acorn of the world. Where else are you going to see these rocks?” He shook his head. “They were completely bored. A tunnel’s nothing when you’re in a city with the Twin Towers and the Empire State. But we look at it after having carved it out stone by stone.”


It wasn’t until 1975 that Con Edison stopped covering each and every steam pipe it laid in the ground with asbestos, a fiber once considered to be on the leading edge of insulation technology. Of the 103 miles of steam line that crisscross the avenues below 96th Street, roughly ninety percent are still covered with cancer-causing fiber. Con Edison says it has considered replacing the insulation on the pipes all at once, but it worries that such an elaborate and disruptive maneuver might release more asbestos into the air than if drivers in every car in the city hit their brake pads all at once. (Brake pads are, after all, another source of the deadly fiber.) The cost of such an extensive operation is, of course, another concern, especially since the company recently spent several million removing asbestos from 1,000 of its 1,700 manholes in 1989. So for the time being, asbestos-insulated steam pipes will be replaced as routine mainte- nance or an accident cleanup allows.

As is the case with most of the utilities underground, age is pushing for speedy steam-pipe repair. The great-grandfather of the modern-day steam system, the New York Steam Company, began back in 1882, and some not-too-distant relatives of those lines are still lying around. Steam lines have been inspected more or less annually since Con Edison took over in 1936, but there is no real way to tell which pipe will burst next or when.

They named the famous Gramercy Park pipe burst which killed three people in 1989 “a water hammer.” Four-hundred-degree steam ran into the relatively cool condensed water. Air bubbles formed, the water beat down the air bubbles, the bubbles got bigger, and the water hit harder. “It basically hammered itself out of the pipe,” a Con Edison spokesman says. Something could have been done: someone could have relieved the steam pressure. But somebody forgot, and the underground exploded. In no time at all Con Edison was talking about retraining all its steam workers, reportedly regret- ting the retirement of one old-timer who had taught new employees the ways of the pipes.

Old airline pilots crash-land airplanes better than anybody, and it’s the same with underground engineers. “It still takes an expert engineer to know what’s underground,” says Con Edison’s Thomas Cowan (gas). “I’ve been around for 36 years and I still haven’t seen it all,” says Con Edison’s Joseph Iacono (electric). Like the Wil- liamsburg Bridge—which has once again been diagnosed with the rusty shakes—the city’s subterranean iron works may one day crumble, but all the engineers can talk about is progress. They’re talking about fiber-optic cables, about those new hard-rubber joint protectors, about iron pipes mixed with just a pinch of plastic. They’re even starting to send electronic eyes underground—video cameras snaking through the mazes to inspect old and unreachable tunnels. Which is progress, sure enough, though it probably won’t add any order to the city’s most cluttered landscape. It just means another man-made device down there. It just means another toy at the bottom of a tunnel. And then, in a thousand years, an archaeol- ogist will dig it all up and wonder what the hell a video camera is doing eighty stories below New York.

The underground has changed since Harry Granick first dived in during the ‘forties. Throughout the city, Con Edison went and added enough new wires to run up and down the Amazon twice, and New York Telephone spliced in enough copper and fiber miles to carry the sound of directory information 980 times around the globe. The average New Yorker, meanwhile, kept thirsting for more. In Granick’s day that typical citizen drank about 141 gallons of water. Today, the average is roughly 70 gallons higher—the equiva- lent of 125 extra six-packs. The city had to add a couple of new pipes.

Of course, time has taken from the underground, too. The pneumatic tubes that once shuttled seven million letters under the town every day have since been shut up and left to rot (though it was once rumored that the F.B.I. continued to use its extensive set). They fell prey to more dependable delivery trucks, to the birth of the fax, and to 1940s delivery boys who used to drop gum down the tubes and stop them up. Homeless people, who now live under- ground by the thousands, were more an oddity than an issue back then, as the city was close to full-employment. Steam is no longer the underground power it used to be.

But when you get right to the bottom of it, the underground is what it always was—in Granick’s words, “a machine for living.” Though more modern in some places (ductile steel pipes and fiber- optic phone cables replaced cast iron and copper, for example) the underground is still that very delicate balance of planning, physics, and luck that keeps the faucets working, the lightbulbs burning, and eight million or so toilets from backing up. It is the best of Egyptian waterways and the worst of the English Underground; it is all of history’s bright infrastructural ideas rolled into one and tucked under a carpet of tired dirt and pavement.

Granick wrote with history in mind, and in his mind New York had built the greatest guts in history. He points out that the Romans may have perfected the sewer but Brooklyn built the world’s first sewage treatment plant. It is no coincidence that he quotes the heroic Walt Whitman: Granick takes the engineering of the city very seriously and sees the life-sustaining bowels of the city as full of Whitmanesque promise and detail. He cheers the “tremendous or- ganism,” without which, he says, there would be no city life.

From his view near the optimistic end of the ‘forties, at the dawn of the atomic era, it was just a matter of time and science until all that extra sludge would be conquered. He titles one chapter “Science and Invention to the Rescue,” and later writes, “One thing is for certain: New York City is rapidly on the way to becoming one of the cleanest and healthiest of the world’s cities.” Today, that sentence makes a lot of New Yorkers laugh, but then, for Granick, the underground was the key. And with talk of new world orders, atomic power, and jet planes in the air, who would have thought that the rivers would end up polluted, that the landfills would all be filled, or that all the new homes built upstate on the edge of the city’s reservoirs would one day threaten the purity of one of the freshest urban water supplies in the world?

Then again, the underground is full of exciting disappointments— like the Second Avenue Subway tunnel that was only partly built. It is full of surprises and achievements, of mistakes and confusion. “The streets of the city are alive,” Granick says, “in more ways than people usually imagine.” So with Harry Granick as your wide-eyed guide, open up a manhole cover and dive right in.