Keep Them Dogies Movin’

The latest marvel of yesteryear to captivate scholars and historians today: “cow tunnels.” What, you may ask, in heaven, hell and New York City is a cow tunnel? While a few individuals know what they are (were, I should say) no one is certain that they actually existed here.

Apparently in the 1870s, with a growing population presenting a growing demand for meat, cattle traffic had become increasingly heavy. To expedite the process of conveying cattle to the butchers and, hence, to the dinner tables, a tunnel was built at 12th Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan where most of the slaughterhouses were situated.

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!”

Not to be deterred by vague allusions and flimsy evidence, the Gothamist dug through Google Search’s illuminating if bewildering pathways; just when they were about to resign themselves to coming up empty they came up with a PDF.

Dated 2004, it contains a correspondence from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation “assessing the architectural and cultural uniqueness of the cattle tunnel. On page 73 of the document it’s stated that “The Manhattan Abattoir had a dock at the foot of West 34 Street in the 1870s, and cattle were brought to their slaughterhouse between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues beneath the streets via a cow tunnel….”

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.”

More could be found on cow tunnels: Brian Wiprud’s (Tribeca Trib, June 1997) “Bum Steer” and at Edible Geography.

Source: The Gothamist