New York Underground
By James Donahue
Of all the places in the world where hidden and not-so-secret underground tunnels
and rooms are said to exist, New York City may hold the record. A detailed report by the city’s master spelunker, Alec
Wilkinson, that takes readers into a maze of underground places that he managed to enter and explore.
Wilkinson writes that “New York City is riddled with clandestine tunnels. Most
of them were built for the railroad or subway, or to convey water or electricity or gas, or for some other straightforward
purpose . . . Most tunnels are not so much secret as they are forgotten about.”
He said there are tunnels now sealed off that were built under Columbia University
to maintain the school’s buildings.
Among the best known tunnels, Wilkinson wrote, is under Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
This was built for steam trains in 1844 and it runs about a half of a mile from Long Island to the Brooklyn waterfront. It
has been sealed off since the days of the Civil War. A student at City College, however, discovered a manhole that lead to
this tunnel by studying old blueprints.
Wilkinson wrote that there are various dead-end tunnels, or “voids,”
that were started as new routes for subway and train traffic, but then abandoned. “I once walked the length of the steam
tunnel that runs north and south through the basement of the main branch of the public library on Fifth Avenue. The tunnel
consists of a series of small, vaulted chambers like Quonset huts. Each chamber is about the size of a tool shed and each
is tall enough to stand in. But you have to bend your knees to pass from one to another.”
Photographer Stanley Greenberg has published a book of images titled Invisible New
York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City, in which he reveals a old and forgotten corridor in a gallery built on the Manhattan
Bridge for pedestrians.
Wilkinson describes one subterranean chamber under midtown Manhattan that he said
“is the size of a small cathedral and lies beneath Central Park. An elevator leads to it. The chamber is made from concrete
and has a high, vaulted ceiling. It is mostly empty – pipes in a pit at one end convey water through the city. At intervals
in the walls are vertical seams through which water seeps and sometimes flows, as if a faucet somewhere had been left open.”
He wrote that the ground under Central Park contains underground streams that he
believes are the cause of the water seepage. He said this strange chamber also is lighted by sodium vapor lamps that are never
extinguished. “A person might stand in the park on a certain piece of grass and reflect that many floors below his shoes
is a room with the lights on.”
Under the famous Grand Central Terminal it is said there exists “a secret network
of underground tracks, steam-pipe tunnels and storage areas.” Also hidden underground is a train platform that can be
reached by an elevator that drops straight from the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. It is said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt
used this platform and elevator as his private entry into New York. The door to the elevator is currently welded shut.
Not all of the dark tunnels under New York are abandoned. In 1993, even before the
current severe economic crisis struck the nation, Jennifer Toth published The Mole
People: Life in the Tunnels beneath New York City. The book tells even then of her encounters with many of an estimated
5,000 homeless people living in subway and abandoned railroad tunnels below the city.
Toth described the way people lived in multilevel labyrinths, often forming organized
communities with elected leaders. They were finding ways to tap into city utility systems to get electricity, heat and running
Similar underground communities have been discovered under major cities all over
the United States. Forced from their homes into the streets and with nowhere else to go for shelter, people have learned to
make their hoe in these dark, often partially flooded concrete tunnels. There they have fashioned elaborate camps, complete
with furniture, lighting and beds raised high enough to remain dry during the rainy season, when water is flowing under their