Underground Part 1 – New York

Posted on March 15, 2011


Beneath the Skin of the Apple

Do we ever really cease to think what is happening a few feet below our feet? Last weekend I spend a considerable amount of time watching documentaries, and honestly… we live on the most fascinating 5.9 million exatonnes of matter. Yes, many of us seem to be captivated by a morbid fascination for that which is yet beyond our reach — the universe — but what about that which lies all beneath and around us. I’m talking about our humble abode, our planet earth.

After watching a documentary on the subways from New York and San Francisco, I started wondering what else might be going on beneath some of the cities of the world. Not quite nature as one might have expected after having read the previous chapter, but fascinating nontheless.:D

The City That Never Sleeps

New York City Skyline

New York City Skyline

New York — the city that never sleeps — has a underground history pre-dating the beginning of the previous century. Eighteen forty-four is recorded as the year that marked the genesis of its underground subway tunnels [1]. Eighteen nine, even before these tunnels, the construction of St. Patrick’s Old cathedral with its crypts probably started the era of New York’s modern underground history [2]. Ever since, NYC has cultivated into a world ventricle with a remarkable underground composition. At the moment it might be one of the busiest underground areas in the world with a subway service that operates 27/7, 365 days a year — never sleeping, indeed!

NYC Subway late-night map

The late-night service map for NYC

Futurama, one of my favorite animated series to date, is set in a 4th millennium New York (New New York) which –besides the vibrantly and exotically mixed above-surface community — boasts a entire mutant community living beneath. Many have often portrayed images in which New York’s underground, civil architectural build-up contains massive tunnels both used and abandoned, tonnes of cabling and pipelines, waterways and a plethora of other items. The question is… how much of this artistic vision is based on fact?

Cross-section of New York's soil

Cross-section of New York's soil

After some research (that is Wiki-ing, Googling, YouTubing and some extra clicking) I discovered that NYC does have a sickening below the ground build-up; so brace yourselves.

Quick Glimpse Beneath

My first search led me to a page by National Geographic [3] in which they displayed a artist depiction of the ground below the city, based on actual data. As in most cities in the world most of the basic utilities are found within the first layers of infrastructure below the surface. Gas , water , power, cable and steam are some of these basic utilities and the reason for them being underground has something to do with mayor Hugh J. Grant. Below that the subway tunnels and subways under which the sewage infrastructure resides. A whopping 800 feet (approximately 240 meters) below the surface one might still detect evidence of human presence because New York’s sandhogs are working on Water Tunnel No. 3 as I write this.


Gas pipes were first laid on October 1824 [4], quite a while before even the sewers were introduced. New York’s foundation was still pure, waiting for the cities rapid development to act as a catalyst to its deflowering. In the late 1870s telephone lines became a common sight in the city of New York; power lines introduced roughly about the same time became part of that view. All these lines were — yes, you wouldn’t believe it — suspended above the streets forming a remarkable and chaotic maze of wires through the city [5]. Underground infrastructure was fairly scarce but it was soon to change. In the year 1888 a blizzard, wrecking a considerable part of the above-ground infrastructure, gave  incentive to mayor Hugh J. Grant (as previously mentioned :P) to order all basic utilities to be relocated to the New York’s realm beneath.

The old age of the infrastructure indirectly means that it most likely wouldn’t always meet up to modern-engineering standards and norms. This was evident of the gas system when a steam-pipe ruptured on October 30th, 1989 near Gramercy Park. The pipes were insulated with amosite, a extreme lethal form of asbestos; but then again the lethal nature of asbestos was not really known to mankind at the time of the construction of the structures that used this mineral (remember WTC). [6]

Subway Tunnels

Twenty-four lines — the amount of routes the Metropolitan Transit Authority caters to the gargantuan masses that flood its stations. The entire subway tradition of the city dates all the way back to 1844 when construction began. City Hall Loop is now the silent reminder of the glorious fruition of the first subway line to service the city. Currently merely used as a loop, it is one amongst the many dormant stations known to the subway network [7] [8].

City Hall

City Hall, NYC


A horrendous outbreak of cholera leading to numerous deaths alarmed the officials of the city that something needed to be done with the waste the city produced. As a result, the 7000 miles of sewers below the city were birthed between 1850 and 1855 marking the beginning to the containment of the problem. NYC media has produced a very informative film in which they explain the finer details of New York’s sewage treatment and sewer history. This film was part of the series Secrets of New York. [9]

Sewer in New York City

Sewer, NYC

Urban historian and photographer, Steve Duncan, has made this captivating montage of his ventures deep into the bowels below together with a colleague of his.


Talking about NYC’s underground infrastructure will sooner or later involve the sandhogs. At the time of writing, these die-hards will be drilling at depths ranging between 750 and 1000 feet to construct Water Tunnel No. 3 [10] — on of the larger known civil-engineering feats known to mankind. The sandhogs have had a significant role in almost everything underground within New York; the tunnel, targeted to be completed around 2020, being their greatest concern at this moment.

There’s much more going on in that city than one might think!!!


  1. BHRA: Atlantic Avenue Tunnel
  2. St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral History
  3. [natgeo] NY Underground
  4. A Brief History of Con Edison – gas
  5. Services and Utilities in New York
  6. Times Magazine, 30 oktober 1989
  7. [wiki] List of Closed Subway Stations
  8. Secrets of New York – Deep NY (Part 2)
  9. Secrets of New York – The Sewers
  10. [wiki] Water Tunnel No. 3


Posted in: history