Cow Tunnels!

You gotta love this stuff. (And yeah, I wish I were this clever about "doing" history. People like her are rockin' it!) 

Cow tunnels under Manhattan? Fact or urban myth? Nicola Twilley of decided to find out. You can read the delightful product of her results here. 


Lifted, to be frank, from Nicola Twilley's --- although the original is in the public domain.

Lifted, to be frank, from Nicola Twilley's --- although the original is in the public domain.

To which I add a bit of on-the-scene commentary inspired by the original cow tunnel, constructed in 1875, with a bit of background from me.


Back in the 1870s, "big" cities were still relatively new and urbanites lived in physical conditions that weren't much different from those of a century earlier. The Manhattan cow tunnel, and the slaughterhouse to which it was attached, was built as part of a long-term, nationwide, and vigorous effort to modern and improve urban living conditions. The cities we live in today, pristine temples of solitude by comparison, are the product of that modernization effort.

At the time, livestock trading, animal slaughter, and meat processing contributed to the aromatic misery of urban life. Drovers/traders/packers shipped livestock from the "west" (meaning places like Chicago and Kansas City) to the densely populated and largely urban east coast for slaughter there. I leave you to imagine the blood-and-guts results for the several millions who lived in those cities. And not just there. Every town, every city, had miniature versions of the blood-and-guts.

In the 1860s and 1870s, Americans decided they'd had enough. No more dodging runaway livestock and inhaling the constant aroma of warm blood --- as well as other odors.

Voters, public officials, and "capitalists," in the era's lingo (meaning: people with $) wrangled with ways to mitigate the mess. A popular solution, implemented nationwide, involved the construction of enormous, factory-like, urban slaughterhouses.

The logic was simple. A handful of large, efficient slaughterhouses, equipped with odor-control devices, offered a superior alternative to urban landscapes punctuated at regular intervals with stockyards, slaughterhouses, rendering operations, and butcher shops (the latter, at the time, retail shops whose owners slaughtered livestock on site, typically in whatever yard lay at the back of the building).

 Hence the 12th Avenue tunnel in New York City in 1875.

I leave you with a few words about the tunnel and the Manhattan Market Abbatoir, as reported by the New York Times in "The New Abattoir" on August 1, 1875 (p. 5 for those who are as fussy as me).


"The very name of an abattoir has become a dread to property-owners . . . because a slaughter-house was generally accompanied with evils of a most positive and disagreeable character.
"One may not be mawkishly soft-hearted, and yet not like to see cattle driven to the slaughter-pen, nor delight in the yell of the butcher boy, nor appreciate that peculiar sizzling noise of the knife as it is whetted on the steel . . . . 
"Morals require that, in a large city, cattle slaughtering should be to a certain extent removed from the public eye, and that most people's acquaintance of the business should be limited to the inspection of quarters of beef hung up in the butchers' stalls.  


"The abattoir fronts on Twelfth avenue, and between it and the North River there is an acre of land directly on the river . . . . Here the cattle are landed . . . . This area is devoted to cattle-pens [and from] these pens there runs a tunnel under Twelfth avenue, where the animals are brought into the shambles."

And for those interested in a nineteenth century view of a slightly different topic:

"Animals in the pens awaiting their conversion into beef did not seem to appreciate in the least their coming fate. They gazed around stolid and indifferent, and evinced no fear, differing in this respect from the generally accepted stories. . . .
"The great secret, of course, in order to make beef palatable and savory . . . depends upon the instantaneous transition of the animals from life to death. Any half-way measures of a false humanitarian kind, such as of using anaesthetics, would be ridiculous. To chloroform oxen before killing them, as has been recommended, would ruin the meat. "

There you have it. Cow tunnels!