New York City Underground

You would presume that city government would have knowledge of every nook and cranny in their city, that they would have every street, subway, tunnel, and building mapped and documented. Surprisingly, many of our older cities have underground labyrinths that are largely or wholly undocumented, long forgotten by time. In New York City, it is believed that thousands of miles of underground tunnels exist, some of which have not seen a human’s presence in over 150 years.

Atlantic Ave. Tunnel

Old Atlantic Ave tunnelIn 1981, Brooklyn native Bob Diamond confirmed the existence of a massive tunnel located over 160 stories under Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. Rumors of the tunnel had existed for many years. Bob first heard of the possible tunnel while listening to a local radio show in 1970. The legend also suggested that John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, had hidden a diary in a railroad car that was buried in the tunnel.

According to the lore, the tunnels were built in 1844, which would have made them the world’s first underground subway system. Bob began researching the existence of the tunnels but hit dead end after dead end until he stumbled across an article in the June 23, 1911 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle. The article mentioned a set of plans housed in the borough president’s office. Bob pressed forward and to his surprise, the plans did indeed exist as did a history of how and why the tunnels were built. The tunnels were located within the Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill Historic Districts and the documentation also referred to a railroad car buried deep in the tunnel (there are several other instances of railroad cars being buried beneath New York City).

In the mid 1800’s, Streetcars in New York City at the time were quite dangerous to pedestrians. The idea that the streetcars could be placed underground was proposed and the 1844 Atlantic Ave. project was taken on in an attempt to determine if the idea bore merit. The tunnels were built in only 7 months and were put into use for over a decade before they were deemed a “nuisance” and ordered to be refilled with earth.


Local contractor (and part-time swindler) Electus Litchfield was hired to complete the demolition for $130,000. Electus instead capped both ends of the tunnel and sealed the manhole covers and then proceeded to forge documents to state that the tunnels had been filled with dirt. In reality, they were left intact.

Using the maps and diagrams that Bob found in the borough president’s office, Bob located a smooth, sealed manhole cover that he discovered lead into the old tunnel. Upon discovering the tunnels in 1980, Bob created the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (BHRA) to research and preserve the tunnel system. BHRA received historic designations and today conducts open tours of the tunnels. The tunnels have been designated a landmarked and protected historic site but to this day, remain largely unexplored.

Chinatown Tunnels Modern day Chinatown underground mallNew York City’s Chinatown is a 150 year old neighborhood located in the lower side of Manhattan. Chinese immigrants clustered in this area to avoid the prejudice and persecution that they succumbed to during everyday life in New York during that era. As did the Little Italy and Hell’s Kitchen (Irish settlement) areas of New York City, the Chinatown district became isolated and largely self sufficient. An underground economy allowed undocumented workers to work illegally but in turn also fostered illegal opium dens, prostitution rings, and organized gangs. These illegal actives soon worked their way underground where a labyrinth of tunnels were built to allow unseen transportation of illegal goods and for the transport and burial of tong gang war casualties.

Old Chinatown Opera HouseToday a modern day underground mall exists where a portion of the tunnels were once located. Within the hallways of the mall are many dead-ends and locked doors which lead into the old original tunnel infrastructure. The tunnel extends from the old Chinese Opera House located at 15 Doyers Street (near the “Bloody Angle”) and the Wing Fat Mansion near Chatham Square. The tunnels remain largely unexplored.



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