Underground Mail Road
By Robin Pogrenin
NY Times May 7, 2001
In the bowels of New York City a century ago, not only was there the
whoosh of water through pipes and the whiz of subways through
tunnels, there was the zip of mail moving through pneumatic tubes
at about 30 miles per hour.
The tubes — others snaked under Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and
St. Louis — were put into use by the United States Post Office in
1897. In Manhattan, they extended about 27 miles, from the old
Custom House in Battery Park to Harlem and back through Times
Square, Grand Central Terminal and the main post office near
Pennsylvania Station. At the City Hall station, the mail went over
the Brooklyn Bridge to the general post office in Brooklyn.
In describing the system's effectiveness during a snowstorm, a
1914 congressional report of the Pneumatic Tube Postal Commission
said: "New York Streets were almost impassable — New York business
houses nevertheless received their important mail on time! The
pneumatic tubes carried the mails."
For the time, the system was thoroughly modern, even high-tech, a
subterranean network for priority and first- class mail fueled by
pressurized air. Only a few decades later it was mostly a dinosaur,
made obsolete by the motor wagon and then the automobile.
But if Randolph Stark, an entrepreneur, has his way, the dormant
tubes will be put to new use in a decidedly 21st century venture.
Interested in bringing fiber optic cables into buildings to connect
with existing telecommunications conduits, Mr. Stark, 26,
remembered having heard something about the tubes. So he set out to
learn more about them — how they worked, why they were ultimately
abandoned, to whom they belong.
He pored through historical records at the post office, the
division of old military and civil records of the National
Archives, the Smithsonian and the New York Public Library. He filed
a patent application for the conversion of the tubes and a right to
For Mr. Stark, it has become detective work, as he tries to piece
together information about a lost system that most New Yorkers,
then and now, had no idea was there. "If even a small amount of
these tubes still exist, it's a pretty valuable piece of property,"
Though he has yet to see the 100- year-old pipes firsthand, Mr.
Stark says he is convinced that they are still usable — especially
since a fiber optic network would need no internal pressure — and
hopes to marry the two systems.
His priority now, he said, is to descend to inspect them. First,
he needs to get permission from the city. Mr. Stark says his
research shows that the city was left possession of the tubes in
But Allan H. Dobrin, the commissioner of the city's Department of
Information Technology and Telecommunications, said it was unclear
whether the tubes belonged to the city. "We're determining who are
the legal guardians for what's left of the system," he said. Mr.
Dobrin said the department was also exploring the conversion of an
unused water main system under the city into a conduit for fiber
The pneumatic tubes were introduced by the post office to deliver
mail in large urban areas. The system used pressurized air to move
a mail canister through an underground eight-inch cast-iron pipe.
" `Mail shot from guns' may be an apt description," said Post
Haste, an internal newsletter of the post office in 1950, adding
that the metal carriers resembled heavy artillery shells.
"Unaware that this network exists," the newsletter said, "the
ordinary citizen of New York nevertheless benefits from the rapid
transmission of his more important mail through these subterranean
The newsletter also explained that the tubes were lubricated to
facilitate the passage of the containers by sending perforated
steel cylinders filled with oil through the channels.
"I still remember those canisters popping out of the tube," said
Nathan Halpern, a veteran postal worker, in an internal newsletter.
"They were spaced one every minute or so, and when they came out,
they were a little warm with a slight slick of oil."
Construction of the tubes was authorized in five other cities —
Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco —
though Mr. Stark said that he had found no evidence that it was
ever begun in those places.
At its greatest expansion, there were more than 56 miles of mail
tubes on the East Coast delivering as many as 200,000 letters per
tube every hour. (Legend has it that a live cat was sent through as
a test in 1896.) Western Union also used pneumatic tubes, linking
its main telegraph office to some of the exchanges.
When the system was first installed, pneumatic transport was
considerably faster than horse- drawn wagon, then the most common
vehicle for mail delivery. In New York City, two pipes were used
along each route, one for sending, the other for receiving. The
pipes were buried 4 to 12 feet underground, though in some places
the tubes were placed within subway tunnels, parallel to the 4, 5
and 6 lines.
Each two-foot-long mail canister had felt and leather packing on
each end to create an airtight seal, as well as four small wheels,
which helped prevent the canister from becoming lodged at a
junction in the pipes. (Mr. Stark said he found records from the
early 1930's indicating that there had been at least three
incidents of malfunction.)
Each container was labeled to indicate the destination of its
contents. Special delivery letters were delivered within one hour;
regular letters within three.
About $4 million was spent on the construction in New York City,
Mr. Stark said. The original contractor was the Tubular Dispatch
Company, which built the original pneumatic prototype for
Philadelphia in 1893.
Construction of the tubes began in the late 1890's and they were
in operation by 1898. Before the end of the original 10-year
contract, the pneumatic service was taken over by the American
Pneumatic Service Company, which later became the New York Mail &
Newspaper Transportation Company.
Charles Emory Smith, the former postmaster general, predicted in
The Brooklyn Eagle in 1900 that one day every household would be
linked to every other by means of pneumatic tubes. Around the turn
of the century, there were even several proposals to build a system
between North America and Europe.
The service continued in most cities until 1918, when the high
costs of maintenance — $17,000 per mile per year — were thought to
be impractical for the small volume of mail transported. When a
post office moved, for example, the streets had to be dug up to
reroute the tubes. And the pneumatic service began to pale next to
the new technology of the motor-wagon, which could deliver mail two
to three times faster than a horse-drawn cart with equal or greater
volume and more than 10 times the volume of a pneumatic tube, while
only slightly slower.
Subsequent improvements in the speed of the motor-wagon and its
successor, the automobile, signaled the end of the pneumatic tube.
In New York City, because of the high population density and a
great amount of lobbying from contractors, the tube system remained
in operation until Dec. 1, 1953, when it was suspended pending a
review. Later that month, the post office ended the contract. The
New York Mail Company, the owner of the pipes, made several
attempts to sell the defunct system — offering it to Con Edison and
the United Parcel Service — with no success.
Mr. Stark said the next step would be to find the original
engineering blueprints. It would cost about $100 million a mile to
replicate the conduits in New York today, he said, making even five
miles of them a worthwhile resource.
Before even considering whether to use the pneumatic tubes, Mr.
Dobrin said, the Department of Information Technology and
Telecommunications is exploring the unused water main system. Built
in the early 20th century to supply high-pressure water to fight
fires, the system was decommissioned after fire trucks developed
their own high-pressure methods. The main contains 125 miles of
pipe south of 34th Street in Manhattan and 50 miles in Brooklyn. On
April 12, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced a formal request for
Mr. Dobrin said Mr. Stark would be considered by his department,
should it decide to put out a request for proposals for the
pneumatic tube system. "We would allow any company who's interested
to bid on the use," Mr. Dobrin said, "including him."
Mr. Stark said water pipes were more difficult to convert than
pneumatic tubes because they had 90- degree junctions at every
intersection and valves that might be stuck closed. (New technology
suggests robots may soon be used to lay fiber optic cable in
Mr. Stark said he presumed that the pneumatic system, too, was
damaged in places where significant property development had taken
place, like the area around the World Trade Center. "Due diligence
needs to be done," he said. "We need to go down there."