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 the technology.

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," he said.

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 1954.

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 optic cable.

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 channels."

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 proposals.

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 underground systems.)

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."

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