The bloody past of Manhattan’s West 39th Street

abattoirrowsignWest 39th Street close to the Hudson River is an unglamorous road of Port Authority bus ramps, plus traffic from the Javits Center and the ferry station across 12th Avenue.

It’s not a pretty three or so blocks. But this concrete stretch is nothing like it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when West 39th Street was one of New York’s bloodiest streets.

Nicknamed “Abattoir Row,” the street was the center of Manhattan’s slaughterhouse district (previously on Mulberry Street), where cattle delivered to the city via ferry or rail line were penned in stockyards before being led into factories, turned into beef, and destined for New York dinner tables.

abattoirmcnysollibsohn3-131-6-162The earliest abattoirs appeared there in 1850, according to an Evening Post article, which counted 43 separate buildings.

“Running through these cellars will be laid a number of pipes, to carry off the blood and filth to a sewer in the rear. . . .”

“A thorough system of ventilation by means of pipes is embraced in the design, and will do much towards preserving the health of those living in the vicinity,” wrote the Post.

abattoir1877nyplv-l-kingsburythemanhattanabattoirCattle drives were a familiar site on the far West Side even after the turn of the century.

“Well into the 20th century, cattle drovers would close off 39th, 40th and 41st Streets between 11th and 12th Avenues and herd the cattle from pens to their destinations,” wrote Michael Pollack in his FYI column in the New York Times in 2013.

“Cattle runs across 40th Street continued into the mid-1950s, to a division of Armour & Company a block from the pens. . . . In 1955, an aluminum-sided bridge was built 14 feet above the street so the cattle could walk their last quarter-mile without disrupting traffic.

abattoirnypl1877kingsbury

A cow bridge is one thing—a cow tunnel even more fascinating. To dodge traffic, cattle coming into Manhattan via Hudson River barges in the late 19th century were herded through a tunnel under 12th Avenue to the abattoirs on West 39th Street.

abattoirad1922Abattoir Row disappeared in the 1960s. The cow bridge has long since been torn down.

And the tunnels? According to Pollack, “if remnants of the tunnels still exist, they may have disappeared beneath the Javits Center.”

This well-researched article does a deep dive into where the cow tunnels might be and how long ago they were in use.

West 39th Street in the old Tenderloin district also had a dicey reputation—of an entirely different kind.

[Second photo: MCNY, 1938 by Sol Libsohn; 43.131.6.162; third and fourth images: NYPL, “The Manhattan Abattoir,” 1877 by V. L. Kingsbury; fifth image: 1922 ad]

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9 Responses to “The bloody past of Manhattan’s West 39th Street”

  1. rosemarydorothyrobertsonr Says:

    Very Interesting – All countries start with the ” Workers” of all Trades, and Services……. Loyalty…….xx

  2. rosemarydorothyrobertsonr Says:

    Visited New York City for two weeks last September 2015 – Wonderful 2 weeks, sightseeing with Historical Tours of New York with Kevin…… unforgetable…..lots of photos. xx

  3. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Equally important and just as old is the abattoir district that ran from East 49th Street to East 40th Street between the East River and First Avenue, virtually all of it demolished with the clearing of the site for the United Nations Headquarters. If you’d like to read more about this, see: http://newyorkwanderer.com/dressed-to-kill-part-1/ and
    http://newyorkwanderer.com/dressed-to-kill-part-2/

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, thanks Ben. And that’s why Tudor City windows don’t face the back!

  5. R. Stanley Says:

    Just want to say how much I love your posts! I’ve lived in Hell’s Kitchen for over 3 decades, and simply revel in the history here. Thanks for all the fascinating information!

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you! It’s impossible to run out of fascinating things about Hell’s Kitchen’s past.

  7. robert dowling Says:

    im 74 born 1942 till mid 1950s when bounced out for lincole center project (for all the people yeah right) lived in upper west 60s. remember cows or maybe even other animals in area of west sid for as called arbaittors. really remember watching animals at some point and time gogin up ramps cold be seen from street. anyone ealso remember something like this. do not really remember smells, etc or cattle herding, but may not have paid attntion to all facets of this these functions. completely different subject anyone remember raulway express office at 11 or 12 ave. i remeber going there with peo[le to drop off packages. not to much history of this co to read. pics are mmore numerous. if still around could have been in its heyday rival of ups. i unerstand co went under mainly because of management running and $ rip off. thanks all.

  8. Chris F Says:

    I miss the older building perhaps on 11th that had cast stone heads of cattle as decorations mid-building.

  9. Chris F Says:

    PS you could readily see it from the NJ-bound entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.

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