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.
The 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.
“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.
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.
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.
Tags: Abattoir Row New York City, Cattle Stockyards Manhattan, Cow Tunnels Hell's Kitchen, Cow Tunnels Under Manhattan, Hell's Kitchen Stockyards, Slaughterhouse Row NYC, Slaughterhouses in New York City, West 39th Street NYC