July 14, 2023

New York’s mail once carried by underground tubes


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Unique ways of shipping have popped up throughout history, each designed to create speedy and convenient ways of delivering goods and mail. One of the most interesting appeared in New York City more than a century ago. 

A pneumatic tube mail system beneath New York was used to transport mail to various buildings around the city. The system was similar to the tubes used at bank drive-thrus today. Compressed air or vacuum suction pushed or pulled tube-shaped canisters that traveled at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. Workers nicknamed them rocketeers. The United States Post Office installed the system in the 1890s that eventually branched out 27 miles from Battery Park to Harlem, according to The New York Times

By 1915, many other major cities had installed pneumatic tube systems, including Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis, according to the Smithsonian Postal Museum. Actually, Philadelphia is said to be the birthplace of the system. Tubes were installed there in 1893 to help transport mail between post offices. Eventually a total of 56 miles of tubes existed underground in the United States. 

One mail route in New York that typically took 40 minutes was cut down to seven minutes by the pneumatic tube system, according to the Postal Museum. The system even helped during inclement weather, with one New York Times report featuring a congressional report quoted as saying, “New York Streets were almost impassable — New York business houses nevertheless received their important mail on time! The pneumatic tubes carried the mails.”

There are even rumors of a cat sent through the system that is said to have miraculously survived. 

As many as 200,000 letters were delivered through the tubes every hour. Each route had two tubes — one for sending and another for receiving. They were located four to 12 feet underground, and a few ran through subway tunnels parallel to the 4, 5 and 6 lines. The tubes were lubricated with oil to easily pass the perforated steel canisters through to each location. 

The canisters were two feet long with felt and leather packing on the ends for an airtight seal. Four small wheels were also attached so that none would become stuck near the junctions. 

The Postal Museum said the system was shut down during World War I to better fund the war effort. Afterward, only New York and Boston restored service. Growing mail volumes, the high cost of the systems and the growth of the cities made them impractical. By the 1950s, the pneumatic system was finished. 

For years, parts of the tube systems were discovered throughout New York. However, not many are found today. One section of the New York City tubes does remain in the Old Chelsea Post Office at 217 W. 18th St. The tubes come through a wall in the basement along a hallway where office supplies are kept today, according to Untapped Cities, which researched the system in 2021. 

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!

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