Stumbling Upon An Underground River In Manhattan

For the longest time, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that underground rivers are said to flow deep below Manhattan, many following the same path they’ve taken for hundreds of years. And, the other day, while scouting for evil villain lairs, I finally got to see one for myself.

01

Finding evil villain lairs is actually surprisingly difficult. While most LA folks like to believe the city is riddled with all sorts of underground caverns, the truth is that they’re few and far between. But after some serious searching, I managed to find this pretty impressive two-story subbasement.

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As I was taking pictures, I suddenly noticed something odd: the sound of water. Not the standard drip-drip of leaky pipes, but rushing water, as if from a very small stream. It was then I started noticing all the puddles around…

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…all of which were being fed by small channels of water snaking through the ground.

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But where was the source? “Underground rivers,” my guide said. “Not much you can do about it.”

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Apparently, a pretty strong river flows beneath this particular building, and over the years, has punched its way through the foundation, slowly carving out these miniature canals.

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And indeed, there’s very little you can do about it. Try and fill in the holes and the river just carves its way back through, or worse, creates a new entry point. Ultimately, it’s better to just let nature take its course and pump the water out when it becomes a problem (can’t imagine things are looking too pretty here post-Sandy).

07

One of my earliest posts for Scouting NY was about Minetta Brook, a stream in the Village that was forced underground as Manhattan was developed. The building at 2 Fifth Avenue has a lobby fountain supposedly fed by the still-flowing subterranean stream. Check it out after a rain storm and you’ll see water barreling up from the depths of Manhattan.

Minetta - 02

The strange bend in nearby Minetta Street is said to follow the path of the river, and I’ve heard some pretty bad reports of basements flooding after heavy rain. In fact, construction of Electric Lady Studios had to be delayed due to flooding from the river, which some believe gives the studio a unique resonance (right).

minetta

To this day, New York’s structural engineers use the famous Viele map, dating to 1874, which details the various waterways in city (best to know about such problems in advance of a major construction project). Check out a huge-resolution map here and see what rivers flow below your building!

river

Since writing that post, I’ve gotten dozens of emails from readers detailing their own experiences with underground rivers. The stories about grates and trap doors opening onto rushing waterways are the ones I’d kill to see in person. But despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to get access.

03

A few trickles through a foundation aren’t much by comparison. But there’s something humbling about the fact that, despite how utterly over-developed Manhattan is, nature still finds its way in, no matter how hard we try to stop it. And at some point, you can only step back and let it flow through.

-SCOUT

PS – If you’ve got any leads on underground rivers still in existence, please send them my way!

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11 comments

  1. The link to the map you posted gets a 403. However, there is a zoomable version of the map at http://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~2289~180029:Sanitary-&-Topographical-Map-of-the

  2. Scout, definitely take the Steve Duncan’s SideTour on Minetta. I learned about Minetta through you when you first wrote about it, but Steve’s tour following throughout lower Manhattan was terrific.

  3. That picture of 2 Fifth Avenue shows a tiny rectangular plaque. That’s where the fountain once was, but according to the doorman, the fountain was removed long ago.

  4. I know it can’t possibly be, but it sure looks like a paw print on the floor in a couple of those pictures…

  5. I saw water bubbling at 2 Fifth Avenue 3 years ago on St. Patrick’s day while on a Big Apple Greeter tour of your awesome city. It was my 4th trip to NYC and an awesome find we would have never seen had it not been for our awesome tour guide!

  6. I agree that it is extraordinary to see the original waterways still moving beneath the city’s streets and avenues. Great post.

  7. Have you read The World Without us, by Alan Weisman? There’s a whole section in there about the subways and water in NYC underground. It’s very interesting.

  8. There’s one in Jim Thorpe, PA – bit out of the way, but you can look through a grate in the building and see and hear it rushing past. That was fun. :)

  9. Why do you call Manhattan “over-developed?” What would be the right amount of development?

  10. I believe there’s an underground creek flowing in the basement of 32 6 Ave, but I’ve never seen it. Was told by bldg maintenance workers.

  11. Hehehe… now I know my shop’s basement used to flood during a heavy rainstorm. I had no idea there was an underground river one block over.

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