New York City: Riverside Park Train Tunnel

The Riverside Park Tunnel runs underneath Riverside Park from approx. 123rd St. to 72nd St. The railroad continues in both directions-- at the level of West Side Highway to the north, and in a concrete valley below road level to the south. The railroad has been extant in one form or another since the 1850s; the tunnel has historically been the property of the New York Central Railroad, part of Cornelius Vanderbilt's railroad empire in the later 19th century. The railroad, which is used by Amtrak today, goes north from Penn Station along the west side of Manhattan and across the Harlem River on a bridge at the north-west tip of Manhattan.

In the early 20th century, it was recognized that the railroad blocked access to the river, uglified the park, and decreased property values in the area. Under the auspices of Robert Moses, and as a means of employing labourors during the early 30s, the railroad was covered with a steel-and-concrete structure, enclosing an area around the tracks 66 feet wide and up to 30 feet high. The concrete walls are two feet thick; giant steel girders support the ceiling, and sewers, utility rooms, access stairways, and other railroad-related structures are built in. A cross-section of the tunnel, with the two sets of tracks in the middle (heading straight at the viewer) would show the two side walls (66 feet apart, and approximately 10 to 15 feet high). Above them, fitting over them like a widened, upside-down U, is a slightly wider structure of the roof and two walls. These top, wider walls are 15 or more feet high.

Supported on top of the tunnel ceiling is a broad pedestrian plaza. Riverside Park itself is built on a slope as the land angles down from the level of Riverside Drive (on the east) to the Hudson River (on the west.) The Park is therefore terraced, and this is what allowed the "tunnel" to be a tunnel-- it was built into a hillside, or more accurately, it acts as a giant retaining wall half-engulfed by the hill. The pedestrian plaza above the tunnel is two terraces down from Riverside Drive and one level up from the West Side Highway. Because the land slopes down to the river, however, directly to the west of the pedestrian plaza, the outside of the top, outer wall is exposed. From the West Side Highway, it looks like a 15-foot retaining wall.

The Tunnel was abandoned for many years starting i believe in the 1950s. At some point, it became a haven for those who did not have homes aboveground. What had been utility sheds or storage rooms became homes. In about 1991, Margaret Morton and Jennifer Toth both published books. Morton's was a photo-essay on the tunnel and its residents, called "The Tunnel." Toth's book, called "the Mole People," was a sensationalized and unresearched blend of fact and fiction, but although it was less than perfect in terms of specious speleological information, it was efficacious in bringing the human element to light. Toth ended up on ricki lake or something talking about "the mole people who eat rats and blah bluh-blah" which is where she belonged to begin with.

Slightly before the books came out, Amtrak bought the tunnel and began cleaning it up so as to run trains thru it. Most of the residents were evicted and at the very least the thriving communities documented in "the Tunnel" ceased to exist. At this point, Amtrak trains run thru the tunnel approximately every 40 minutes during th day and occasionally during the night. Some folk to still dwell in the tunnel, most or all in the side rooms on top of the lower wall. The place is fantastic, however, for the industrial archeology look, and the quality of the graffiti (yes, you can see all the murals shown in Morton's book-- all the latest, greatest works of Freedom Chris, Smith, and Sane, and gawd knows who else.)


Story (by steve duncan)


Info from newsgroup posts


Books, Articles

  • Morton. The Tunnel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Toth. The Mole People. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1993.
  • Blanchard. "Driven Underground." In The Spirit (Periodical). March 18, 1999, pg. 10.

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