An elaborate system of subterranean tubing kept the mail moving beneath Manhattan for 56 years

Few subjects fascinate Joe Cohen, 65, curator of the Museum of Postal History of the New York Post Office, more than the 27-mile pneumatic mail system that linked the city's post offices between 1897 and 1953. The system comprised tubes -- eight inches in diameter and located 4 to 12 feet underground -- that carried steel cylinders holding 500 letters each. Powered solely by air pressure, the 2-foot-long, 21-pound cylinders shot through the tubes at 30 miles per hour. It was a very efficient system, says Cohen.

Letters going from the General Post Office, on West 33rd Street, to the one in Manhattanville, on West 125th Street, took 20 minutes for the 5-mile trip. They were placed into a cylinder labeled "Manhattanville" and dropped into a tube by a postal employee, or "rocketeer." Three minutes later, the cylinder would arrive at the Times Square Postal Station, on West 42nd Street, where another rocketeer would deposit it in an outgoing tube destined for Radio City Station. It would then wend its way through the Upper West Side, via the Ansonia, Planetarium, Cathedral, and Morningside Stations, before arriving at Manhattanville.

The tubes were in operation 18 hours a day, except when snow clogged the city streets. Then they ran round the clock. When a tube became blocked, the air pressure was manipulated in an attempt to nudge the cylinder on its way. When that failed, crews were sent out to dig up the tube. The system was shut down in April 1953 because it was no longer cost-effective. At least, that was the official story.

Cohen has his own theory about the demise of the pneumatic system. After Charlie Wilson, a former president of General Motors, was appointed President Eisenhower's defense secretary, it began to seem more efficient to move mail around the city via surface transportation. "Of course, this was done with a whole new fleet of GM trucks," Cohen notes. Today, as the pneumatic tubes lay idle, a fleet of trucks is still the preferred mode of distribution. According to Cohen, the same letter traveling from the General Post Office to the one in Manhattanville now takes 90 minutes.

James Vescovi, a freelance writer who lives in New York City, is working on a novel based on New York's pneumatic systems. This article is adapted from "Mail Bonding," which originally appeared in the August 1-8, 1994, issue of the New York Observer.