by Kevin Walsh

Motorists know all about the Park Avenue Tunnel, which runs beneath the avenue between 33rd and 40th Streets, but few pedestrians ever see it. It was built in 1834 as an open cut for the New York & Harlem Railroad (NY&H) which ran both steam engines and horsecars, and the cut was bridged over in the 1850s, creating the tunnel — one of NYC’s oldest, if not the very oldest. The tunnel has carried trolley tracks, two-way traffic, and now northbound auto traffic.

Photo from NYC Department of Records

ForgottenFan Joe Brennan:

…The oldest tunnel in NYC for rail traffic, or any kind of traffic, is the Mount Prospect Tunnel in Manhattan, opened in 1837. It now forms the center two tracks of Metro North from 92nd St to 94th St, under Park Ave. The tunnel north and south of it, and the one-track tunnels on each side of it, were added in 1873-1875, but the Mount Prospect Tunnel was left in place and became part of the larger “Fourth Avenue Improvement”



Frank December 6, 2012 - 7:36 pm

I remember going into the tunnels when i was a kid. We would get into the tunnel by one of the service entrances and we would walk the tunnel all the way to about 100th street which was not covered. There were workman shacks we would hang out in also. We would put pennies on the tracks to flatten them but we were young and stupid it was very dangerous with lots of trains going by very fast.

Gary Farkash December 7, 2012 - 8:45 am

Photos like this are incredible. As for the tunnel being the oldest, sorry to say that the oldest tunnel in NYC for rail traffic goes to the Atlantic Ave LIRR tunnel, which today is in the Guinness book of worlds records as the oldest “subway” tunnel.
If you look closely, the tracks are for underground third rail trolleys. What appears to be the center rail is actually a slot where a paddle fits into to collect the current to drive the motors and the electricity is safely sent through one of the rails back to the source.

Joe Brennan December 9, 2012 - 9:15 pm

No, the oldest tunnel in NYC for rail traffic, or any kind of traffic, is the Mount Prospect Tunnel in Manhattan, opened in 1837. It now forms the center two tracks of Metro North from 92nd St to 94th St, under Park Ave. The tunnel north and south of it, and the one-track tunnels on each side of it, were added in 1873-1875, but the Mount Prospect Tunnel was left in place and became part of the larger “Fourth Avenue Improvement”.

Kevin Walsh December 9, 2012 - 11:47 pm

What about the 1834 date for the Park Ave Tunnel below 33-40 St?

Gary at NYC Movieplace March 5, 2013 - 11:48 am

That 1834 date was when the open cut (such a nice word for a ditch) was constructed. It did not become a tunnel until the 1850’s when it was roofed over (the City made the Harlem River Rail Road do it).

Gary at NYC Movieplace March 5, 2013 - 11:54 am

When I was a kid everybody knew someone who had a cousin who had been hit by a train while playing on the tracks, the result being that legs were lost. This was always the case. I even heard such tales of this happening all to frequently out along the Long Island Rail Road Bay Ridge line. I live(d) near Riverside Park and the freight line was pretty active when I was growing up. There were so many open gates that access was too easy. I often wondered where were all these legless kids, or were these just cautionary tales made up to scare us into not venturing under the park and petting pennies on the rails.

andy December 6, 2012 - 11:53 pm

Trolley tracks in the photo were in use until February 1935, when the route was converted to bus (today’s M1 route). Buses did not use the tunnel but were rerouted to the street surface. Note that the tracks have a conduit in the middle that covered a third rail for electric power pickup, and a fourth rail for the return circuit. In the US this setup was unique to Manhattan (and Washington, DC) as both places forbade use of conventional overhead wire for trolleys.

Tal Barzilai December 8, 2012 - 9:37 pm

At least they found a good use for this tunnel after it was no longer needed by either trains or trolleys rather than just covering it up like the one over in Brooklyn where the main terminal of the LIRR was. However, I have not driven through this tunnel much. The only times I did was when I didn’t need to turn on any of the streets that are where the tunnel is. On a side note, I wonder if the Park Avenue overpass near GCT was also used be trains or trolleys at one point or if that was always made for vehicular traffic.

andy December 9, 2012 - 8:03 pm

That overpass has always been used for vehicular traffic – private cars and taxis only. In the early days, probably horse drawn vehicles were also allowed. The curves at the 46th Street are too sharp for motor buses or trucks.

An interesting sidenote – the Third Ave. had a short spur from its namesake avenue to a terminal in front of GCT on 42nd Street. It was removed in 1923, and passed underneath the Park Ave. overpass.

Larry December 10, 2012 - 7:56 am

the BMT owned the trolley and bus system in Brooklyn…which was separate from the private Manhattan companies….they had overhead wires……Does anyone know if the Manhattan lines with the middle rail ran into problems with rain or flooding….?

Gary at NYC Movieplace March 5, 2013 - 11:46 am

I have always wondered that myself, about water getting down there.

Gary at NYC Movieplace March 5, 2013 - 11:56 am

Does anyone notice the guy standing there by the stairs on the right of the picture?

april August 31, 2013 - 4:19 am

This was the very first thing I noticed, Gary, and might actually be three people if you look closely enough. Question is: Are they real? The main one looks to be in period costume. There is a prominent orb or flash to their left, while it looks like illumined capital letters to their right.
Kevin, any input on the above?

Anthony G May 31, 2020 - 6:57 pm

Yes, one person standing to the right. April mention three people, no there’s just one person in the photo. The “orb” is light.

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Dr. Sliderule July 1, 2015 - 11:44 pm

I am confused. Does anyone know if the Mount Prospect Tunnel was built originally as a tunnel (i.e., through rock), or was it, rather built by the trench and fill method with the earth placed on top after it was constructed?

Anthony G May 31, 2020 - 7:05 pm

It’s mixed. Some of it was open cut, some rock tunnel, most beam tunnel and the remainder viaduct. Take a look at it here.

Jon Baker June 7, 2021 - 5:28 pm

But that profile doesn’t match what the route is today. The 125th St station is high on a viaduct, not 13 feet down in an open cut. It was raised in 1897 when the Spuyten Duyvil Creek was dredged and straightened to make it and the Harlem River a navigable waterway, necessitating raising the NY Central bridge and the railroad line approaching it.

John T February 4, 2020 - 10:36 pm

The Pershing Square restaurant is where the trolleys used to turn off 42nd Street and enter the tunnel. The space has no internal columns, and can imagine the trolleys running through this space

joseph hanania October 6, 2021 - 10:35 am

I biked the tunnel on one of the days Manhattan had Open Streets, barring cars from much of Park Ave. I don’t know if they still open the tunnel – it was closed off for a few years after that for security reasons, I believe. But it was fun – as was biking though the elevated tunnel through Grand Central/the Met Life building.


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