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GES179 - Canal St Sewer, NYC

On a trip to New York City, I had a few places I wanted or rather, hoped to see. The bridges were obvious, and I love track, but I was really interested to see some drain action. Packing a pair of finest non-gay black rubber thigh waders into my limited space backpack. I was particularly taken with the Canal St Sewer, after it appeared in the excellent video by Andrew Wonder. One of the things I love about draining is the history, the way these tunnels not only carry shit through cities, but also the history. The way the urban landscape has evolved and taken into account the watercourses that once ran freely through meadows, but are now buried below the concrete and steel.

The Canal St sewer once too ran freely in open land, the Native Americans paddling from the Hudson river at high tide up to a collecting pond. Modern day Canal Street roughly runs along the route of the old stream, as shown below.

Then came the Europeans, and it wasn't long before the collecting pond became a toxic mix of sewage, tannery effluent and slaughterhouse waste. As with London and most other cities that have open sewers, cholera became prevalent, as well as the stench. In 1819, a decision was made to bury the stream, that had already been shored up and lined with wood and then stone. In doing so the city had created their first sewer.

I never thought I'd get to see the sewer, it's rarely visited, and involves drain levers that weren't on my trusty swiss army knife.  To my knowledge, access is only possible with the help of one man, the walking, living, breathing urban history academic, GE012. I wasn't expecting to meet him during my short time in NYC, but when GE011  said he was taking GE074 and I around to GE012 and his lady's for dinner, the sewer was the main thing I wanted to talk about, I didn't think for a second he'd actually help me to see it. However, I was wrong, and not only is GE012 something of a legend in exploring circles, but also a generous man. And after talking about it, he offered to take us down there. Not only take us down, but take us down straight after dinner! And so GE012 took GE074 and I across the city on the subway to the sewer. All the way I was questioning him about various aspects of draining and track in the city.

We arrived at the access point, not a particularly big secret, as it's shown in the Andrew Wonder video. And we entered exactly the same way, climbing the same gate, using a suspiciously left suitcase?! The difference was that we were all wadered up, unlike in the video. The other subtle difference was, that across the Hudson in New Jersey, one could see an almighty thunderstorm taking place! As the old motto goes, when it rains, don't go in drains. GE012 seemed happy to go ahead, and he has more draining experience than GE074 and I combined. So with the lid pulled back, and the X removed, I descended down into my first American sewer, which coincidentally was also one of Americas first sewers. All down, we had in front of us the interceptor for the sewer, the flow from the sewer being a gentle babbling affair, and the interceptor was busy but comfortable. We stepped across the interceptor, and walked along the side of the stream. The flow wasn't pungent smelling, just a stale humid smell in the air. I was mainly grateful there were no cockroaches, the most vile creature on earth. Keenly aware that there could be rain any moment, we pushed on as far as we'd dare. GE012 was keen to see whether the furthest section he'd been too was steam free. We reached the arched brick section seen in the photo below, but GE012 was to be thwarted again, as clouds of steam could be seen ahead. This is approximately 4-500m from the entry point.

It had become very obvious that it was raining above ground, and now side infalls that were gently pouring out, were starting to become much more pronounced and throwing water into the sewer. GE012 seemed unaffected and casual about it all, but I was keenly aware of one point on the way back that might be problematic should the flow level rise. It wasn't far from the furthest point we reached. It can be seen here, a 2m wide section where something crosses the channel. On the bottom right of the picture you can see water flooding in from a side pipe. All photos from here onwards are taken from the pic above back to the access point, using flash and a P7 torch.

GE012 and GE074 look at a side spring that enters the sewer, one that dates back to before the sewer was created and flowed into the original stream here. I helped GE012 lift that yellow/beige backpack over the gate, it weighed easily 30-40kg!

An arched concreted over section, heavy rain falls from the manhole into the sewer flow in the centre of the pic.

Clear water entering a sewer is rarely a good thing, and this was no exception.  GE012's snotsicles hang from the ceiling.

A forest of snotsicles hang from the metal ribbed roof.

Little or even disused pipes sit on the right, and the left two very much active. The sound of gushing water from the side pipes, as well as rain dropping down from the various manholes was starting to be deafening. I wasn't sure if I was scared or thrilled as I quickly plodded along to the exit in the slowly rising main flow. I've always wanted to see a sewer or storm drain fill, the power of water and seeing how the infrastructure copes has always been a goal. However being in a filling sewer far from home, the reality is somewhat different. My main worry now that I was passed the 2m low point, was the interceptor right at the end. Falling or being sucked into that, would almost certainly be fatal.

We finally got back to the interceptor, and I was relieved it wasn't too threatening. It had doubled in height from when we entered the sewer though. The metal flap  at the back of the picture is for seriously heavy flow, and presumably chucks the sewer contents straight into the Hudson river.

All three of us then stood on the far side of the interceptor watching the sewer flood. In the picture above you can see there is still a 10cm gap into the interceptor on the right. Not seen in the picture below, but 5mins later the gap was gone, and the water was bashing against and then over the top of the interceptor. The water then started to rise over the platform we were stood on, the interceptor run off now fully submerged. We agreed this would be a good point to GTFO!

As we climbed out, I helped GE012 put the cover back on. I pointed my torch down the hole for a last look, and the water level was against and then over the first rung of the ladder, 30cms above the platform we were just stood on. After replacing the lid, we went across to another manhole that sat over the interceptor run off, the water was powering down the channel. You can see it briefly at the end of this video by GE074 here. From 2'35" onwards is all in this sewer. I left my shoes behind a bin/trashcan, and they were now soaked. So I wandered back to the subway for a journey back to GE011's in waders! Having seen numerous men in high heels and even barefoot on the subway, I was unlikely to raise even an eyebrow as we sat amongst the homeless kipping down for the night in the carriage.

I can't thank GE012 enough, as there's no way I'd have been privileged enough to have seen it without him. Props to GE074 too.


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