Abandoned Stations by Joseph Brennan. Copyright 2001, 2002.

Fantasy in The Mole People

by Joseph Brennan.
Comments to: brennan@columbia.edu
Copyright 1996. All rights reserved.

I didn't read Jennifer Toth's book The Mole People when it came out in 1993. Despite my interest in subway tunnels, the focus of her book, the homeless people who live in them, was not a topic I was eager to read more about. That these people are living pathetic lives in a filthy and unsafe environment seems obvious. That social and legal factors now prevent enforced care for those suffering from primary or drug-induced psychiatric disorders, as if they could judge for themselves whether to take such care, is both the saddest and most maddening fact in contemporary life in New York. I suppose I just didn't want to mix a hard dose of human misery with a subject that is a hobby for me.

But several people who have read my Abandoned Subway Stations web page have asked me by email about tunnels other than stations, sometimes specifically about ones that do not exist. Finally, one correspondent, in quoting a really astonishing description from The Mole People of an imaginary underground line, pointed me to the source where the misinformation was coming from. So I read it.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: every fact in this book that I can verify independently is wrong. I'm referring to her descriptions of the tunnels. I know this is not the main point of the book. That is of course the lives of the people who live underground.

"I hope to dismiss the myth of animal-like underground dwellers", writes Jennifer Toth on p.x. But the book is full of myth. While she admits to disguising the names of most of the people (p.5), as is standard in investigative reporting, nowhere does she admit also disguising the nature and location of the underground areas. I don't know what to make of her inaccurate descriptions. Is she protecting them? Is she gullible enough to believe everything people tell her? Is she trying to make the book more exciting? Is she just making some of it up?

Whatever the reason, the tunnel descriptions are terribly bad. When I started reading the book and taking notes, I had the idea of writing a short list of errata that made it past her fact-checking. But by the time I found her describing her own visits to places that do not exist, I realized this is something worse than a little sloppiness.

The first and last chapters are puzzling. The first is the interior monologue of someone finding shelter in a tunnel, very well written, as is the entire book, but not attributed to any particular informant, and therefore somewhat surprising as the opening chapter of a nonfiction expose. The last chapter is the story of Blade looking for her, including the remarkable notion that Mole People all over town are passing her warnings. Is this real or invented? We are simply asked to believe.

The sections about life in the Riverside Park tunnel are supported in general by other accounts, and interestingly the descriptions of this one tunnel are also the most accurate, although they are still exaggerated (as to its length for example). The descriptions of Grand Central are not at all accurate as to tunnels, and are given as reports from other people or as generalizations of no stated source. Toth shows little willingness to question the accounts of Mole People even when she has the basis of their fantasies to mind, as in the case of the Beach Pneumatic tunnel, and the same blind faith probably affects other material. Most seriously, some other locations she claims to have been in personally don't resemble any real location at all: Grand Central subway station, an IRT tunnel near 125th Street, a tunnel near Penn Station, a walk from the movies.

Judging by the accuracy of descriptions, I will even speculate that Jennifer Toth's visits to the Mole People were limited to several trips to the Riverside Park tunnel and down the cut toward Penn Station, and one trip with police to the subway near Broadway--Lafayette Street. All other locations are unrecognizable from her descriptions, except that often elements of the Riverside Park tunnel creep in-- overhead grates, concrete walls and rooms, a high climb to the top-- as if she believes these would be typical of other places.

I hope my comments here don't seem like nitpicking. The overall tone of the book though seems designed to make Toth's account into a series of exciting and mysterious adventures rather than sad visits to dirty holes in the ground. Since she fictionalizes the setting as much as she does, then other facts she claims also should be subject to a re-examination. There are too many exaggerations and inventions in the tunnel descriptions to make it believable that the rest is absolutely straight reporting.

Detailed Commentary on Tunnel Descriptions

I took a note of just about all descriptions of tunnels. Below are quotations, meant to be as short as possible, together with comments on the real locations. The numbers are page references are to the 1993 edition from Chicago Review Press.


...living under Track 100...

Track 100 is the large loop track on the suburban level, the lower of the two track levels. It has no platform and is located quite a ways east of track 101, the first track with a platform, and close to the Lexington Avenue subway, to which it does not connect. The space under it is the baggage and trucking subway that runs at right angles to the tracks at the line of 45th St. (The word "subway" is used here to mean an underpass and "trucking" to mean handtrucks.) This passage is about 10 feet high and more than 25 feet wide. It is shown in diagrams in many books, such as Middleton's Grand Central (Golden West Books, 1977). The reference to track 100 seems to be just a way of referring to the far east end of this passage. Since there is no longer any baggage or express (package) service at Grand Central, parts of these subways are not used much by staff and can provide places to hide at least for a while.


...hollow areas under the passenger platforms...

It's not clear whether this refers to literally the spaces that are under some platforms, spaces that would be under 3 feet in height but would hide a person sleeping, or to the type of passageway just mentioned, but it seems to be the latter.

...train tracks as they leave the station into the tunnels that spread like veins on the back of a hand.

They don't. This might describe tracks entering Grand Central, but as tracks leave, they do just the opposite of this: they come together, until they are down to only four tracks at 57th Street.


Seville moved deeper... They're all connected...

Both these comments might be defended in metaphorical terms, but since they are ambiguous, let me mention that the tunnels are definitely not much "deeper" nor are they "all connected". One of the characteristics of even the subway tunnels is that they are not all connected to each other.

The compartment, stretching the length of the platform and about ten feet deep...

There is no such compartment. This may be a misstated reference to the Grand Central baggage subway already mentioned.


...deeper underground to "the Condos," a kind of natural cavern where over two hundred people lived. ... The cliff was set back from the tracks so that beyond it, train noises could barely be heard...

The context would put this location below the level of the baggage subway, but there is no such level except at a few small locations. Note that this location was described to Toth, and is not one she visited. The informant goes on to say there are even lower levels where the people "have webbed feet", so it could be dismissed as fantasy, except that Sgt Henry of the "Metropolitan Transit Police" (sic) also mentions "The Condos" as a place he cleaned out. While it probably did exist, this is not a plausible description of it.


...thirty-foot drop...

This is exaggerated. The open cut on the west side, once the West Side freight line and now Amtrak's Empire Connection, is much closer to a 20 foot drop. Assuming a train is up to 15 feet high, allowing a foot or so for clearance, and about 3 feet for the thickness of the bridges, 20 feet is fair. The reader can check this easily. Toth uses the number 30 repeatedly.

They got tracks that interlock...

The description of a foot getting caught in the points of a switch as it moves is possible, although it rarely happens. Railroad staff are always taught not to step between points. I would guess this story is more likely to be based on such a warning than on a real event. The informant seems to have heard the railroad term "interlocking" but does not use it properly (or else Toth does not).


...his camp, far behind the operating subway tracks, and he walks behind a raised bunker, a ten-foot-high concrete wall that once served as a rest and tool shack for track maintenance workers.

We climb two levels up, one by a wall ladder, the other along pipes, before he leaves me still one level from the surface. He never goes to the first level, he says apologetically. On the first level, he advises, it's only about one hundred feet until the exit to the street.

These both refer to the same location, but there is not enough information to identify where it is. If we can take this literally, there would be an entrance of a type not specified, and then a relatively long passage of a hundred feet before a drop that has no stairs or ladder. While this cannot be ruled out, the length of the passage and a drop with no steps are at best unusual. One wonders why there would be ladder rungs on only the lower half of a 2-level shaft.

This is very reminiscent of the Riverside Park tunnel, as to the concrete wall and shack, and high climb to the top.


Paris, for example, is honeycombed with a network of tunnels...

Paris does have a large network of tunnels. They go back many centuries, and have been documented in maps, articles and books. I have seen a French "coffee table book" with wonderful color photographs taken in the tunnels. Contrast this though with the absence of such documented evidence for New York.


...the secluded tunnels that run beneath the busy streets in an interconnected lattice of subway and railroad train tunnels, often unused now, that in some areas reach seven levels below the street.

The phrases "interconnected lattice" and "often unused" and "seven levels" are all wrong.

As I stated earlier, the subway and railroad tunnels are not all that interconnected, and often one needs to go to the surface to cross between closely adjacent underground areas. It's remarkable how unconnected they are-- unexpected perhaps to someone who has not investigated them.

There are rather few unused sections of tunnel, and they are short. Toth seems to have no appreciation of how much work and expense it takes to construct a tunnel, nor how much public record is created. Tunnels are not built willy-nilly and abandoned. There is no shortage of documentation in the form of corporate charters, franchises, contracts, bond and stock offerings, and news reports of construction. For more recent construction there will be rounds of studies, public hearings, annual reports, contract bids, and other public record. But perhaps this is boring.

The "seven levels" will appear again. The only sense in which it is true is as a rough measure of depth, equivalent to seven stories of a building or some 70 to 100 feet. But Toth appears to be saying seven floor levels or even seven track levels, neither of which exists at any location in New York's subway or railroad tunnels. This might reflect her misunderstanding of a source.


...most of the homeless find their homes far enough away from operating tracks where they hear only a slight tremor when trains pass. Still others live in relative splendor-- in the frescoed waiting rooms of a few long-abandoned subway stations, at least one of which is said to contain a piano, a fountain, and mirrored walls.

There cannot be many locations in the subway where passing trains are only a "slight tremor", so the contention that "most of the homeless" live in such places is unbelievable. One such location where news reports have placed an encampment, the stub tunnels from the express track running east from Second Avenue (Houston Street), is never mentioned in the book. But many more places are just the ventilation rooms hard by the tracks, or even the catwalks.

The "frescoed waiting rooms" do not exist. This cannot be a report of something she saw although it might be something someone told her. Her stating something like this as a fact is all the more remarkable because its inspiration, the story of the experimental Beach subway of 1870, is mentioned only four pages on.


...the subway and train tunnels, and the natural and man-made passages accessible to and from those tunnels.

There are no natural passages. The subway system connects to a few building entrances at basement level, and by public passages at stations to PATH and railroad stations, but is that all she means by "man-made passages"?

...seven stories underground...

The context here is Grand Central Terminal, which has two levels and to a limited extent passageways at two lower levels below them.


From more recent times, mysterious vaults are sometimes hidden just below the crust of the sidewalk.

There's nothing mysterious about the vaults. Many older commercial buildings were constructed with basement levels extending out under the sidewalk, to increase the usable space. At some point the city began charging for the use of space under public sidewalks, and some building owners responded by sealing up the vaults at the building line to escape the charges. The existence of many vaults has been forgotten over time. However, I doubt their discovery takes many people by surprise. It's something to watch for when digging or when placing a heavy load on the sidewalk near any old building downtown. The vaults of course amount to nor more than small enclosed spaces with no connection to each other.

Other early underground transportation systems included a terminal for trolleys, which is still visible under Essex Street off a modern subway line, and a tunnel by which President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to Grand Central for a train ride to Hyde Park.

Obviously neither of these constitutes a "transportation system", and both of these date more than 30 years later than the Beach subway of 1870, which Toth mentions just before this sentence.

The trolley terminal is the open space visible from the Essex Street station of the J-M-Z trains, when no Brooklyn-bound train is in the station. It was used as a terminal for Brooklyn trolleys that came over the Williamsburgh bridge from 1908 to 1948. It's under Delancey Street too; Essex Street is the cross street.

The Waldorf-Astoria access isn't by way of a tunnel. (start revision Feb 2002) The hotel is one of many buildings built directly over the Grand Central terminal train yard. It's near a corner of the upper level train yard. There are sidings below it. Tracks and trains can be seen through gratings in the sidewalk on the 49 St side. Emergency access from the railroad to the street is by stairway on the 49 St and 50 St sides of the hotel, and also by elevator on the 49 St side. I have not been able to verify the Roosevelt story. (end revision Feb 2002)


Beach's is the only one of several experimental subway lines uncovered, so far as is known.

It was the only one ever constructed. It's sheer puffery to suggest there are "several" others. By the way, I'd feel silly myself calling 100 yards of tunnel a "subway line", but Toth isn't the first to do so.

One of its features, a waiting room furnished with a crystal chandelier and grand piano, was found intact when the line was rediscovered.

The station was not found when the line was visited in 1912, nor was the existence of the Beach tunnel unknown. See my article on the Beach subway for more detail. A few minutes with the New York Times Index and microfilm would have set her straight. The inaccurate reports about the station are based on popular subway books like Stan Fischler's Uptown Downtown. While the Beach line is a footnote in the history of New York transportation, it has been given lavish space in these books.

This story is important because it is of course the basis of the fantasies reported on p.41 and 234-235, and Toth should have recognized this. No living person could have seen the Beach station of 1870. I conclude that some of the Mole People must have been subway fans earlier on, and have read books and magazines about transit and railroading. The relation between subway riding for fun, socialization problems, and becoming one of the Mole People could have been developed had Toth recognized it. But she never identifies any of them as having an interest in trains per se.

Into it and other large, abandoned waiting rooms have moved the homeless...

This cannot be something she saw. There are no "waiting rooms" available. This is not a good description of platforms adjacent to tracks, and none of the abandoned stations actually have mezzanine levels or anything else one might call a waiting room.


They are similarly encamped in some abandoned subway stations, like that at City Hall...

Having visited City Hall station on two tours in the 1980's and 1990's, I have great doubts that it had been used by the homeless. Certainly there was no evidence; if they did use it, they took all their belonging and garbage away with them. I can't be sure.

They also live in what is probably the newest abandoned underground structure-- a six lane stretch of highway built in the late sixties beneath Chrystie Street, which was almost immediately sealed, abandoned, and forgotten.
(start revision May 2002) I previously expressed doubts about the above story. More recently, I have finally found a provision for the highway underpass in contract drawings for the subway that were put out for bid and resulted in construction of the subway line that opened in 1967. Separately, Dan Moraseski has kindly directed me toward New York Times articles in 1960-1964 that detail the million-dollar 156-foot highway segment from bidding to completion. The highway crosses under the Chrystie St subway tunnel, at right angles to the subway line, aligned with private property along the north side of Broome St. The subway contract drawings do not detail any work related to the highway tunnel, since it was built under a separate contract. There are as expected no connecting passages between it and the subway tunnel (no other non-subway spaces connect to the subway either). Plans for a possible Second Ave subway route via Chrystie St, as announced in 2002, still provide for it to avoid the highway tunnel! (end revision May 2002)


The train tunnels under Grand Central Station...
There, in a mere three-quarters of a square mile, thirty-four miles of track stretch out along seven distinct levels before funneling into twenty-six main rail arteries going north, east and west.

In the real world, Grand Central has 2 levels of track and funnels into exactly 1 rail artery of 4 tracks. It's very hard to believe that a person who was in these tunnels could describe them this way.

"Going north, east and west" sounds like it might have been taken from an old brochure about the mainline railroad network that was once reached from Grand Central. The New Haven goes east to New England, the New York Central main line went west at Albany, and connecting railroads continued north. But even explaining it away like this, there were not 26 routes from Grand Central.

...tunnels under the Port Authority bus terminal

Does this mean its basement? There are no tunnels. It might mean the lower level of 42d St station (8th Ave), but that's not under the bus terminal.

...one near the Lafayette Street station.

In the line from Broadway--Lafayette Street station to Second Avenue station are a few ventilation chambers (access to grates in the sidewalk) and emergency exits. East of Second Avenue station (F train) the express track tunnels continue for over one trainlength to a dead end where an extension had been planned but never built, and this space has been gated off to keep people out but may have still been open when Toth was there. People are known also to live in spaces in the Chrystie Street tunnel, the route from Broadway--Lafayette down to Grand Street.


...in just a two-block stretch of tunnels under the Bowery...

There is no tunnel along the Bowery, but the homeless were known to congregate in two tunnels crossing it, in Houston Street (F train) and Delancey Street (J-M-Z trains). This might refer to the one-block Second Avenue subway tunnel section located immediately east of the Bowery in private property and under the Manhattan Bridge plaza-- near enough to being "under the Bowery", and two blocks long if one accounts for the width of the plaza.


...electricity blows off the extremities...

I can believe the police officer told her this!


...deep underground where one tunnel opened into a huge cavern... well protected and virtually hidden behind a thirty-foot-high cliff of rock between it and the tracks.

There just aren't any natural caves in the metamorphic rock of Manhattan. I wonder if someone used the phrase "cavernous space" with Toth at some time. This is the same "Condos" location described earlier, p.20-21, and in fact it seems to be the same interview used twice, although the population was 200 there, 300 here. The number 30 reappears. As I mentioned earlier, the "Condos" probably refers to a real place even if this is not a good description of it.


...Seville's tunnel, which begins on West 48th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, near an almost unnoticed bridge over two railroad tracks thirty feet below street level. There are several such places on the West Side where the tracks are in a gully, not a tunnel, and can be seen by those who know what to look for.

This tunnel was originally an open cut, which has since been built over in places. It is mostly covered now from 53d St to 60th St, and at a few other blocks in the stretch south to the end at 34th St. The "several such places" refer to those blocks where the cut is still open, but at those points "what to look for" is nothing more secret than the side of the bridge, concrete walls along the sidewalk at the building line, usually with some view down to the tracks. I'm told that in the covered section up near 58th St, there are a couple of sidings running into space under adjacent buildings, and that there are people living in them.

The path for the tracks was blasted out of the Manhattan rock perhaps a century ago... Trains now run through them again, largely carrying freight.

The cut was opened in 1937, and it is used exclusively for Amtrak passenger trains.


...abandoned train tunnel...

The chapter refers to the Riverside Park tunnel, which is in use and not abandoned.


Freight and passenger trains once raced along this tunnel, which stretches underground more than four miles from 72d Street to 122d Street.

Fifty blocks is quite clearly 2.5 miles and not "more than four". Anyone with a map of Manhattan can see that, or anyone who knows Manhattan streets are very nearly 20 to the mile.

By the time the line in Riverside Park became a tunnel, it was for freight only. After some years of total disuse, Amtrak acquired it and began running the first passenger service through it.

If I may digress, it seems worth mentioning what an unusual tunnel this line is. The Hudson River Railroad was built in 1850 on this exact alignment along the shore of the river, at the bottom of a steep slope. Later, Riverside Park was built on the land side, between the railroad and a new street, Riverside Drive. In 1935-1937, the park was extended both over the railroad and out into new land on the river side of the tracks. A steel and concrete structure was built over the railroad in place. The tracks were not relocated. The roof was landscaped to meet the steep hillside on the land side of the railroad, so it now appears to be in a tunnel, or in fact is in a tunnel, although it could also be described as a long building with earth piled along its sides. Although one of the problems of the old park was that the tracks cut off the river from the park, the new project included a highway, the Henry Hudson Parkway, that has much the same effect.

The tunnel is wide enough for four tracks, and fairly tall, making it an almost hangar-like space. What made it attractive to the Mole People is that in recent decades the wide floor has been used for one track, then none at all, and even now only two. Plenty of floor space remains for people and shacks, and in addition there were small brick and concrete structures installed by the railroad here and there for materials and utilities including the electrical power once used on the line. Ventilation is provided by roof grates most of the way and by open arches on the water side at a few points. An excellent and safe view of it can be had from the sidewalk where 79th Street passes simultaneously over the tracks and under the highway.


"Seven stories under Grand Central"...

This time the "seven stories" is perhaps a measure of depth, and it is not clear in this chapter whether the reference is to the subway or main station, which are unconnected except by public corridors at the first level below the surface. Toth seems not to realize the subway and main station are different spaces. The lowest subway level is the Flushing line station (7 train), which is about 75 feet below the surface. However, see p.161 below.


...Burma's Road in the lowest tunnel levels under Grand Central.

The name is "Burma Road", a World War II reference, although what it refers to exactly is no longer clear to most of us. The same Metro North police officer Toth interviewed was quoted in a newspaper article in October 1996. Burma Road is the passageway under track 100, the same one mentioned at p. 13.


"...an abandoned tunnel that was once used to store or transport coal, for the old trains, I guess...."

The Park Avenue tunnel (Metro North) is the only one in Manhattan ever operated by steam, and no trains stopped to take coal in it. So this one is pretty mysterious. There's nothing else to go on. It's an informant talking.


...Grand Central, seven levels down. "Down there," says Deamues, "there are no trains. It's quiet. There are old tracks, and electricity in some parts. Big areas. ..."

There are definitely no present or past track levels in Grand Central other than the two levels in the station. This statement is impossible.


...the tunnel system under Central Park...

There is no tunnel system under Central Park, although subway lines do cut across the southeast and northwest corners.


...the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) subway tunnels around 125th Street in Harlem... Light through the grates is fading. We have come miles north of where we entered, and I am tired. ...he begins to lead me on a "shortcut" to the surface. We climb a few levels higher... I ask Blade for a quick exit to air. He knows of none. ... The tunnel turns gently. ... We step over a rusted barbed wire at shin level.

If this is an IRT subway tunnel as stated, there are two possibilities, the Lenox Ave (2-3 trains) or Lexington Ave (4-5-6 trains) lines. One wonders why they would walk for miles in danger along the edge of the track, rather than simply take a train. Mentions of "a few levels" and "turns gently" make me think of the IRT Lexington, 3 levels deep at 125th Street and with slight curves where the tracks interconnect outside the station. I can't reconcile the combination of grates showing daylight and being more than one level down, although the scene is somewhat reminiscent of the tall Riverside Park tunnel.


...Grand Central Station, which is spread over forty-eight acres, making it the largest train station in the world. It also goes down six levels beneath the subway tracks. There is no complete blueprint of the tunnels and tracks under the station. Many tunnels were begun but abandoned. Some were built but forgotten. Some were sealed off, but underground homeless people have broken through, either directly or by hacking a hole through the wall or by circuitous routes, to inhabit them now.

What a load of nonsense. Grand Central Terminal is not in any place below subway tracks, and it goes down two levels of tracks and with passages at two levels below that. "No complete blueprint"? Detailed diagrams can be found in several published books, and photographs of the excavations can be found in published books and articles as well. No tunnels in the terminal were begun and abandoned. The terminal was constructed in one project completed in 1913, and not accreted piece by piece over many years as this may imply.

One of the largest disused tunnels starts out in a northwest direction, taking it under Central Park, before turning southwest toward Penn Station across town. This tunnel can be entered from either station, as well as at various places in the park itself. "There are hundreds, maybe even a thousand, people living in that tunnel," I was told by Zack...

No such tunnel was ever constructed or even proposed at any time. The idea is absurd from an historical perspective, and so is the idea that such a tunnel would be disused now if it did exist.

The notion of entrances in the park is reminiscent of scenes in the TV series Beauty and the Beast.


We enter the tunnels through the subway in Grand Central, passing first along a platform with a scattering of commuters and onto the subway tracks. ... We snake along various tracks for what seems a frightening eternity as subway trains thunder out of the dark. ... Soon we leave the main track to pass through cavernous rooms, one after another, each with grated doors that are locked but easily circumvented. ... Now we begin to go deeper, down a set of rusty stairs, to another level, still an operating subway tunnel, and move along tracks ... find below waist level a hole, about as large as the entrance to a good-sized dog house. ... see a light on the other side and about thirty feet below us. We crawl inside a broad ridge. A cable hangs close enough to reach. A train passes, and we turn our backs, waiting for darkness to return before J.C. clambers down the cable, hand over hand, feet against the rock wall. ... Using cable and plank, I back down the steep incline and feel level ground once again. ... On this level, at least three down from the subway platform...

After the long passage about the terminal, now we find ourselves instead at locations in the adjacent subway station cluster. This description does not correspond to anything in that subway area, and I have been in there. There is an inclined passage, built about 1910 to carry electrical cables, that runs from the original subway's curve (in the entry passageway to the "tower", off the corrider near the shuttle station) down to the Flushing line just west of its Grand Central station. But obviously that lower level can be easily reached by a public escalator, so it would be silly to go as described here.

This one is bad, because Toth claims to have made this trip herself, rather than reporting it from an informant. But she cannot have done anything like this.


"We don't want you giving any names or too many details that might lead them to us," he says.

Fair enough, if Toth is honoring this request, but then what was all that we just read?


...a rubble-strewn lot that hides from hurrying pedestrians along 34th Street, a block from Penn Station. ... a very small room, almost an entryway, of a deserted building. In one corner, amid dusty brooms and discarded clothes, opens a jagged-edged hole that has been chopped through the concrete floor, and projecting up through the hole are two rungs of a rusted metal ladder. Another invitation to visit the underground. ... Down in the tunnel, the air is oppressive and it's even darker. I should be comforted by the absence of trains...

This makes intriguing reading, but where in the world could this be? There is no abandoned tunnel at 34th Street within a block of Penn Station. Could this be the old pedestrian passage under the south sidewalk of 33d Street between 7th Avenue and 6th Avenue? But as we read on, she refers to tracks, making this once again a firsthand report of a visit to a place that does not exist.

The description might fit one of the disused freight sidings under a building on the West Side open cut (p.73), and then it is possible to consider a wire across disused tracks (p.205-206) for example, and to avoid calling this chapter imaginary. But that would not be what she's described, "a block from Penn Station" and a tunnel reached directly from a building on 34th Street. Likewise, there is a "rubble-strewn lot", more or less, in the form of a parking lot next to the open section of station yard west of 10th Avenue, and while it is a block from Penn Station, it's not on 34th Street and the tracks in that area are quite active.


...a side tunnel off the main tracks. ...lined with brick walls that are coated in soot. ... the wire I had tripped over. It stretches directly across the tracks, from one wall to another, at shin height.

Brick-walled tunnels are quite unusual. The wire across tracks makes no sense if the tracks are in service, and there are no abandoned rail tunnels at 34th Street within a block or so of Penn Station. This place does not exist.

We enter a large, tile-walled chamber, with high ceiling, which could have been a waiting room at one time.

There is no such place in a rail tunnel. Perhaps this is a building basement, but we have been told it is a rail tunnel.


She leads me into a tunnel. ...White moonlight falling through the grates... We seem to have gone miles. ... We emerge finally, next to Central Park...

In this sequence, Toth and an informant travel from a movie theater to Central Park by way of a tunnel that has grates through which she can detect moonlight. It's not easy to distinguish moonlight even at street level in Manhattan. The idea that a long tunnel just happens to go the right way adds to my disbelief in this passage.


Whether Jamall's birdlike people are real, natural caves are likely to run through the Manhattan bedrock of schist. ...The shifting earth leaves gaps between slabs, which rain and spring water widen into huge caverns. The schist almost reaches the surface under the grass of Central Park before dropping a hundred feet or more below the surface elsewhere in Manhattan.

She actually seems undecided about the birdlike people (see the book for more)! Toth's assertion that caves are "likely" contradicts the simple fact that no natural cave has ever been discovered in Manhattan. (The "Indian caves" in northern Manhattan are just rock overhangs.)

The schist does not just "almost reach the surface", but is well exposed at many locations in Central Park as well as in other parks and in excavations. It is near the surface at many points in Manhattan. It makes possible the tall buildings and is the base rock of the heights of upper Manhattan.

Workers digging the subway tunnels early in this century are said to have found a ten-thousand-year old standing forest buried deep under the Upper West Side, presumably inundated in a mud slide and driven into a cavern by an Ice Age glacier.

The closest I can come to this one is the discovery of peat and well-preserved tree trunks and stumps near Franklin Street station in 1914 or 1915, called the remains of a cedar swamp as reported in one of the annual Engineer's reports to the Public Service Commission. No cave is involved. I wonder how this story reached her ears.

More plausible than Ghost Cliff is the huge underground room "with a piano and tiled floor and mirrors all around" that Jamall says he found. An elderly homeless woman later described to me a similar room in which about fifty homeless people live. She adds a fountain to the decor. "Fantastic," she said.

The same report is also on p.41, and both these stories are obviously fantasized based on the Beach subway story on p.45-46.

The two compartments could be the same, although Jamall and the woman placed them in different regions of the city, one in lower Manhattan and the other in Mid-Town on the West Side. These rooms are probably remnants of compartments dug and drilled out more than a century ago as part of the subway and rail systems and long abandoned and forgotten.

The subway and rail system tunnels are all less than a century old, and there are no large segments "abandoned and forgotten". Here Toth finally considers, but then rejects, the idea that even one of these stories might be fiction.

Abandoned Stations