Site Visit to Shaft 33B: Water Tunnel No. 3

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Shaft 33B caused a great deal of controversy in Manhattan Community Board 6 when they learned about its planned siting in 2006. The shaft is located at the northeast corner of 59th Street and 1st Avenue, right next to the onramp to the Queensboro Bridge, which of all the places in this area definitely seems one of the most sensible and least disruptive to the wider community. There is a similarly fenced-in parking lot and storage facility for the DOT right next to the site and any other program on this corner would be very awkward and unpleasant. I’m sure the years of construction for the shaft, however, were much uglier and more inconvenient than the fenced-off innocuous site that is now there.

I was not sure what to expect, as I had never looked for a water tunnel shaft before and the articles I read never mention what the finished product of the shaft would look like, only the years of construction involved in creating one. At first I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place, since there were no signs indicating what the space was used for, but there were a few indicators that assured me this was one of the few spots where the water tunnel surfaced.

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The first clues that this was the right spot were two tall metal cylinders with grates at the top, which I assumed were some sort of air vents for the tunnel. There were two metal cellar doors on either side of the cylinders, which presumably provide maintenance access to the shafts.
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The next clue was the only signage on the fence: “NYC Environmental Protection: AUTHORIZED PARKING ONLY” – the NYC DEP is the agency that manages Water Tunnel No. 3 and its shafts.
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When I turned around, I got the biggest indication of all that I was in the right place – more manhole covers than I have ever seen in one place, stretching down the length of the street and sidewalk.
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Most of the manhole covers were large and round and had “W.S.N.Y.” (Water Supply of New York) written on them, as well as “MADE IN INDIA” in much smaller type face. A few were much smaller, some square labeled “WSNY”, and some round labeled, very clearly, “WATER.” There didn’t seem to be a clear geometric pattern to how these manhole covers were laid out, but clearly they relate to a large, intricate system underneath. This is also the location where the tunnel connects to more local systems that bring water to each building in the neighborhood – perhaps each manhole cover indicates one of these connections? More research is needed to understand their layout and purpose.

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Finally, I zoomed in on one of the cylinders with a telephoto lens to be able to read the very small label at its base, which had the information for “Post Road Iron Works” and a project number and date (06/2013 – consistent with our research about when this shaft was completed). Presumably, this label indicates the manufacturer of the iron pipes, or perhaps the cylinders, though those were steel. Hopefully this information will help us in further research. It interested me that these labels seemed like flimsy stickers and were already beginning to peel off, not etched more permanently into the metal – I’m glad I got a picture before they disappear entirely.

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These industrial elements were surprisingly beautiful, especially the cylinders against the backdrop of the bridge.

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