New York Underground: Exploring City Caves And Catacombs

Sep 14, 2013
Originally published on September 14, 2013 6:15 pm

Urban explorer Steve Duncan goes underground, examining the hidden infrastructure of major cities all over the world: their tunnels, subways and sewers. Late in 2010, NPR's Jacki Lyden joined Duncan and a group of subterranean adventurers in New York. (This story originally aired on All Things Considered on Jan. 2, 2011.)

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If you're just tuning in, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Sometimes, you just want to boldly go below, underground, not just in caves or catacombs but beneath the city streets into its subterranean, Batman-like world. In December of 2010, I decided to join some explorers doing just that in New York.

As people walk along the busy streets of New York City, urban explorer Steve Duncan goes below, far below, through the city's tunnels, subways and sewers. It's a deep, dark look at New York's working history many of us will never see. But down there...


LYDEN: ...each expedition comes with its own dangers.

STEVE DUNCAN: I don't want to make it sound too dramatic because it's easy enough to hurt yourself walking across the street in New York. Definitely, there's some different dangers underground. One of the most obvious is the possibility of bad atmosphere, carbon monoxide buildup, hydrogen sulfide, also known as sewer gas. If you have an underground vault and a gas line breaks nearby, that might end up flooding it with flammable gas. Perhaps just a tiny spark from within a headlamp or maybe lighting a cigarette...


DUNCAN: ...can set that off. And that's terrible.

LYDEN: Not to mention the manholes he uses are in the middle of the street.

DUNCAN: Cars can come over those at any point. Subway systems, where you have 750 volts running along a live, exposed line. When you also have puddles, that can be a terrible thing. Exposed metal, random holes. On the subway, when trains are routed in different directions, the tracks switch a little bit, and it's possible to get your foot stuck in those if you're there at the wrong time. These are environments that, like the wildest places on Earth, you know, do have a lot of danger.

LYDEN: Of course, why Steve Duncan explores these spaces is another question entirely. Now, think about it. If you could follow Alice down that rabbit hole or Jules Verne to the center of the Earth, wouldn't you do it? We did. Steve Duncan took us on a weeklong trek through 25 miles of New York underground, each adventure going deeper than the one before.


LYDEN: Our first leg, it's the middle of the night, a freezing, snowy street corner in the Bronx with a tall Norwegian. Nordic explorer Erling Kagge is the reason for this journey. He and Steve met a year ago. Erling is ruggedly handsome in his late 40s. He's climbed the major mountain peaks. He was the first man to walk alone to the North Pole. Now, he wants to explore New York's subconscious.

ERLING KAGGE: And I'm always kind of asking myself, you know, why can't I just remain sitting in this chair instead of going out or going on a new expedition.

LYDEN: So you do ask yourself that.

KAGGE: Yeah, yeah.


LYDEN: And why do you think it is?

KAGGE: But I'm not always waiting for the answer.

LYDEN: Erling does wait, though, for Steve to arrive so that the journey can begin.

DUNCAN: Hello.


With his shock of white blond hair, the 32-year-old looks like a human sparkler. Steve brought along a videographer and reporter from The New York Times. We all set off. Our entrance to the sewer is a drainage culvert in the middle of a park somewhere in the Bronx.

DUNCAN: We're going in at a place where what used to be an aboveground river, was channeled into a culvert, and then set into one of the Bronx's older sewers.

LYDEN: But it's been snowing a lot. And when we get there, it looks a little deep.

DUNCAN: What do you think? You want to try it?

LYDEN: What's happening right now is Steve lowered himself over the side, and he's trying to test how deep this water is. Looks pretty dangerous to me, actually. Given the danger, we make the call to stick with Steve's topside crew tonight, a friend named Will Hunt. The plan is for Steve and Erling to wade a mile through the sewer to an exit manhole. They disappear into the tunnel, and then we wait.

WILL HUNT: This is topside. Are you guys OK? Let us know how things are.

LYDEN: That's Will on a walkie-talkie.


LYDEN: We wait for an hour. Nothing from the guys. Two hours.

HUNT: Ray(ph), it's not still going...

LYDEN: Nothing.

HUNT: ...which is making me a little disconcerted about the fact we haven't seen them yet.

LYDEN: They were only walking a mile. By 5 a.m., it's been over three, freezing hours, when finally...

HUNT: Steve, this is Will, over.

LYDEN: ...Will gets through.

DUNCAN: Oh, great. We're here.

HUNT: All right. Come on up.


LYDEN: Out they climb, filthy, tired. What happened down there?

DUNCAN: Terrible things. We can't talk about.

LYDEN: They were snapping photos, coping with leaky waders. And Steve says sometimes, time just moves differently underground. All right, let's come up for a breath. Why are they doing this? Back in 1997, Steve was an engineering undergrad at Columbia University.

DUNCAN: I was woefully unprepared for a final in math class and realized I had to do some of the homework on a computer program that was only available in the math building, and it was late at night. So I asked a friend, who I knew ran around the tunnels at Columbia, if there was any way to get in there. And he said: Sure, I can show you.

So he took me to an entrance to the steam tunnel system and said basically, go that way, make a few turns, you'll be right there. And he took off. I hadn't expected that part. But I went in, and just the whole experience of being alone in the dark, I felt like I was a million miles away from any other human. And, of course, I was only 10 feet away from the busy sidewalks. They were just straight overhead.

LYDEN: And later that morning, it's to Columbia that Steve returns. For this leg, we're going below with him through the doors of a small brick building on campus. We're dirty. We have huge backpacks. It's almost scary how easy this is. Down some stairs past two employees stocking a vending machine, we reached an unmarked door at the bottom. After a long corridor of clanking, boiling steam pipes, we shimmy up a ladder and into a crawl space.

DUNCAN: So right now, we're underneath a building called Buell Hall. It's also the French house. Before this was Columbia University, it was a Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. So you can see the, you know, where we're underneath it, it's these wood rafters supported on newer steel beams.

LYDEN: Steve Duncan says that when he begins these treks, he's often not sure what he's looking for.

DUNCAN: I wish I could tell you that I had everything completely mapped out before I go underground. That's very, very rarely the case.

LYDEN: You got a couple of maps, right (unintelligible) much about.

DUNCAN: I do have a couple maps, yeah. Interestingly, though, New York, pretty much, nobody has a complete map of the underground. It's like massive spaghetti down there sometimes. Sometimes, it isn't quite what I expect.

LYDEN: You can say that again. Our third night out with Steve, we're in a subway station in Lower Manhattan getting to explore what we've been told is an abandoned portion of tracking. Steve is giving us a little safety prep.

DUNCAN: And the big thing here is not to get killed, so don't touch the third rail. And if a train's coming, get out of the way. And that might mean, in the worst situation I can imagine, that might mean standing in between those two third rails and in between two pillars so the trains are coming on each side of you. You won't get killed. You will get seen. But that's much better than dying.

LYDEN: A final train leaves. Steve jumps down, and we follow. We move like a column of special ops in silence, hopping over the deadly third rail with Steve in the lead. The tunnel is dim. Only the lights glow soft and blue.


LYDEN: The train we hear is on another track, but it's still unsettling. As we clamber onto an abandoned platform, Steve freezes.

DUNCAN: I could have sworn I saw a guy over there. Did anybody else see that?

LYDEN: Suddenly, Steve is running, and there's nothing we can do but run after him. We've been spotted, and now, we're hopping back across live tracks. Up on the platform, 30 stunned spectators look on as we hoist ourselves up. Our microphones barely make it, and we dash out of the station.

I want to talk a little bit about two things: mortality and morality. Let's talk about this first. I mean, it is against the law, I presume, to explore these behind barrier spaces. And you're smiling.


DUNCAN: Yeah. Legality and morality, I think, are really different issues. And so I try hard never to do anything that's immoral, that I consider bad. So if we were to switch our mentality and say, well, you can be there as long as it doesn't hurt anybody, I think that would open up a lot of parts of the city that people would love to see.

LYDEN: So how long do you think before your next descent? I mean, you just - because even this was unusual for you. This was like day after day after day. That was kind of the first time you've done something like that, right?

DUNCAN: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the time, it's maybe one trip a week. It's back to grad school after this for me. So hopefully, this will keep me sane for next couple of months of sitting at the library.

LYDEN: Do you want to teach some day?

DUNCAN: What I'd like to do is what Indiana Jones did where he taught half the time and ran off in adventures the other half the time.

LYDEN: That's Steve Duncan. A slide show of photos from our journey is at


LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.