New York’s utilities, like its transport system, have at times lived above ground and at times below. And with few exceptions, they too dutifully followed the path laid out by the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811.
Gas was the first source of power to be distributed centrally. Dating back to the 1820s, gas companies pursued clients aggressively, until economies of scale drove them together as the Consolidated Gas Company of New York in 1884. By that time, the system of pipes made of iron or steel that ran under the streets, punctuated by emergency valves to control flow, was making its debut.
Electricity would be next. Thomas Edison’s first experiments with the production of electric power took place in the early 1880s, and involved wire laid in shallow trenches to connect street lamps and customers within a square mile of his Pearl Street base. Electricity cables ultimately stretched above and across city streets—until the massive snows of the blizzard of 1888 led to the placement of telephone, telegraph, and electricity cables underground, accessed primarily by an extensive network of manholes.
Steam heat was introduced at roughly the same time as electricity. For apartment owners and dwellers, the opportunity to get rid of chimneys and reuse existing boiler space in buildings was significant. The payoff for the New York Steam Company, at least in the dense areas of Manhattan south of 96th Street, was equally great on the commercial side: New York’s central steam system found a profitable customer base in hospitals, dry cleaners, cultural institutions, and large office complexes like Rockefeller Center. It remains the largest central steam system in the world.
Today, all three systems operate around the clock to provide virtually unmatched levels of reliability—largely thanks to their underground connections and the protection from the elements. Of course, running directly under New York’s streets, both the helter-skelter pattern of lower Manhattan and the rectilinear grid north of Canal Street, also has its disadvantages, including the occasional need to close streets for extended periods of time to access ruptured pipes or to upgrade aging cables or wiring. KA