In the 20th century, the subway system used professional sniffers to keep New Yorkers safe

Posted On Tue, June 27, 2017 By

Posted On Tue, June 27, 2017 By In History, Transportation

Image © 6sqft

The city’s subways of today have machines that can test air samples and look for potentially dangerous gas build-up or biological and chemical agents. However, before such technology was invented, the city hired James “Smelly” Kelly to walk the tracks using just his nose and a few homemade inventions, to find and report any leaks or hazardous smells. As Atlas Obscura discovered, Kelly and his team would walk underground for allegedly ten miles of track each day, and by the end of his career, it is said Kelly walked over 100,000 miles of track.

james kelly, smelly kelly, the world beneath the city
James “Smelly” Kelly, courtesy of Harper Collins

A book written by Robert Daley in 1959, titled The World Beneath the City, detailed Kelly’s life and his superhuman nose in an entire chapter. According to Daley, Kelly was born in Ireland in 1898 and grew up helping his uncle find water. After experience using a submarine hydrophone in the British Navy, Kelly came to New York in 1926 and became a maintenance engineer for the Transit Authority. It took no time for him to develop a reputation for his ability to find leaks underground before anyone else.

After being promoted to the Foreman in the Structures Division, Kelly started training a small team of assistants that worked under him. In a 1941 profile of Kelly in the New Yorker, the article titled “Leaky Kelly,” said Kelly and his team would walk the tracks each day looking for damp spots and other signs of leakage, using his handmade tools. One contraption, the “Aquaphone,” was a typical telephone receiver with a copper wire attached. Kelly would place the end of the wire to fire hydrants, listening for a hissing sound that would signal a nearby leak. In addition to this mechanism, Kelly would bring along a doctor’s stethoscope and a map of Manhattan from 1763, which indicated pre-existing sources of water.

In the early 1940s, sometimes eels and fish were found clogging up pipes, drawn into the water system from the reservoirs. Legend has it that Kelly discovered a school of 40 killifish in a subway bathroom on 145th Street and a two-and-a-half foot eel from a sink pipe at 42nd Street. The New Yorker called it, “a spanking ten-inch trout, which would have been a noteworthy fish, even if it hadn’t been found splashing gaily in a two-foot water main in a Grand Concourse lavatory.”

hippodrome, smelly kelly, nyc history
The hippodrome was located on Sixth Avenue between West 43rd and West 44th Streets

One of the most notorious Smelly Kelly stories occurred after he was called to the 42nd Street station to figure out the cause of a horrible odor. According to Kelly, the smell was so bad it almost knocked him over. The disgusting stench? Elephant feces. The station had been built beneath the location of the old New York Hippodrome, a spot that featured circus animals. Layers of elephant excrement had ended up being buried at the site, and after a broken water main rehydrated the fossilized manure, it leaked into the subway. In his book, Daley writes, “If the New York Subway System has never had a significant explosion or cave-in, part of the reason is Smelly.”

[Via Atlas Obscura]


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