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New York City Sewer Alligators: An Urban Legend Debunked

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I write about things I find interesting, and although I am not an expert, I have fun learning as I research. I hope you like the results!

Are there rogue alligators living in the sewers and drainage tunnels below the streets of New York?

Are there rogue alligators living in the sewers and drainage tunnels below the streets of New York?

The Urban Legend of New York City Sewer Alligators

Where did the rumour of alligators living in New York City sewers come from? Urban legends are the modern-day version of the fairy tale—something that originates from a possible grain of truth and is exacerbated until it no longer bears any resemblance to reality. This seems to be what happened here.

Legend says that these sewer alligators are albino and blind due to the dark underground environment. Here I include a link to the full, original New York Times newspaper article from 1935 that started the whole legend of “Sewer ‘Gators”.

As you can see, the reports eventually come to the conclusion that the near eight-foot-long alligator wasn’t a denizen of the sewers at all. Rather, it was an escapee from a passing boat on the nearby river that had found its way into the sewers half exhausted and too cold to put up any resistance to its eventual slaying by its "rescuers". From this report came the myth that survives to this day that colonies of alligators are alive and thriving in the NYC sewer system.

Chronology of the Alligator Incidents in New York

If you take a look through the New York Times newspaper's index, you can find a few stories mentioning alligators in and around the city. Here are a few of them:

  • 1927: A “good-sized Florida alligator” was found in a storm-swollen stream in Middletown, NY. “It was later discovered that the alligator had escaped several months ago from a pan on the premises of Dr F.E. Fowler.”
  • 1929: A two-foot alligator was found in the grass at someone’s home in Port Jervis, NY.
  • 1931: Another two-foot ‘gator was found in the bushes on someone’s estate in Pleasantville, Westchester, NY.
  • 1932: Police organised an alligator hunt in Westchester County after two boys brought in a three-foot dead alligator and claimed that the Bronx River was swarming with them.
  • 1932: The alligator hunt was called off after it was decided the boys had seen snakes or lizards in the river—not gators. The dead “gator” they’d brought in was identified as a pet crocodile which had escaped from a neighbour’s backyard a few weeks prior to all the excitement.
  • 1933: “A squadron of riflemen was organized here (Belleville, NJ) today to hunt for alligators in the Passaic Riv . . . Belleville police said it is probable the alligators were some of the six reptiles which disappeared last year from a lagoon in Military Park, Newark.”
  • 1935: A seal and two alligators turned up in Westchester County. “A three-foot ‘gator was found in Northern Yonkers by Joseph Domomico yesterday morning. Another twice that size was found, dead, on the east side of Grassy Sprain Reservoir.”
  • 1937: A barge captain captured a four-foot alligator in the East River. The ‘gator “was clearly exhausted and seemed in no humor to fight.”
  • 1937: “Passengers waiting on the eastbound platform of the Brooklyn Museum station of the I.R.T. subway just before midnight were startled by the sudden appearance of a two-foot alligator which had emerged from a refuse can.” As to how the creature may have gotten there, “Passengers on the station told the police that shortly before the alligator appeared a man put a large bundle in the refuse can.”
  • 1938: Five alligators were caught in Huguenot Lake, Westchester, NY, the largest of which was 19 inches.
  • 1942: A four-foot alligator (thought to have escaped from an outdoor aquarium in a local home) was found in Lake Mindowaskin, Westfield, NJ.
  • 1982: A 26-inch alligator was found swimming in Kensico Reservoir in Westchester, NY, part of the New York City water supply system.
  • 1995: A four-foot alligator was taken out of Kissena Lake in Queens.
  • 2001: A two-foot cayman was caught in Central Park.
  • 2003: An American alligator was found in Alley Pond Park.

Here you can read one journalist’s report of personally coming across a two-foot-long alligator as recently as 2010. So, there's plenty there to keep the story alive and fresh in the minds of people. It’s worth noting that none of these reports actually involve a sewer. Also, it seems that Westchester is a part of New York you might want to avoid if you have a fear of meeting an alligator in the city.

Tom Otterness’s sculptures are dedicated to the legend of sewer alligators. This one can be found at 14th St. and Eighth Ave. station.

Tom Otterness’s sculptures are dedicated to the legend of sewer alligators. This one can be found at 14th St. and Eighth Ave. station.

The Reality

Sure, there is little doubt there have been alligators in the sewer system of New York City and probably a lot of other cities across the USA. Until the middle of the 20th Century, visitors to Florida were able to buy baby alligators as a souvenir of their trip to the Sunshine State.

Technically, it is still legal to send alligators by mail in the United States so long as they do not exceed twenty inches in length. Perhaps they are cute curiosity when they are little, but once the realisation dawns on the person who bought them that these are not cute, cuddly pets, they often feel the need to get rid of them.

The answer for many was to flush them down the toilet or discard them in the waters of NYC rivers. Eventually, finding their way into the sewer systems, any baby alligator that survived the journey through the plumbing would quickly find themselves in a hostile environment to which they were not suited.

Initially, they would be fine, able to feed on rats and other small animals, but come winter, the cold would be too much for a reptile to survive. Alligators typically live in areas where the temperatures are between 78 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with Louisiana and Florida being the two main states.

Alligators cannot survive in an environment that contains salmonella, shigella or E.coli, all of which can be expected to be found in a sewer system. The other thing to remember is that there is a vast workforce active in the sewers of NYC, and they are not seeing any evidence of these creatures. Ten-foot-long monster sewer alligators are generally going to be hard to miss!

Rumours Persist

Having stated all this, the rumours will not die, and people will always find a reason to believe in scary stories as a form of cheap-thrill entertainment.

They claim that the sewer alligators feed off a bountiful supply of rats. Underground NYC is a vast warren of utility systems, which includes an ample supply of steam to keep them warm in winter. They also point to the fact that alligators are natural survivors due to the fact that they are the closest living ancestors of dinosaurs.

It’s interesting that none of them answers the question about the fact that they can’t live in a diseased environment.

Why Alligators Cannot Live in NYC Sewers

  • It’s too cold for them to survive the winters
  • There is not enough food
  • The sewers flood when it rains, and the alligators would drown
  • Alligators cannot survive in a bacterial environment

This doesn’t mean alligators don’t live in NYC or can’t possibly be found in the sewers. We have seen plenty of stories highlighted above that show that encounters have occurred. However, that is not the same as saying colonies of huge, blind, albino, breeding alligators populate the sewer system. We have seen that alligators are not suited to the environment and cannot flourish there.

There could well be a new story any day of a fresh report about an alligator being found in the NYC sewers. If there is, then it will be an isolated creature—probably an escapee from a zoo or an exotic pet that has been discarded.

Keep an eye out for wandering 'gators!

Keep an eye out for wandering 'gators!

© 2019 Ian


Ian (author) from Durham on September 13, 2019:

The one place I would love to explore without a chaperone, are the vaults beneath the Vatican!

Imagine the data and knowledge, let alone artifacts, that lie hidden away down there.

The nearest I have come personally to exploring forgotten tunnels, was when I visited Edinburgh, Scotland and took a 'ghost' tour of the recently rediscovered catacombs there.

I don't believe in ghosts but was fascinated by the opportunity to have a look around.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on September 13, 2019:

I'm sure London does, but for whatever reason, it's Paris, France which is also especially well known for forgotten tunnels, and I believe that in Paris, these are often catacombs.

This stuff fascinates me especially because where I live in north Texas, I've seen exactly ONE house with even a basement. You can't dig deep here without hitting water, and so the idea of being underneath the ground is just extremely foreign to me.

Ian (author) from Durham on September 13, 2019:

Thank you for the link, I will check it out.

I was aware of the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, where over 1,000 people live in the underground tunnels beneath Sin City, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that a similar scenario exists in one of the world's biggest metropoles.

I am pretty sure London has a large area of abandoned and forgotten tunnels and passages too.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on September 13, 2019:

I first became aware of the masses of forgotten tunnels under NYC by reading the fiction of Preston & Child.

It's such a big city, and it's been inhabited for a long time, and things have changed and changed and changed. So essentially, there are forgotten ones. Records lost and such.

On that subject, you'd also want to look into NYC's 'Mole People.' The mole people, of course, are the people who live entirely underground in these tunnels.

Look at the first many results of this search.

Ian (author) from Durham on September 13, 2019:

Hi Wesman, thanks for that. It sounds like something else worthy of research. Surely there are blueprints from when they were originally built? What were there intended purpose, do you know?

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on September 13, 2019:

Yeah, I'd never believe it in a place like NYC. It's just too cold there.

...on the other hand, you realize the very largest populated yet un-mapped place in the entire world is the underground passages of New York City? Not just sewers, but massive systems of abandoned and currently used tunnels.

There's no map of it all. And it goes quite deep.