31 Mar 2017

History: New York City’s Professional Nose

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Atlas Obscura recalls a bit of New York City history.

Leaky. Smelly. The Sniffer.

These were all nicknames for one of the more unusual figures in New York City’s history, James Kelly. For decades, “Smelly” Kelly walked the tracks using his seemingly superhuman senses, plus a handful of homemade inventions, to track down hazards, leaks, poop, and eels in New York’s sprawling subway system.

Today New York’s subways are equipped with high-tech machines that sample the air, looking for potential warning signs of dangerous gas build-up, or even biological and chemical agents. But in the early days of the subway, which opened its first underground line in 1904, such detection efforts were left to the keen watch of rough-and-ready subway workers. And there was no one better at ferreting out leaks and problems than Kelly. …

Almost a cartoon of a gruff New Yorker, Kelly was described in the July 26, 1941, issue of The New Yorker as “a hardy, red-faced, Kilkenny Irishman.” His recorded quotes come off in a stern, affirmative staccato. In Daley’s book, Kelly says that all it takes to be a good underground leak detector are “quick ears, good nose, better feet.”

It only took a few years before Kelly gained a reputation for his uncanny ability to locate leaks that no one else could find. As retold in Daley’s [1959] book, [The World Beneath the City,] Kelly was once called to the Hotel New Yorker to investigate a rotten stench. Engineers had located a sewage leak behind one of the walls, but couldn’t pinpoint it. As the story goes, Kelly walked in, confidently announced that he could locate the broken pipe within a half an hour, and got to work. He flushed a staining agent, uranine, down the toilet, and before long, a portion of the wall began to take on a yellow color, indicating the busted pipe was behind it. Daley quotes Kelly as saying, “After that, I was in leaks for keeps.”

Kelly rose to the official position of Foreman in the Structures Division of the Board of Transportation, and was given a small team of assistants (reports differ as to whether he had five or six on his team) who were available around the clock. Kelly and his team were tasked with walking New York’s underground, looking for signs of leaks. Kelly’s exploits soon became the stuff of local legend.

he and his team were said to walk ten miles of track each day, looking for damp spots or other signs of leaks, and using some unorthodox tools of Kelly’s own design to track them down. Kelly was known for a handful of gadgets he had built to help him in his work.

Most notable was the “Aquaphone,” a standard telephone receiver with a copper wire attached to the diaphragm. He would touch the trailing end of the wire to fire hydrants and listen for a hiss that would let him know a leak was near. Another of his creations was a doctor’s stethoscope to which he’d attached a steel rod, which he would touch to pavement to listen for leaks. He is also said to have carried around a map of Manhattan from 1763, which gave him an indication of natural springs and other pre-existing sources of water.

The New Yorker piece shares another common story about Kelly, which was his knack for finding eels and fish that clogged up pipes. In the early 1940s, it wasn’t uncommon for fish to be drawn into the city’s water system from the reservoirs, ending up trapped in pipes and generally mucking things up. Among the creatures Kelly claimed to have pulled out of various parts of the system were a school of 40 killifish that he discovered in a subway bathroom on 145th Street; a two-and-a-half foot eel he’d fished from a sink pipe in a 42nd Street station; and as The New Yorker put 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.

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One Feedback on "History: New York City’s Professional Nose"


The nose knows! See Diane Ackerman’s “A Natural History of the Senses” for a delightful exploration of the sense of smell.


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