The Elmhurst Tanks
Half the world has seen the Newtown Holder Station, but you’ll never hear anyone call it that. The two huge canisters that rise above the flat landscape of Queens, maddeningly familiar monuments to the tens of thousands of motorists jammed in the traffic that strains from Manhattan toward the beaches and communities of Long Island, are “the Elmhurst gas tanks.”
Most eighty-year-old machinery looks eighty years old, and it is something of a surprise to find that these tanks, evident products of the 1950s, were in fact built in 1910 and 1921 respectively. It’s less surprising when you get up close enough to see the texture of the rivets on their sides, and the slide rollers—big, simple, and plentiful - that allow the tanks to rise and fall in the cage of iron guy frames that surrounds them.
For these canisters are restless, and they float up and down within their frames upon the gas that they contain. John Picariello, a twenty-seven-year veteran of Brooklyn Union Gas who is superintendent of district operations of BUG’s gas system, points up to where freshly painted guy frames enclose not the tank but a wide circle of brilliant September sky. “Our operating season usually begins after Thanksgiving—when the cold weather comes.” The summer is given over to maintenance, and now at its end the whole facility is immaculate—not only the frames themselves in the fresh red-and-white that the Federal Aviation Administration demands (these things are big enough to pose a real threat to planes flying into nearby La Guardia Airport) but also the wellswept paths with their pebble borders and a deep, lush bed of scarlet impatiens that surrounds the office.
As soon as it starts getting cold, men will strain at shoulder-high valves built on battleship scale to let the gas into the holders (none of the people who tend them call them tanks). It will have come a long way to get there. “Our gas comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and New York is the end of the line.”
We walk to the base of the nearest holder and climb an iron stair to a perch fifteen feet above the ground. From here the holder’s pleasingly simple workings —a technology that stretches back more than a century and a half—are clearly evident.
The tank beneath our feet holds seventeen million gallons of water, though all we can see of it is the narrow, swaying slice that separates us from the shell of the holder. This is not a single unit but segmented like a telescope into steel sections that fold in one upon the other in the manner of an inverted collapsible drinking cup. And, in fact, the tanks are properly called telescopic holders and their components cups . As the gas enters and gentle pressure builds under the broad domed crown of the innermost cup, it slowly lifts from the floor of the reservoir. When it has reached its full extension, the wide lip that curves out from its base engages the corresponding lip at the top of its neighbor and pulls it up until this section, too, hooks on to the next. After about half a day the 270foot-diameter tank stands 230 feet high and contains nearly ten million cubic feet of gas, sealed inside by the rings of water at the base of each cup.
“By this time the gas is at about half a pound pressure,” says Mike Russo, who has been on this site for seven years. “That’s the pressure it comes into your home at. If there was a hole in the shell, you could stop it with your thumb—it’d be no stronger than the jet on a pilot light.”
The cups are only three-sixteenths of an inch thick, but they’ve never given any trouble during their long life. “We inspect everything every day.” Internal inspections used to be carried on in a manner that sounds like pure New York City folklore: the holder would be emptied of gas and a worker would worm in through the forty-two-inch main that feeds it and climb up inside it to the surface of the water, where a wooden rowboat awaited him. Then he would paddle around in the echoing gloom, looking for leaks. “The last time they did that was in the early sixties,” says Russo. “Now we do it all with sonics. As far as I know, the boat’s still there.”
We make our way down and back toward the blazing bed of impatiens. Behind us rise the holders, bright and ready for the rigors of the coming winter, when they’ll be worked night and day, throwing off plumes of the steam that keeps the water in the seals from freezing. Picariello glances up at them. “There were fourteen or sixteen of these things in Brooklyn and Queens when I got here. Now we’re down to four. We only use them for back-up work now. Mostly it’s all LNG tanks today. That’s liquefied gas—takes up one sixhundredth the space.”
Will these two last? Picariello shrugs. “For a while. I hope so, anyway. They’re not really what you’d call cosmetically appealing. But there’s something about them.”