A Field Guide to New York City Manhole Covers


Fire Department New York

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The Fire Alarm Telegraph

This stalwart of the New York Fire Department stands over the connection box for one of the thousands of street corner fire alarms installed throughout the city. The fire alarms originally sent a coded telegraph signal to a central location, which would then send the signal along to the appropriate fire house. Even today in the cell phone era, the street corner alarms are still in use, and very often with an FDNY manhole cover nearby.


The design is from the early 20th century (after Staten Island became part of New York City) and the simple, single-strand basket weave design continues into the 21st, Very often the single strand design is associated with data communications.


The automatic fire alarm telegraph system was commercially available in the 1860's and the system was first installed in Manhattan in 1870. The wires were strung along the already overloaded telegraph poles along the streets.


Both square and round NYFD covers are found in all five boroughs. This cover is on Bay St. at Hope Ave, on Staten Island, a site that until 2017 had a stand-alone fire alarm on the east side of Bay St. That box was removed however, and replaced with a new street pole box on the west side of the street.

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Don Burmeister -- Photographs