The story of alligators in NYC’s sewers has been around since 1932. The original sighting was not of an alligator in the swer but of one sunning itself beside the Bronx River. Since then there have been a number of sightings of alligators near reservoirs, lakes and rivers.
The most definitive sighting of an alligator in the sewers took place on Feb 9th 1935 when two Harlem teenagers were shovelling snow, they saw it down a manhole, snagged it and brought it out. When it got antsy and attacked they bludgeoned it to death with their spades. The story was published in the New York Times and the quality of their fact checking about the story has been lost in the mists of time.
The usual story of how alligators get into the NYC sewers is that vacationers go to warm climates elsewhere in the nation and bring back baby alligators as pets and then get sick of them as they grow and finally flush them down the toilet where they grow to huge proportions. The hole in this story is young alligators need a warmth to grow and thrive and NYC sewers hardly measure up as a warm environment.
It is however theoretically possible for an adult alligator to survive in very cold water, which must have been the case for the 1935 story to be true. If the boys were shovelling snow it was cold. But to do so the alligator would need to have slowed its heart rate and breathing which would presumably make it unable to be very agressive. So it seems on balance that the 1935 story is untrue.
However New Yorkers are very fond of this urban myth and gently encourage it. On the 75th anniversary of when this alligator supposedly appeared in the sewers, February 9th was declared ‘Alligators in the Sewer Day’ in NYC and it is now celebrated each year. It’s a whimsical and suitably weird tribute to the ins and out of urban life in NYC.