Austrian Archives (S)/Imagno/Getty Images
Erika Owen
April 02, 2017

Anyone who has ever ridden the New York City subway knows that it's a particularly smelly place. If you can imagine, it used to be worse.

Today, we have gadgets and technology in place to capture the source of dangerous scents (read: gas leaks), but back in the 1920s, they had nothing of the sort. This is where James "Smelly" Kelly comes into the picture.

Atlas Obscura tracks his history as a subway smeller, searching out the causes behind some of the strange scents originating in the hallowed halls of the subway track. As Atlas Obscura shares, Kelly walked more than 100,000 miles of those tracks in his career as the foreman in the Structures Division of the Board of Transportation, which he started in 1926. 

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Among the usual gas leaks — he had his own homemade instruments for tracking down these sneaky situations — there were some pretty uncommon smell situations. He once managed to track down a particularly elusive smell consuming the subway tracks underneath the New York Hippodrome to a long-past crew of elephants occupying the space in the building during circus season. (The smelly truth: The elephant dung had been buried underneath the building, eventually leaking into the subway tunnel.)

Among his works gadgets, Kelly carried a 1763 map of New York City to better spot natural hot springs and other land formations that may attribute to a leak or scent. He also toted something called the Aquaphone, which was basically a telephone receiver with copper wire attached to it, allowing Kelly to "listen" to fire hydrants in search of a hissing noise that would alert him to the proximity of the leak.

He was also known for identifying clogged or broken pipes in record time, and often would find himself yanking fish out of the pipes — once even, a two-and-a-half-foot eel.

Want to know to more about the man who held potentially the strangest, and definitely the smelliest, job in New York City? Head right on over to Atlas Obscura.

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