Man nicknamed ‘Smelly Kelly’ used his powerful nose to find gas leaks in the subway

June 9, 2017 2:57 am Last Updated: June 9, 2017 2:57 am


A man with an extraordinary sense of smell named James Kelly helped keep New York subways safe and sound in the earliest years of their operation, and earned a smelly name for himself in the process.

Nowadays, the New York subway system has more technical ways to detect gas or other leaks. But in 1926, “Smelly Kelly” started building a reputation as the maintenance engineer who could find leaks and other problems that no one else could.

According to Atlas Obscura, Kelly walked nearly 100,000 miles along the subway system during his career, checking for plumbing problems or dangerous chemicals, cleaning out dead animals or feces, and always exercising his uncanny sniffing abilities. One time he located a two and a half foot eel in the pipe of a subway station sink.

In his most noteworthy accomplishment, Kelly was able to find the source of a hideous smell at a 42nd street station. According to him, it smelled like elephants!

Sure enough, the station had been built under a building that used to host a circus. Even though the building had been since demolished, a large amount of elephant waste was still left in the soil. Then a water main broke and awakened all those old lovely circus smells and leaked them into the subway.

Kelly even invented several homemade devices to assist him in his subway maintenance, such as an “Aquaphone,” a phone receiver hooked up to a copper wire, and a steel rod attached to a doctor’s stethoscope, both of which he used to detect the faint sounds of leaks.

According to the 1959 book “The World Beneath the City” by Robert Daley, “If the New York Subway System has never had a significant explosion or cave-in, part of the reason is Smelly.”