After graduating from law school and before returning home to Texas, I drove north on Highway 95 from Washington, DC to NYC with my sister. At first the mood in the car was pensive and even a little sad as I left DC and the life I’d loved to return to Dallas. But we moved northward through the thick traffic on 95, and our moods lightened. We were headed for a little fun in NYC before the reality of studying for the bar exam and finding a job set in.
Intrigued & On Edge
I’m not a particularly fearful person, but I do have one big fear. The depths of any big body of water. Not the deep end of the pool, but pretty much everything else. The murky otherworldliness of the oceans and their creatures are a huge part of that fear for me. As a kid, I would cautiously turn only part of the page of a new National Geographic so as not to be too surprised by any crazy, glowing, freaky fish lurking unannounced inside its pages. My first and only experience of snorkeling in a large cove over a shipwrecked ferry was both awesome and scary as hell all at once.
Because of this fear, I’ve always been a little unnerved and oddly fascinated by the tunnels around NYC. I’d visited the city plenty of times before and speed through the tunnels in taxis to and from the airport. But this time is was just the two of us, and I was driving. Why that made a difference, I’m not sure. Maybe it was because we arrived right around rush hour and because the traffic moved so slowly.
As we queued up to enter the tunnel, we talked about how crazy it was to think that the waters of the Hudson were swirling above us and about the heightened security that was in place because of 9/11, but as we inched through traffic taking forever to get through the tunnel, we fell silent.
Finally, we both breathed a little as we reached that spot in the middle of the tunnel where the it begins to incline slowly instead of declining, and I remember sighing in relief as we saw the light peeking through the Manhattan side of the tunnel. Only recently did I become aware of the importance of that specific spot in the history of the tunnel, and the high price it exacted from Clifford Milburn Holland, the chief engineer during much of its construction.
Gone to New York
Before my trip to NYC last month, I picked up a secondhand copy of Gone to New York: Adventures in the City, a great compilation of stories about the city by travel writer Ian Frazier. The story titled ‘Canal Street’ began slowly, but then sucked me in as the essay followed the street westward spilling directly into the Holland Tunnel and its history.
According to Frazier, “[p]eople have written scores of books on the Brooklyn Bridge and its engineers, the Roeblings; the only book on the Holland Tunnel is a sixty-eight-page volume put out by the company that built the tunnel’s ventilating fans.”
I’d often wondered how the tunnel was actually built. How did it impact the workers? And, who does that kind of work anyways? No need to wonder anymore; Frazier had all the answers.
Betting on the Tunnel
The tunnel was built using the shield method of tunnel construction. It “uses a steel-plate cylinder, or shield, which is driven into the earth by powerful jacks at its back edge while men remove the rock and the dirt in the middle. As the shield advances, a tunnel wall of iron rings is set in place behind.”
They started from each side with the intent of meeting in the middle… The New Jersey side took forever to get started, but ended up moving fast. The New York side was slow going the whole way through. It had to make it’s way through landfill, silt, and a wall of hard rock, Manhattan schist.
The real unknown was whether the tunnels would meet when the time came for “holing” through. At that specific spot.
Everything depended on the accuracy of their calculations and the margin of error that Holland had hoped for was less than an inch. Ultimately the pressure and the conditions were too much for Holland, and he died of a heart attack before discovering that the two tunnels only diverged from each other by only three-quarters of an inch. Exactly as he’d hoped.
Paying a High Price
The tunnel also exacted a huge price from the workers, who were called sandhogs.
“Working in pressurized air is enervating, and the sandhog’s union would not allow shifts of more than four hours; as the pressure went up, the shifts became shorter and the pay greater… Under the river, beneath bare lightbulbs in the advancing shields, with the smoke of blasting hanging permanently in the gloom, and the racket of pneumatic grouting machines echoing off metal walls, the sandhogs picked and shoveled at the slaty gray bedrock.”
Apparently, there are also big health risks, including death, when ascending too rapidly from the depths of the tunnel. Facing those risks and being a sandhog also ran in the family. Many had multiple generations represented on the project. It definitely takes a fearless, unique sort of person to do that work.
Sadly, these days Holland’s sacrifice is hardly remembered. Tunneling is by definition the type of activity that runs below the radar, unlike building bridges and skyscrappers, and as Frazier indicates, Holland’s name also conspired to keep him out of the limelight and out of history.
After polling those who live and work around the tunnel everyday, Frazier reported that virtually no one knew why it was named the Holland Tunnel. Plenty thought it was named after the Dutch, but only a Japanese tourist knew that the tunnel was named for the engineer who built it. Now you know too.
While there is a bust of Holland near the westbound entrance, which includes his name, having passed by it myself as a tourist without noticing, I imagine it lost in full view in the midst of the hustle of the city.
The tunnel was opened on November 13, 1927 at one minute after midnight.
Canal Street, by Ian Frazier, which was originally printed in the New Yorker, April 30, 1990.