The History of New York’s Holland Tunnel

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Taking the PATH train or hopping on a ferry are arguably the easiest means of transportation Hudson County residents can use to get to New York City for a daily commute or a weekend visit. A trip through the Holland Tunnel requires paying the toll, difficult parking on the other side, heavy traffic with no right turns on red, pedestrians everywhere, traffic weaving bicycles… it sure is a hassle. However, when driving needs arise, the Holland Tunnel is there to take us where we need to be. Read on to learn all about the history of the Holland Tunnel.

(Photo credit: panynj.gov)

A much needed tunnel

In January 1918, due to record cold temperatures, the section of the Hudson River surrounding New York froze over. For weeks, boat traffic between New Jersey and New York was impossible. There were severe coal and food shortages on the east side of the Hudson, as the majority of the goods that maintained New York City were usually shipped via the Jersey City waterfront. After that very difficult winter, the effort to build what we now call the Holland Tunnel became a priority.

Prior to the completion of the Holland Tunnel, car ferries transported over 20,000 vehicles across the Hudson daily. Plans for what is now the George Washington Bridge had been discussed and debated since 1906, but the New Jersey and New York legislatures did not put the project to a vote until 1925, and construction of the GWB did not begin. 1927. The first segment of the Lincoln Tunnel in Weehawken would not open until 1937, making the opening of the Holland Tunnel in 1927 unique and significant.

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A marvel of engineering

The Holland Tunnel was built between 1920 and 1924 with an official opening in 1927, and upon completion it became the largest undersea vehicular tunnel in the Americas. Clifford Milburn Holland, 36, a Harvard graduate, was appointed chief engineer of what was then called the Hudson River Vehicle Tunnel Project. When completed, the two tubes that run its length – for vehicles traveling in opposite directions – would stretch over 8,500 feet. At the deepest point of the tunnel, it is 93.4 feet under water.

Construction began simultaneously on both sides of the river. Precise measurements ensured that each tube was perfectly aligned to meet in the middle. The tunnel workers (affectionately known as “sandhogs”) dug through the mud by pneumatically pushing cylindrical shields through the river bottom. These shields held back the earth, paving the way for the construction of the tunnel’s thick walls, made of cast iron rings filled with concrete.

dutch tunnel

(Photo credit: panynj.gov)

The name “sandhogs” was first given to the men who worked on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1872. These urban mining crews dug the underground infrastructure of the ever-growing densely populated region. Sandhogs are often born into the job, with several generations working side by side. Their stories of tragedy, resilience, community and pride in building everything beneath us – from sewers to subways – is an interesting subject for the curious to pursue. Between 1921 and 1924, 13 sandhogs died building the Holland Tunnel.

The tunnel workers faced multiple dangers, including the ugly bends. The air pressure inside the tunnels had to be constantly monitored to match the water pressure outside so that river water did not flood the tunnel and drown the workers. The impact of this excessive air pressure caused workers to strike, demanding a wage increase and a reduction in air pressure from 21 PSI to 18 PSI. The workers feared being decompression sicknesswhich is caused by the drastic change from high to low pressure that workers would experience when leaving the tunnel to return outside.

In 1924, Clifford Holland died of a heart attack caused, it is said, by the stress of the tunnel project. His death came a day before the last charge of dynamite which was used to clear the way to connect the two tubes which formed the east and westbound tunnels. 16 days later, on November 12, the now renamed Holland Tunnel opened to more than 20,000 pedestrians walking its length.

These Art Deco towers

Four sand-colored brick ventilation buildings act as the lungs of the tunnels. Two 10-story towers rise from the Hudson on the Jersey City side and two rise in New York. Fresh air enters the holes at the bottom of the shafts and the exhaust rises through the tunnels and exits through the vents. 84 powerful fans replace the air in the tunnel every 90 seconds. Each of these electric fans is 8 feet in diameter. Polluted air is drawn in through a duct in the roof of the tube using exhaust fans. Designed by Norwegian architect Erling Owre, the exhaust towers, like Jersey City’s beloved power plant, are something between a work of engineering and architecture.

dutch tunnel

(Photo credit: panynj.gov)

The tunnel was considered a remarkable technical achievement largely because it solved the problem of ventilating a long, endless tunnel full of exhaust. Imagine the soot-producing carbon monoxide from all those high-polluting mid-century automobiles. Of course, the drivers inside the cars were probably smoking cigarettes with their windows open anyway.

The tunnel’s massive ventilation towers were put through their paces on the morning of May 13, 1949. A truck carrying eighty 55-gallon drums of carbon disulfide ignited by fumes after entering the south tube from the New Jersey side. Nine other vehicles caught fire and several secondary fires followed afterwards. With 125 vehicles stuck in the tube, an evacuation operation accompanies the shooting. The ventilation system has been turned towards the full exhaust, extracting smoke remarkably well. Firefighters from New Jersey and New York traveled to each other, successfully extinguishing the fires. A firefighter was killed and 66 civilians had to be hospitalized. A 1996 Sylvester Stallone film, Day lightwas loosely based on the incident.

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The lament of a tunnel toll

Today, more than 100,000 vehicles pass through the Holland Tunnel every day. The toll to enter the eastbound tunnel into NYC via the south tube is $16 (slightly less with EZpass), but exiting The City is free. Initially, the toll was the same in both directions – 50¢ per car, 25¢ for motorcycles.

The November 1928 issue of poetry magazine Featured The Playful Imagination of Daniel Henderson of the annoyance that toll workers might experience when parking outside the Holland Tunnel, titled, Coin Watcher: Hudson Tubes It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come since the publication of this nearly century-old poem – and while the trickle of pennies, dimes and nickels that Daniel refers to in his poem may now be a thing of the past, the function of the tunnel and significance to New Jerseyans remain unchanged.

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