Driving Under the Hudson: A History of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels

January – June 2012

Click here to take an interactive virtual tour of the exhibit.

Through this exhibition, we celebrated the 85th anniversary of the Holland Tunnel and the 75th birthday of the Lincoln Tunnel. Love them for the access they provide to New York City, or curse them for the rush-hour traffic that ensnares Hudson County drivers, the tunnels define Hoboken’s northern and southern borders. Today we take them for granted, but when they were built, they were marvels of both engineering prowess and public works initiatives.

For hundreds of years before either tunnel was built, the Hudson River could only be crossed by boat. While railroads transported goods easily across the country, once they arrived at the Hudson River, delivering them to New York City was more complicated. A system of lighters, private ferries, barges, and car floats was employed by the railroad companies, but this was a slow, inefficient and very costly way of moving goods. Shippers were at the mercy of ever-changing river conditions, which dictated when—or whether—goods could be moved.

By the beginning of the 20th century, what the region needed most was a freight rail tunnel. Passenger access was improved in 1908 and 1910 with the construction of the Hudson & Manhattan Tubes and rail tunnel to Pennsylvania Station. But they weren’t keeping up with population growth. The story behind how the two new vehicular tunnels were planned, funded and constructed reveals a fascinating struggle between public and private sector powers against daunting physical and financial obstacles. It is also a testament to the workers—known as sandhogs—who risked their lives under highly pressurized conditions until engineers figured out how to improve worker safety. Indeed, when it was completed in 1927, the Holland Tunnel, named for its chief engineer, was called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The public is invited to explore the tunnels’ back story and ongoing significance in the Museum’s online virtual gallery for the exhibition, Driving Under the Hudson: The History of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, which was on view at the Museum from Jan. 29 through July 1, 2012.

Waterfront reformers and political progressives wanted a freight tunnel, but that would have threatened the power of racketeers and politicians, especially Mayor Hague of Jersey City, who used the piers as a source of job patronage. It was agreed, however, that something was needed to link the eastern edge of New Jersey with Manhattan.

As America’s love affair with automobiles grew, engineers and sociologists argued for building a bridge, assuming drivers would prefer light, air and a view to a long, claustrophobic, dingy tube. But a 1913 engineering study concluded that a bridge would cost $42 million, versus $11 million for a two-tube vehicular tunnel. Ultimately, money and the lack of space to build a bridge would decide the debate in favor of a tunnel.

Two things precipitated matters. The harsh winter of 1917-1918—when the Hudson River froze over as temperatures dipped well below zero—made getting fuel and food to New York City almost impossible. The following winter, a strike by the Marine Workers’ Affiliation affected freight deliveries as well as commuter ferries. As tens of thousands of ferry travelers poured into the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad (now PATH), police were called in to deal with extreme overcrowding on the trains.
Cooperation and obstruction

In September 1919, New York and New Jersey quickly came to consensus and signed an agreement that provided for the joint construction, operation, repair, and maintenance of the tunnel, with the costs shared equally by both states. Tolls would be instituted to pay each state back within 20 years. Clifford Holland, the youngest chief tunnel engineer in the U.S., was appointed to direct and design the largest vehicular tunnel ever built. Again, the biggest challenge would prove to be Jersey City’s Mayor Frank Hague, who found many ways to hold up the project and extort money and concessions for his office and supporters.

Eventually, Holland planned a secret groundbreaking for May 31, 1922. With a small crew and a few officials, Holland clandestinely crossed into Jersey City, where he was photographed with a shovel in the ground. With the photograph in all the papers, Hague had been outmaneuvered.

Planning for the Midtown Hudson Tunnel, as the Lincoln was originally named, seemed to go much smoother, at least at first. With the technical knowledge gained from the Holland Tunnel, the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel would be the turn out to be the easiest part of the project. But the crash of 1929 and the advent of World War II delayed construction of the first two tunnel tubes for many years and by 1937 only one was completed. Each decade brought a new impediment: In the 1930s it was a lack of capital; the ’40s saw a lack of manpower and materials due to the war, and by the ’50s, a postwar building boom on both sides of the river meant complex real estate transactions had to be negotiated. Work on the second tube wasn’t completed until 1945, and the third tube delayed until 1957.

The exhibition featured original documents such as official correspondence and engineering plans, plus historic newsreel footage, and objects such as a now-defunct “catwalk car,” which was driven along specially constructed side rails to deal with vehicle emergencies. Photographs and oral histories from the original sandhogs involved in the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel will tell their history.

Curators Bob Foster and David Webster were advised by Dr. Angus Gillespie, Professor of American Studies at Rutgers University and author of Crossing Under the Hudson, The Story of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels (Rutgers Press, 2011); and historian and engineer Robert W. Jackson, author of Highway Under the Hudson: A Story of the Holland Tunnel (New York University Press, 2011). Both authors came to the Museum to give lectures, along with architectural historian John Gomez, a member of the Museum’s History Advisory Board and a founder of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, and Steven Hart, author of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, which documents the construction of the Pulaski Skyway.

The exhibit is made possible through funding from the New Jersey Historical Commission, Applied Companies, Bijou Properties, T&M Contracting, United Way of Hudson County, and Wiley & Sons.