Texas native Robert Jackson spent three and a half years compiling a complete history of a structure far from his home, something 33 million East Coasters pass through every year—the Holland Tunnel. Built in 1927, this daily part of New Yorkers’ lives was at the time the longest and largest vehicular tunnel in the entire world, the first to utilize a ventilation system.
In Highway Under the Hudson, Jackson delves into not only the history of this famous tunnel but the drama behind its construction, the people involved and the unique engineering that took place. “Engineering has played a major role in the social and economic development of our country, impacting our character and our attitudes,” he said. “In nearly every instance, there are fascinating and untold stories behind the creation of ‘engineered’ elements of our built environment, such as bridges, tunnels and highways.”
Since 1995, Jackson, who also works as an urban and environmental planner, has written about the nation’s engineering and industrial heritage, including in his previous book about St. Louis’ Eads Bridge.
What drew you to writing about the Holland Tunnel?
A few years ago, Director of New York University Press Steve Maikowski decided that a book on the Holland Tunnel needed to be written and he began searching for an author. I was recommended to him and was eager to accept the challenge due to my strong interest in the history of transportation engineering. After reading my history of the Eads Bridge, Steve decided that I was the right person to tackle the story and the rest, as they say, is history.
This is a very rich history; how did you start your research?
I began my research by contacting the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to see what records it retained from the state commissions that built the tunnel, before they merged with the Port Authority in 1930. Unfortunately, all of those records had been stored in the Port Authority library in the World Trade Center and were lost on 9/11. But the New York State Library and Archives in Albany and the New York Public Library had enough material to get me started. I also relied upon the C. M. Holland Collection at Case Western University and found other bits and pieces of documentation in other libraries as I went along.
What surprised you most about the Holland Tunnel?
When I began, I assumed that the tunnel had been built primarily for use by passenger vehicles, with truck traffic being of lesser importance. Just the opposite was true; it was built to facilitate the movement of freight from New Jersey to New York, with accommodation of passenger vehicles a secondary consideration. I was also surprised to find that, around the time of World War I, approximately 50 percent of the nation’s foreign trade annually passed through the port of New York.
What did not surprise me because I have studied other great construction projects but might surprise others is the cost in human life of building and maintaining a major piece of urban infrastructure. By my count, at least 14 workers died during construction of the tunnel, though it was thought that only 13 had died until I did my research. Also, two men, one firefighter and one patrol officer, died during the fire of 1949. It had previously been assumed that no one died because of the fire. In addition, two of the chief engineers died from overwork while the tunnel was under construction.
How does the Holland Tunnel compare to other large passenger tunnels?
There are many other vehicular tunnels that exceed the Holland Tunnel in size, length or visual beauty, but the Holland Tunnel holds a unique place in the history of tunnel engineering as the first such structure that was mechanically ventilated. It thus influenced the design of virtually every vehicular tunnel that came after it. It will never relinquish its place as a seminal work of civil and mechanical engineering.
How long do you think the tunnel will last?
All great works of humankind are destined to fade away at some point, but, as the title of my last chapter states, the Holland Tunnel was built to last. I believe that with proper maintenance, it will remain in use long after you and I are gone.
What structure would you like to write a book on next?
I’m currently working on a historical fiction crime novel set in Dallas in 1936. After that, I want to do a documentary film about a subject that I’m keeping to myself, for now. I would hate for someone else to beat me to it.
Sandhogs waiting during the construction of the Holland Tunnel.
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