Modern Marvels · New York · United States

November 13, 1927 – The Holland Tunnel connects Manhattan and Jersey City

Holland Tunnel opens for the public
Holland Tunnel opens for the public
Image Source:

When I was a kid growing up in Arkansas, I lived in both Fort Smith and Van Buren, and really always considered them the same city. The two cities are in two different counties and are separated by the Arkansas River. I was used to traveling back and forth across a river to get into both towns. This was just how it was. When I moved to the Seattle area, same thing–there are two bridges crossing Lake Washington.

In Washington, they have a huge ferry fleet to get people mostly across from the Seattle/Tacoma side of the Sound over to the Olympic Peninsula side. It is not feasible to build bridges because of the depth of the channel and the height of seagoing vessels that come in and out. So, people like my friend Kevin get on the ferry everyday to go to work.

This was the state of things in 1927 Manhattan. If you wanted to get to New Jersey, there were 15 ferries that traveled the Hudson river taking commuters back and forth between Manhattan Island and Jersey City, New Jersey.

In 1920, the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission gathered the funds and started construction of the Hudson River Vehicular tunnel. It would take seven years, three engineers, and $48,000,000 to complete (that would be closer to $637,000,000 in 2015 dollars). Once done, it would connect Manhattan Island with the rest of the United States, and was designed to commute 15,000,000 trucks and cars every year.

Why a tunnel and not a bridge?

First of all, this was 1920 so most commercial vessels were coal and steam driven, or sail and steam driven, so the bottom of the bridge would need to be a minimum of 180 ft from the average high water mark to allow for shipping traffic. To get cars from the surface of Manhattan Island to a bridge deck 180 feet in the air would take a ton of space for on and off ramps. And traffic would have to backtrack up the ramps, slowing traffic. The Commissions decided that a tunnel would be more reasonable and still allow for War Department regulations for shipping traffic.

“The small maps of the approaches, forming part of the larger drawing that accompanies this article show how ingeniously the engineers have sought to foil the irrepressible desire of every free-born American motor truck and pleasure car driver to get himself into a traffic jam and thus retard his twenty-five-miles-an-hour progress. Note that the entrance and exits portals on both the New York and New Jersey sides. The two streams of vehicles cannot interfere with each other” –

By, WALDEMAR K. “THE HOLLAND TUNNEL IS A MODERN MARVEL.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 2. Oct 09 1927.ProQuest. Web. 13 Nov. 2015 .

I wish people still wrote like this–maybe my co-author can teach me to write flowery.

Problem? What Problem?

At the time of construction, there were about a half dozen vehicle tunnels in the world. Nothing had ever been done to the scale of the Holland Tunnel. This tunnel is 1.6 miles (8558 feet / 2600 meters) long and was designed for cars, not wagons or trains, but a steady stream of carbon-monoxide belching cars. The occupants of these cars need to breathe (crazy concept huh?).

Carbon Monoxide definition from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website: Carbon monoxide (CO–an odorless, colorless gas, which can cause sudden illness and death, is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned.

From the 1927 New York Times:

“Carbon Monoxide kills not because it is a poison, like prussic acid or arsenic, but because it asphyxiates. The man who inhales too much of it, is as surely chocked to death as if a strangling hand had closed his windpipe. A few strong whiffs of it are enough to  cause headache. Shut a man in a small garage with a four-cylinder car of which three cylinders are missing fire. He would be killed by carbon monoxide long before the missing cylinders had discharged enough consumed gasoline even slightly to nauseate him.”

Again!!! – They way that Waldemar Kaempffert (1877 – 1956 ) wrote was amazing

Clifford M. Holland, along with construction engineer Milton H. Freeman and designs engineer Ole Singstad, worked with the universities of Yale and Illinois and the United States Bureau of Mines. These amazing brains came up with a system that would make the tunnel’s air as clean as if you were walking down an open city street.

The problem that they were facing was that the tunnel was under water–93 feet below the surface of the average high water mark. They needed to figure out how to clean the air inside the tunnel.  What the genius forward-thinking engineers came up with was four towers, two on each side of the tunnels; each tower had 84 exhaust fans. These exhaust fan towers (I picture the Entrance to MIB headquarters – I know, they are the Battery Park tunnel vents) are capable of replacing all the air in both tunnels every 90 seconds.

Holland Tunnel New York South side ventalation
“New York Land Ventilation Building south side 119149pv” by Jet Lowe – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID hhh.ny1516.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – Image Source

Thomas Edison had said that it was impossible to ventilate a project the size of the Holland Tunnel. Previous tunnels had be ventilated longitudinally. Mr. Edison was right–there was no way that would have worked. Like all great minds, when you tell them they cannot do something, they figure it out! Ole Singstad proposed a transverse tunnel ventilation system. They built a 400 meter long test tunnel and simulated all possible scenarios of cars running in the tunnel. They tested the CO levels using college student guinea pigs. I find it fascinating the things colleges kids will do for a few bucks, even in the 1920s.

This innovation made the Holland Tunnel the first mechanically ventilated underwater vehicular tunnel. The methods used to design and build it still form the basis for the construction of many underwater vehicular tunnels throughout the world.

Compressed Air's Greatest Triumph
Compressed Air’s Greatest Triumph
Image Source:

Under Pressure

Digging these tunnels was not as easy as it may sound. The tunnels were dug by hand.  They would push a metal tube called a shield in front of them and the workers used picks and shovels to dig the tunnel sections. This type of work takes special men in today’s world. Sandhogs – A person that does construction work under ground or under water. Not only was this under ground and underwater, it was WAY under water. So much so that the pressures required air locks to be installed and waiting periods to avoid the bends.

According to the University of Illinois the math for figuring this out is as follows:

So if you’re right at sea level, the pressure will be 14.7 psi. And for every foot you go underwater, you add another 0.445 psi. So at one foot deep, the pressure would be 14.7 psi + 0.445 psi = 15.145 psi. And at two feet deep it would be 14.7 psi + 2*(0.445 psi) = 15.59 psi, etc.

At 90 feet below sea level, you are dealing with pressures 3 times that of the air around you at sea level. (I love traveling back to sea level, the oxygen is so thick compared to here at 4500 feet.)

Mr. Kaempffert described the issue better than any that I have ever seen in his 1927 New York Times piece:

A bottle of ginger ale contains gas under pressure. When the bottle is uncorked the gas bubbles out. After he had accustomed himself to the high pressure of the shield, a sandhog became like a bottle of ginger ale. His blood was charged with gasses of the air – chiefly nitrogen. Had he stepped suddenly into the outer world he would have uncorked himself. His blood would have boiled. He would has endured the agony of what physicians called “caisson disease” what he himself would have called the “bends”. So he stayed forty-five minutes in an air-lock, became accustom to a pressure lower than that which he had wielded pick and shovel, and, at last “decompressed,” ventured to set foot in the atmosphere of the world above.

Fortunately, no workers died as a result of decompression sickness. The work involved “756,000 decompressions of men coming out of the compressed air workings,” which resulted in 528 cases of the bends, none fatal. –wikipedia During the seven years it took to build the tunnel there were 14 fatalities.

Living under these compressed air conditions and the stress of getting the tunnel right are believed to be what led Mr. Holland to suffer a heart attack and die at the age of 41, 1 day before the President of the United State was to blow the charge connecting the two sides of the tunnel. Those “holing through” ceremonies were canceled out of respect for Clifford M. Holland.

The tunnel project was renamed the Holland Tunnel after the first Chief Engineer Clifford M. Holland on November 12, 1924.

Engineer Number Two

Holland had chosen his other engineers wisely. Milton Freeman took over completing the project until he also died . He passed away four months later in March of 1925 from complications due to pneumonia.

Round Three

Ole Singstad, the designer of the air exchange, took over as the final engineer.

The Holland Tunnel opened for business November 13, 1927 at midnight. President Calvin Coolidge turned the same telegraph key that was used to open the Panama Canal. He did so from the Presidential Yacht. (Do we have a Presidential Yacht today? The most recent presidential yacht was the USS Sequoia (1933–77). Guess not!)

The President turned the telegraph key, rang a bell, and separated an American flag on both sides of the tunnel allowing traffic to flow. The widows of Holland and Freemen were in the second vehicle to travel through the tunnel their husbands died building.

New York Daily News had this to say:

Traffic was tied up for hours yesterday afternoon, when all New York and Jersey turned out to ride through the new Holland tunnel. Cars were lined up three deep for two miles along the Hudson blvd. on the Jersey side. And all roads leading to Freeman plaza in New York were congested.

4,000 cars went through the Holland Tunnel in the 1st hour between midnight and 1 am.

The opening day toll was $.50 ($6.81 – adjusted for inflation) per car, $.25 for motorcycles, and trucks up to $2.00 each way.

51,000 vehicles traveled through the tunnel in the 1st 24 hours of operation. “The average carbon monoxide content in both tunnels was 0.69 part per 10,000 parts of air. The highest was 1.60 parts per 10,000. The permissible standard was 4 parts per 10,000 parts of air”. – wikipedia

The air in the tunnel was cleaner than the air on some of the city’s streets, where the air could get stuck within the confines of the large buildings.

When the tunnel opened, there were 2 lanes in each direction–the right lane for trucks, the left lane for those speedy 25 MPH cars, and a pedestrian walkway for police. There were talks at one time to allow pedestrians to walk through the tunnel, but it never progressed beyond talk.

In 1955, a small electric single passenger vehicle was installed allowing the police to patrol the tunnel on the walkway without being on foot.


As of December 31, 2005 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey–which took over the operations of the tunnel in 1930–claims a $536,000,000 capital investment.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 the tunnel was closed until October 15, 2001. New stricter rules were put in place. No single occupant vehicle was allowed in the tunnel weekdays between 6 am and 10 am until the ban was lifted on November 7, 2003. Tractor trailers and vehicles towing trailers are not allowed in the tunnel.

The Holland Tunnel is considered one of the most important economic, high-risk terrorist targets in the United States.

Tolls as of December 7th 2014 – $14 per car.

The tunnel sees 15,000,000 vehicles on average every year.

Holland Tunnel Facts

Opened to traffic: November 13, 1927

Width of roadway: 20 feet

Length of tunnel portal to portal
North tube: 8,558 feet
South tube: 8,371 feet

Number of toll lanes: 9

Operating headroom: 12 feet, 6 inches

External diameter: 29 feet, 6 inches

Maximum depth from mean high water to roadway: 93 feet, 5 inches

Number of ceiling tiles: 3.1 million

Number of wall tiles: 2.9 million


Additional Reading


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