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Mr. Holland’s Tunnel

Jeffrey Syken

Most people, even native New Yorkers, think the Holland Tunnel – the world’s first (and longest, at the time it opened in November 1927) ventilated vehicular tunnel was named in honor of New York City’s Dutch heritage. Not so. It was named in honor of Clifford Milburn Holland, Chief Engineer. Holland devoted all his energies to see the great trans-Hudson tunnel built according to his ingenious design, which allows the air in the tunnel to be changed every one-and-a-half minutes. Affectionately referred to as “The Head Mole,” his constant attention to the work required his entering and/or exiting the tunnel constantly through the air-locks, causing his weak heart great stress and culminating in his death in 1924.

His successor – Milton Freeman, also devoted himself to the work and suffered an untimely death before the tunnel was completed. The man who would complete the tunnel (and go on to be one of the greatest tunnel builders of the era) was its main Design Engineer: Ole Singstad. Trained in Norway as a bridge engineer, Singstad adapted himself to the design and construction of tunnels upon his arrival in America early in the century. Although Holland had been the mastermind of the twin tubes’ ventilation system, it would be Singstad (as Design Engineer and later as Chief Engineer), who would see the unprecedented design of the ventilation system (and the tunnel itself) through to completion and successful operation. In fact, the Holland Tunnel, after it opened, became the gold standard for ventilated vehicular tunnels worldwide, even to the present day.

Though it ran over budget, took three years longer to construct than anticipated and cost the lives of fourteen “sandhogs,” the tunnel was an immediate success generating $3.5 million in surplus revenue in its first year of operation and operating at capacity since the mid-1930s. Unlike a bridge, the tunnel did not eat up valuable real estate on either of the low-lying shores with long approaches and the success of the Holland Tunnel became the impetus to build more tunnels around the archipelago that is New York City. In 1931, the Port of New York Authority would take over operation of the Holland Tunnel as part of its mandate for interstate commerce. If Robert Moses had had his way, it would have been the western end of a Lower Manhattan Expressway, including an additional (four-lane) tube. Alas, it was not to be, though the “two line” tunnel conceived in the fertile mind of Clifford Holland remains a vital artery in the region’s transportation system.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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