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Conquest of the Hudson

Jeffrey Syken

It stood like a giant mote, separating “America’s Metropolis” from the rest of America. Referred to as the “North River” (in the vicinity of Manhattan island), the Hudson River is nearly a mile wide. Thoughts of bridging the Hudson date back to the early 19th Century, but began in earnest in the immediate post-Civil War years and the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 gave the scheme a new impetus. In the age of railroads, the end of the line was the New Jersey (western) shore of the Hudson and the “big idea” was to bring trains directly into New York City from the west and south. For a variety of reasons, not least of which was the high cost of Manhattan real estate and the cost of spanning the water gap with a suspension bridge, sub-aqueous tunnels would win favor for trans-Hudson communication.

By the early 1870s, a scheme was in place for a tunnel under the Hudson to bring electric traction trains into a station near Washington Square. Though the engineers and “sandhogs” gave it their all ultimately, economics would first stall and then leave the tunnel incomplete. A lawyer named McAdoo would revitalize and expand the original tunnel scheme into what became the “Hudson & Manhattan Railroad.” By the first decade of the new century, these two pairs of sub-aqueous “tubes” would be the first to serve the metropolis. On the heels of that success would come the Pennsylvania Railroad’s grand scheme: “The New York Tunnel Extension.” This plan would not only bring PaRR trains into a magnificent new station on Manhattan’s west side via a pair of tunnels, but also extend across Manhattan and under the East River to connect Long Island and New England to the PaRR system.

In the winter of 1918, a “Coal Famine” struck NYC. Unable to get across the frozen Hudson, coal sat on the New Jersey docks in site of the island. It brought home the need for a vehicular crossing since by then, it was evident that cars and trucks were fast becoming the dominant means of transportation for the nation. Clifford M. Holland’s ingenious plan for the world’s first ventilated vehicular tunnel, opened in 1927 and named posthumously in his honor, would be the first of its kind and provide the model for ventilated tunnels worldwide. To relieve the Holland Tunnel’s traffic burden, the Port of New York Authority opened the George Washington Bridge (1931) and the Lincoln Tunnel (1937). There would be additional lanes and a lower deck added to the former and a third tube to the latter, but the mighty Hudson had been conquered; first by multiple tunnels and later by the world’s first long-span suspension bridge.

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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