By Roz Hamlett, Editor
The odds are, even if you’re a glassy-eyed New York history geek, you’ve never heard of him. Because the evidence of his signature achievement has lain buried deep in the bottom drawer of an old mahogany desk for more than eight decades and only brought out on special occasions to share among his descendants.
Eugene Klingelfuss was born to poor parents in Switzerland in 1898. He died an affluent man in Brooklyn in 1976. His name and the names of his fellow Swiss compatriots, all hungry young men and business partners of the Klingelfuss Machine Shop – which later became Klingrose Engineering – appear nowhere in the major histories written about the Holland Tunnel.
Yet their singular contribution is definitely worthy of our belated attention: They won the first bid ever from the Port of New York Authority to fabricate a machine that had never existed anywhere in the world before: the first “washing machine” specially designed to clean the Holland Tunnel.
At the time his company won the contract, Klingelfuss was single and 30-something, newly immigrated to New York; he had come to America to follow his dream. In his native Switzerland, if you were born poor, in most instances, you stayed that way. Yet Klingelfuss would later own several other important patents, and he enjoyed business success for the remainder of his life.
In a letter dated April 18, 1934, the Port Authority highly commended his work as a “pioneering job requiring not only mechanical skill but engineering ability. Its successful operation reflects great credit on the ability of the company to handle the fabrication of specially designed equipment.”
The tunnels opened for public use on Saturday, November 12, 1927. The day before, the tunnel was given a thorough cleaning and inspection, and from that day forward, the ability to keep the beautiful white tile gleaming, clean and free of the sooty buildup of grime and vehicle exhaust was of paramount importance.
On its first day of operation, excited motorists lined up and waited to experience the thrill of driving underneath the Hudson River. During the first 24 hours of operation, 52,285 vehicles passed through the tunnels, most of them passenger cars. Like children lining up for a thrilling ride on a roller coaster, many motorists couldn’t satisfy their enthusiasm with just one trip and quickly lined up to go again and again.
Throughout the next day, there were unbroken streams of traffic backed up to Newark in New Jersey and to the Brooklyn end of the Manhattan Bridge in New York. After a little more than a year of operation, the official traffic count for 1928 was 8,744,674.
Which would certainly have resulted in one dingy and dirty Holland Tunnel were it not for Klingelfuss’s “washing machine” and the aggressive cleaning schedule that is still a major part of Holland Tunnel maintenance and operations today.
The exact workings of Mr. Klingelfuss’s contraption are not immediately available nearly 90 years later, but we can infer from the vast array of brushes, nozzles and what looks to be a pump apparatus that the machine possessed the capability to clean every nook and cranny of the 8,558 feet of the north tube and 8,371 feet of the south tube.
Portfolio recently learned about Mr. Klingelfuss from his only child, Ann (Klingelfuss) Cabre of Washington State, now a woman in her late 70s, who contacted the Port Authority to make a donation of her father’s archival photographs.
“Are you interested in having a couple of these? They will only go into the garbage when I am gone.”
Owing to the fact that the Port Authority lost thousands upon thousands of significant records and archival photographs on 9/11, we gratefully (and somewhat greedily) accepted her offer. We thank her for making the historical fact of her father’s accomplishment, literally, the light at the end of the tunnel.