A Labor Day Salute to the Port Authority Sandhogs

By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor

“As word of the bizarre world under the river became known to the public, people envisioned a race of superhuman men who were able to work under impossible conditions.  But the sandhogs were very human.” – Paul Delaney, Sandhogs:  A History of the Tunnel Workers of New York.

Despite their name, which sounds a bit off-key to the politically attuned ear of today, the so-called Sandhogs built two of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s earliest and greatest engineering marvels:  the Holland Tunnel and the Lincoln Tunnel.  Check the definition; there was nothing ‘hoggish’ about their work.

They followed in the wake of a 240-ton hydraulically powered “shield” that holed through the Hudson riverbed.  They dynamited their way through the bedrock removing mud and blast rock, inch by slow inch.  On a good day, they could push 40 feet forward; on a bad day, they hardly moved at all.   As they moved forward, they bolted the lining of the tunnel together with a series of rings.

Perhaps the sheer dirtiness of the job exerted the equalizing effect of making everyone appear, more or less, the same. Irish Americans, who belonged to trade unions dominated their ranks, but Italian immigrants, African Americans and other ethnicities considered themselves fortunate to work beneath the river too.  The Sandhogs were members of an elite class – like firemen or police officers – steely men with the ability to face extreme physical danger because they had families to support and bills to pay.  For good reason, their credo was  “Think twice.  You only live once.”  There wasn’t time for idle gossip and chitchat inside the tubes.

What they feared the most — a catastrophic blowout — actually happened during the construction of the Holland Tunnel in April 1924.  It began as water seeping through the roof of the tunnel and became within minutes a life-threatening force of floodwater when the air pressure inside the tunnel simply was insufficient to hold back the force of the Hudson River.

Thirty-five men under the supervision of foreman, David Brown, were ordered to “Run for your lives!”  They did; and fortunately, no one perished that day.  But the incident put 200 men out of work for three days as engineers repaired the damage.

In a 1923 New York Times letter to the editor, a writer suggested that instead of Sandhogs, the men should be called “Pressure Men” because they worked in compressed-air environments, a foreboding world with the potential of death from decompression sickness or caisson disease commonly known as “the bends.”

The rule of thumb on large-scale civil engineering projects at the time was that managers could expect one death for every $1 million dollars in project costs.  One worker was killed in the building of the $6 million Holland Tunnel, making this project one of the safest of its time.

According to Crossing Under the Hudson, a history of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, on an average day, there were 500 workers on the job.  When air pressure was at its highest, 37 pounds per square inch (psi), there were more than a thousand workers because at this greater pressure, workers were employed for only one and a half hours at a stretch.  They entered the tunnel twice a day for a total of only three hours, but it was considered a full day’s work under these dangerous conditions.

For most of us, Labor Day is celebrated because it marks the end of summer.  It’s a day off from the drudgeries of the job and perhaps a last day at the pool.  We rarely give thought anymore to the achievements of American workers, and the contributions to the strength and prosperity of the New York/New Jersey region that laborers like the Sandhogs made.

Portfolio salutes them.  They confronted their fears; they placed their prayers with God and their faith in the engineers.  Without their courage, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels would not exist.

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