By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
Almost 90 years ago, the Port of New York & New Jersey began planning what was originally called the Midtown Hudson Crossing in the riverbed beneath the Hudson River, a seemingly impenetrable and distant netherworld as strange to most people as the planet Mars.
Fast forward to May 17, 1934. The groundbreaking for the Lincoln Tunnel took place that day; the agency hired Castle Films to produce Conquest of the Hudson, a documentary recording the construction project. Castle, which later became part of Universal Pictures, brought motion picture aesthetics to the project such as a professional voiceover artist and a music soundtrack. The completed film was used as a “short” between full-length features in movie houses. Film buffs and families also could buy the reels and see tunnel construction on movie projectors from the comfort of home.
Conquest of the Hudson captures every aspect of the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel: blasting through the bedrock, sandhogs working in a compressed air environment, the roadway and tile finishing work inside the tunnel, and even the first cars to travel through it.
The film explains how engineers solved the problem of driving a 32-foot boring for 8,000 feet, most of it below sea level and 4,600 feet of it under the river, while at the same time creating a 31-foot watertight shell of steel and concrete inside the boring to keep the river out.
In retrospect, the interests and expertise of Castle Films and the Port Authority were well aligned. Just as tunnel construction was getting underway, 16mm sound film equipment was entering the marketplace. This technology made the dramatizations of large-scale projects like the Lincoln Tunnel available to a general audience. The founder of the film company, Eugene Castle, was among the first to realize that film was an important education and marketing tool for business. The Port Authority agreed with him.
As Castle’s film business grew, he moved to new, larger offices in Rockefeller Plaza in 1933. In 1937, three years after construction began, the first tube of the tunnel was completed.
Two of the central technologies that formed the foundations to life in 20th century America were cinematic and automotive. What makes Conquest of the Hudson an important part of Port Authority history is that the documentary showcased these intertwined technologies in ways that captured the popular imagination while educating the traveling public. The short film was among the first filmed marriages of public transportation and cinematic achievement.