The Holland Tunnel shares some similarities with the Brooklyn Bridge, even though they appear radically different. Both were the first vehicular crossing to join Manhattan Island to a neighboring city, one on either side. Both required wild leaps of ingenuity to build. And both lost their chief engineers during the project.

The Hudson River crossing was first formally debated in 1906. Before then, ferries were used to carry traffic to and from New Jersey; the only other connection from Manhattan to the mainland was over a small number of bridges over the Harlem River into the Bronx, and even then you had to find a way over the Hudson River to go west. The New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission joined with the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission to determine the best way to cross the Hudson.

In 1913 it was decided that a tunnel would be a better choice than a bridge. Although a bridge would be easier to build, and cheaper at the outset, there were other limiting factors that prohibited its building. The Hudson was a major shipping route, especially after the opening of the Erie Canal nearly a century before. The bridge would then have to clear the water by at least 200'. To reach this height on the Manhattan side would require building very long approachways. To build these massive approachways, not only would the materials and labor required drive up the cost, but the all of the land needed to build these approachways would need to be condemned and purchased. Finally, the commissioners felt that a tunnel would be far less affected by inclement weather, and thus the crossing was chosen.

Designs were submitted to the coalition for this tunnel, then referred to as either the "Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel" or the "Canal Street Tunnel". (It is never made clear why Canal Street was chosen as the location; it is not much closer than any other part of downtown Manhattan to New Jersey. However, it does lie between two rail tunnels built in the early 1900s.) The firm of Jacobs and Davies proposed a bi-level, 31'-diameter tunnel, which would allow a separate level for slower vehicles. George Goethals proposed another two-level design, 42' wide and carrying four lanes per level. The commission finally decided on a plan by Clifford Milburn Holland, a twin-tube tunnel, constructed by methods already in use (unlike Goethals' plan, which presented new ideas). It is here that the hand of Robert Moses is briefly seen; observing the plans, he preferred the Holland plan to Goethals', but correctly assumed it would be much more expensive. He relayed that information to Governor Smith, who allocated $48 million for the tunnel's construction.

Holland was chosen as chief engineer in 1919 and the ground was broken in 1920. (Sources differ on the starting date, one specifying February 1, and another October 12). Previous tunnels under the Hudson had recently been built, but this one would be far more difficult. The tunnels would be much wider than the existing rail tunnels, and rather than carrying trains, they would carry cars. The main problem, therefore, would be ventilation. They would have to find some way to keep fresh air in the tunnels to minimise the effect that vehicle exhaust would have on the passengers, especially when cars are stuck in the tunnel due to traffic. A design team was assembled of experts from universities and mining departments, with Norwegian-born Ole Singstad at the head.

Singstad would eventually design a two-duct ventilation system, one for intake and one for exhaust. Tests were first run on closed chambers with occupied, running cars inside; the results showed that even a small amount of carbon monoxide would be lethal, and the designers would have to take that into account. The eventual design called for 84 fans, equally divided between intake and exhaust, that would completely refresh the air every 90 seconds. The two ducts would parallel the tunnel, one above and one below. This revolutionary method was reused in Singstad's later tunnels.

Teams of sandhogs followed two shield borers down the tunnels, removing the waste generated by the borers and bolting the iron rings that would line the tunnel into place. The operation took seven years, advancing 40' on the best of days (and going nowhere on the worst). The two sides of the tunnel met in 1924; however, the day before this happened, Holland died in a sanitarium of a heart attack brought on by exhaustion and overwork. Thirteen other lives would be claimed by the tunnel (all, it seems, of the bends) in the years of construction. The second tube holed through early in 1927, and the tunnel would open that November. President Calvin Coolidge formally opened the tunnel at midnight on November 13, 1927 (using the same key that opened the Panama Canal) and a minute later the first vehicle passed through, a truck carrying cargo bound for Bloomingdale's. The tunnel was named after its chief engineer as a posthumous honor, starting the trend for the NY/NJ interstate crossings to have names with no relation to their geographic locations.

The tunnel was given over to the jurisdiction of the ten-year-old and failing Port Authority in 1931. Bonds were issued in 1934 on the surpluses generated by the Holland Tunnel in order to save the struggling Staten Island bridges and finance the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel.

In 1949, there was a major disaster. A tractor trailer carrying drums of carbon disulfide illegally entered the tunnel (the Port Authority restricted the transport of such materials, and the truck was also unlabeled, violating ICC regulations) at 8:30 AM on May 13th. The drums broke free and caught fire as they hit the roadway. Nine trucks quickly caught fire and were abandoned. The tunnel was quickly evacuated, with the police sending occupants out on foot and then backing their cars out of the tunnel. Two of the exhaust fans were crippled by the heat, and a third was only kept active by a stream of cooling water directed by firefighters. The internal ceiling collapsed at about 10:00 AM, but the tunnel integrity was never breached. The tunnel was reopened 56 hours later, after efforts involving 29 firefighter units, 20 medical units, and a number of other official vehicles, along with over 250 personnel. Amazingly, there were no fatalities, and only 66 reported injuries. The tunnel would be threatened once more in 2002 when a fire in Jersey City came perilously close to the tunnel's western end, and the Port Authority was forced to shut down the tunnel for several days.


The tunnel is composed of two tubes, joined at occasional intervals. Each tube holds two lanes of traffic, one tube per direction. The north tube is 8,558' long, and the south 8,371'. Both are 29.5' in diameter on the outside and 12.5' on the inside. They sit 93'5" below the mean high water level of the Hudson River. The tunnel cost $54,000,000 to build.

There are 84 total fans in the recirculation system, recycling the air completely every 90 seconds. Only 56 are in normal operation, with the rest reserved for emergency conditions. If this exhaust system was not in place, and the air was instead inserted at the tunnel ends, the result would be 75 mph. winds blasting through the tunnel. (Admittedly, this might have made traffic move faster.) The intake and exhaust systems are located in four towers, two on either side of the river. The 84 fans within the tunnel actually keep the air in the tunnel cleaner than the air above the water.

The American Society of Civil Engineers made the tunnel a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 1984. The tunnel was the first ever mechanically ventilated vehicular tunnel, and was the longest ever built at its time. The design used in the ventilation system has been used for every vehicular tunnel since.

52,000 vehicles passed through the tunnel on Opening Day, November 13, 1927. Today, more than 100,000 vehicles use the tunnel every day. In the precisely 75 years it has existed, more than 1.3 billion vehicles have passed through.

The tunnel is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The fare, as of this writing, is $6, New York-bound only, with EZ Pass discounts and truck surcharges. The original fare was 50 cents. The Port Authority is planning to rehabilitate the tunnel over the next two years, installing a new motorist information system and replacing all 84 fans. There is already a system installed in the tunnel that can transmit messages directly into the radio of any travelling car, overriding any current broadcast, to transmit information to vehicles passing through.

The tunnel was closed to all but emergency traffic for over a month after the September 11th attacks. Upon reopening, the tunnel was under HOV restrictions, only allowing cars containing two or more people to cross into New York. These restrictions are still in effect as of this writing, weekday mornings from 6 AM to 10 AM. Additionally, trucks with more than four axles are prohibited from travelling to New York through the tunnel at all times, and no commercial traffic whatsoever is allowed to use the tunnel into New Jersey.

Also please note that today, November 13, 2002, is the 75th anniversary of the Holland Tunnel. Today is also the third anniversary of E2, many of whose founders were originally based in Holland, MI. This may or may not be purely coincidental.


Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker. Vintage Books-Random House, 1974.

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