The Story of Brilliant Engineering by a Man Named Holland

Left: Cross-section of tunnel during construction shows the crucial ventilation ducts. Photo: New York Public Library. Right: Tunnel contruction workers, or "sandhogs," tighten a bolt in the tunnel's arched ceiling. Photo: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey


Jun. 05, 2017

Although few of us may pay any mind these days to the Holland Tunnel except for those times when its traffic backs up onto our streets, it surely merits our attention. For when it opened in November 1927, it was universally acclaimed an engineering marvel. Its design was so unusual, in fact, that it was named not for a politician or other public figure but for the chief engineer who had supervised the project. (The fact that the Netherlands, or Holland, had once owned this town was only a coincidence.)

The city had needed a vehicular connection between New York and New Jersey ever since the advent of the motor car at the beginning of the 20th century. But should it be a bridge or a tunnel? A bridge was soon ruled out: the need for high clearance (at least 200 feet to allow big ships to pass underneath) and the cost of acquiring land for its Manhattan approaches indicated that it should be a tunnel, and planning for it began in 1913.

How big a tube and how would it carry the traffic?

An early proposal was from the famed engineer George Goethals (the supervisor of the Panama Canal), who recommended a single but very large tube carrying traffic in both directions, one level above the other. But another idea came from a young (in his thirties), brilliant New York engineer named Clifford Millburn Holland, who had already directed the building of four subway tunnels under the East River. He proposed two separate tubes, one carrying eastbound traffic and the other westbound. When his plan was accepted in 1919 he was named chief engineer in charge of building the whole thing.

He was already known in the trade as a tremendously hard worker with total mastery of the facts at hand. One time during the building of the 60th Street tunnel under the East River, when Holland was conferring with associates at the noisy digging site under the river, one of the “sand hog” bosses was heard to remark, “That bird could come down here blindfolded in the dark and tell us if we are going wrong.”

But the new Hudson project presented a huge and special challenge: how to ventilate such a long tunnel? Railroad tunnels, even long ones, presented no such problem: trains were electric-powered, so there was no threat to humans. But cars put out deadly carbon monoxide, which would have to be vented. Holland and his associates studied all known motorcar tunnels throughout the world and found no answer—they were all short borings that could virtually self-ventilate. Finally, one of Holland’s assistant engineers, Ole Singstad, proposed a duct system that carried the day.

Because a roadway inside a tunnel occupies only the center section of the tube, there is space both above and below it for ventilation ducts. Singstad advised using the lower space for incoming fresh air, forced in by huge fans and released through openings beside the roadway, with the upper space carrying away the used air. Two huge ventilation towers would be built at each end of the project, one for blowing fresh air in and the other for sucking it out. After much study, Holland and the others decided to go with the scheme. And in practice the new arrangement proved a total success: the system can completely change the air in the entire tunnel in 90 seconds.

Unfortunately, Holland himself did not live to see his grand project completed. On Oct. 27, 1924, just one day before the two halves of the tunnel—one leading from New York, the other from New Jersey—were scheduled to be “holed through” and meet midway under the river, he died of a heart attack in a sanitorium in Michigan, at the age of 41; overwork was likely a contributing cause. It was immediately resolved to name the tunnel in his honor. A successor was named but he too died, and Ole Singstad was left to oversee the tunnel’s completion. Singstad himself went on to design the Lincoln, Queens–Midtown, and Brooklyn-Battery tunnels, and tunnels worldwide today are in effect copies of Clifford Holland’s triumph.

Oddly enough, when the Holland Tunnel officially opened at 4 p.m. on Nov. 12, 1927, its first entrants—aside from officialdom—were not cars but people. Officials of the two states had decided to give their citizens the chance to visit the 9,250-foot tubes themselves, and so an estimated 20,000 pedestrians rushed in from both ends, laughing, shouting, leaning down to feel the cold air rushing in through the ducts, exuberantly greeting those coming in the opposite direction. Finally, as midnight approached, the two tubes were cleared of pedestrians, and at one minute past midnight on Nov. 13, the first non-official vehicle passed through Clifford Holland’s great work and became the first to pay a toll at the Canal Street end. It was a truck carrying a shipment to Bloomingdale’s Depart­ment Store, and the toll—figured according to the truck’s size—was probably $1.25; cars paid 50 cents.

This writer remembers driving through the tunnel in the late 1930s and being surprised to see uniformed officials stationed along the side walkways every 100 yards or so eagerly waving at the passing cars to get them to speed up. It’s hard to imagine someone doing that today.

This article originally appeared in the November, 2011, issue of The Tribeca Trib.