Today, an oddly familiar story. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I want to talk about the
Holland Tunnel, but I should warn you: the story is
a lot like other stories you've heard about great
works of engineering. The plot goes thus:
Leaders acknowledge a large public need. They
debate strategy and try to set up a plan for
solving the problem. Then a visionary separates
himself from the pack. His project is grander and
bolder than anyone had expected. He convinces
skeptics and puts the project on the road to
completion. Finally, he dies on this side of his
Jordan River. Others are left to complete the
That's how it was with the Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Great Eastern steamship, the
Mount Palomar telescope.
That's also how it was with the Holland Tunnel.
In 1906 the Island of Manhattan, its population
mushrooming, found it harder and harder to bring in
supplies. After thirteen years of discussion, the
young civil engineer Clifford Holland was given the
job of drilling a highway tunnel under the Hudson
River. He began drilling two parallel
thirty-foot-diameter tunnels, almost two miles
long, under the Hudson River.
But now such a tunnel faced a problem no earlier
tunnel had ever faced. The automobile had come into
its own. This tunnel would have to carry forty
thousand trucks and cars each day. Huge quantities
of carbon monoxide gas had to be cleared out.
Holland's great contribution would necessarily be a
wholly new ventilation system to flush out exhaust
His system was gargantuan. Forty-two fans, each
eighty feet in diameter, replaced four million
cubic feet of fresh air per minute. If all that air
had been pumped in from the ends, it would've
blasted through the tunnel at seventy-five miles
per hour. To get around that problem, Holland
pumped fresh air down a service tube below the
tunnel. He scavenged bad air out through a second
tube paralleling the tunnel from above.
But of course the entire project was enormous.
Constant problems had to be solved, new technology
had to be created, skeptics had to be fended off.
It took a terrible toll on Holland. By 1924 he had
it under control, but he was suffering from nervous
exhaustion. He entered a sanitarium for some rest,
only to die there of a heart attack. He was
forty-one. Two weeks later the tunnel was named
after him. He was succeeded by Ole Singstad who had
designed the ventilation system..
Calvin Coolidge opened the tunnel in 1927. That
first Sunday fifty-two thousand vehicles passed
through it. Today it often carries a
hundred thousand in a day. Holland's
controversial ventilation system, conceived for
half that number, still serves them.
You've heard the story before, but it doesn't wear
out. We can always hear one more tale of a heroic
technology carried out by a self-sacrificing hero.
And there always seems to be one more hero about
whom such a story can be told.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
McKay, E.M., Tunneling to New York. American Heritage
of Invention and Technology, Fall 1988, pp. 22-31.
See also: http://www.panynj.gov/tbt/hthist.HTM
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 197.
For a full-size image click on
either thumbnail above
Holland Tunnel images in The
World Book of Knowledge a year before it was
On the left: Breaking through to join the two sides
of the Tunnel.
On the right: Schematic diagram of the Jersey side
of the Tunnel.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.