America’s first vehicular tunnel likely cost its brilliant creator his life

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Holland Tunnel under construction - 1923
Wikimedia Commons

As New York City’s population grew in the early 1900s, commuter ferries became more crowded and automobile traffic increased on both sides of the Hudson River, amplifying the need for a tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey. Figuring out how to build it proved to be a tricky endeavor, but one genius engineer eventually solved the puzzle—and the stress of it all likely cost him his life.

On October 12, 1920, construction began on the now-famous 1.6-mile Holland Tunnel between Manhattan and Jersey City. Its namesake, Clifford Milburn Holland, would never see it completed.

Chief Engineer Clifford Milburn Holland portrait
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The tunnel project, originally named the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel, had been suggested as early as 1906, but it wasn’t until 1919 that the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission appointed the 36-year-old Holland as its chief engineer. The Harvard-educated Holland poured himself into the $48.5-million venture, and the young engineer’s problem-solving skills during the tunnel’s planning and construction are well documented.

Train tunnels were common—Holland, in fact, had experience working as an engineer on New York’s subway system—but there were other considerations involved in constructing a shaft that would not only become the world’s longest underground tunnel but had to be twice as wide as any train tunnel to accommodate four lanes of automobile traffic. Holland and his design engineer, Ole Singstad, carried out over 2000 experiments before settling on construction and operational methods that became industry standards.

Holland Tunnel Section View
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

While boring out the tunnel, the shaft was filled with compressed air to keep the water from seeping in, and a cylinder was pushed into the tunnel to protect the workers and allow them to build a cast-iron lining. Entering and exiting the tunnel involved compression and decompression measures, much like deep-sea diving.

Some of Holland’s experiments were performed in a small Pennsylvania coal mine and helped to determine the best way to vent the tunnel and expel the vehicles’ exhaust. Holland’s solution was to build four six-story ventilation shafts and install 84 fans (some as large as eight-feet wide) to circulate 3.5 million cubic feet of fresh air into the tunnel every minute. Without that ventilation, drivers could be overcome by carbon monoxide before they exited the tunnel.

Start Of The Holland Tunnel Sinking a Caisson
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Holland, who suffered from heart problems, was under intense pressure to successfully complete the “Highway under the Hudson.” The long hours and constant stress proved too much, and in October 1924 he suffered a nervous breakdown. Two weeks later, while recovering in a sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, Holland suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 41.

“If I had known it was sapping his strength so much, I would have urged him to be more careful,” his wife, Anna Holland, said, “but he was so completely wrapped up in his work that I really do not know if my pleadings would have had any effect.”

Old Holland Tunnel Postcard
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

President Calvin Coolidge was scheduled to detonate the explosion for “holing through”—in which construction workers at both ends of the tunnel would finally meet in the middle—on October 28. The event was postponed until November, at which time the tunnel was named for Holland.

Ironically, Holland’s successor on the tunnel project, Milton Harvey Freeman, died of pneumonia in March 1925 after only five months on the job.

The Holland Tunnel opened to traffic on November 13, 1927. At the time, it was the first vehicular tunnel in the United States and the fifth in the world.

Today, some 35 million drivers pass through the tunnel each year. And although the daily bumper-to-bumper commute can be excruciating at times, the stress is nothing compared to the intense pressure that ultimately cost the tunnel’s genius creator his life.

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