This post written by project cataloger Geraldine Granahan.
Few commuters probably give much thought to the tunnels under the Hudson River, even as they travel through them every day, but they should. The history of the tunnels is a fascinating example of early Gilded Age engineering technology, which predates the construction of the New York City subway system by more than 30 years.
Before the construction of the tunnels, it was difficult for commuters from New Jersey to get to Manhattan. Passengers and freight had to cross over the Hudson, leading to many delays on the waterfront, as cargo ships, ferries, and other boats had to compete for space on the Hudson River docks. In addition, boats were at the mercy of the weather, with ice and fog frequently lengthening the crossing. Manhattan did have one rail line connected to the mainland, the New York Central Railroad, but because it ran from the Bronx, across the Harlem River, and then down the west side of Manhattan, it did not help New Jersey commuters.
As it was considered too dangerous to build in the deep mud of the Hudson’s riverbed, a bridge would not connect New Jersey and New York until the George Washington Bridge opened in 1931. Another solution then was needed to alleviate the river’s chaos and congestion; the only logical option was construction of a tunnel.
DeWitt Clinton Haskin, an engineer from upstate New York, was inspired to build a tunnel under the Hudson after he spent a freezing night on a ferry stuck fast to the icy Hudson. He had become an expert in railroad and tunnel construction during his time with the Union Pacific Railroad out west. This experience, combined with a prescient understanding of the economic opportunities a tunnel would create, led him to found the Hudson Railroad Company in 1873.
The tunnel was to connect Jersey City and Greenwich Village, but work had hardly begun when it was stopped in 1874 because of a legal challenge by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Co., threatened by the potential competition to its ferries. After five years, construction began again, but progress was slow. A tunnel of this enormity had never been attempted before, and presented a considerable challenge to the available technology. Haskin had invented a compressed air method for reducing cave-ins, a constant problem. But less than a year into the renewed construction, 20 workers were killed when the compressed air failed to keep the walls from collapsing and water from rushing in. They worked on, but another accident occurred in 1881.
In 1882, the death of Haskin’s main financier halted work again. Haskin continued trying to find financing, but he was unsuccessful and gave up the project in 1887. The New-York Historical Society library has an account of this early attempt written by Oswald Jackson, an engineering student at Columbia University’s School of Mines, which gives an intriguing account of the early technology employed by Haskin and his crew.
Two years after Haskin’s dream died, a completely different British team, using different technology, restarted the construction. Just 1,600 feet short of completion, they too had to stop construction due to financial difficulties.
After a prolonged gap that lasted past the turn of the century, William G. McAdoo came on the scene. As president of the newly organized New York & New Jersey Railroad, McAdoo–who later became the director of the United States Railroad Administration–oversaw the purchase of the assets, land, and partially-constructed tunnel in 1902.
McAdoo hired Charles Jacobs as his chief engineer, who was well known for having built the city’s first tunnel for gas mains under the East River. On March 11th, 1904, construction of the first Hudson River tunnel was finally completed. McAdoo was the first person to walk from New Jersey to New York through the new tunnel. He later added another tunnel, and the two became known as the “McAdoo Tunnels.”
The tunnels opened to the public on Feb. 25th, 1908—some 35 years after Haskin had first started construction. McAdoo later extended the rail line into upper Manhattan and helped connect the 33rd Street station, later known as Pennsylvania Station, with commercial real-estate development.
He fulfilled a dream that had defeated many before him. To this day, PATH train commuters have McAdoo, Haskin, and all the many unsung workers to thank for providing quick and easy passage between Jersey City and Manhattan.
Cataloging of the New-York Historical Society Library’s Railroad Collection was part of a grant-funded initiative.