Beach logo



The Hudson Tunnel

Dewitt Clinton Haskin’s Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company had started construction late in 1874 but had to stop on December 15 after only thirty days’ work.  At this time the company had built a brick-lined cement shaft of 30 feet inside diameter to a depth of 20 feet on property in Jersey City owned by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad.  The Lackawanna disputed the question of a railway company acquiring property by eminent domain from another railway company, and obtained an injunction stopping the work.1  For a plot about a hundred feet square the Lackawanna wanted $500,000.2


[ 21-1 ]

[ 21-2 ]

How the tunnel was supposed to be built— but not how it was built.  These drawings show the proposed one large tunnel for two tracks and shows it as built right out of the shaft.  Haskin already had the idea of filling the lower part of the completed tunnel with excavated silt and the air lock is shown positioned right under the roof of the large tunnel.  The top layer of ash fill is shown as not disturbed at all by the shaft.  From the Daily Graphic, March 17, 1879. 


Litigation continued for more than four years before the New Jersey courts ruled in favor of the Hudson Tunnel company.  Commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court then assessed the value of the land at $13,000, which the tunnel company paid.  On September 22, 1879, the Chancellor of New Jersey dissolved the injunction, and work resumed the next day.3 

The company intended to build a railroad tunnel crossing the Hudson from 15th St, Jersey City, to Morton St, New York, to bring trains from several national railways into New York.  The New Jersey end would reach the surface at Jersey Ave and 15th St, between the Lackawanna and Erie lines and not far from the Pennsylvania.  The New York end would be a terminal at an undecided location somewhere near Washington Square.  The entire length was about 12,000 feet, of which the river crossing was about 5,500 feet. 


[ 21-3 ]

[ 21-4 ]

[ 21-5 ]

[ 21-6 ]

Profile of the Hudson Tunnel, from Scientific American Supplement, May 8, 1880, which itself appears to be taken from a company document.  The detail of soil conditions is from the soundings Haskin had made before construction started.  The river is deepest near the New York side, and there is a ‘reef’ of rock on that side too.  The grades are labelled left to right as 2 feet per hundred, 6 inches per hundred feet, 3 feet per hundred, and to the right of the New York shaft 2 feet per hundred. 


The start of work in Jersey City

Haskin proposed to build the tunnel with compressed air without the use of a shield.  The use of compressed air introduced into the face of the tunnel, with sufficient pressure to hold in place, or keep back and prevent the irruption of silt, clay or water, will, it is believed by the company, overcome the difficulties usually experienced in building tunnels … This plan of Mr Haskin is not only utterly impractical, but absurd, wrote an engineer in the trade journal Manufacturer and Builder.4  Compressed air had been shown to work in caissons with an airtight seal at top and sides, for the purpose of digging downward— the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge towers had been dug this way— but not in digging horizontally for a tunnel, where air was expected to leak out from the open working face.  That it will succeed without radical modifications is highly questionable, indeed altogether impossible, wrote the editor of Scientific American, Alfred E Beach.5 

The shaft was completed to full depth on November 5, when it was 54 feet below mean high water, 60 feet below the ground surface.  For the first 40 feet only a hand pump was used, but then when it reached a layer of sand mechanical pumps were put into use.6  The ground consisted of a top layer of ash fill, then silt, and then sand.  It was realized later that the friction of sinking the shaft pushed down the ash layer into the silt forming a somewhat unstable mixture right next to the shaft.7 

The bottom of the shaft was at the intended floor level of the tunnel, but the air lock was built only about halfway down, 29 feet below the top.  At the very beginning Haskin planned to construct one tunnel large enough for two tracks, and the position of the lock was at the intended top of the large tunnel.  The working face would always start at the top of the tunnel and slope back to the floor, so that the workmen could stand on the unexcavated earth to build the top.  Haskin changed his mind about the one large tunnel very soon afterwards.8   As a result the lock was too high in the shaft, above the top of the twin tunnels that were to be constructed, and Haskin and the engineers had to come up with a makeshift plan to deal with it.

The air lock was a cylinder of boiler iron 15 feet in length and 6 feet in diameter, at the time the largest ever built.9  The doors at each end of the lock both opened toward the tunnel, so that they would not open while one side had higher pressure. 

Little was known about tunneling with compressed air.  As a test, a cavity was dug out in the silt to the size of 15 by 6 by 4 feet by January 2, 1880, and then left with no protection but the air pressure.  The silt held the air well, but as it gradually dried out, cracks formed, and after four days air was able to escape up into the ash layer, which would not hold the air.  The dry silt began to fall and soon the space was filled up again.  The test showed the weakness of the ash layer next to the shaft, and ironically made it even worse by removing some of the good silt.  To counteract the problem the company dug out a hole on the surface next to the shaft above the air lock, 30 feet by 20 feet and 9 feet below high water, and laid on the bottom a canvas weighted down with heavy timbers.  This it was hoped would stop the air from leaking.10

Again a space was dug out from the air lock.  This time it was immediately lined above with quarter-inch thick iron plates, intended to form a protective roof over the air lock door.10  The plates were not perfectly air tight but they would prevent earth from falling.  From the lock the open space ran downhill under a series of ever larger iron-plated arches, in order to reach the undisturbed silt layer away from the shaft.  The largest arch was 20 feet in diameter.11  This space, known as the temporary entranceway, ran for 30 feet from the shaft. 

The temporary entranceway brought the workspace down into the line of the twin tunnels, but even the largest 20 foot arch was not nearly wide enough.  The arch would span only the central wall and less than half the diameter of each tube, so from the last arch a wider space was excavated and lined with iron plates until the outer line of the two tubes was reached.12  And so the permanent tunnels started not at the shaft but about 30 feet away, separated by the temporary entranceway. 


[ 21-7 ]

How the tunnel was really built, with the temporary entranceway extending 30 feet from the shaft to the start of the two tunnels.  The nature of the shoreline bulkhead is better shown here than in the earlier drawing.  Above from Scientific American Supplement, May 8, 1880.  Details below from a similar and more detailed drawing in Burr, Tunneling under the Hudson River, 1885. 

[ 21-8 ]

[ 21-9 ]

[ 21-10 ]


Progress of the tunnels to July 1880

The north tunnel was started first and by May it had been run 150 feet away from the shaft.13  It was built of quarter-inch iron plates laid starting at the top of the ellipse and working down.  When a section ten feet long had been laid the iron was completely cleaned and lined with brick all around.  The brick layer was two feet thick.  After this silt from further digging was allowed to fill the lower half of the completed tunnel.14 

This first part of the north tunnel was not well built.  S D V Burr, a writer and engineer, described it in 1885.  The lines and grades of this portion of the north tunnel, which on July 1, 1880, had been finished for a distance of 281 feet from the shaft, were not good, and the shape was irregular.  The reasons ascribed for this were that the plates, which were bent to form a circular form, were joined to make elliptical rings, that the iron was too light, and that the plates were extended too far beyond the brickwork.  At one time the plates on top were over 50 feet ahead of the masonry, the result being an almost imperceptible settlement, resulting in distortion.  This was remedied by increasing the air pressure and by not carrying the plates too far in advance of the masonry.15  J Vipond Davies, chief engineer for the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, wrote in 1909, Neither the alignment nor the grade could be maintained correctly, and a good deal of the portions so constructed has exceedingly bad curvature.16  The curvature still today marks the section that was built up to July 1880. 

The south tunnel was started early in July, but work on both tunnels stopped a few days before a reporter’s visit on July 17.  At this date the north tunnel was 300 feet long and the south tunnel 20 feet.2  The south tunnel had just reached the bulkhead, the structure of timber and rocks that held the shoreline.  The company officials decided at this point to go back and improve the entranceway.  Heavy timbers were used to shore up the ends of the tunnels to hold their position.17

Haskin was now predicting completion of the two tunnels in 1883 and a booming business handling trains from all the railways terminating at Jersey City.  The company do not propose to engage in the transportation of freight, believing that the capacity of the tunnel will be fully exhausted by the demands of passenger traffic, it was reported in July 1880.  Engines driven by compressed air … will be used in drawing the trains back and forth, and it is estimated that they will make the two and one-half miles in six minutes.  That was the full length from the ramp in Jersey City to the undetermined terminal in New York, somewhere around Broadway and Bleecker St.2 


[ 21-11 ]

The shaft, showing the shed roof, the brick chute, and the air lock.  This and these others from Scientific American Supplement, May 8, 1880. 


[ 21-12 ]

‘At the heading :  advancing the iron tunnel plates.’ The top was always the farthest advance.  The work was lit by electric arc lights like the one shown on the left.  The men in this illustration are too small— compare to the next illustration below.


[ 21-13 ]

A view a little farther back from the heading shows the two-foot masonry layer completed.  At the bottom (detail below), the workmen have formed a pool of water out of the excavated silt, and are dumping more excavated silt into it to form a slurry that is shot by air pressure up a pipe to the surface. 

[ 21-14 ]


[ 21-15 ]

[ 21-16 ]

[ 21-17 ]


The temporary entranceway

By July 1880 the temporary entranceway could be ignored no longer.  Burr described the problem.  The material just above the lock was a mixture of silt and cinders, which had several times been disturbed, and which, while lacking the tenacious qualities of pure silt, was extremely treacherous.  The cinder had gradually worked down until the dividing line between it and the silt began at about the lock, and extended upward and away from the shaft until it reached the undisturbed ground.  Men were therefore appointed to watch for and stop leaks, which could readily be done with silt.  The upper plates, forming a part of the permanent shell, were one-quarter of an inch thick, and were supported by timbers resting upon a foundation in the silt floor.  The hood thus formed had a large area for work of this kind ; the surface was much too great to be carefully guarded, especially when a reduction of one or two pounds in the air was sufficient to produce deflection.  The edges of the plates were not let into the masonry of the shaft, nor were they securely connected to it.18 

The plan now was to build a large permanent tunnel in place of the temporary entranceway, spanning both tracks and fitting tightly to the shaft.  Only after this was done could the air pressure be increased in order to continue work on the tubes.  The largest ring was opened first.  The two plates adjoining the center one were taken down and the silt dug out, so that when the plates were re-inserted they were on the curve to be formed for the new work, the object being to construct a bridle, as it were, to cover both tunnels with one span or arch and leave a large chamber.  This became known as the ‘working’ chamber.17 

A reporter viewed this work on July 17.  The path sloped at an angle of nearly 45°, and seemed to lead directly into a bottomless pit.  He noticed how the workmen had used the silt to plug leaks.  The iron shell had been plentifully plastered with the putty-like mud to keep the water from trickling through the joints.  The workmen were engaged in building the grand arch, and, as I had been warned beforehand, everything was in confusion, and it was one of the least desirable times for a trip into the tunnel.  He was standing on a wooden platform that he said was about 40 feet above the bottom of the huge space being opened up and level with the tops of the two tunnels.2 

On July 21 an engineer who did not want to be identified described things.  On emerging from the air lock a visitor before the collapse would have found himself in a chamber of semi-elliptical cross-section, 38 feet wide, the roof and walls of which were composed of plates of boiler iron fitted together by flanges of angle iron.  For 12 feet from the brick wall of the shaft only the roof was completed, the workmen being engaged in excavating the mud or silt in the lower half of the chamber and putting the lining plates in position one after another towards the bottom.  For the next 18 feet the whole iron lining of the chamber was completed, but none of the brick wall with which the iron shell is to be lined was built.  At the termination of this chamber the tunnel proper begins, consisting of two parallel elliptical passages constructed, like the connecting chamber, of iron shells lined with brickwork.  One of these passages has been constructed for 300 feet beyond the shore line, out under the bed of the river.  The other has progressed only 25 feet beyond the chamber.  Work on both of them was suspended to permit the completion of the connecting chambers.19 

This work was considered dangerous, or at least doubtful, for the reason that in the immediate neighborhood of the brick shaft the earth had caved in when the tunnel was first begun and before the present systematic manner of working had been determined on.  The result of this caving-in was that the loose and porous material of which the upper twelve feet of earth at that point is composed had settled down to an unknown depth, and no one could tell the exact thickness of the stratum of compact silt in which so far the tunnel has been carried.  Extraordinary watchfulness was insisted upon and great care was taken.  It not infrequently happened that a small piece of porous material was uncovered in the digging, but a shovelful of silt thrown against it had invariably stopped the escape of air through it, the fine and soft material being instantly forced into the crevices by the air, which, by the action of the powerful compressors kept constantly at work, was maintained in the tunnel at a pressure of more than a ton to the square foot.19 

The collapse of the temporary entranceway

On July 21 at 04:30 the temporary entranceway collapsed next to the shaft over the air lock entrance. 

Charles B Brush, engineer in charge, gave the company’s official written statement to the press.  This morning at about half-past four o’clock while the men were changing shifts that portion of the iron roof adjoining the shaft and the connecting chamber between the two tunnels and the working shaft fell in.  Twenty-eight men were in the tunnel at the time, of whom eight escaped through the air lock and twenty were killed.  The accident occurred at the connection of the iron plates with the brick wall of the working shaft, which during the changing of the shifts was not probably watched by the men as carefully as it should have been, and the compressed air was allowed to escape.  This compressed air is relied upon to assist them in supporting the roof, which was also sustained by a strong timber bracing, and the escape of air has always been prevented by stopping any leaks by the waste silt.  As the roof fell the plates closed the door of the air lock into the tunnel, and water rising rapidly cut off the escape of the twenty men who were killed.  The building of this connecting chamber, though a difficult piece of work, has very successfully progressed till now.  The roof was all in position and securely bolted and the connection of the iron plates with the shaft was being made at the time of the accident.  Work will be prosecuted night and day with all the men that can be advantageously employed until all the bodies can be recovered, which will probably take three days.  This accident will delay the work probably three weeks.20 

Contradicting the official statement about the roof being securely bolted, Burr wrote later, The work had progressed so smoothly, and it being supposed that all danger had passed, that, two or three days before the accident, several plates had been removed from the upper part of the temporary entrance, thereby leaving the door of the lock unprotected should anything fall from above.21 

Similarly the unidentified engineer quoted above said, It will be readily seen that in immediate contact with the smooth brick exterior of the shaft where the normal condition of the earth had been disturbed, first by the construction of the shaft and afterwards by the caving in above mentioned, there was a greater probability of the escape of air than at any other point.  But everything had gone on well and the point of danger seemed passed.19 

The engineer went on to ask whether it was judicious to trust to the strength of an ellipse of boiler iron 38 feet wide and 20 feet high, with 20 feet of soft mud overlying it.  The internal air pressure was equal in every direction, but the external material was relieved from that pressure and was all downward, and tending to distort the ellipse.  Such distortion and change of shape must have produced a ‘demoralization’ as Mr Anderson, the superintendant, termed it, in the mud, and not impossibly a crack sufficient to allow of the escape of air.  In the peculiar soil through which the chamber was built it would take several days for the full pressure of the material on the shell to take effect, but when it did it would produce the distortion, the change of place of the material would be likely to show itself in the exact manner in which the catastrophe of yesterday morning occurred.  This is a point which would not likely be foreseen by a so-called practical man, but might have been predicted by an engineer who mixed his practice with scientific knowledge.19  The last was aimed directly at Haskin, who liked to call himself a ‘practical man’.

The superintendant, John F Anderson, told reporters, I don’t like to charge any negligence on dead men, but it seems to me that this accident could never have occurred had the men kept up their watch for leaks as they ought to have done.  You can always hear the leak— it makes a kind of hissing sound, like escaping air— before there is any real danger … Everything possible has been done to secure life here, but this is one of the accidents which no person could have provided against.  Had a strict watch been kept, I am confident that the disaster would never have occured.22 


[ 21-18 ]

‘Where 20 men perished.’ The Herald of July 22 showed accurately where the ground caved in, where the leak was, and the location just outside the air lock where most of the men died. 


[ 21-19 ]

The scene of the collapse, at the surface, looking west.  In the right foreground is the sunken ground over the entranceway, and beyond it is the shaft and the engine shed with the smokestack.  In the background over toward Hoboken is a Lackawanna Railroad coal bridge (used for dumping coal into barges for further shipment).  Below, a closer view under the roof, showing the water in the collapsed ground and the workmen starting to dig.  All around are the families of the dead and the usual curious public.  Both from the Daily Graphic, July 22. 

[ 21-20 ]


Survivors’ tales

There were three eight-hour shifts of 30 men each.  The group who started at midnight were scheduled for half hour meal breaks at 04:00 and 04:30, half going at a time.  This night there were 28 men, because one stayed home with a sick child and one showed up drunk and was not allowed in. 

Survivor James Hayes:  I, with five or six others, were at work in the main shaft [temporary entranceway] leading to the twin tunnels, which diverge from it, and about ten or twenty feet from the air lock, which in turn is about ten feet from the shaft.  All of us had been up to the top a short time previously, eating our lunches … All but myself were engaged in stopping up the leaks overhead and on the sides, preparatory to putting in the iron plates, so as to make this part of the work conform to that already completed.23 

Survivor Theodore Van Nostrand:  We were working in the old tunnel.  The old tunnel is the one first projected across the river from the lock.  We were arranging the iron plates prior to the building of the brick wall which goes under the plates … The plates were being bolted together at the top of the arch … Just as the first squad had returned and the second were preparing to leave the leak was discovered.19 

Survivor Thomas Brady:  On their return we were to go to lunch.  There came a strange noise from some quarter … We hastened into the air lock when the leak started.  The superintendant gave orders that all hands should come out and stop the leak.  I was among the men who obeyed that order.  The leak at that time was pretty large.  It could not be stopped.  The superintendant evidently realized that fact, as he cried at the top of his voice, ‘Get in the lock as quick as you can, all of you.’24 

Survivor Thomas Crimmins:  Some of us had already gone into the air lock, and we were waiting for foreman Burns and the others to come.  They kept us waiting there fully fifteen minutes before the disaster occurred, and the accounts which say that the men who were saved came through the air lock are not right.  With one exception those only were saved who were already in the lock at the time of the disaster. (This cannot be reconciled with several other accounts.)

Hayes:  I was then attending to the blow pipe connected to the air lock, and was suddenly startled by hearing Superintendant Woodland, who was near the group, say, ‘Stop these leaks’, pointing to the roof, a short distance from the door of the air lock.  These words had scarcely been uttered before I heard a noise like that created by escaping steam, and upon looking up I saw the roof of the tunnel crumbling in.23 

Brady:  While we were at work, we were startled by a sharp sound, like steam escaping from an engine, and knowing that it was a leak, we all grabbed up mud from the floor of the tunnel and began to patch up the leak, which was by this time visible.  Our efforts were proving to be vain, and Peter Woodland, the man in charge, ordered all hands into the air lock.23 

Van Nostrand:  Whenever a leak occurs this is the first movement [patching with silt], and if the leak threatens to be serious the engineer is told through the telephone to reduce his force of compressed air.  There was no time for lessening its force this morning, for barely two minutes elapsed after the leak was detected before the rush was made for the lock.  The leak, at first a narrow and short crevice, rapidly yielded to the air, which was forcing its way out, and the mud as fast as put in the break was shot up the hole.  Peter Woodland, the foreman, was at the break, and he saw that the escape of air could not be prevented, and he ordered the men to stop plugging the hole and make for the lock, at the same time pushing the gang toward it.19 

Van Nostrand:  The leak, when I first saw it, was not more than one-fourth of an inch wide and about six inches long, but in the few moments I was there until I was ordered to make for the lock, it had assumed a circular shape and was as large around as the top of a dish pan.19  It was within ten feet of the shaft.24  There was such a suction that a man could hardly draw his hand away from the hole.22  The compressed air escaping blew out our candles.24 

Hayes:  Knowing that all the ground above and surrounding us was ‘made’ and filled with water like a sponge, and realizing the great danger which we all were in, I, with the others near me, made a rush for the door of the air lock, through which we had to pass to gain the shaft and safety.  Eight of us scrambled into it, and Woodland called to us to close the door, as the air was escaping too rapidly.  We tried to do so but were prevented by Olsen Anderson, whose body became jammed in between it and the facing, preventing the other men from getting inside.23 

Survivor Christian Hanson:  I was the last man in the air lock.  The man behind me was caught half inside and half outside the lock.  His name was Otto Anderson, a Swede.24 

Van Nostrand:  Unfortunately the air got between the plates and the mud and forced the plates off.  While the men were running for the lock the plates and bolts fell on them.  The door of the lock was being opened as the plates showered down, and it was left open about seven inches, but the plates so obstructed it that it could not be forced off or open so as to admit the others … We tried to break down the door but it was too securely held by the mass of iron.  Immediately in front of the opening was one poor fellow who had been felled by the falling iron and buried in it.  We tried to lift him in, but he begged to be left to die, so great was the pain that he must have endured when we tried to drag him, not only from under the iron but from under the weight of his comrades, who in their efforts to get in were trampling him under their feet.  For twenty minutes we worked at the door.  The edge of the door and the jamb were covered with their hands as they struggled to get into the lock.  Then the water began to pour into the break.19 

Survivor John Doyle:  Everyone rushed for the lock but Mr Woodland.  Eight of us got inside, and just as Olaf Anderson, the ninth man, was coming in the iron plate roof of the tunnel fell in.  One of the plates struck poor Anderson and crushed him partly in the doorway, in such a position as to prevent us from opening or shutting the door.  We tried to pull Anderson in, but he was in such agony that he begged to be left where he was.  A heavy mist then began to fill the lock, and we saw that if something was not done we would soon be lost.25 

Brady:  Eight of us got in and the air then forced the doors of the lock together and it was impossible to open them.  As the doors closed a man was caught between them, and he died before we left, as the water soon rushed in and drowned him.  One of the roof plates was jammed between the doors of the air lock, and we who were inside had to strip off our clothes in order to stop the water from entering and get the doors open into the shaft at the other end of the lock.  The man who was caught in the doors grabbed my hand so tightly that I had great difficulty breaking loose.  The superintendant, Peter Woodland, who was in the tunnel at the time and who was killed, spoke to the men in the lock and told us to save ourselves and get help from above.  He was very cool and exhibited great courage.  Before we left the lock to ascend the shaft stairs the groanings and moanings of the dying men could be distinctly heard.23 

Van Nostrand:  We did not have much talking in the tunnel.  Peter Woodland asked a man named Barney to try and open the door, but it was impossible to do it.  Then he told us to stuff the crack as well as we could.  ‘If you get out,’ he said, ‘try and do what you can for us.’ Those were the last words he uttered.  We could hear him talk through the crack, and we could see some of the men covered with blood from the falling plates.24 

Van Nostrand:  It was an awful experience, and the tears rolled down my cheeks as I saw the water close over the poor fellow imprisoned in the doorway.  We worked hard at the door but it was useless.  We did not abandon it until the water began to rush into the lock.  Jimmy Hayes told us that our lives were in peril and to shut up the crevice in the door to keep out the water.  We pulled off our coats and stuffed them between the door and the jamb and thus for a time stopped the crevice.  The lock then settled bodily on the shaft end, and we feared we would be swept into the shaft and drowned there.19 

Van Nostrand:  In the lock were two large, thick plate glasses called bull’s eyes, put there to light the tunnel and shaft, one being on the tunnel and on the shaft side.  To relieve the pressure of the water on the lock on the tunnel side and the force of the air on the shaft side we broke these glasses and the water rushed through with frightful force to the shaft.  This relieved the air pressure on the door on the shaft side, and we climbed the steps to the entrance.  Before we left the lock the cries of the workmen in the tunnel were over.  They had all been suffocated.19 

Doyle:  Through the deadeye of the air lock I saw a man in the shaft beckoning to us to break the deadeyes.  This was done, and, as the air escaped, the door of the lock flew open and we walked out.  The lock and shaft by that time were filled with about three feet of water.25 

Hayes:  The water by this time came rushing through the air lock, reaching our knees before we got to the door leading to the shaft.  How we ever managed to escape is a mystery to me.  All that I know is that I was forced out and then we ran for the stairs leading from the bottom to the top of the shaft.23 

Doyle:  We climbed up the ladder at the side of the shaft.  By the time we reached the top the water had risen in the shaft to a depth of ten feet, completely covering the air lock.25 

Van Nostrand:  The water gained on us and we were swept about the shaft.  We were in the air lock twenty minutes fully.  When I got out I noticed it was 5:10.24 

Hayes:  We clambered up as fast as we could, and I tell you it was a race for life, but we beat the water.23 

Survivor Alfred Molin:  I assisted in breaking the bull’s eyes of the opposite door, and took off my clothing to assist in stopping the leak, but I was so confused that I can give no definite account of the occurences.24  Molin was only seventeen. 

Up on the surface were the night engineer Moses Pierson and two watchmen, Patrick Meehan and Michael Birdsall (or Burchard).  Pierson was standing near the engine, which was on the land side of the shaft, the side opposite the lock.  He saw a cloud of dust rise on the lock side, and then the ground fell in.  I knew that this meant something terrible below, and hastily throwing off my coat, I descended the stairs to the bottom,23  Pierson said.  The men in the lock were shouting for someone to open the door.  Pierson sent a messenger for the day foreman Michael Hurley, who lived close by, and the general superintendant John F Anderson. 

Hurley:  I arrived just before 5 o’clock, and went down the steps of the shaft to the air lock.  I heard some man— Brady I think it was— singing out, ‘Open the door, for God’s sake!’  I ran to get a crowbar to break the heavy plate-glass bull’s eye in the outer door of the air lock, and when I got back the men inside had knocked it out themselves.  I heard them crying for help, and Birdsall and I braced our feet and forced the door about a quarter open.  Then two men from inside took hold and opened it wide and rushed out.  The water was up to our waists, and we rushed out into the shaft … the water following us.19 

John F Anderson had also arrived in time to enter the lock and see that the inner door could not be opened and that the situation for the other men was hopeless.  He had to leave almost at once because of the rising water.19 

Reopening the tunnel with a cofferdam

Within an hour of the collapse the shaft was filled with water up to tide level.  The ground next to it on the river side had caved in as well, collapsing a work shed, and this depression too was filled with water.  The engineer kept the pump running, causing the water to bubble and lumps of mud to come up the foul air pipe.  When D C Haskin arrived he gave the order to stop the pump.25 

Haskin and the engineers decided to open the ground down to the temporary entranceway in order to recover the bodies and rebuild that section of tunnel.22  The day after the collapse they also tried to pump out the shaft using an additional pump, but it made no real progress.  The water rose and fell with the tide, and fish were seen in the shaft, proving that it was not just ground water but that the river was flowing in to the tunnel.26 

The opening was to be built inside a cofferdam large enough to enclose the entire space between the shaft and the two tunnels.  This would be the only way to recover the bodies, and it would take weeks to complete the job.27 

Crowds of the curious had appeared at the scene every day since the collapse, although there was very little to see, and the Jersey City police force had to send men to keep the crowds from interfering with the work.  Relatives and friends of the twenty dead came too.  The company paid off the idled workmen of the other shifts, some of whom resigned from tunnel work.  Others including some of the survivors stayed to offer any help they could in digging the hole inside the cofferdam.27 

On July 24, divers went down the shaft and closed the air lock door and replaced the bull’s eye, to make it watertight so that the shaft could be pumped out.  With this the pump now made fast progress and the shaft was cleared by the following night.  At the same time the ground was prepared for the cofferdam, an excavation about 42 feet by 46 and 18 feet deep.  The pile drivers began work on July 26.  The cofferdam was made of square pine logs set vertically as close together as possible, caulked, mainly to hold back the earth and not expected to be watertight.  Digging inside this protective wall began on July 29.28 


[ 21-21 ]

‘Constructing the coffer dam’, from the Daily Graphic, July 28.  Between the two pile drivers is the open coffer dam and the shaft right next to it.  This view looks southwest, so the engine shed is on the right, and in the background are Erie Railroad coal bridges and some warehouses between the Erie and Pennsylvania freight terminals.  And the public were always on hand. 


Sinking a caisson

After three days’ work the water was coming in faster than the pumps could remove it and rising and falling with the tide.  The engineers suspected river water was coming in at the bulkhead, running either into the south tunnel or along the top of the north tunnel, so a canvas sheathing was laid in the river over the outside of the bulkhead, and this seemed to help the pumping.  They thought they got within 8 feet of the roof, but the deeper they went the harder it was to pump.  On August 9 they gave it up.  They would have to build a caisson, which would be sunk within the cofferdam, and continue the work under air pressure.  Caissons had been used to build the tower foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge.  They were airtight boxes open only at the bottom, with an air lock at the top.29 

It took more than two weeks to construct the caisson.  Though boxy on the outside, the interior was an arch from north to south, and the north and south walls were the load-bearing ones capable of holding up the heavy roof.  The east and west sides would arch over the airlock on the west and the tunnels on the east.  The caisson was built mainly of yellow pine timber.  The arch was covered in a layer of lead and asphalt for waterproofing.  The space between the arch and the flat exterior roof was filled with concrete, and above the top was an open box 12 feet deep that would be filled with earth as further ballast.  It had two air locks on top built of boiler iron, one small one for materials and a large one for workers.30 


[ 21-22 ]

A plan of the coffer dam and the caisson looking straight down.  The outer rectangle is the coffer dam, and suspended within it by three supports on the left and right sides (north and south) is the caisson. 


[ 21-23 ]

A perspective view of the caisson.  At the top are the large air lock for workmen and the smaller one for materials.  The interior is arched so that it can be fitted over the shaft air lock on one side and the two tunnels on the other.  This and the previous drawing are from Burr. 


[ 21-24 ]

The caisson position in September in solid lines and its eventual position in dashed lines.  The vertical lines on each side are the sides of the coffer dam sunk by pile drivers.  From Scientific American, September 18 and October 9. 


[ 21-25 ]

The caisson partly sunk.  The air locks on top are shown in full.  Below the caisson are indicated the two tunnels and the ‘broken arch plates’ of the temporary entranceway.  From Scientific American, October 9, 1880. 


[ 21-26 ]

A photo-engraved view of the scene looking toward the river in mid September.  The air lock is all that is visible of the caisson as it has sunk just below ground level.  From the Daily Graphic, September 17. 


[ 21-27 ]

A sketch from the same issue of the Graphic, looking north with the Lackawanna coal bridges in the background. 


[ 21-28 ]

‘Entrance to the caisson’, another sketch from the same Graphic


The caisson was moved into the cofferdam at the start of September and on September 8 the compressed air was turned on.  At this point the laborers who had been working on the cofferdam the whole time demanded higher pay, and Haskin dismissed them all.  Probably for this reason digging in the caisson did not start for five more days.31  Work went well.  On September 21 a workman’s shovel hit one of the iron plates in the tunnel roof.32 

One of the bodies of the men buried beneath the fallen roof-plates of the Hudson River Tunnel in Jersey City was recovered last night, reported the Times on September 24.  It was taken from under two of the plates which had been uncovered and cut apart.  Superintendant Anderson was in the caisson, and lifted the body out of the silt in which it was lying, and laid it upon a board.  The back was bent and the limbs were bent up under it.  The hands were at the face.  The head, breast, and arm bones were almost entirely destitute of flesh.  The limbs were not so badly decomposed.  It was impossible to recognize the remains, but Superintendant Anderson said he thought they were those of Peter Woodland, the foreman who had charge of the works in the tunnel at the time the 20 men were killed.  It was laid out on a board, wrapped up in long pieces of sail-cloth, and then tied up securely with rope, which was wound about the entire length of the body.  It was taken out through the air lock, and placed on the ground near the engine, in the shed, at the shaft.  A reporter saw the body in the shed.  It gave out no disagreeable odor.33 

A second body was taken out two days later and tentatively identified as Thomas Burns, the other foreman.  Curiously the two foremen were the first recovered.  Anderson reported also seeing partially the air lock and the body of the man caught in the door.  Hurley (the foreman who had helped open the air lock after the disaster) said the next day that more bodies were ready to come out.  The caisson was now partly resting on the broken iron plates, through which air was leaking, and some of the plates would have to taken away to continue sinking the caisson.34 

Eight more remains were taken out on September 27, probably the bodies Hurley mentioned a few days before.  Reportedly the company wanted to open the air lock to the shaft and use it to remove bodies, but the workmen had not yet been able to get to it.  The bodies were found as the laborers began to unfasten and lift the iron plates.  When four of the plates had been removed, the remains of several of the entombed miners were uncovered.  They were little else than bones.  Shreds of flesh clung to the limbs of some of them, but for the most part they were only skeletons.  As soon as the discovery had been made, Foreman Hurley and Superintendant Anderson descended into the caisson, and joined with the laborers in efforts to take the bodies out … The eight recovered bodies lay in a mass in the mud in [front of] the air lock door.  Two of them were taken out without the heads, but the heads were afterwards found.  One of the eight was identified by a belt buckle as Thomas Burns, so the two foremen were not the first out after all.  The eight bodies were wrapped on a board the same way as the previous two and lifted out the caisson air lock.35 

Two more bodies were removed September 30, in a better state of preservation but Hurley did not recognize them.  Another was found under a plate in a tolerably fair state of preservation and taken out on October 8, and another two days later.  The fifteenth body, taken out October 11, was that of the man caught in the air lock door.  It was cut almost in two by the closing door.  The head had fallen from the body and the feet had decayed from the legs.  Little more of the body was left than the bones.  With this the air lock was made usable once again.  It would now communicate between the shaft and the secure space in the caisson.36 


[ 21-29 ]

‘Recovering the bodies’, an artist’s idea of the scene inside the caisson, from the Daily Graphic, October 7. 


The coroner’s jury

In the meantime a coroner’s jury had convened as to the cause of death of Peter Woodland, who was taken to represent all twenty victims.  On the first evening John F Anderson was asked why the company had left the temporary entrance uncompleted so long.  He told them, We had gone as far out as we could in the construction of the tunnel with the pressure of 21 pounds per square inch.  Then I thought it would be best to go back and build the temporary entrance, so that it would stand the higher pressure we would need to run the tunnel farther out. Under questioning Anderson agreed that an airlock set vertically over the top of the tunnel would have been better.  He also suggested that someone in the air lock had pulled the door shut and that if it had been left open more could have escaped.  A juror asked how often Haskin went into the tunnel.  Anderson could think of only one occasion.  Theodore Van Nostrand was also called.  He said that they were in darkness in the air lock, and that it was ten or fifteen minutes between the time Woodland told them to save themselves and the time he heard the crash of the roof.  If they could have opened the door he thought many more could have been saved.37 

Dewitt C Haskin himself testified the second evening.  He identified himself as a ‘practical engineer’.  The coroner seized upon this and asked what Haskin knew of higher mathematics.  Haskin said that he believed in grasping a scheme as a whole and that the tendency of mathematics was to dwarf the mind with details.  He had consulted with several leading engineers on his plans, he said, but added, Perhaps all my life I have been going contrary to the advice of engineers.  If their theories were against my experience I disregarded their advice.  That we have gone 300 feet into the river demonstrates to my own satisfaction the practicability of the work and that the air will hold the earth … There has been a difference of opinion between Engineer Brush and myself as to the removal of the cone or temporary tunnel.  He wanted to make the plate solid.  I differed, and had the work go ahead according to my views, as it was cheaper and quicker.  Mr Brush was in favor of carrying the brick-work in the temporary entrance all around as we made progress.  The coroner continued to press the idea of Haskin directing the project without having a solid background in engineering.  I don’t scout science, Haskin insisted, I only discarded its theoretical conclusions when they were opposed to my own practical experience.  But Haskin had to admit that he had had no experience using compressed air.38 

Charles B Brush testified on the third evening, mostly in the form of a written memorandum he wrote up after resigning from the Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company.  In it he said that in numerous cases his recommendations had been overruled.  The alignment of the completed tunnel was bad, and his carefully prepared plans and drawings were not accurately followed.  There had been a serious leak on February 27 that had taken an hour to control, and many more smaller leaks.39  A few days later on the last evening of testimony, Haskin came back at his own request to state that all possible precautions had been taken and that if the workmen had failed to exercise due care the company could not be held responsible.  The jury deliberated until 2:00 in the morning and then returned the verdict.40 

In spite of Haskin’s earlier testimony and that of Brush, the jury concluded that while, like all great undertakings, this enterprise may be considered a bold one, and some portions of the labor connected with it may be deemed extra-hazardous, yet we find that no fault or blame attaches to its projector, Col De Witt C Haskin, or the Board of the Hudson River Tunnel Company, or either of them, directly or indirectly, connecting them with the death of the late Peter Woodland.41  The company announced that the final settlement for the deaths would be paid out on October 16:  $500 to each widow, or $200 to the family of unmarried men.42  That looks small today, but $500 was about a year’s pay for men who made $1.50 to $1.75 a day. 

Work on the tunnel resumed.


[ 21-30 ]

Grave of Peter Woodland, March 19, 2005.  The base on which the statue once stood bears the inscription, ‘killed at the disaster at the Hudson River tunnel on Wednesday, July 21, 1880, aged 32 years.  He sacrificed his life that others might live.’  Photo by Joseph Brennan.


1  Burr, Tunneling, 14-15.
2  Times, 1880 Jul 18. 
3  Times, 1879 Sep 23. 
4  Manufacturer and Builder, 1879 May. 
5  Scientific American, 1879 Oct 18. 
6  Manufacturer and Builder, 1879 Nov. 
7  Burr, Tunneling, 15. 
8  Davies, Construction of the tunnel system, 2.
9  Burr, Tunneling, 16-17. 
10  Burr, Tunneling, 18. 
11  Burr, Tunneling, 19. 
12  Burr, Tunneling, 20. 
13  Scientific American, 1880 May 8. 
14  Burr, Tunneling, 20-21. 
15  Burr, Tunneling, 22. 
16  Davies, Construction of the tunnel system, 2.
17  Chamber of Commerce, Rapid transit, 30-31.
18  Burr, Tunneling, 24-25.
19  World, 1880 Jul 22.
20  Times, Herald, World, Daily Graphic, 1880 Jul 22 (with variant text indicating the reporters wrote their own copies).
21  Burr, Tunneling, 25.
22  Times, 1880 Jul 22. 
23  Daily Graphic, 1880 Jul 22. 
24  Tribune, 1880 Jul 22. 
25  Herald, 1880 Jul 22. 
26  Herald, 1880 Jul 23. 
27  Times, 1880 Jul 24. 
28  Times, 1880 Jul 25, Jul 26, Jul 27, Jul 28, Jul 29, Jul 30.
29  Times, 1880 Aug 2, Aug 3, Aug 5, Aug 10.
30  Burr, Tunneling, 26-29.
31  Times, 1880 Sep 9, Sep 14.
32  Times, 1880 Sep 23.
33  Times, 1880 Sep 24.  ‘Limbs’ evidently referred to legs.
34  Times, 1880 Sep 26, Sep 27.
35  Times, 1880 Sep 28.
36  Times, 1880 Oct 1, Oct 9, Oct 11, Oct 12.
37  Times, 1880 Sep 30.
38  Times, 1880 Oct 1.
39  Times, 1880 Oct 2. 
40  Times, 1880 Oct 8. 
41  Times, 1880 Oct 9. 
42  Times, 1880 Oct 12. 

home page next