Commuters and weekend travelers are perhaps all too familiar with the Holland Tunnel. So today, we provide you with fun facts and forgotten secrets about the tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey, a feat of engineering and ventilation at the time it was built.
10. Holland Tunnel Police Used to Ride in “Catwalk” Cars
A narrow, one-person, two-foot wide electric car debuted in the Holland Tunnel in 1955. The catwalk car was used as a tool for police to patrol the entire length from the catwalk on either edge of the tunnel. A swivel seat was installed in the car so that the police could move back and forth without having to leave their seat. The car moved at 6 or 12 miles per hour. This might sound slow, but this car definitely had the right of way! As The New York Times writes “the catwalk car was the fastest, surest way through the tunnel, gliding blithely past the most epic traffic jams — equipped with no horn, because none was needed.”
In our previous article, you can see two different vintage models of the catwalk car. According to The New York Times, the catwalk car was operational until the spring of 2011 but used a more modernized vehicle.
9. The Holland Tunnel Was the Longest Underwater Vehicular Tunnel in the World
The Holland Tunnel was not only the first underwater vehicular tunnel in the Hudson River, it was also the longest in the world when it opened. According to the ASCE Metropolitan section, it also had the largest tube width in the world, at 29.5 feet, setting the standard for other vehicular tunnels throughout the world that followed.
8. Where the Holland Tunnel Gets Its Name
Holland Tunnel. Photo from Library of Congress
The Holland Tunnel doesn’t get its name from the Netherlands. The New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission starting planning for a connector in 1906 and began work on the tunnel in 1920. During its development, the Holland Tunnel was quite practically referred to as the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel or the Canal Street Tunnel.
Many architectural models were proposed but a design by Clifford Millburn Holland was selected. The plan featured two tunnels, each with two lanes. The two halves of the tunnel were supposed to link on October 28, 1924. The day before the scheduled connection, Holland died of a heart attack. The New York Times linked his death to stress from the tunnel’s construction. The events of the day, which were to include a remote detonation by President Coolidge, were cancelled in his honor, and then tunnel was named after him less than a month later.
7. The Holland Tunnel Was Feat of Ventilation
When the Holland Tunnel was being built, automobile exhaust contained carbon monoxide levels that could become poisonous within a tunnel. As such, the tunnel would become the first tunnel in the world to be equipped with a ventilation system, “designed specifically for automobile and truck exhaust fumes,” according to ASCE Metropolitan. There are a total of four ventilation buildings, which contain 84 fans that push air through the tunnel. There are also 42 blowers and 42 exhausters. When the tunnel opened, the plan was to change the air 42 times an hour, which is about once every 85 seconds, but in practice now, not all the fans operate at the same time.
Tunnel ventilation buildings now dot the New York City waterfront edge. They became a part of pop culture with the appearance of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel ventilation building as the headquarters for Men in Black.
6. The Holland Tunnel is a National Historical Landmark
New Jersey entrance. Image via The Library of Congress.
The Holland Tunnel was named a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil and Mechanical Engineers in 1984 and a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1993. The designations were predominantly for its groundbreaking ventilation system. When designated as a National landmark, it became the sixth tunnel in the country with the distinction.
5. President Coolidge Officially Opened the Tunnel From a Yacht
President Calvin Coolidge. Image from Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
From his Mayflower yacht in the Potomac River, President Calvin Coolidge opened the tunnel from a distance at 4:55 pm on November 13, 1927. He turned a gold telegraph key (these keys used to send Morse code) which moved two American flags apart at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. This same key, operated by President Woodrow Wilson, detonated the last blast in the construction of the Panama Canal as well.
United States Presidents were often remotely involved in the opening ceremonies of important construction during this era. In 1913, President Herbert Hoover turned on the lights to the Woolworth Building from his desk in Washington D.C.
4. Pedestrians Used to Use the Holland Tunnel (Once)
Photo from Library of Congress
In 1927, shortly before the Holland Tunnel opened, The New York Times reported that “pedestrians will be allowed to use the tunnels at at a toll described as ‘not encouraging.’ People were certainly crossing on opening day, as reported in the Times but it does not appear that pedestrian access was continued after:
“When the two flags had parted before the New York entrance, there surged beneath their drawn folds and on into the chill depths of the white-tiled, brilliantly lighted subaqueous thoroughfare, an almost solid mass of pedestrians eager to make the trip from shore to shore afoot.
“It was estimated that within an hour 20,000 or more persons had walked the entire 9,250 feet from entrance to exit, and the stream of humanity, thinning a little toward the last, continued to traverse the tunnel until 7 p.m., when it was closed until 12:01 a.m., the hour set for vehicular traffic to begin its regular, paid passage.”
3. The Holland Tunnel Was Originally Conceived as a Bridge
New Jersey entrance. Image via The Library of Congress.
The Holland Tunnel was jointly commissioned by New York and New Jersey in 1906. However, the Hudson River crossings were originally conceptualized as a bridge. ASCE Metropolitan reports, “a bridge was not economically feasible due to the long span that would be required to cross the Hudson River, the deep foundations that would be needed to reach bedrock, and the lengthy approaches would necessitate the purchase of large amounts of real estate.”
2. There Was a Deadly Fire in the Holland Tunnel Fire
Image via The Library of Congress.
In 1949, a truck loaded with carbon disulfide drove into the Holland Tunnel, even though it was illegal to transport the hazardous material through the tunnel. One of its eighty 55-gallon drums fell off and broke open, emitting vapors that caught fire when coming in contact with the ground.
The fire caused 66 injuries, two deaths and approximately $600,000 worth of damage to the south tube of the tunnel. The Port Authority then adopted strict rules to prevent such an accident from occurring again.
It should be noted that in 1931, the New York Times lauded the fire prevention methods in the tunnel, writing, “Fires in the tunnel, it is said, cause little delay and no serious damage. They are easily extinguished by chemicals placed handily every 325 feet through the tube’s length.” In the 1949 fire, the tunnel’s famous ventilation system was on full capacity.
1. The Holland Tunnel Rotary
During the construction of the Holland Tunnel, St. John’s Park Freight Depot, the southern terminus of the Hudson River Railway Company was demolished. In its place, bounded by Hudson, Laight, Beach and Varick streets, stood a rotary and the exits from the tunnel.
The space has a long history in New York City and was once part of a plantation. Later, when the English took New York, the land was owned by the English crown. The crown deeded the space to Trinity Church, which in turn built St. John’s Chapel. Trinity Church also developed St. John’s Park, the first in New York to become surrounded by townhouses. The neighborhood was known as St. John’s Park until the Hudson River Railway Company bought it. The Railway Company demolished the townhouses to build the freight depot. Today, although the rotary space is still known as St. John’s Park, it is not actually part of the parks system and is inaccessible to the public.
Bonus: The LOMEX That Never Was
Image via The Library of Congress.
Robert Moses touched just about every inch of infrastructure in New York City during the mid-20th century, including the Harlem Tunnel. One of his most controversial plots was the plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway or, LOMEX. The plan would connect the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges to the the Holland Tunnel via Soho and Little Italy. The plan, as pictured above would merge traffic via a highway over Soho that would continue into the Holland Tunnel to get to Jersey. This plan was defeated by widespread community action against it led most prominently by Jane Jacobs. The $72 million dollar project would have razed fourteen blocks of Soho and displaced approximately 2,000 households and 800 local businesses.