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The Holland Tunnel: How a Jazz Age engineering marvel forever changed New York and New Jersey

EPISODE 307 The Holland Tunnel, connecting Manhattan with Jersey City beneath the Hudson River, is more important to daily life in New York City than people may at first think.

Before the creation of the Holland Tunnel, commuters and travelers had painfully few options if they wanted to get to and from Manhattan. And for the city’s many waterfront industries, there was mostly only one option — barges and ferries which carried cargo across the crowded Hudson River, maneuvering through an overcrowded port system which profited from the grotesque congestion.

And then along came the automobile, rapidly transforming the American way of life. How could an average motorist — or a regular cargo truck — get back and forth to New York City in its current chaotic state?

The new tunnel envisioned by chief engineer Clifford Milburn Holland would create a new pathway for motor vehicles, the first for such conveyances under the Hudson River.

Yet one pressing problem stood in the way of its completion. Railways and mass transit could travel through long, underground tunnels because their tracks were electrified. But automobiles produced poisonous exhaust — carbon monoxide — making a contained tunnel almost 100 feet underwater a deadly proposition.

The ingenious solution would ensure not only the success of the New York/New Jersey tunnel, but would change the fate of automobile transportation in the United States and around the world.

PLUS: The tragic story behind the naming of the Holland Tunnel


THE TAKEOUTA bonus after-show podcast for those who support us on Patreon. We share a few interesting details that didn’t make it on the show — including the Holland Tunnel police force and their odd tunnel ‘cop car’ and the story of the first bridge over the Hudson River (in the year 1804!) PLUS — Why is the Holland Tunnel so underappreciated in comparison to the region’s great bridges? Subscribe at the Five Points level and above to receive this bonus show.

A full sized section of the Hudson River vehicular tunnel (aka the Holland Tunnel) 29′ 6 inches diameter, taken 1923, courtesy New York Public Library

Also taken 1923, courtesy New York Public Library

Miners in the tunneling shield, shoveling out the south tunnel, 4/5/23. NYPL

Canal Street shaft and air locks, South tunnel, 4/24/23, NYPL

Holing through North Tunnel between New York and New Jersey. November 1924. NYPL

The famously large New York river shaft caisson, leaving St. George, Staten Island. January 1923.

The governors, officially meeting halfway!


Photo from 1935, courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

A Holland Tunnel catwalk car, used by Port Authority during the 1950s. Courtesy Hoboken Historical Museum

Madness! A 1954 postcard showing the maelstrom of traffic at the tunnel entrance in Manhattan. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The New York Land Ventilation Tower, photo courtesy Library of Congress

Ventilation towers on either side of the Hudson River. The tunnel runs under the Hudson between these towers. Photo courtesy Library of Congress


After listening to our show on the Holland Tunnel, check out these episodes with similar themes:

The George Washington Bridge would open just a few years after the Holland Tunnel. It too faced some interesting engineering hurtles…..

The Pennsylvania Railroad dug tunnels under the Hudson River many years before the Holland was constructed.

The Tribeca neighborhood would be greatly affected by the tunnel’s construction — in grand ways (clearing away those congested ports) and bad (the true end of the old St. John’s Park neighborhood).

1 reply on “The Holland Tunnel: How a Jazz Age engineering marvel forever changed New York and New Jersey”

Do you happen to have a photograph of the opening day of the Holland Tunnel? There is supposedly a photo of the cutting of the ribbon to the Holland Tunnel with Mayor LaGuardia. It may have been in the New York Times. Harley Benjamin Kelchner, a chief engineer for Bethlehem Steel Company at that time, is supposedly in that photograph also. Harley Benjamin Kelchner is my grandfather, and I am interested in getting this part of his history together in order for his legacy to live on with his descendants. Since his grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren are getting up in years, and Bethlehem Steel no longer exists, it would be fulfilling to know some more of the facts. My father talked from time to time about the role his father had in the design of the structural steel of the Holland Tunnel. It would be interesting to know more about this story. Thank you in advance if you know anything about the engineers of Bethlehem Steel in the design of the Holland Tunnel.

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