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This 2000 photo shows the Manhattan portal of the Holland Tunnel (I-78). (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

"When Clifford M. Holland talks tunnels, his listener is in danger of being convinced that tunnels are the only refuge for mankind; by the time he has finished his hearer sees in a tunnel all the allurement which a mole finds in a nicely constructed borrow. Because Mr. Holland does know tunnels, and he does build them safely." - Brooklyn Daily Eagle (February 19, 1920)

A BRIDGE OR A TUNNEL? With the rapid rise of automobile and truck transport after the turn of the century, Hudson River ferries were carrying 30 million vehicles each year between New York and New Jersey. In 1906, a coalition of the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission began feasibility studies for a bridge from lower Manhattan to Jersey City, New Jersey.

Since it would be easier and cheaper to build than a tunnel, a bridge was initially thought to be a feasible solution. However, there were drawbacks to the choice of a bridge crossing. A Hudson River bridge would require a minimum clearance of 200 feet for ships to travel to and from Hudson River ports. Since the Manhattan side of the Hudson did not meet the 200-foot elevation requirement for a bridge, long approaches - longer than that required by a tunnel - would have to be built on the New York side. Finally, a bridge would be more subject to inclement weather than would a tunnel. Ultimately, the joint coalition decided in 1913 to construct a tunnel.

Two proposals were initially floated for the "Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel," or the "Canal Street Tunnel."  The first proposal, presented by the firm Jacobs and Davies, called for a bi-level tunnel measuring 31 feet in diameter. The upper level, which was to carry slower vehicles, was to have an 18-foot-wide roadway and a clearance of 12 feet, flanked by sidewalks measuring 4 feet wide. The lower level, which was to be reserved for express vehicles, was to have a 16-foot-wide roadway and a nine-foot clearance. Both levels were to carry two-carry traffic. The second proposal, presented by engineer George Goethals (who would eventually become chief engineer of the Port Authority), was a bi-level design measuring 42 feet in diameter. Each level was to carry opposing lanes of traffic, two lanes in each direction. The roadway was to measure 23 feet wide, and was to have 13 feet of clearance.

A PIONEERING TUNNEL DESIGN: The New York-New Jersey joint coalition finally decided on a twin-tube design by Clifford Holland, a pioneer in tunnel construction. In 1919, Holland became chief engineer of the tunnel that eventually bore his name.

Tunnels under the Hudson River were not new: the first trans-Hudson rail tunnel opened in 1910. However, the much larger diameter of vehicular tunnels, combined with the affect of vehicle exhaust on occupants, especially for those stuck in traffic inside the tunnel, presented new problems. To address these problems, Holland gathered a team of experts from the U.S. Bureau of Mines, Yale University and the University of Illinois. Ole Singstad, who later went on to design the Lincoln, Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery tunnels, led the design team.

Prior to construction, the team tested vehicles within closed chambers. After testing volunteer occupants in the cars to determine the effect of the fumes, the team determined that air with only one-half percent carbon monoxide might be lethal.

Holland and the design team developed a revolutionary two-duct system - a system that utilized one duct to draw in fresh air, and the other to suck out exhaust air - that was adopted eventually by vehicular tunnels worldwide. To facilitate the exchange of clean and dirty air, the team developed a system of ventilator fans and airshafts to circulate clear air throughout the length of the tunnel. This air is moved by 42 blowing fans and 42 exhaust fans - totaling 6,000 horsepower - arranged in four ventilation buildings. (Only 56 out of the total 84 fans are in operation at all times; the other 28 fans are reserved for emergencies.) It takes approximately 90 seconds to completely change the air in the tunnel.

Construction of the tunnel began in 1920 and progressed over seven long, arduous years. However, Holland would not see his dream come to fruition: he died one day before construction crews from the New York and New Jersey sides met. Singstad, who led the design team prior to construction, took over as chief engineer.

THINK TWICE, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE: This was an expression used by the "sandhogs," as the tunnel construction workers were called, that summed up the danger of working in the tunnel. Teams of "sandhogs" followed two enormous, 240-ton hydraulically powered shields under the riverbed. The cast-iron shields weighed 400 tons, measured 30 feet in diameter, were 16 feet long, and had a forward thrust of 6,000 tons. As they moved on, the "sandhogs" removed mud, blasted through rock, and bolted together a series of iron rings that would form the lining of the tunnel. They used a total of 115,000 tons of cast-iron steel and 130,000 cubic yards of concrete to line the tunnel.

On a good day, the "sandhogs" moved about 40 feet. On bad days, they did not move at all, and often suffered from "the bends," an affliction caused by the compressed air of the tunnel. A total of 13 workers died during construction.

LEFT: Governors Alfred E. Smith of New York (fifth from left) and Harry Moore of New Jersey (fourth from left) with tunnel commissioners and other officials at the New York-New Jersey border, upon the dedication of the Holland Tunnel on November 12, 1927. (Photo by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.) RIGHT: This toll receipt for 50 cents was the first one handed out at the Canal Street toll plaza. (Photo by Richard Novick.)

THE TWO SIDES MEET: Early in 1927, two brothers, both leaders of the New York and New Jersey "sandhog" teams, met when the two construction teams "holed through." The Holland Tunnel opened at midnight on November 13, 1927, providing the first fixed vehicular crossing between New York City and New Jersey, at a cost of $54 million. President Calvin Coolidge formally opened the tunnel with the same key that opened the Panama Canal in 1915.

At one minute past midnight on November 13, a truck making a shipment to Bloomingdale's Department Store in Manhattan was the first non-official vehicle through the Holland Tunnel, and was the first vehicle to pay the toll at the Canal Street toll plaza. In its first day of operation, the tunnel saw 52,000 vehicles pass through its two tubes.

The Port of New York Authority (later the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) took over jurisdiction of the Holland Tunnel in 1931. In 1934, Julius Henry Cohen, the financial counsel of the Port Authority, issued new Port Authority bonds in a unique financing proposal. The new "general issue" bonds took the surpluses generated by the Holland Tunnel to finance the money-losing Staten Island-New Jersey bridges, as well as construction of the Lincoln Tunnel.

TUNNEL THREATENED: On May 13, 1949, a chemical truck loaded with 80 drums of carbon disulfide burned on the New Jersey side of the south tube, destroying wall and ceiling tiles for 600 feet. The following data are from the Federal Highway Administration document, Prevention and Control of Highway Tunnel Fires:

  • CONDITIONS AT IGNITION: Fully enclosed trailer carrying eighty 55-gallon drums of carbon disulfide entered the New Jersey portal of tunnel, in violation of Port Authority regulations and allegedly un-placarded in violation of ICC regulations, in very heavy, slow traffic approximately 8:30 AM. The drums broke free and ignited upon striking roadway approximately 2900 feet into tunnel. A truck rolled to a stop in left lane. Four trucks caught fire and were abandoned adjacent to the trailer in the right lane. Five additional trucks stopped 350 feet to the rear grouped tightly in right lane also ignited. Approximately 125 automobiles, buses, and trucks filled both lanes back to New Jersey portal.

  • DETECTION, ALARM AND NOTIFICATION: A patrolling officer 100 feet from mishap transmits trouble signaled to the control room at 8:48 AM, and assisted drivers escaping the scene in the south tube to the north tube. Patrolling officers further east at 8:56 AM transmitted the first fire alarm, and assisted passengers after sending the alarm. Tunnel personnel in tunnel to the west of the fire scene promptly evacuated occupants on foot to New Jersey, and started backing vehicles out of tunnel. The Jersey City Fire Department (JCFD) received telephone notice at 9:05 AM, and the New York Fire Department (FDNY) received the fire alarm at 9:12 AM.

  • RESPONSE: A three-man emergency crew drove west through eastbound tube on wrecker and jeep upon receiving the 8:56 AM fire alarm, and commenced fighting the fire with a 1-inch-diameter hose and spray nozzle. They assisted two tunnel patrolmen overcome by smoke, extinguished fires in two trucks of eastern group, and towed one to the New York portal. An FDNY rescue company and battalion chief drove west through westbound tube, and crossed to the fire scene to relieve the tunnel emergency crew. Some firemen in distress recovered by breathing at the curb-level fresh air ducts. The second alarm transmitted at 9:30 AM activated four engine companies, two ladder truck companies, and a water tower. Firemen who were not directly involved in firefighting searched through burning trucks and helped three trapped persons to safety. Additional NYC pumpers augmented the capacity of the tunnel fire main, and activated five 2-inch hoses and a foam generator. A JCFD engine company, truck company, rescue company, and battalion chief transmitted a second alarm upon initial inspection at New Jersey portal, and ordered oxygen masks. Firemen established hose lines through one-half-mile of abandoned vehicles, and extinguished fires in the second group of trucks. When the tunnel ventilation was accelerated to full capacity at fire site at approximately 9:45 AM, the firemen were able to without their masks. Two exhaust fans were disabled by heat at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit; but the third fan was kept in service by water spray. The ceiling at fire scene collapsed; fireboats monitored the Hudson River above for signs of tube failure. The remaining vehicles that were untouched by fire were removed by 10:15 AM. The JCFD drove two pumpers east to fire site, joining forces with the FDNY. The fire was controlled by approximately 1:00 PM, and overhauling operations continued until 12:52 AM the next morning. Residual carbon disulfide and turpentine re-flashed at 6:50 PM during cleanup, but was extinguished with 5-gallon foam extinguishers. The area was then covered with heavy foam.

  • TOTAL EQUIPMENT INVOLVED: one tow truck, several jeeps, seven chief units, five rescue companies, seven police emergency squads, 14 engine companies, six truck companies, one lighting truck, one water tower, one smoke ejector, one foam truck, 40 additional firemen, at least 13 ambulances at the scene, and four Consolidated Edison emergency trucks with inhalators (total of 29 firefighting units, 20 medical units, seven supervisory units, at least three port authority vehicles, and four commercial vehicles with special apparatus on board. Unknown total of personnel in excess of 250).

  • TUNNEL DAMAGE: Ten trucks and cargoes completely destroyed, 13 others damaged. 600 feet of tunnel wall and ceiling demolished; walls spalled in places to cast iron tube plates. 650 tons of debris removed from tunnel. Tube reopened to traffic 56 hours after fire started. All cable and wire connections through tube disrupted at fire. Total damage estimated at $1.0 million (in 1949 dollars).

  • CASUALTIES: 66 injuries, 27 requiring hospitalization; no fatalities.

More than half a century later, the tunnel was threatened by fire once again. On March 25, 2002, a multiple-alarm fire at an abandoned warehouse and storage facility in Jersey City threatened the western portals of the Holland Tunnel, including the toll plaza. For several days, the Port Authority closed the tunnel to all traffic while firefighting and demolition operations were underway.

This 1999 photo shows the midway point of the Holland Tunnel, traveling eastbound across the New Jersey-New York border. (Photo by Raymond C. Martin.)

PROGRESS OVER THE DECADES: During the 1970's, a new nine-lane toll plaza was built in Jersey City to collect tolls in the eastbound direction only; westbound motorists no longer had to pay a toll. Until that time, scattered booths on the New York side of the tunnel collected tolls in both directions, snarling traffic throughout Lower Manhattan and inside the eastbound tube. Each tollbooth was about the size of a phone booth.

In 1984, the American Society of Civil Engineers bestowed the honor of "National Civil Engineering Landmark" on the Holland Tunnel, the world's first mechanically ventilated vehicular tunnel.

THE HOLLAND TUNNEL TODAY: According to the Port Authority, the Holland Tunnel carries approximately 100,000 vehicles per day (AADT) between Jersey City, New Jersey and Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. In its nearly 80 years of operation, it has carried more than 1.5 billion vehicles.

Originally part of the easternmost section of the transcontinental Lincoln Highway, the Holland Tunnel today connects to I-78, Business US 1-US 9 and NJ 139 in Jersey City. According to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), the I-78 designation actually continues one-half mile past the New Jersey-New York border. However, signs leading to the tunnel on either side of the Hudson do not have I-78 shields. The designation was part of the unbuilt legacy of Robert Moses, who planned to continue I-78 across Lower Manhattan into Brooklyn (The Moses plan would have required construction of a third tube for the Holland Tunnel.)

The Port Authority completed the following projects recently on the Holland Tunnel:

  • Installation of a new motorist information system; cost $26 million.

  • Replacement of all 84 fans in ventilation system, including the installation of new motors; cost $19 million.

  • Rehabilitation of westbound 14th Street approach in Jersey City, including construction of a new pavement and the installation of new traffic control devices; cost $19 million.

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS POST-9/11: For more than one month after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Holland Tunnel was closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles. When the tunnel reopened, the Port Authority and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) imposed new HOV restrictions, as part of larger-scale efforts to reduce congestion in Manhattan below 63rd Street. First applied around the clock, the Manhattan-bound HOV restriction later applied only during the morning rush. The restriction was lifted in November 2003.

When the tunnel reopened to non-emergency traffic in October 2001, only cars and buses were permitted to use the Holland Tunnel. Restrictions against truck traffic were lifted gradually. Today, the only prohibitions apply to trucks with four or more axles, trailers and towed vehicles, effectively restricting a popular truck route along Canal Street for New Jersey-bound trucks. Prior to the 2001 attacks, truckers from Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island used the route (via the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges) to avoid the stiff one-way toll of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and have a toll-free trip to New Jersey. Transportation and community groups have applauded the restriction, and are seeking to make it permanent.

LEFT: This 2002 photo shows the eastbound 12th Street in Jersey City. Although technically part of I-78, the western approach to the Holland Tunnel has several traffic lights. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.) RIGHT: This 2004 photo shows the eastern terminus of I-78 in Lower Manhattan. Newly erected signs (with numbered exits) direct motorists from the traffic circle at the end of the approach. (Photo by Alex Nitzman,

A DIRECT CONNECTION TO THE HOLLAND TUNNEL: A controlled-access connection should be constructed between the eastern terminus of the Newark Bay Extension (I-78) and the Holland Tunnel toll plaza. Currently, traffic between these routes must travel on signalized streets: eastbound traffic on 12th Street, westbound traffic on 14th Street. Overpasses should be constructed for cross traffic.

Construction started:
Opened to traffic:
Number of tubes:
Number of traffic lanes:
Length between portals (north tube):
Length between portals (south tube):
Operating headroom of tubes:
External diameter of tubes:
Maximum depth, mean high water to roadway:
Total number of ceiling tiles:
Total number of wall tiles:
Supply and exhaust fans:
Cost of original construction:

February 1, 1920
November 13, 1927
2 tubes
4 lanes
8,558 feet
8,371 feet
12 feet, 6 inches
29 feet, 6 inches
93 feet, 5 inches
3,100,000 tiles
2,900,000 tiles
42 fans

SOURCES: "Bloomingdale's First in Tunnel," The New York Times (11/14/1927); "Future Arterial Program for New York City," Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1963); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); The Story of America's Tunnels by Ray Spangenburg and Diane K. Moser, Facts on File Books (1993); Engineers of Dreams by Henry Petroski, Vintage Books-Random House (1995); "A Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," American Society of Civil Engineers (1997); Perpetual Motion: The Illustrated History of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by Joe Mysak and Judith Schiffer, General Publishing Group (1997); "Prevention and Control of Highway Tunnel Fires," Federal Highway Administration (1998); "Holland Tunnel Remains Closed as Fire Lingers" by Richard Lezin Jones, The New York Times (3/26/2002); "Big Trucks Take Some Detours, and Residents Near Holland Tunnel Just Smile" by Kelly Crow, The New York Times (9/01/2002); New Jersey Department of Transportation; New York City Department of Transportation; North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority; Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Hank Eisenstein; Ralph Herman; Robert T. Hintersteiner; Justin Jih; Mike Jiran; Larry Lucchetti; Raymond C. Martin; Dan Moraseski; Richard Novick; Tom Scannello; C.C. Slater; Sandy Smith.

  • Holland Tunnel and I-78 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman and Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.
  • HOV sign by C.C. Slater.



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