Sandhogs

Eighty years ago, New York City needed another tunnel under the Hudson River. The Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge could no longer handle the mounting traffic between New Jersey and Manhattan. Thus began construction of the Lincoln Tunnel.

But this is not a story about the Lincoln Tunnel. This is about the men who made it. The Sandhogs.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.14.20 PM
Courtesy of Port Authority Archive

“Sandhogs were the urban miners who worked on a variety of underground excavation projects in New York City. They worked in tight, small chambers that held back water and silt, and they breathed condensed air.

Digging a tunnel was not only uncomfortable, it was dangerous, and there was a high likelihood that workers could get decompression sickness — also known as the bends. In fact, during the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels, the bends claimed the lives of fifty Sandhogs.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 2.14.37 PM
Courtesy of Port Authority Archive

Still, this was during the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce. A job was a job. This radio story is a portrait of the Sandhogs that built City Water Tunnel #3, a project to add to the New York City water supply.

Sandhogs” is part of producer Dan Collison’s American Workers series. Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister are Long Haul Productions. This might be my other favorite Long Haul piece, “The Lord God Bird” featuring Sufjan Stevens and a giant woodpecker once thought extinct.

More resources:

Links

Books

  • Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion That Saved New York
    by Peter Derrick
    Documents the importance of underground expansion due to the vast population of New York City
  • The Building of Manhattan: How Manhattan Was Built Overground and Underground, from the Dutch Settlers to the Skyscrapers
    by Donald A. MacKay
    A detailed account of the growth of New York

Comments (18)

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  1. George Sandeman

    Last week we had a repeat, and this week a nearly 20 year old documentary someone else made?

    I feel like I just bought the most expensive shirt ever on kickstarter, because I can’t see my money being spent on content…

    Poor show, Mr Mars.

  2. Jack Steele

    A good show is a good show. This was a fascinating show regardless of when it was made.

  3. @George. I’m not sure we can appreciate how much work goes into making an episode, the research, the recording and the editing. And of course the kickstarter also helped to fund other employees and their healthcare. Thank’s 99PI, you make the drive to work bearable. Even this American Life has reruns, sometimes even two weeks in a row!

    1. George Sandeman

      Hello all, I’ve had some time to cool down now, and very rightly regret my negative comments. I have enjoyed all the previous podcasts and I should be thankful I have such a wealth of entertainment and education available to me for free.

      Sorry to have come across as a grumpy old fool.

  4. George E

    Thanks Ms. Mingle. We are sweet (if I do say so myself), and apparently have the strength of character to apologize, publicly, which is rare speaks highly of one’s character.

    Also, I really liked the show and I second Jack’s comments.

  5. A fascinating episode, and a testament to both the need for unions and that bravery borne of necessity. Would love to hear a follow-up episode on the Sandhogs, (now) 21 years later.

  6. Daniel Williams

    I want to thank you for rebroadcasting this, my Grandfather is Stuart Williams, one of the men interviewed. He passed away almost 3 years ago and it was amazing to hear his voice. This interview really showed the type of man he was!

  7. This podcast can’t be City Water Tunnel #3 – since it started building at the end of the 1900s. Could you be refering to City Water Tunnel #2?

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