Sandhogs

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We have something a little different on the show this week. If it isn’t obvious, I’m what you’d call pro-infrastructure. Of course, some infrastructure is vital and necessary, and some infrastructure isn’t, but it all has to be made right. It’s hard work. It’s dangerous work. And it’s often union work. This story is about New York City Sandhogs Local 147 and they are the urban miners who build every tunnel in New York City, and many of the bridge foundations. Without them, there would be no sewers, no subways, no tunnels for cars, no water, basically no New York City. To quote the Local 147 website: “Without the tunnels built by the Sandhogs, New York would have ceased to exist around the time of the American Civil War.”

Roman Mars:
So in 1994, radio producer Dan Collison interviewed the Sandhogs as they were working on New York City Water Tunnel #3. And if you’ve seen the third Die Hard movie, ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance,’ you’ve seen New York City Water Tunnel #3 under construction. It’s pretty amazing to see, and the voices of the Sandhogs responsible for building that tunnel are amazing to hear. Seriously, I could listen to them talk all day, but on this episode, we’ll just listen for 22 minutes.

Roman Mars:
This is Sandhogs by Long Haul Productions produced in 1994 by Dan Collison.

Archival Tape:
“Through the heart of a great metropolis flows the mighty Hudson River. A natural barrier between two states. A challenge to man’s ingenuity, skill, and courage.”

Dan Collison:
Sixty years ago, the challenge was to build 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.

Archival Tape:
“And so, the Lincoln Tunnel is started.”

Dan Collison:
It was 1934, the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce.

Jim Murtha:
In my day, when you were hungry, you’d be anything.

Dan Collison:
And to be a Sandhog in Jim Murtha’s day, you had to work almost exclusively in compressed air. Air that was pumped into small, cramped underground chambers or caissons to hold back the water and silt during tunneling.

Archival Tape:
“Under pressure work is a strain on heart and lungs. There is danger also of contracting an illness called the bends.”

Jim Murtha:
In my early life, I had trouble with the bends in my knees. You had a way of curing it at home. You’d get into a hot tub of water, and it would disappear, and then you’d fall asleep, the water would get cold, it’d come right back and hit you. Like a toothache, a very, very bad toothache.

Dan Collison:
It’s the same problem deep-sea divers have when they come up to the surface too fast, severe cramps and in some cases paralysis that can even lead to death. Around the turn of the century, during construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels, the bends took the lives of at least 50 Sandhogs. Initially, the men were declared dead of natural causes. Later, it was revealed that the death certificates had been falsified to cover up unsafe working conditions. Public hearings led to public outrage and eventually a Sandhogs union was born.

Jim Murtha:
If we didn’t have the union, we’d have nothing. Believe me when I tell you, absolutely nothing. You think there would be any kind of wages or any kind of conditions that the contractor was going to give you? A rich man got rich because he was holding on to his money. He isn’t going to give it away to a bunch of slobs. So the union came in.

Edward McGinnis:
I’m going to read the title of the Local, but you must remember that we came from an international union of compressed air workers. That’s why the title is ‘Compressed Air and Free Air Tunnels, Foundations, Caissons, Subway, Sewer Cofferdam, Construction Workers Union of New York, New Jersey states and vicinity.’ That’s the title.

Dan Collison:
Edward McGinnis is a former president of the Sandhogs union, ‘Local 147′ for short. McGinnis’s father was a Sandhog – a foreman – and as a kid growing up across the street from the bar where his father recruited his work crew, young Eddie decided he wanted nothing to do with the business.

Edward McGinnis:
The banging on the bar and the fights that went on there, I was petrified. I never thought I would go near anybody that was a Sandhog, nevermind working for them.

Dan Collison:
But despite his vow to stay away, Eddie McGinnis, like a lot of Sandhogs, ended up following his father down into the tunnels.

Edward McGinnis:
Economics decides a lot of our lives and it decided mine. I know the first time I went into a tunnel and they set off a blast of about 200 sticks of powder, I said, “What in the name of God brought me to this place?” That was my reaction. I’m going home and never coming back. But when I went home, I had young children and I had to come back.

Richard Fitzsimmons: “And John, everything else is good?”
John: “Yeah, so far.”
Richard Fitzsimmons.: “How are you feeling, Patty?”
Patty: “Good, good.”
Richard Fitzsimmons: “You doing all right?”
Patty: “Yeah.”
Richard Fitzsimmons: “Good man, Pat.”

Dan Collison:
10 years ago, there were 2,300 members of Local 147, headquartered here in a small office in the Bronx. Today there are only about 700 members and almost half of those are pensioners. All are men. Richard Fitzsimmons is the business manager for Local 147.

Richard Fitzsimmons:
We had women, they did go down. There was, I think, three women. And they worked alongside. They’d done the best they could, but they didn’t come back after lunch. It was just… the work’s too tough. I’m a firm believer that a woman should do whatever she can in life to support herself, but I don’t think that sandhogging is a place for a woman. I’d like to put it this way, I wouldn’t want to see my wife or my daughter sandhogging.

Dan Collison:
His son is another matter. Richie Fitzsimmons started working as a Sandhog six days after he graduated from high school. Today, he’s the president of Local 147.

Richie Fitzsimmons:
It’s basically a father/son union. Just about everybody has either had their father or their brother as a Sandhog, or their cousin, and it’s a small but a tight-knit union. And the union is run in such a way that it’s almost like an extended family.

Dan Collison:
And Local 147 is a union that has long prided itself on its racial and ethnic diversity.

Thomas:
“Yeah, Thomas is my name and I’m a Sandhog. Yeah, I came here from Ireland in 1971, I joined Local 147 in 1972, and I’m here ever since.”

Johnny Mo:
“My name is Johnny Mo, I hail from Brooklyn. Originally born and raised in Brooklyn, and I live down at Jersey Shore right now. And been a Sandhog 30 years, I was brought in by a fellow named Johnny Daugherty, Donny Gold boy. We have a lot of Donny Gold boys in this Local, same as we do have West Indian, Jamaicans, Polish. We have a good contingent of Polish fellows from Queens.”

Lincoln Richards:
“My name is Lincoln Richards. I am from Saint Vincent, West Indies and I’ve been a Sandhog for 23 years.”

Dan Collison:
Lincoln Richards speaks almost reverentially about the unity of Local 147. That no matter how they might feel about each other above ground, down below Sandhogs are like family.

Lincoln Richards:
“Very close. You can just finish fighting with a man in the change house. You get on the elevator, and you go down to work, and it’s your brother. He’d share his last meal with you, he would share anything with you. He’d look out for you. Anything he’d do for you. That’s how beautiful a relationship we have.”

Huey Barr:
“We had integration, so to speak, before any of this ever came out about integration, before we even know about integration.”

Dan Collison:
Huey Barr worked as a Sandhog for 35 years before retiring in 1987.

Huey Barr:
“You could work with Polacks. I was Irish, Irish-American, and I’d worked in Polack gangs and what have you, black gangs, also. That was the method of operation. It was our work rules. It was our work rules. It’s always been that way since I’ve been sandhogging.”

Dan Collison:
In New York, one of the most important work rules, if not the most important, is that you have to have a union card to work as a Sandhog. But being in the union doesn’t guarantee a job. Tunnel work is scarce these days. Several hundred members of Local 147 are out of work. Most of those who do have jobs are working on City Tunnel #3, a massive construction project that when finished will give much of New York City a brand new water system. City Tunnel #3 is badly needed. New York’s existing water system, some of which dates back to the turn of the century, is so antiquated city officials are reluctant to turn off the valves to inspect the tunnels because they’re afraid the valves are so corroded, they won’t be able to turn them back on again.

Dan Collison:
A small part of City Tunnel #3 is shaft 21B, beneath the heart of Brooklyn.

Sandhog: “Ready for the drill bucket?”
Sandhog: “Yeah, send it down.”
Sandhog: “Okay.”

Dan Collison:
It’s early on a Monday morning and a crew of Sandhogs is about to go to work inside shaft 21B, 500 feet below street level.

Thomas:
We’re getting ready to go down to drill now. I’m going to be drilling for maybe three or four hours. And then we get the dynamite down there and we be blasting. We use about 300 pounds of dynamite per blast.

Sandhog: “Tell John there’s no lights down here. Have them check the lights panel.”

Dan Collison:
The crew was off to a slow start this morning. There’s an electrical problem, so it’s pitch black at the bottom of the shaft.

Sandhog: “No lights, Dennis. Check the panel.”

Dan Collison:
The problem is quickly fixed and the first group of Sandhogs dressed in hardhats and bright yellow rain slickers, steps inside a metal cage and descends.

Sandhog: “All right, load it up.”
Sandhog: “The back door’s closed?”
Sandhog: “Yes, it is.”
Sandhog: “All right.”
Sandhog: “Door’s down.”

Lincoln Richards:
The next sound you’re about to hear is men in cage going down. Men in motion.

Dan Collison:
For most Sandhogs, the first trip into a shaft or tunnel was the moment of truth. The point at which they knew whether or not they had what it takes to be in the business.

Mike Jimenez:
And you can tell the minute you step on a cage and you start going down, whether you do or you don’t have it in it.

Dan Collison:
Mike Jimenez grew up not too far from this site. For as long as he can remember, Jimenez says he wanted to be a Sandhog.

Mike Jimenez:
People are mesmerized. They say, “What did you do?” And we tell them, “We boldly go where no man has ever gone before.” We come across virgin rock. This rock has been here since the beginning of time. Nobody’s ever done this before.

Dan Collison:
Not every Sandhog shares this romantic view of the work. Charlie Cannon is a second-generation Sandhog.

Charlie Cannon:
It’s more economic than it is anything else. We don’t come here for the glory of being the first one to be where nobody else has walked. It’s basically economic. You got to feed your family, pay your bills, and try to get ahead in this life. That’s the whole picture.

Dan Collison:
Whether they work for the glory or the paycheck, Sandhogs work together in extremely close quarters

Dan Collison:
Here at the bottom of shaft 21B, 10 Sandhogs and a battery of heavy equipment are packed into a space about the size of a large hot tub. The walls are jagged rock. Granite, quartz, limestone, illuminated by a panel of floodlights.

Sandhog: “As you can tell, it’s cramp. Sardines. So this is what it’s like to be a life of a sardine.”
Sandhog: “Yes.”
Sandhog: “Close to it. Yeah, baby. It don’t get any better than this stuff.”

Dan Collison:
It’s like working at the bottom of an empty missile silo in a rain forest. Groundwater pours down from the rock walls above, collecting in knee-deep pools below where the Sandhogs are getting ready to drill. They pull out big pneumatic jackhammers, attach long drill bits, and start boring holes for the dynamite.

Dan Collison:
The opening at the top of the shaft, 65 stories up, it looks like a pinhole. If something were to fall from above, even a small rock or a hardhat, it could be deadly.

Sandhog: “It’s like being in a funnel. There’s no escape. There’s no escape from anything that falls.”

Dan Collison:
It was into a shaft similar to this one, shaft 19 in Queens, that something did fall. Something big. Last November, the day before Thanksgiving, a 16-ton winch broke loose from its moorings at the top of the shaft. Tom Flanagan and Mike Boyce were two of eight Sandhogs who were working 450 feet below on a catwalk about 50 feet from the bottom when the huge winch plummeted downward.

Tom Flanagan:
“We all of a sudden notice that cable got slack real fast and then we looked up and all we seen was this big snake coming at us. The cable was coming and we couldn’t see the surface due to the fog, so the cable was beating us up real bad, knocking everybody all about and then that big winch come through and all hell broke loose. Everything flying all over and we had no warning at all.”

Mike Boyce:
“I’d seen flashes out of the corner of my right eye and it sounded like an explosion. The deck broke loose and I had my foot caught in a cable with my fingers on a grate and hanging upside down. I was going to drop in the water. Couldn’t break my fall, because I was slipping in. Like all the other guys, I thought of my two kids and turned my hand around in the grate and stuck in it again and just let my foot loose from the cable and inched my way up to a good cable and pulled myself up onto the form.”

Tom Flanagan:
“I managed to get up to a flat piece of deck and just hang on a piece of post on the guardrail and just hoped and prayed until the dust settled, until everything stopped coming. We were all very lucky that made it out of there. I just wish Anthony could have been as lucky as the rest of us.”

Dan Collison:
Anthony Odo was the 20th Sandhog to be killed during construction of the water tunnel. That averages out to almost one fatality a year.

Monsignor Considine:
“You come here today to pray for the heroic men and women who made such tremendous sacrifices that the people of the city of New York could have water, life-giving water all the days of their lives and for generations yet to come.”

Dan Collison:
At Saint Barnabas Church in the North Bronx, Monsignor Considine holds a special mass each year in memory of the Sandhogs killed working on the water project.

Monsignor Considine:
“So now, we list the names of those – if you stand as a tribute to them – who have suffered and sacrificed for the work of our tunnel. Charles Bacquie, a miner. Joseph Barton, the operating engineer. Stuart Birdsall…”

Sandhog: “The first guy who got killed on the water tunnel construction got killed about 20 feet away from me on a work deck. There to hear that man moan with the pain, it was something … I mean, I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”

Sandhog: “One accident I’ll never forget on the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel happened on Easter Saturday. They put a guy on a motor, and that tunnel really had a bad slope in it, the grid ran about four degrees. And they were shutting the inside of the lock. He came down with the mortar, he couldn’t stop it. The brakeman jumped, broke his leg, he hit the door, the battery jumped up and cut him in half. They come in and they got Andy. And Andy took me with him and we went over and put him in a sack and brought him out, and I vomited the whole night after that. All right. And that’s that.”

Monsignor Considine:
“Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”

Dan Collison:
For every Sandhog who was killed on the job, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of close calls. The most legendary took place in 1916. As the story goes, Marshall Mabey was working in compressed air in a tunnel below the East River. There was a blowout. Mabey and two other Sandhogs were shot out through a hole and up through the river bed on a Geyser 25 feet high.

Sandhog: “They were mining and they didn’t have the equipment in there enough to stop that blow. And he tried to stop it and he went up through the river with two other guys, and he survived. The other two men died.”

Sandhog: “The story seemed to catch attention because Marshall Mabey went back. He was in Long Island College Hospital. I think he only spent a couple of days in the hospital and he was back working as quick as he could.”

Sandhog: “I’ll tell you, you talk to most Sandhogs are they’re going to tell you, when your time’s up, your time’s up. Whether you’re walking down the street or working underground, if you’re going to go, you’re going to go. When the Man says it’s time, you’re gone. That’s all. Simple as that. Just wasn’t his time.”

Dan Collison:
Stuart Williams thought it was his time a while back. He was working on a subway job when suddenly the tunnel caved in. Stuart, who’s only five foot three and weighs less than 130 pounds was nearly crushed to death.

Stuart:
“Damnedest feeling I ever had. I saw the most beautiful light, saw my wife, my kids, just as clear as day and I passed out. I woke up in the hospital. I had a broken leg, my back screwed up, head cut open, broken collar bone, shoulder. But eight weeks later I was back to work. Eight weeks.”

Dan Collison:
These days, Stuart works above ground as a supervisor. Tonight, he’s directing a 650-pound dynamite blast at shaft 22, part of the water tunnel project in Brooklyn. Shaft 22 is wedged between the Brooklyn Queens expressway and a row of low-income apartments that look down on the site. It’s surrounded by loops of razor wire and bathed in high-intensity floodlights. Stuart blows a whistle once to warn people living in the apartments that an explosion is five minutes away. Dynamite blasts are an almost daily occurrence here. Still, Stuart is anxious. He’s pacing back and forth, smoking a cigarette, nervously pushing the plunger on the empty detonator, in and out, and greeting men as they come out of the shaft.

Stuart:
“I’m responsible for these men, and thank God, knock on wood, I’ve never hurt one in my life or had one get hurt working with me and I don’t want to start now.”

Dan Collison:
The one-minute warning. Fire officials on hand to monitor the blast move in closer and put their earplugs in place. After 35 years of drilling and blasting, Stuart wears hearing aids in both ears.

Stuart:
“Well, when I started, they didn’t have the ear protection they have now. Just had to tear a rag up and stick it in your ears.”

Dan Collison:
The countdown is finally over. Stuart hands the detonator to the blast man who shouts out the final warning.

Blast Man:
“Fire in the hole!”

Stuart:
“Sounded good. Sounded good. We’ll know when we get down there. That’s one of the things about shooting, you never know until you get back down here what you got. I got to get the fan on.”

Dan Collison:
He turns on the fan to clear the smoke out of the tunnel, and heads for the Sandhogs’ locker room, the Hog House, located in a nearby trailer, for some barbecued ribs and a game of Gin Rummy.

Sandhog:
“I love it. I love the work. Camaraderie with the men, the people that I’ve met. I’ve met some of the greatest people in the world, worked with some of the greatest people in the world. And you get in and it gets in your blood after a while, it’s really all you want to do.”

Dan Collison:
There is a price Sandhogs pay for this love of the tunnels.

Huey Barr:
“You age. You age in the hole, so to speak.”

Dan Collison:
Many retired Sandhogs, Huey Barr is one of them, suffer from silicosis from years of breathing rock dust down in the tunnels. And caisson’s disease, a deterioration of the bone from working in compressed air.

Huey Barr:
“It puts a hurting on your body so to speak. You can ask any of the old-timers. Their joints hurt. You’re aching. You’re aching.”

Edward McGinnis:
“I don’t think there’s anyone who works as hard as a Hog. Two men would blow about a yard of sand in about two and a half to three minutes, and this goes on continuously for six hours without a stop. I don’t think there’s anyone that stands up with that of work. But I never regretted coming in and I’m never ashamed of being what I am. Yeah, and this is what I am.”

Dan Collison:
When the ribbon-cutting ceremony is finally held for City Tunnel #3, scheduled for completion in the year 2025, most of the Sandhogs working on the project will have either retired or have died. 61-year-old Lincoln Richards may not be around, but he says there’s satisfaction in just knowing he was part of it.

Lincoln Richards:
“Every time I go down and I come out after eight hours, I say, well, I’ve made my contribution. And to know what you’re doing is that people would be able to enjoy it in the future. Yes. This is something that after I die and go, it will be still there. Because we are doing something that New York City would always have for the duration.”

Dan Collison:
Eddie McGuinness looks at it another way. Eliminate all the tunnels the Sandhogs have built over the years, the Lincoln, the Holland, the Brooklyn Battery, the Long Island and Pennsylvania railroads, the subways, and you get an idea of the extent to which Sandhogs helped build New York.

Eddie McGuinness:
“Well, picture New York City, if you will, with barges going across, bringing people across in ferries, and the best ferry system in the world can carry about 80,000 people in a rush hour. That’s like from 6AM to 10, 11 AM. A tunnel can do that in 20 minutes. Without that progress of people coming back and forth, Manhattan would be a dead island. Manhattan would have been nothing. What would you build anything for if you couldn’t get people in and out?”

  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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