A Brief History of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel
If you've been following our recent series on Murray Hill's historical places, you've probably noticed a pre-war trend. Sniffen Court, the Croton Reservoir, the 71st Infantry Armory, and of course, Robert Murray's Inclenberg estate were all built and existed in the two centuries leading up to World War II.
For this week's post, we're headed in a direction that's more modern but nonetheless vital to our neighborhood's character. This is the story behind the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.
The construction of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel was one of the largest public works projects to arise out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The plan was originally proposed in 1921 by Manhattan's then-borough president Julius Miller, but it didn't gain serious momentum until 1926, when Queens' borough president Maurice E. Connolly lent his support to the tunnel as a means of connecting midtown Manhattan with Long Island City and Greenpoint in Brooklyn. The inter-borough bridges along the East River had become overloaded with traffic-- which at that time included cars, trolleys, and subway lines-- and the tunnel seemed the logical next step to accommodate the city's growing congestion.
By June of 1927, the city had agreed to allocate $100,000 to surveying potential dig sites and making test bores that would assess the soil beneath the river. At the start of 1929, New York State's Chamber of Commerce formally approved a project to connect Manhattan and Queens either by tunnel or bridge across the East River. However, it would take another 7 years of legal disputes, bureaucratic reorganization and financing issues before the federal government would deliver $58.3 million (over $1 billion today) to help New York City build its East River tunnel.
Chief Engineer Ole Singstad (who had previously developed the ventilation system for the Holland Tunnel) outlined a plan for two tubes carrying vehicular traffic between Manhattan and Queens. Each tube would have an exterior diameter of 31 feet, a roadway 21 feet wide, and a maximum height limit of 13 feet 1 inch.
For ventilation, Singstad's team built two orange brick buildings, featuring prominent Art Deco details, on either side of the tunnel's two ends. They can still be found today: one is located on the Manhattan end of the tunnel (right next to Robert Moses Playground in Murray Hill, which was built at the same time), and the other in Queens on Borden Avenue between Second and Fifth Streets. 23 massive fans were installed between these two buildings, where they continued to operate for 65 years before being replaced with a modern ventilation system in 2005.
Miners and construction works-- nicknamed "sandhogs" for their expertise in burrowing through the city's soil-- broke ground on the tunnel in October 1936 in the company of President Franklin Roosevelt.
During the following three years, as many as 2,500 sandhogs at a time made $11.50 a day and dug around 18 feet per week. They used dynamite, drills, and four massive, circular cutting shields (31 feet in diameter) on each end of the riverbed until they met in the middle.
Being mostly underwater and entirely underground, the work site had incredibly high air pressure. In order to combat decompression sickness, each man was limited to just two 30-minute shifts per day, punctuated by a 6-hour rest period in a depressurization chamber. Despite these precautions, tunnel workmen suffered more than 300 attacks of the bends. No deaths were reported, but several of these attacks were bad enough to impair the workers' central nervous systems.
As the cutting shields crawled forward, the men would bolt down large steel rings to reinforce the lining of each tube. This process continued until just 6 feet of bedrock separated the crews on the Manhattan and Queens sides of each tunnel. At a climactic "Holing-Through" ceremony in the fall of 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia himself threw a switch to detonate dynamite charges deep within the tunnel, effectively clearing the remaining bedrock between the Manhattan and Queens tunnels.
At long last, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel finished construction on schedule in October of 1940. President Roosevelt returned again to celebrate the tunnel with an inaugural drive-through. A few weeks later, the tunnel opened to the general public on November 15, 1940. 5,000 New Yorkers were first given the opportunity to walk through the tunnel before vehicular traffic took over-- a gesture of gratitude from city officials for enduring three years of noisy and messy construction.
On opening week, an advertisement for the tunnel that ran in local newspapers boasted of "the toll that isn't a toll," and heralded the slogan: "Cross In 3 Minutes, Save In 3 Ways . . . Time! Money! Gas!"
Another New Yorker, as quoted by the New York Times on November 11's "tunnel warming" walk through, put it differently: "What a bomb shelter this tunnel would make!"
With wartime rations on gasoline in 1940, it took a while for the tunnel to gain traction among New Yorkers. In its first year of operation, 4.4 million cars passed through its two tubes. More recently, nearly 30 million cars have passed through the tunnel each year. Over 1.6 billion trips have been made through the tunnel since it opened to the public 78 years ago.
For all its use, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel has held up remarkably well. In 2001, it underwent a renovation to replace its original brick with new asphalt. Following flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the tunnel closed for its first major repairs since its initial construction. For us Murray Hill-ites, the tunnel's status as a major gateway to Manhattan has undoubtedly shaped the importance of the neighborhood we call home.