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top 125 years in enr history
February 8, 1999 Issue


Hudson River Rail Tunnel Plagued by Delays

Commuters into New York City now take for granted their easy train ride. But building the Hudson River rail tunnel from New Jersey--the country's first under a major river--was considerably more perilous. Plagued by poor engineering, lawsuits, accidents and bankruptcies, the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad tunnel took some 30 years to finish. Most were spent awaiting renewed financing.

DeWitt Clinton Haskin, an engineer who built railroads in the West, began digging a shaft in Jersey City in 1874 as the first step in building a proposed mile-long tunnel. But a court injunction halted work in the first month. It didn't resume for five more years. When Haskin restarted tunneling in 1879, his crews worked under compressed air, but without a shield. He was confident that 35 lb of pressure would keep water out and the tunnel wall erect. Iron plate liners were installed after excavation, with 2 ft of brick to follow. But tunnelers were digging through silt, with only 15 ft of the substance separating them from the river. In mid-1880, a blowout occurred, killing 20 men.

After months of repair, Haskin restarted work in 1881 but a blowout just a year later again halted work. By the time tunneling resumed in 1887, Haskin ran out of money and left. His departure may have been just as well, some believe, because he originally planned to use coal-fired locomotives to pull passenger trains in a tunnel without ventilation.

In 1889, with the tunnel at 1,600 ft, a British firm took over and implemented use of the Greathead shield. It had been successful in building London's subway. The tunnel was then lined with cast-iron rings. Work progressed well, although deaths from caisson disease were up. In 1891, with only 1,600 ft to go, the firm ran out of money. Work stopped and the tunnel was flooded.

Enterprising lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo took over the project in 1902 and engaged as his chief engineer Charles Jacobs, who in 1894 built the first tunnel under water in New York, an 8-ft-dia bore for gas mains under the East River. Tunneling resumed, but encountered a rock reef that took 11 months to penetrate. Blasting had to be done gently.

In 1904, the tunnel finally broke through to the short tunnel on the New York side. The first train went through four years later. McAdoo subsequently began a parallel south tunnel, finishing it without excavation. Extremely powerful hydraulic jacks pushed the shield through the Hudson River silt as fast as 72 ft per day.

Los Angeles Goes Far for Water

Never rich in water, Los Angeles nearly faced dehydration early in the century. Between 1900 and 1905, the city's population nearly doubled to 200,000. In that time, the water table dropped 29 ft and would fall further as farmers dug deeper wells for irrigation water.

The city's solution was a daunting one: transport water from the Owens River to the north. The proposed 235-mile aqueduct would have to cross the mountainous Mojave Desert and include 93 miles of tunnels. The toughest was 5 miles through the solid granite of the San Fernando Mountains.

Most of the route was impossible as a construction site. Temperature extremes in the desert and the mountains were a burden, as was the lack of adequate transportation, power and water for drinking and concrete making. Contractors were also in short supply, with all bids coming in 50 to 100% over engineers' estimates. William Mulholland, the water board superintendent, convinced Los Angeles to build the aqueduct by force account.

This do-it-yourself approach dominated the project. Los Angeles built a 268-mile water pipeline and 505 miles of roads, two hydroelectric powerplants and the town of Monolith, whose 250 inhabitants devoted themselves to manufacturing 1,000 barrels of cement a day. More than 50 temporary towns were eventually built to house workers.

The Elizabeth Tunnel, begun in 1907 under the San Fernando Mountains, was a challenge. But tunnelers worked from opposite ends and completed it in 40 months instead of the predicted 60. The canal, 38 ft wide at the bottom and 64 ft wide at the top, was excavated by power shovels. The water board bought a fleet of crawler tractors to haul spoil, but they proved too expensive to keep repaired. Mules did most of the hauling. The aqueduct was open for the first 35 miles and covered for most of its route, either by concrete conduits, tunnels or steel inverted siphons. Of 23 riveted-steel and concrete siphons, the longest was 15,597 ft long. After linking with a series of reservoirs and hydroelectric plants, the Owens River-Los Angeles Viaduct terminated at San Fernando and Franklin reservoirs. The first water from Owens Valley arrived in Los Angeles late in 1913 and still serves the metropolitan population.

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