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Rise and fall of the 'tubes': Exhibit explores origin of PATH tunnels

BENEATH OUR FEET The Tubes: Rails Under the Hudson, 1874 to the Present-day PATH delves into the perils and challenges that faced the engineers and workers who built the tunnels under the river.
Everyone has heard tales about the daunting and ingenuous construction of projects such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal, but few people are aware of the engineering wonder that lies beneath our feet in Hoboken and Jersey City.

"The Tubes: Rails Under the Hudson, 1874 to the Present-day PATH" is the new exhibit at the Hoboken Historical Museum that delves into the perils, innovation, and spectacle of the sub-aqueous tunnels that commuters pass through every day.

"These tunnels are one of the engineering marvels of their day," said Bob Foster, the director of the Hoboken Historical Museum. "But as far I know there has never been a show on the topic."
The museum's newest exhibit presents the story of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad "tubes," which became the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) trains after the Holland Tunnel completion forced the H&M company to go bankrupt.

The exhibit chronicles the political and personal forces that brought about the tubes' development, the engineering advances that made their construction possible, and the ways in which the tunnels changed the lives of residents on both sides of the river.

"It's really an amazing exhibit," said Leon Yost, who loaned several pictures that are displayed, and is a member of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, a group that is co-sponsoring the exhibit. "A lot of people don't realize all the work that went into the present day PATH system."

Terry Kennedy, the exhibit's guest curator, has loaned for exhibition numerous rare artifacts from his collection of photographs, blueprints, postcards, and signs.

According to information supplied by Kennedy, on Nov. 17, 1874, several years before construction of the Brooklyn Bridge began, workers - often referred to as "sandhogs" - began building a tunnel underneath the Hudson River. With $10 million in financing and a freshly issued patent in hand, railroading tycoon and former Army Colonel DeWitt Clinton Haskin began digging a circular hole at the foot of 15th Street in Jersey City.

Wasn't always safe

But the task of building a train tunnel 60 to 90 feet below the surface of the water with little more than shovels and handheld picks was time-consuming and tremendously dangerous. Workers entered the tunnel from a caisson, an inverted box, through an air lock, waited for the atmosphere to be artificially pressurized, then opened the tunnel door for digging.

And construction didn't always run smoothly. On July 21, 1880, a blowout claimed 20 men's lives, 18 from Jersey City and two from Hoboken. In the exhibit are many pictures of the sandhogs hard at work. Also featured are original schematic diagrams and engineering blueprints that describe and show exactly how the tunnels were built.

The exhibit also tells the story of Peter Woodland, a sandhog who sacrificed his own life to close the air lock, saving the life of dozens.

In addition to the danger to workers, there were many setbacks, both physical and financial, that took the project more than 30 years to complete.

Opened in 1908

Finally, on Feb. 25, 1908, Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company's first tube service ran through the uptown pair of tunnels between Hoboken and 19th Street in Manhattan. The New York and New Jersey governors attended the opening, and in the exhibit there are several remarkable photos of the event, showing thousands of well-dressed onlookers.

The exhibit also displays the authentic original switch that turned the power on during the opening ceremony. The cost for a token on that first train was six cents. Several of the first tokens are on display.

According to Kennedy, merchants in Hudson County and Manhattan, pursuing a boom in real estate and shopping, took out extensive newspaper ads, many of which are still preserved and part of the display.

The ridership on the tubes reached an annual high of 113 million the same year that the Holland Tunnel was completed. That event was the beginning of a several year decline of the tubes.

The popularity of automobiles caused ridership to quickly decline, and in 1958 only 26 million people were using the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company's trains. This drop-off caused the company to declare bankruptcy, and the tubes were sold the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1962, leading to the creation of Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation (PATH).

The Port Authority modernized the system and added a fleet of cars. The renovations were so successful that Erie Lackawanna Rail Road stopped running ferry boats out of Hoboken, making the PATH the main link for Jersey passengers going to Manhattan.

Guest lectures and presentations

Three educational lectures will complement the display. Seating for those events is limited, so call ahead for reservations and costs. Lectures will be:

Sunday, Jan. 26, 3 p.m.: "Rails Under the Mighty Hudson," a slide lecture by transportation historian Brian J. Cudahy;

Sunday, Feb. 9, 3 p.m.: "Antique Stocks & Bonds," illustrated talk by scripophily dealer Donald T. Mesler;

Saturday; March 8, 4 p.m.: Reading by the Mile Square Theatre of a Theodore Dreiser short story about sandhogs;

Sunday, March 9, 3 p.m.: "Saving the Hudson & Manhattan Powerhouse," a slide lecture by JCLC president John Gomez.

Additional support is supplied from the exhibit is assisted by a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Cultural Affairs in the Department of State. Slide lectures were made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support was provided by Alpine Custom Floors and Alpine Restoration, Sign Graphics, Metro Fire & Communication, South Shore Contracting, and John Wiley & Sons.

The exhibit runs through April 13. The museum hours are Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. The Hoboken Historical Museum is at 1301 Hudson St. Admission to the museum is $2. For more information call (201) 656-2240.

ŠThe Hoboken Reporter 2003

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