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The unknown story of the Irish who risked their lives to build the New York underground

“Without the men risking their lives, there would be no New York City. It wouldn’t even be close.”

Pavel Barter

FOR A NEW radio documentary, Pavel Barter ventured hundreds of feet beneath Manhattan with New York’s urban miners, The Sandhogs.

Outside a door, a few blocks from Grand Central Station, a couple of Sandhogs loitered for a cigarette before going back into the gloom.

I followed them down a flight of stairs and we emerged into a tunnel where rock dust hung heavy in the air. We stepped into a man hoist above a shaft. The sentry nodded and the hoist dropped into the belly of Manhattan.

The shaft emerged into a cathedral-sized cavern. The Sandhogs, New York City’s urban miners, carved this place out of rock. Hundreds of feet above us, people went about their daily commutes in Grand Central, totally unaware of our existence beneath them.

“This is the largest concrete job in North America,” Richard Fitzsimmons, business manager for Local Union 147, the Sandhog union, yelled over the clattering of jackhammers, compressed air machines, and heavy machinery.

Richard T. Fitzsimmons Business Manager at Local Union 147 in the tunnels of East Side Access, NYC Source: Pavel Barter

Many stories have been told about how the Irish built New York from the ground up. But the Irish also went down. Very deep down.

Beneath Manhattan is an elaborate maze of tunnels – subway, sewer, water and train tunnels – and the Sandhogs dug them all. They dug the Lincoln, Holland, Queens-Midtown, Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels, and plenty more besides.

unnamed (19) Source: Pavel Barter

My radio documentary, The Sandhogs, began after a chance encounter with John “Chick” Donohue, retired political director for the union.

The Sandhogs gained their name from working in soft ground close to the water before graduating to hard rock, he explained.

Sandhogs Source: Pavel Barter

Irish immigrants, not long off the famine ships, laid the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1860′s, working in compressed chambers on the bed of the East River. Many of them perished from the bends, due to a lack of knowledge about compressed air and disregard amongst contractors.

Yet from these earliest days, Sandhogs were fiercely protective of their kin. They went on strike, formed a union, and demanded safer conditions.

This was one of the more enlightened unions in North America, employing freed slaves after the Civil War and African-Americans into the 20th Century, when most others refused to do so.

Sandhogs 2 (1) Source: Pavel Barter

At Sandhog base in the Bronx, Fitzsimmons explained the generational aspect of the union. “Either our grandparents were from Ireland, or our parents. The Irish keep us in business. We’re tight: being that we’re all somewhat related or friends.”

Thomas Kelly, a television showrunner, working with Baz Luhrmann on new Netflix series The Get Down, worked in the tunnels during construction boom of the 1980′s. Kelly wrote a fictional novel, The Sandhogs, inspired by his experiences.

“It was the kind of job where only the hungriest would go anywhere near it,” he told me. “The Irish made it their own. The Irish seemed to have an obsession with being the hardest workers, doing the most dangerous jobs.”

Sandhogs 4

Some tunnel worker traditions continue today. Fitzsimmons took me into the Hoghouse: the locker rooms where miners change before going to work. Since the First World War, they have drunk evaporated milk with their coffee – and opened the seal with a nail.

People come to the Hoghouse looking for employment: a process known as “shaping”. They wait, often weeks, to take the place of an absent miner. But this job is not for the faint-hearted. ”I’ve seen men come into the tunnel on their first shift, only to turn around again and never come back,” said Hugh Connolly, a 64-year-old Hog from Monaghan, who has worked in the tunnels since 1974.

Their fears are well founded. The union used to have a saying, “A man a mile”. For every mile of tunnel dug, there would be a dead tunnel worker.

unnamed (18) Source: Pavel Barter

Some of the accidents are the stuff of legend. In 1916, a miner named Marshall Mabey was working in a compressed air tunnel when a hole burst in the wall; he was sucked through and shot out over the East River on a four storey high geyser. The following day, he returned to work. The story inspired Colum McCann’s 1998 novel The Other Side of Brightness.

While conditions have improved, Sandhogs still face danger on a daily basis. In 2011, 26-year-old Michael O’Brien was working in tunnels 120 feet beneath Manhattan when a block of concrete fell from the ceiling and killed him. Robert O’Brien, Michael’s father, was working ten feet away at the time.

Perhaps his death was not in vain. Without the transport tunnels beneath the city, New York would grind to a halt. Without the tunnels that ferry in the city’s water from upstate, it would be a ghost town.

“Anyone who turns on a tap, flushes a toilet, rides a subway, should give silent thanks to the people who made this for them,” said John Ryan, President of Local Union 147. “Without the men risking their lives, there would be no New York City. It wouldn’t even be close.”

Sandhog memorial in Katona Avenue, the Bronx Source: Pavel Barter

‘The Sandhogs’ will be broadcast on Newstalk 106-108fm on Saturday 29 August at 7am, and repeated at 10pm. 

The Sandhogs can also be listened to online at: www.newstalk.com and the podcast will be available here after the broadcast.

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Pavel Barter

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