September 1, 2017

Wayback Machine: THE 42ND STREET TUNNEL DISASTER, 1878

The 42nd Street tunnel, circa 1920, before the arrival of  Fred French and Tudor City. View looks west down 42nd Street from First Avenue.

Today, the Wayback Machine travels back in time to a hot summer afternoon in 1878, when construction of a tunnel on 42nd Street ‒ in the same spot as the current Tudor City Bridge ‒ is underway.

Prior to the tunnel, 42nd Street crosstown traffic has to go up and over Prospect Hill, the bluff that's now home to Tudor City. In 1875, the city passes legislation to remedy the situation, and a cut is made, resulting in a 50-foot drop from the top of the bluff to 42nd Street. A tunnel to reconnect Prospect Place while accommodating crosstown traffic is commissioned. A contractor is hired, one Jeremiah R. Byron, who agrees to build a 40-foot high, 200-foot long tunnel for the sum of $19,000.

Once work gets underway, the locals are skeptical. The New York Times reports that Byron's inferior construction is "so well known among the residents as to have been the subject of daily remark and complaint. Wagers had been made that the tunnel would fall within a specific time."

New York Times, June 30, 1878
And fall it does, on Saturday, June 29, 1878. Two sections of the tunnel are complete, and not long after workmen remove the center frames, a "tremulous report was heard," and the archway collapses. A local, 60-year-old Thomas Joyce, dies in the accident, buried alive. The Times explains how he came to be there:
"Many of the neighboring residents had formed the habit during the recent warm weather of lounging within the tunnel to read newspapers and otherwise enjoy its cool shade and the refreshing breezes that were drawn through it from the river."
When Joyce's mangled body is exhumed, it is "smashed and battered so frightfully as to make more than one of the workers faint. . . He had in his pockets nothing but two keys and two rosaries." The tragedy worsens the next day when another local, Patrick Lynch, is found dead in the wreckage.

On July 12th, the official investigation by the Coroner's Office finds the contractor guilty, citing inferior mason work, specifically not enough cement in the mortar. The contractor is censured, along with the Public Works inspector, who was offsite at the time of the collapse.

Rebuilding commences, and, unbelievably, the tunnel collapses again on October 21. There is no loss of life this time. The tunnel is finally completed in 1880 and remains in operation for over seventy years, replaced in 1952 by the current bridge.

More tunnel pix from an earlier post here.

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