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Beneath The River

May 2024
4min read

Now in her ninety-fourth year, Laura Merrill of Wellesley, Massachusetts, is setting the record straight on a small but significant role she played in one of the great engineering triumphs of the turn of the century:
Recently, in going over a scrapbook I kept when I was a young woman, I came across several newspaper clippings from the years 1906 and 1907. One of them reads, in part: “For the first time since the world began, a woman walked beneath the waters of the East River yesterday and she was Miss Emmeline V. Smith, a girl of 19…”

Now, sixty-nine years later, I would like to say that Miss Smith was not the first woman to walk through the East River subway tunnel. I was.

My husband, Ogden Merrill, was the engineer superintending the Manhattan side of this first railway tunnel under the East River. It was being built by the New York Tunnel Company to ease the heavy flow of traffic between Manhattan and Brooklyn. For four years the work had gone on night and day. And for over a year, first as Ogden’s fiancée and then as his bride, I followed the progress closely. On December i, 1906, a steel pipe, six inches in diameter, was forced through the tunnel from the Brooklyn end, hopefully to meet one from the Manhattan side. When the measurements were taken, it was found that the lines of the bores came to within one-tenth of an inch alignment. There was much rejoicing. And it was then I began to coax my husband to allow me to walk through the tunnel with him. Finally, when he saw I was in earnest, he consented. The day for my adventure was set for December 24, 1906- a sort of Christmas Eve celebration. Although I personally encountered no catastrophe, the (rip was not without danger. As the Times reported on December 9, 1906: ”… not more than a dozen lives lost which is a good record considering all the hazards.”

The tunnel extends nearly one mile under the river from Battery Park to Joralemon Street, Brooklyn. When we arrived at my husband’s office in New York, the men equipped me for the journey with sweaters, an oilskin coat, and an old hat. Several pairs of socks and a pair of felt slippers were presented to me to help keep the smallest boots they could find from falling off my feet.

At last we were ready to descend the shaft at the Battery entrance. We stood on a platform without sides or railings, which served as the elevator, and we shot down into the bowels of the earth. I was terrified but didn’t let on. At the bottom of the shaft we were taken into the air-compressor chamber, known as a lock. It looked like a huge water heater lying on its side. The seats inside ran lengthwise. We seated ourselves, the door was closed, and the air pressure was gradually increased to thirty-eight pounds per square inch. This was within two pounds of the maximum used during construction. This pressure was maintained at all times to keep the water out of the tunnel. It took twenty minutes to make the transition. If it had not been done gradually this way, we would have gotten the caisson disease, more commonly known as the bends, which is very painful and can be fatal.

To keep my ears open I was told to swallow my saliva. I obeyed vigorously. At one point I whispered frantically to Ogden: “I have no more spit left! What shall I do?” He laughed and said: “Just go through the motions.” I did, and my ears felt all right again. The story got around and was a great joke among the men. It was no joke to me at the time.

It seemed a long twenty minutes. Finally we were ready to enter the tunnel. When the mouth of the lock was opened, the air hissed past us. Ninety-five feet over our heads flowed the East River, a large body of water on which sailed great ships from all over the world.

The tunnel was surprisingly well lit by electricity. The long vista of lights looked weird in this underground place. Part of the time we walked on a wet, slippery plank. In several places we had to wade through miniature lakes and thick mud from which I had trouble extricating my boots.

As we walked along, my husband explained things to me. When he spoke, his voice sounded strange and high-pitched. As I spoke, my voice seemed so far away that I often could not understand what I myself said. I sounded tense, as though I were greatly frightened, although I felt perfectly calm. He told me to whistle. I could not. It’s impossible to pucker one’s lips to utter a sound under such high-pressure conditions.

The tunnel, Ogden told me, was fifteen and a half feet in diameter. The walls were lined with great steel plates riveted together. Later a concrete lining would be laid on to keep the water from seeping in. About halfway through we saw the great cutting shields still standing head to head. They had met 2,400 feet from the Manhattan side and i ,900 feet from Joralemon Street in Brooklyn. Later they would be removed.

It took us one hour to reach the Joralemon Street end. A workman let us into another lock. The air pressure was gradually decreased. The noise was deafening and hurt my eardrums, but I suffered no ill effects afterward.

When we reached street level and entered the Brooklyn superintendent’s office, he had a cozy fire in his little stove. He served us steaming hot coffee, which was very welcome. And the great adventure was over. But there were later reverberations.

In the spring of 1907 Miss Smith, a young Vassar girl, walked through the tunnel from Brooklyn to NewYork. She claimed to be the first woman to walk through the tunnel, which clearly she was not. She was the first to walk from Brooklyn to New York; she was the first woman to scream in the tunnel when the lights went out; but for sheer female firstness in that tunnel under the East River, I claim the distinction. By the time she made the trip, the rails had been laid, according to the newspaper clipping the men in my husband’s office sent me. They wrote to Ogden, saying he should stand up for my rights. They ended with:

Rah for Mrs. Merrill! First in lock, first in air, First from Battery to Brooklyn. Rah, rah, rah!

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