The Tunnels of the East River1

By Zachery Wills

          The tunnels of the East River can be divided into four historical groups: the singular tunnels, the first major growth of the subway, the second major growth, and the vehicular tunnels. Short discussions of every tunnel will provide the necessary background for a general understanding of the full tunnel system under the East River. Additionally, analysis of the relationships between tunnels within groups and across the different groups will elaborate further the nature of the Tunnels of the East River.

The Singular Tunnels: Joralemon Street, Steinway Tunnel, East River Tunnels, and the 63rd Street Tunnel23

          In 1908, the Joralemon Street Tunnel was the first tunnel to cross under the East River. It was part of the first plan for rapid subway transit in New York, which was put into effect on September 27, 1900. The Joralemon Street Tunnel was opened for public transit on January 9th, 1908. This tunnel was constructed using the shield method with a maximum air pressure of 29 pounds per square inch (psi). Structurally it is two cast iron tubes and measures 2,170 feet in length. As the first tunnel to span the East River, the Joralemon Street Tunnel was an impressive feat of engineering for its time; even warranting its own post card. The Joralemon Street Tunnel currently services the 4 and 5 trains connecting the southern tip of Manhattan to Brooklyn.4

          The Steinway Tunnel and the East River Tunnels5 were planned, financed, and constructed independent of the Transit Authority’s Rapid Transit system, and so are in their own small category separate from the other tunnels. They are independent in this way because they were constructed to service standard-scale passenger trains instead of the smaller scale rapid transit subways; which is the reason they were not constructed. Both were in planning before the Joralemon Street Tunnel, although delayed construction caused the East River Tunnels and Steinway Tunnel to be completed in 1910 and 1915 respectively. Both Tunnels were constructed using the shield method; the Steinway Tunnel is 3,140 feet long, whereas the East River Tunnels are 3,949 feet long. The Steinway Tunnel now services the 7 train and the East River Tunnels service the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak.6

          The 63rd Street Tunnel7 is the final tunnel of the single-grouped tunnels; its construction was completed in October, 1972, but did not have subway service until October 10, 1989, and did not link to subway lines in Queens until December 17, 2001. The 63rd Street Tunnel is the only of the East River Tunnels to be constructed using the sunken tube method. It is also the only single tunnel to include both standard train and rapid transit routes. The 63rd Street Tunnel is also the focal point of the East Side Access Program, which will utilize the Long Island Railroad Tunnels within the 63rd Street Tunnel to connect this Railroad to Grand Central Station. Currently the 63rd Street Tunnel carries the F train.8

First Major Growth: the Montague, Clark, 14th Street, and 60th Street Tunnels

          In 1905 the Transit Authority approved New York City’s second major subway project. This new plan contained four new connections between East Manhattan and Brooklyn/Queens: travelling through the Montague Street, Clark Street, 14th Street, and 60th Street Tunnels Of these tunnels, each was constructed using the Shield method and each has cast iron walls. Additionally, each of these tunnels featured Clifford Millburn Holland as Chief Civil Engineer. The Montague Street, Clark Street, 14th Street, and 60th Street Tunnels were completed on August 1, 1920, April 15, 1919, June 10, 1924, and August 1, 1920 respectively; and service the N and R, the 2 and 3, the L, and the N, Q, and R subway lines respectively.9

Second Major Growth: the Fulton-Cranberry, Rutgers-Jay, and 53rd Street Tunnels

          Similar to the expansion outlined in the Transit Authority’s 1905 plan, the 1915 plan called for another massive expansion of the city’s subway system. This time three more tunnels would be constructed under the East River: the Fulton-Cranberry, Rutgers-Jay, and 53rd Street Tunnels. These were opened on 1 February, 1933, 9 April 1936, and 19 August 1933 respectively. Similarly to the tunnels of the 1920’s, these tunnels were also constructed using the shield method of tunneling and are also constructed with cast iron walls. This second major growth was contracted because the demand placed upon the 1920’s extensions was so great that new lines were soon necessary. Today, the Fulton-Cranberry, Rutgers-Jay, and 53rd Street Tunnels service the A and C, F, and E and M lines respectively.

Vehicular Tunnels: Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown Tunnels

          The Queens-Midtown Tunnel was completed on November 15, 1940. It was the first vehicular tunnel to cross the East River and was designed by Civil Engineer Ole Singstad. The Queens-Midtown Tunnel consists of a set of twin tubes, allowing four lanes of traffic to pass under the river. It is 6,414 feet long and transported 79, 345 vehicles daily as of 2008. The Queens-Midtown Tunnel appears in the well known scene from the film Men in Black in which a car drives along the ceiling of the tunnel.10

          The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel11 was opened almost ten years after the Queens-Midtown Tunnel on May 25, 1950. This south-most Tunnel measures 9,117 feet in length and was also designed by Ole Singstad. Before construction of the tunnel, there was a large controversy regarding whether a much more economical bridge should be constructed in its place. The debate was favoring the construction of a bridge, but Secretary of War Woodring decided that a bridge would restrict naval maneuvers from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Contextually this made sense, Woodring send his response on July 17, 1939, less than three months before Hitler invaded Poland (September 1, 1939). The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel served several crucial needs of the city at the time. As of 2008, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel carried 47,515 vehicles per day.12

          This concludes the survey discussion of all of the tunnels under the East River. Through individual and group analysis a comprehensive understanding of the East River’s Tunnel system presents itself. This allows for deeper analysis of specific tunnels and overarching themes, which takes place in Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel: A Vehicular Case Study and The 63rd Street Tunnel and the East Side Access Project.


Half a Century in Soft Ground Tunneling. Denver: American Society of Civil Engineers, 7 November 1975.

Major New York City Subaqueous Vehicular, Rapid Transit, and Railroad Tunnels: Key Plans and Profiles. New York City Transit Authority, 1970.

Rapid Transit Routes in New York City. Public Service Commision for the First District, 1910. Tunnels. WGBS Boston Video, c2000. (Video Recording)

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1This essay also includes a section on the East River (FDR) Drive

2 New York Construction News. December, 1999

3Due to the nature of this category, each tunnel will be discussed individually instead of as a group

4Major New York City Subaqueous Vehicular, Rapid Transit, and Railroad Tunnels: Key Plans and Profiles. New York City Transit Authority, 1970. Subway routes extrapolated by author from overview map and MTA map of current subway system. To the best of my knowledge of the MTA website and information, there is no map of subways which also displays the names of the tunnels through which they travel.

5This is the actual name of one tunnel. The tunnel is referred to as “Tunnels” because it contains 4 single track tunnels which are divided evenly between Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad. The fact that two different organizations have split ownership over the tunnel effected the plurality of the name

6Major New York City...Tunnels

7the 63rd Street Tunnel is discussed exhaustively in the essay 63rd Street Tunnel: Modern and Future Tunneling

8Rumsey, Spencer. Tunnel Vision: Inside the East Side Access Project. Long Island Press, 4/21/11

9the Montague Street and 60th Street Tunnels both service the N and R lines. The Montague Street Tunnel carries trains in the Downtown direction to Queens and the 60th Street Tunnel carries the N and R lines to Queens in the Uptown direction. Major New York City..Tunnels Rapid Transit Routes in New York City. Public Service Commision for the First District, 1910.

10Major New York City...Tunnels

11For a more in-depth discussion of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, see Case Study: Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, including a discussion of the debate over whether the structure should have been a bridge instead of a tunnel.

12Major New York City...Tunnels