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Meet the New York City Sandhogs: Urban Miners, Tunnel Experts

July 11, 2015 | 3 min read

When you first hear the name, “New York City Sandhogs,” you might think it’s a new minor league team that’s popped up on the sports scene. However, the Sandhogs are a group of urban miners who have built every tunnel that exists in the city. Not only that, but they’ve also built the foundation to many of New York’s bridges.


These are just a few of the construction projects that can be attributed to the Sandhogs:

  • Holland Tunnel
  • Lincoln Tunnel
  • Foundation for the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Subway tunnels to transport 4 million passengers daily
  • Sewer tunnels to carry out waste
  • Steam tunnels to provide power
  • Water tunnels to bring in over a billion and a half gallons of water per day

Role of the Sandhogs

So exactly who are the Sandhogs and how vital is their role in New York’s construction industry?

The Sandhogs are a union, Local 147, which formed as New York City expanded above the surface. Meanwhile down below, these workers have been excavating and building some of the city’s most essential infrastructure projects. They’ve been around for over 130 years, and there’s a history of passing the skills of the trade down from one generation to the next.

Job of the Sandhogs

To get to work down in the tunnels, a group of about six Sandhogs are lowered down to the job site in steel cages. Dynamite is often used to initially break up rock underground. They also typically use a large machine called a “mole,” which is over a block long and has a 20-foot blade that spins to break up rock to carve tunnels.

Although Sandhogs undergo extensive training, this is still a dangerous job. Tunnel cave-ins and equipment malfunctions have resulted in deaths, while other workers have experienced long-term respiratory conditions.

Today, there are over 2,000 Sandhogs in New York City. An old Sandhog saying goes, “If it’s deeper than a grave, then we built it.”

Types of Tunnels

Tunnels are generally categorized into three types: soft-ground tunnels, rock tunnels and underwater tunnels.

Soft-ground tunnels typically require a tunnel shield support structure to keep it from collapsing in on the workers. Although rock tunnels require less support during construction, they are generally carved out with dynamite and boring machines. Water must be strategically held back to construct underwater tunnels, often using prefabricated segments to position and connect to other sections.


Current Sandhog Projects

Curious about what projects the Sandhogs have going on today?

They’re working on a new water tunnel called City Tunnel #3, a new subway line that extends to Manhattan’s west side, a connection tunnel between Grand Central Station, and the Long Island Rail Road, and a new Bronx-based water filtration plant. City Tunnel #3’s projected completion date is 2020 and has cost the city over $6 billion in project costs since it first began in the early 1970s.

To see some insightful Instagram photos from real New York City Sandhogs, check out the recent Business Insider article. You can also learn more about the Sandhogs role throughout history by downloading Paul E. Delaney’s 1983 book, Sandhogs.

Photo credit: Chris Corbett via Flickr

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