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Queens-Midtown Tunnel turns 75; see rare photos of the first underwater road between Manhattan and LI

The first roadway under the East River to connect Manhattan and Long Island was a marvel of engineering when it opened 75 years ago.

Officials formally welcomed the public into the Queens Midtown Tunnel on Nov. 15, 1940, but days before some 5,000 people were allowed to walk through the eastbound tube as a show of gratitude for having suffered through years of noisy, inconvenient construction on the Manhattan side.

As they walked through the tube, their footsteps and voices echoed along with the barks of dogs that had been brought along by their owners.

"What a bomb shelter this tunnel would make!" one person remarked, according to The New York Times, which reported on the "tunnel warming" on Nov. 11, 1940.

It was actually President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was the first person to drive through the tunnel weeks before the public got to go inside. But it was a special day on Nov. 14 when ordinary New Yorkers finally got to pay their 25-cent tolls for the pleasure of steering their cars through the white-tiled tubes.

The tunnel, actually two tubes that each stretch more than a mile under the East River, called for 'sandhogs' to excavate 10 stories below river bed through solid rock, sand, gravel, clay and even the wrecks of sunken barges. A special tunnel agency was created to secure federal funding, costing $58 million at the time.

While the original brick roadway was replaced in 1995, the tunnel remained largely unchanged for decades from when it was first built until superstorm Sandy walloped the city and caused the tubes to be flooded for the first time in history.

Salt water damaged the tunnel's lighting system, traffic lights and signals, height detection system and other infrastructure, the MTA said.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority said on Nov, 10, 2015, that ongoing repairs are being covered by a four-year $236.5 million contract.

"There will be nighttime and weekend tube and lane closures," said Raymond Webb, director of Tunnel Operations for MTA Bridges and tunnels, in a statement. However, "at least one tube will remain open at all times."

Today, some 29 million trips are taken through the tunnel.

A drill boat in the East River collecting rock core samples

The builders of the Queens Midtown Tunnel knew
Photo Credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels / unknown photographer

The builders of the Queens Midtown Tunnel knew they faced a daunting task in carving through the bed of the East River, made up of Manhattan schist, limestone, gneiss and dolomite. This boat, pictured on Nov. 30, 1936, was sent out to collect core samples ahead of construction.

Dynamite essential to building the Queens Midtown Tunnel

Dynamite was essential for excavating the tubes. According
Photo Credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels / Rappaport Studios

Dynamite was essential for excavating the tubes. According to the MTA, a combination of dynamite drills and 31-feet-in-diameter cutting devices known as shields were used to blow through the rock and earth under the riverbed. Here workers carry dynamite from a powder magazine to the tunnel on March 1, 1938.

'Sandhogs' in decompression chamber

The workers who carved the tunnel 10 stories
Photo Credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels / C. Johnson

The workers who carved the tunnel 10 stories below the surface of the East River, known as 'sandhogs,' had to be treated for decompression sickness in specialized chambers, as seen in his Dec. 28, 1938, photo. Sandhogs suffered more than 300 attacks of the bends, as decompression sickness is also called. Twenty-five attacks involved impairment of the central nervous system. There were no deaths.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at 'Holing Through' ceremony

On Nov. 8, 1939, at a
Photo Credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels / Voss Studios

On Nov. 8, 1939, at a "Holing Through" ceremony, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia stood beside Peggy Ann MacDonald, the daughter of the builder of the tunnel, and pulled a switch that set off dynamite charges to clear away the last six feet of rock between the Manhattan and Queens sides of both tubes.

North Tunnel construction progress in 1940

Construction of the tunnel was undertaken at a
Photo Credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels / Somach Photo Service

Construction of the tunnel was undertaken at a rate of about 18 feet per week, in comparison with the 45-feet daily excavation rate of the Lincoln Tunnel. This photo shows the construction progress in the North Tunnel, including gleaming white tiles, on Feb. 21, 1940. Tracks that carried supplies for workers are still on the ground.

Tunneling continues apace in March 1940

Sandhogs, who were paid $11.50 a day excavating
Photo Credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels / Somach Photo Service

Sandhogs, who were paid $11.50 a day excavating tunnels, worked long hours to finish the two tubes. The Queens-bound tube is 6,272 feet-long; the Manhattan-bound tube is 6,414 feet long.

First women Tunnel Officers

It wasn't until three years after the tunnel
Photo Credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels / Somach Photo Service

It wasn't until three years after the tunnel had opened that the first women were hired as officers. They were called on to replace men who were away during World War II, but after the soldiers returned those jobs went away for women. This photo shows women on their first day of work, April 14, 1943.

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