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Nov 19, 2009

Deep below New York City’s bustling streets lies a dangerous world inhabited by “sandhogs.” Photographer Gina LeVay offers a portal into their domain.

By Lindsey Schneider

The men show up for work every day in rain slickers and rubber boots with steel tips; they typically have a flashlight, cigarettes, folding rulers and knives, among other things, stashed in their pockets. To get to their work site, they take a 4 minute-long elevator ride down an access shaft bored into the rock underlying Midtown Manhattan. Before the day is out, they will have risked being crushed by falling rocks as big as subcompact cars, stuck in a flooded tunnel, trampled by speeding railroad cars or blown up by wayward explosions.

This is the lifestyle and domain of the sandhogs, survivors of a vanishing breed of tunnel diggers who have hollowed out New York City’s underground infrastructure. Since they shoveled through sand and clay to lay the first supports for the Brooklyn Bridge almost 140 years ago, sandhogs have dug out a labyrinthine subterranean world: 438 miles of subway lines, 6,000 miles of sewers, and thousands of miles of gas mains.

But perhaps their most stunning achievement to date is the excavation of City Water Tunnel No. 3—a 60-mile-long, 10-to-24-foot-diameter hole as far as 800 feet below ground. Begun in 1970, this mammoth task aims at alleviating the pressure on the two existing, antiquated water tunnels that were built in 1917 and 1937. City Water Tunnels No. 1 and 2—neither of which have ever been inspected—carry the 1.5 billion gallons of water New Yorkers consume each and every day from reservoirs upstate into the metropolitan area.

Photographer Gina LeVay became fascinated with the sandhogs after the New York City blackout of August 2003, which prompted her to look at what made the city tick. “At that point, I was in the city for eight or nine years,” she says, “and everyone knows that our water comes from upstate, but no one has any idea that there is a water tunnel happening right now, 800 feet below us. Men are sacrificing their lives.”

The scale of the project is enormous. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, by the time the excavation of the 8.5 mile-long stretch of Tunnel No. 3 that LeVay visited was completed, the sandhogs had displaced enough 450 million-year-old Manhattan schist to fill a football field with a 250 foot-high mound.

Generations of sandhogs have accepted anonymity and danger as part of the job: 25 percent of those working on a tunnel in 1890 lost their lives; during a three-year stretch excavating Tunnel No. 2, 60 died. That’s three men for every mile of tunnel. Although the introduction in 1970 of a 13,200-volt pneumatic drill that sinks 10-foot holes into the rock has reduced the dangers facing the sandhogs, excavation of the first 25 miles of City Water Tunnel No. 3 cost the lives of 23 workers.

LeVay spent four years documenting this rich subculture, with all of its camaraderie and peril. She brought their stories to public awareness with “The Sandhog Project,” an evolving work of photography, video and installations culminating with the publication of her book, Sandhogs (powerHouse, October 2009). She considers her work an homage to “the art form of mining,” performed by “urban cowboys.”

As a photographer, LeVay wasn’t primarily interested in the scale of the sandhogs’ work as much as the aesthetics of their subterranean world. Cinematically lit by floodlights, flashlights and headlamps, the sandhogs’ working conditions, in LeVay’s words, have a “natural beauty” that is “very dramatic.” “I really like to isolate in the environment,” she says. “Even though it was a very loud, busy environment, I always would find these moments where it was the individual sandhog amidst these huge concrete forms or machinery.”

LeVay became fascinated with the loudest tool in the sandhogs’ kit: dynamite. The drill-and-blast holes are documented in Sandhogs, and LeVay saw in their “architecturally pleasing” layout a slice of mural art—yellow and red cords form a complex web of fuses to be detonated from the center to the periphery. The pattern is preserved in the die-cut cover of her book.

Through discussions with the sandhogs, LeVay discovered a unique friendship that forms among these urban miners, some of whom are working alongside their fathers and brothers. Mikey J, who has been a sandhog for over 34 years and is a member of a group who call themselves the Hollywood Crew, told her that when he started, “we were full of piss and vinegar…We didn’t have to go around anything; we plowed through things. It was just that good bond.”

“The sandhogs became my assistants,” LeVay recalls, telling a story about how they would stop mucking (sandhog-speak for shoveling) and move a floodlight for her. They would come up to her and advise her, saying “this is the best angle, because in ten minutes, this is going to come down.”

The section of the tunnel that LeVay photographed will begin carrying water to Lower Manhattan next year, while the sandhogs have moved on to other tunneling projects under the streets of Manhattan.

These photographs attest to how New York City’s largest capital construction project came to be, and, in LeVay’s words, “areas that will never be the same. You can’t get down there for another 100 years.”

About New York City’s Water Tunnels:

In order to support its 8.3 million-plus residents, New York City has devised a complex water delivery system that transports over 1.5 billion gallons of water daily from upstate through a series of reservoirs and aqueducts. Construction on this massive infrastructure project has progressed continuously for over 175 years, except for two brief periods during World War II and New York City’s financial meltdown in the 1970s.

Through the sheer force of gravity, water plummets through a vast hydrological network from an initial height of 1,400 feet above sea level to 2,000 feet below sea level as it rushes through the metropolis’s two existing subterranean water tunnels—City Water Tunnels No. 1 and No. 2, completed in 1917 and 1936, respectively. These tunnels have deteriorated, leaking up to 36 million gallons a day in some places. In the early 1950s, engineers realized that a third tunnel would have to be built, so that Tunnels No. 1 and No. 2 could be repaired to prevent a potentially catastrophic water shortage if one of them burst.

Planning began on City Water Tunnel No. 3 in the 1960s, and on a cold day in January of 1970, the sandhogs started working their way through the 470 million-year-old bedrock in their labor-intensive, drill-and-blast manner. When completed in 2020 at a projected cost of $6 billion, Tunnel No. 3 will eventually snake from the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County through the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, with valves the size of airplane hangars.

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1.5 billion gallons, not million. I agree with Anne completely… this was an incredible article. We so infrequently think about where our day-to-day resources come from. I will have to check out LeVay’s book on my next trip to the bookstore. Thank you for sharing this Flyp!

Maureen Campbell
Nov 30, 2009

Only 1.5 million gallans a day for 8 million people?

James Turner
Nov 30, 2009

This is a remarkable work and the Sandhogs epitimize to me the true American spirit. We need more of this type of relevant reveal.

Anne Serrano
Nov 29, 2009