Monthly Archives: November 2020

Theodore Dreiser, “Just What Happened when the Waters of the Hudson Broke into the North River Tunnel”

 

 

‘Just What Happened When the Waters of the Hudson Broke Into the North River’

 

 

Posted here (downloadable Word document above) is the text of a very rare (now), hard to find article written by Dreiser, transcribed by Roger W. Smith.

I found this article on microfilm at the New York Public Library. It may be the only available existing copy. The article:

 

 “Just What Happened when the Waters of the Hudson Broke into the North River Tunnel”

New York Daily News

January 23, 1904

Magazine Section, pp. 6-7

 

was published anonymously in the Daily News’s Sunday supplement.

After a period during 1903 as a laborer on the New York Central Railroad, Dreiser was hired as a feature editor at the Daily News with the help of a recommendation from his brother Paul — it turned out to be a short-lived job. The paper is not the same one as the current New York Daily News.

 

*****************************************************

 

The disaster and ensuing tragedy which Dreiser recounts (with true reportorial skill and great attention to detail) occurred on July 21, 1880 during the construction of the first Hudson River Tunnel between New York City and Jersey City, New Jersey. A portion of a connecting chamber, on the New Jersey side of the river, caved in at 4:30 on the morning of the 21st. Twenty men were buried alive (not twenty-one as per Dreiser’s account). There were twenty-eight men working there, of whom twenty suffocated or drowned, with eight surviving. “The eight who escaped did so though the air-lock, and their rescue was almost a miracle,” The New York Times reported. (“Twenty Men Buried Alive: Caving In of the Hudson Span.” The New York Times, July 22, 1880, pg. 1)

The bodies of the men who perished were not recovered until months afterwards. The search for the bodies was completed on October 30, 1880 with the recovery of the last four bodies.

The Hudson River Tunnel Company was absolved of liability for the accident. It paid a final settlement of $500 to the widow of each of the married men who perished, and $200 to the relatives of unmarried men who perished.

 

*****************************************************

 

Material from “Just What Happened” was reused by Dreiser in his story “Glory Be! McGlathery,” published in the Pictorial Review of January 1925. (Pictorial Review 26 [January 1925]: 5-7, 51-52, 54, 71)

The Pictorial Review  story was reprinted under the title “St. Columba and the River” in Dreiser’s Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories (New York, Boni & Liveright, 1927).

“St. Columba and the River” was dramatized in the form of a musical under the title Sandhog: A Folk Opera in 3 Acts — in a “re-creation” by Earl Robinson (singer and pianist) with Waldo Salt (narrator). Sandhog was performed at the at the Phoenix Theater in New York from November 1954 through January 1955.

 

*****************************************************

 

The library’s copy has been torn and smudged in places, making some words and lines undecipherable.

Another post will be forthcoming in which I will discuss how Dreiser adapted the actual story for his short story “Glory Be! McGlathery”; Dreiser’s sources; and how Dreiser might have gained knowledge of the tunnel disaster and about the tunnel workers called sandhogs.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020