Tag Archives: Sandhog: A Folk Opera in 3 Acts

Sandhog (musical)





Posted here is the music from “Sandhog: A Folk Opera in 3 Acts,” which was performed at the at the Phoenix Theater in New York from November 23, 1954 through January 2, 1955 (at the same time when my own father was the musical director for numerous theatrical productions in Boston). “Sandhog” was a dramatization of Theodore Dreiser’s story “St. Columba and the River.”



Earl Robinson, Singer and Pianist; Waldo Salt, Narrator

1. Come Down; Johnny’s Cursing Song

2. Johnny-O

3. Good Old Days; – Song of the Bends

4. By the Glenside; Sandhog Song

5. Sweat Song; Fugue on a Hot Afternoon in a Small Flat

6. T-w-i-n-s; Katie O’Sullivan

7. Work Song; Death of Tim; Sing Sorrow

8. Ma, Ma, Where’s My Dad?; The Greathead Shield; In the Tunnel; Sam on the Stick; Cursing Song (Reprise); Johnny-O (Reprise); Sandhog Song (Finale)

9. Come Down; Some Said They Were Crazy (Company)

10. Johnny’s Cursing Song (Jack Cassidy)

11. Come and Be Married; Johnny-O (Jack Cassidy, Betty Oakes)

12. By the Glendside (Alice Ghostley)

13. Sandhog Song – Company

14. Katie-O (Edmund Hockridge, 1957)

15. Johnny-O (Felicia Sanders, 1957)

16. Katie-O (Vince Martin, 1957)


The production closed after 48 performances and the show went unrecorded. In 1956, Earl Robinson and Waldo Salt recorded an album of ‘Sandhog’ with Robinson singing the score and accompanying himself on piano and Salt providing linking narration. The album was subsequently issued on the Vanguard label.




Dreiser’s short story “St. Columba and the River” was initially published under the title “Glory Be! McGlathery” in 1925 before being published in 1927 in Dreiser’s Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories.

The initial source for “St. Columba and the River” was an article Dreiser wrote in 1904 for the United Press, “Just What Happened When the Waters of the Hudson Broke into the North River Tunnel.”

The setting is the North River (the earlier name for the Hudson River) Tunnel Works and the surrounding neighborhood in downtown New York in the late 1880’s, as per articles about the disaster and Dreiser’s own retrospective account..

The plot of the story was as follows: An Irish-Catholic immigrant, Dennis McGlathery, is hired by his “fellow churchman,” Thomas Cavanaugh, to dig a tunnel under the Hudson River. Three times the powerful river destroys the tunnel and drowns the “sandhogs,” despite the introduction of improved tunneling mechanisms. McGlathery himself survives each disaster. Cavanaugh sacrifices his own life with courage that both frightens and inspires McGlathery. Encouraged by Cavanaugh’s example, McGlathery plugs a leak with his own body before being blown out of the tunnel up to the river’s surface, thus concluding his tunneling career as a hero.




“Sandhog: A Folk Opera in 3 Acts”


Earl Robinson, Playwright

Waldo Salt, Playwright

Howard Da Silva, Director

Ben Steinberg, Musical Director

Sophie Maslow, Choreographer

Howard Bay, Production and Lighting Designer

Toni Ward, Costume Designer

CAST: Jack Cassidy (Johnny O’Sullivan), David Brooks (Tim Cavanaugh), Betty Oakes (Katie O’Sullivan) Alice Ghostley (Sheila Cavanaugh) Gordon Dilworth (Sharkey) Douglas Collins (Bill Clayton) Paul Ukena (Fred Burger) Michael Kermoyan (Joe Novak).


Earl Robinson was a composer, arranger and folk music singer-songwriter from Seattle, Washington. Robinson is remembered for his music, including the cantata “Ballad for Americans” and songs such as “Joe Hill” and “Black and White”, which expressed his left-leaning political views. He wrote many popular songs and music for Hollywood films. He was a member of the Communist Party from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Robinson studied composition at the University of Washington. In 1934 he moved to New York City where he studied with Hanns Eisler and Aaron Copland. He was also involved with the depression-era WPA Federal Theater Project, and was actively involved in the anti-fascist movement and was the musical director at the Communist-run Camp Unity in upstate New York. In the 1940s he worked on film scores in Hollywood until he was blacklisted for being a Communist. Unable to work in Hollywood, he moved back to New York, where he headed the music program at Elisabeth Irwin High School, directing the orchestra and chorus.

Waldo Salt was an American screenwriter who won Academy Awards for both Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home. Salt’s career in Hollywood was interrupted when he was blacklisted after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951. Like many other blacklisted writers, while he was unable to work in Hollywood Salt wrote pseudonymously for the British television series The Adventures of Robin Hood. After the collapse of the blacklist, Salt won Academy Awards for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for his work on Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, and a nomination for Serpico.

Howard Da Silva was an American actor, director and musical performer on stage, film, television and radio. He was cast in dozens of productions on the New York stage, appeared in more than two dozen television programs, and acted in more than fifty feature films. Adept at both drama and musicals on the stage, he originated the role of Jud Fry in the original 1943 run of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!

Da Silva was blacklisted the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation into alleged Communist influence in the industry. He was eventually cleared of any charges in 1960.




“He was a lean, bitter starveling in those days [at the period of time which Dreiser writes about in An Amateur Laborer], seeking fame, self-justification. And the work he did to keep alive–he worked on one of the tunnels, under the waters of Manhattan, became partly deaf.” — Lester Cohen, “Theodore Dreiser: A Personal Memoir,” Discovery no. 4 (1954)

I have wondered about this the accuracy of this comment. Lester Cohen was a reliable writer. But I could find no mention elsewhere (in Dreiser sources) indicting that Dreiser worked as a sandhog. He may well have known and interviewed some.




reviews of “Sandhog”

1 Brooks Atkinson review of ‘Sandhog’ – NY Times 11-24-1954

2 Harry Raymond review of ‘Sandhog’ – Daily Worker 11-29-1954


See also my post:

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

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


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2021

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. The New York Daily News was a daily New York City newspaper from 1855 to 1906, unrelated to the present-day Daily News, which was founded in 1919. The paper founded in 1855 folded in December 1906.

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 noted in the previous paragraph) 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