If you live in New York City and took the subway recently, or used one of the underwater highway tunnels, or even turned on a faucet, you have a group of men (and a few women) to thank.
Since 1872, Union 147 — or the Sandhogs, as they’re popularly known — has worked underground to excavate and construct most subterranean infrastructure projects for the city, clearing and blasting million-year old bedrock and creating tunnels for various uses.
Beginning with the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge, they have worked on New York’s subways and sewers, most of the foundations for the city’s other bridges, the tunnels that make Manhattan accessible by car, and the tunnels that carry water into the five boroughs.
These blue-collar workers are truly unsung heroes of the city, mostly because they labour below ground, where their work is hidden from the public eye. Most people never get a chance to see just how hard and important a job “sandhogging” is. Luckily, some Sandhogs have started posting to Instagram, and their photos give us a first-hand look into this relatively unknown, yet essential, craft.
Sandhogs have a long and rich history and tradition in New York City. Often a career that is passed down generation to generation, you will regularly find fathers and sons working side by side, 60 stories below the street.
Sandhogs also have a strong contingent of Irish as well as East Indian descent. However, these divisions don't seem to play a role underground. Sandhogs are famous for fierce brotherhood.
To get below the surface, a group of six or so Sandhogs, wearing hardhats and construction gear, are lowered down deep and dimly lit holes in steel cages.
Once below ground, they work to clear ancient rock using what they refer to as 'the Mole,' a massive, one-and-half block long tool with a 20-foot spinning blade. The Mole can clear 50 feet of rock a day.
Other times, Sandhogs use controlled dynamite blasts to break apart the stone. After filling holes with 500 or more sticks of dynamite, the hogs leave the tunnel, then light the fuse.
Currently, the Sandhogs are working on city Water Tunnel Number 3, a job which was started 1970 and won't be completed until 2020. When finished, the tunnel will be 60 miles long, carry a billion gallons of water every day, and have cost the city $6 billion, the most expensive city project ever.
Being a Sandhog can be a lucrative career. All Sandhogs make $45 an hour, regardless of position, making them some of the highest paid government workers. On a good year, a Sandhog can take home $100,000.
Sandhogging has a history of being a dangerous job. Twenty-four men have died since construction began on Water Tunnel Number 3, from cave-ins, falls, accidents with equipment, and other dangers.
While the number of fatalities has dropped in more recent years, a lingering danger for all Sandhogs still exists. Respiratory issues, especially a disease called silicosis, is a constant health concern for Sandhogs who have spent years underground, breathing in rock dust.
But sandhogs are a tough bunch. Even when they sustain an injury at work, they routinely recover quickly and are right back on the job site, ready to go.
Despite the dangers, Union 147 is as strong as ever. Its ranks, with men ranging from late teens to late sixties, are reported to be more than 2,000 strong.
'If it's deeper than a grave then we built it,' goes the old Sandhog adage, and it's true. Sandhogs have had a hand in construction on almost every subterranean infrastructure project in New York's history.
'You simply couldn't have New York in its modern form without sandhogs,' labour historian and author Joshua Freedman told the New York Times in a 2003 article about Sandhogs.
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