IO tunnel ventilation

The test facility for the ventilation project for New York’s Holland Tunnel is shown in May 1921 on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.

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What do the Hudson River and a stretch of land along Goodwin Avenue between Green Street and Springfield Avenue have in common? They both at one time had an underground ventilation system.

The Holland Tunnel connects New York to New Jersey by going under the Hudson River. Construction began in 1920 and was completed in 1927.

At the time, it was to be the longest underwater tunnel in the world, and it created a new engineering problem. How do you keep people safe from dangerous fumes from cars in a tunnel that’s 9,250 feet long?

Tunnels built underwater previously used natural air vents or a couple large fans, but these solutions would not work for a tunnel this long.

This led to a collaborative effort between the University of Illinois, Yale University and the U.S. Bureau of Mines to find a solution.

The Bureau of Mines worked to determine the content of the exhaust gas and how much of it would be expelled on a daily basis. Yale researchers calculated the amount of carbon monoxide that would be tolerable to humans in the tunnel. Faculty at the UI then worked to design a system that would keep the air clean enough for people to drive safely.

Multiple researchers worked on this project to find a safe and effective design. One was Arthur Cutts Willard, who later became the ninth president of the UI (and after whom Willard Airport is named). A test facility that was 300 feet long was built on the Urbana campus. According to the Vincent S. Day Papers at the University of Illinois Archives, the Holland Test Facility was located at the “University’s coal storage yard due East of the Ceramics & Railway Buildings, was used & dismantled in the period Apr. 1 – Aug 1, 1921.” The Seitz Materials Lab is in the approximate location now. The Bureau of Mines also built a facility to test this design.

The final design implemented for the Holland Tunnel consisted of 42 fans that would supply fresh air to the tunnel and 42 others that would expel carbon monoxide. These are housed in two 12-story structures at either end. They allowed for the air supply to be replenished every 1.6 minutes.

The ventilation system faced its greatest test in 1949, when a truck carrying carbon disulfide caught fire in the eastbound tunnel. The system was kicked into full gear to help remove the smoke and bring in fresh air. Sixty-six people were injured, mostly from smoke inhalation, and one firefighter died from smoke inhalation. The ventilation system helped to keep the tunnel cool and clean the air so firefighters could work faster without masks, and it was open again within 56 hours. The ingenuity and knowledge to create such an effective system was made possible because Willard and his colleagues were some of the few researchers in the U.S. working on ventilation research.

The ventilation system for the Holland Tunnel became the model for future tunnels. It is still used today in the Holland Tunnel and others around the world.

You can learn more about this innovation and other innovations from the UI at the Illinois Distributed Museum’s website at distributed The museum has online content about the innovations that have come from the UI as well as self-guided tours of campus.

The Illinois Distributed Museum is a project under the direction of the UI Archives. It is also a member of the Champaign County Museums Network. Learn more at champaigncounty

Kristen Wilson is coordinator of the Illinois Distributed Museum at the University of Illinois Archives in the University of Illinois Library. She can be reached at