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Ole Knutsen Singstad (June 29, 1882 – December 8, 1969) was a Norwegian-American civil engineer who innovated the ventilation system for the Holland Tunnel (which subsequently became commonly used in other automotive tunnels) and advanced the use of the immersed tube method of underwater vehicular tunnel building, a system of constructing the tunnels with prefabricated sections.

Ole Singstad
Ole Knutsen Singstad

(1882-06-29)June 29, 1882
DiedDecember 8, 1969(1969-12-08) (aged 87)
Resting placeGreen-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, US
OccupationCivil engineer
Known forTunnel designing
Spouse(s)Else Johansen Singstad (1890–1964)

By 1950, Singstad had designed and overseen the construction of more underwater tunnels than all other engineers combined.[1]


Early lifeEdit

Ole Singstad was born at Singstad farm in Lensvik (now Agdenes municipality) in Trøndelag county, Norway. He was the seventh of nine children born to Knut Jacobsen Singstad (17 May 1831–24 November 1906) and Anne Mikkelsd Auset Singstad (10 July 1843–30 April 1947).[1]

In 1898, Singstad attended grammar school in Ålesund. Later, his sister Marie, a midwife, encouraged Singstad to further his education. He studied in Trondheim at the Trondheim Technical School from 1901–1905, where he was chairman of the student body.

In 1905, he emigrated to the United States. He became a US citizen in 1911.[1]


Early workEdit

Ole Singstad first worked for the Central Railroad of New Jersey. In 1907, he moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he worked on railroads and bridges for the Virginian Railway. He returned to New York City and worked at the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, designing tunnels under the Hudson River in 1909-1910, and later spent seven years in charge of work on subways and rail tunnels in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and under the East River. During this time he worked with Clifford Holland for the New York Public Service Commission of the first district of New York.

In 1917-1918, Singstad worked at the Chile Exploration Company, and in 1918-1919, he worked with Barclay, Parsons, and Klapp (now Parsons Brinckerhoff), where he was in charge of designing a rapid-transit system for Philadelphia, and made preliminary designs for a vehicular tunnel under the Delaware River.[2]

New York City tunnelsEdit

Singstad is widely known for work on the underwater road tunnels in New York City and for designing the ventilation system that made long underwater road tunnels possible, first used in the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River. He began working under chief engineer Clifford Milburn Holland in 1915,[3] and he finished directing construction of the Holland Tunnel after the death of Holland in the fall of 1924 and of Holland's successor Milton H. Freeman, who died in March 1925.[4][5]

Singstad also designed the Lincoln Tunnel,[4][6] the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel,[4][7] and the Queens–Midtown Tunnel,[4][8] the latter two as chief engineer of the New York City Tunnel Authority.[7][8] In this capacity he clashed with Robert Moses, who preferred bridges:

Why did Moses try to wreck (the Tunnel Authority)? Because he couldn't take it over, that's why. He couldn't take it over so he wanted to wreck the whole damned project.[9]:609

In 1946, the Tunnel Authority was taken over by the Triborough Bridge Authority, forming the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, whereupon Singstad was fired, and the incomplete Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was finished to specifications by TBTA chief engineer Ralph Smillie.[10]—which were mostly based on Singstad's original designs.[9] This new design leaked, and the TBTA reverted to Singstad's original design.[9]:696-697 Singstad later claimed that Smillie had caused "excessive" leakage by not using Singstad's experimental caulking design to prevent leaks. Smillie denied that the leakage was excessive and that Singstad's caulking method had been replaced because that method was actually the cause of the leak.[7]

Other workEdit

Singstad was instrumental in numerous underwater vehicular tunnels worldwide.

From 1930-1933, he designed and led construction of the tunnel under the Schelde River in Antwerp. The Belgians attempted to explode the tunnel on their retreat in 1940 and later the Germans tried to explode the tunnel when they withdrew in 1944. The tunnel held each time.

  • He consulted on the Posey Tube, the second tube in the world, which used the same ventilation system that he had designed for the Holland Tunnel.
  • He consulted on the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, the third one, designed by fellow Norwegian-American engineer Søren Anton Thoresen, and designed the ventilation system.[11]
  • With Thoresen, he designed the Waasland tunnel under the river Scheldt in Antwerp, Belgium. On this project, Singstad designed the lining, the tunnel shield, the ventilation, and the equipment.[11]
  • He established the company Singstad and Kehart Consulting Engineers in 1945, which with 50 to 60 staff engineers engineered the final design of The Big Walker Mountain Tunnel in Virginia.
  • With his firm Singstad and Baillie in New York, he designed the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, which opened in 1957.[12]

Singstad also designed tunnels in Argentina, Canada, Cuba, and Venezuela.

Pioneering techniquesEdit

Ventilating the Holland TunnelEdit

Thomas Edison had contended it was impossible to ventilate a tunnel with the volume of traffic envisioned for the Holland Tunnel.[1] At the time of its construction, underwater tunnels were a well-established part of civil engineering, but no long vehicular tunnels had been built, as all of the existing tunnels under New York City waterways carried only railroads and subways. These tubes did not have as much of a need for ventilation, since the trains that used the tubes were required to be electrically powered, and thus emitted very little pollution.[13]:10[14] On the other hand, the traffic in the Holland Tunnel consisted mostly of gasoline-driven vehicles, and ventilation was required to evacuate the carbon monoxide emissions, which would otherwise asphyxiate the drivers.[13]:10[15]:181–202[16] There were very few tunnels at that time that were not used by rail traffic; the most notable of these non-rail tunnels, the Blackwall Tunnel and Rotherhithe Tunnel in London, did not need mechanical ventilation.[13]:10 However, a tunnel of the Hudson River Tunnel's length required an efficient method of ventilation, so Chief Engineer Singstad pioneered a system of ventilating the tunnel transversely (perpendicular to the tubes).[4][17]

In October 1920, General George R. Dyer, the chairman of the New York Tunnel Commission, published a report in which he stated that Singstad had devised a feasible ventilation system for the Hudson River Tunnel.[14] Working with Yale University, the University of Illinois, and the United States Bureau of Mines, Singstad built a test tunnel in the bureau's experimental mine at Bruceton, Pennsylvania, measuring over 400 feet (122 m) long, where cars were lined up with engines running. Volunteer students were supervised as they breathed the exhaust in order to confirm air flows and tolerable carbon monoxide levels by simulating different traffic conditions, including backups.[18][17] The University of Illinois, which had hired the only professors of ventilation in the United States, built an experimental 300-foot-long (91 m) ventilation duct at its Urbana campus to test air flows.[17][19] In October 1921, Singstad concluded that a conventional, longitudinal ventilation system would have to be pressurized to an air flow rate of 27 cubic meters per second (953 cu ft/s) along the tunnel.[18] On the other hand, the tunnel could be adequately ventilated transversely if the compartment carrying the tube's roadway was placed in between two plenums. A lower plenum below the roadway floor could supply fresh air, and an upper plenum above the ceiling could exhaust fumes at regular intervals.[18][20]

Two thousand tests were performed with the ventilation system prototype.[5] The system was determined to be of sufficiently low cost, relative to the safety benefits, that it was ultimately integrated into the tunnel's design.[17] By the time the tunnel was in service, the average carbon monoxide content in both tunnels was 0.69 parts per 10,000 parts of air. The highest recorded carbon monoxide level in the Holland Tunnel was 1.60 parts per 10,000, well below the permissible maximum of 4 parts per 10,000.[21][22] The public and the press proclaimed air conditions were better in the tubes than in some streets of New York City; after the tunnel opened, Singstad stated that the carbon monoxide content in the tubes were half of those recorded on the streets.[22][23]

Prefabricated tunnel sectionsEdit

During construction of Baltimore Harbor Tunnel from 1955 to 1957, Singstad adopted a cost-saving method for the construction of the tunnel in the river mud. Previously, hydraulic shields or pressurized caissons had been used — with the constant danger of divers suffering the bends, and the necessity for constant diligence. A sunk-tube method had been earlier proposed and used by Olaf Hoff on the Detroit River tunnel and Harlem River Tunnel.[24]

Singstad advanced Hoff's ideas and proposed first digging a large ditch in the river bottom and lowering cable-suspended pre-fabricated tunnel sections 90 metres (300 ft) in length (weighing 23,000 tons each) into the ditch from overhead barges. Interior chambers were filled with water to lower the sections, the sections then aligned, bolted together by divers, the water pumped out, and the tunnels finally covered with earth. This technique was followed in numerous later tunnel projects by other engineers, on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel, for example.

Personal lifeEdit

Ole Singstad married Else Johansen[25] (June 28, 1890 – July 8, 1964). Together they had two children, Rita (2 May 1918 – 3 May 1975) and Paul (25 April 1925 – 27 March 1976).

Singstad returned to Norway five times in his life: first for his mother's 80th birthday in 1923 and subsequently to Lensvik in 1930 as well as 1933 while working on the tunnel at the river Schelde. He missed his mother's 100th birthday in 1943 because of World War II, but he returned in 1953 and again a final time in 1967 at age 85, still active in his consulting firm.

He was an avid fisherman.[25]

Singstad died on December 8, 1969; at the time he lived on Fifth Avenue in New York City.[25] He is buried at the Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

Honors and awardsEdit

Singstad received honorary doctorates from the Stevens Institute of Technology of Hoboken, New Jersey; the New York Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn; St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota; and the College of Engineering Newark, New Jersey.

Singstad was elected president of the American Council of Engineering Companies during 1941; he and Søren Anton Thoresen received gold medals and were decorated by King Albert I of Belgium for their work on the Waasland tunnel; a wooden statue has been erected in his honor at Lensvik Samfunnshus;[26] and in 2008, a lecture in his honor was held at the Museum of Modern Art.[27]

Singstad was named 1933 Officer of the Order of the Crown of Belgium,[1] received the 1939 Ridder order of First Class,[1] the 1956 Medal of Honor from the American Society of Engineers[1] and the 1960 Commander of the Order of Merit (Chile).[1]

At age 48, Singstad received the Royal Norwegian Academy of Science Society, an award normally reserved for much older people.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Ingeniør Ole Singstad (1882 - 1969)". (in Norwegian). Historier.Norway.
  2. ^ Saga in Steel and Concrete, pp. 181–190
  3. ^ About Agdenes Township
  4. ^ a b c d e Krebs, Albin (December 9, 1969). "Ole Singstad, 87, Master Builder Of Underwater Tunnels, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved May 29, 2010.
  5. ^ a b "Smoke Bombs to be Fired in Motor Tunnel" (PDF). New York Sun. February 10, 1926. p. 26. Retrieved April 16, 2018 – via
  6. ^ "Engineers Named for 38th St. Tube". The New York Times. November 19, 1933. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 24, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c "ENGINEERS DEBATE WHY TUNNEL LEAKS; Former and Present Chiefs of Brooklyn-Battery Tube in Disagreement on Seepage". The New York Times. August 28, 1951. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on March 23, 2018. Retrieved March 22, 2018.
  8. ^ a b "CITY SOON TO BEGIN TUNNEL TO QUEENS". The New York Times. August 16, 1936. Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c Caro, Robert (1974). The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-48076-3. OCLC 834874.
  10. ^ "ENGINEERS DEBATE WHY TUNNEL LEAKS; Former and Present Chiefs of Brooklyn-Battery Tube in Disagreement on Seepage". The New York Times. August 28, 1951. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on March 23, 2018. Retrieved March 22, 2018.
  11. ^ a b Saga in Steel and Concrete, pp. 191–202
  12. ^ "Baltimore Harbor Tunnel 50th Anniversary". The State of Maryland, Maryland Transportation Authority.
  13. ^ a b c "National Register Information System – Holland Tunnel (#93001619)". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. April 15, 2008. Retrieved May 19, 2018.
  14. ^ a b "SOLVE VENTILATION OF VEHICULAR TUBE; Gen. Dyer Says That Experts Have Settled Difficult Problem of Hudson Tunnel.AUTO CASES ANALYZEDPhysiological and Psychological Effects of Noxious Fumes from Gasoline Combustion Determined". The New York Times. October 10, 1920. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 5, 2018.
  15. ^ Bjork, K. (2007). Saga in Steel and Concrete - Norwegian Engineers in America. Read Books. ISBN 978-1-4067-6829-9. Retrieved May 29, 2018.
  16. ^ *"Studies and Methods Adopted for Ventilating the Holland Vehicular Tunnels". Engineering News-Record. 98. June 9, 1927. pp. 934–939.
    • "Ventilating the Holland Vehicular Tunnel". Heating and Ventilating Magazine. 23 (79). August 1926.
    • Singstad, Ole. "Ventilation of Vehicular Tunnels". Proceedings of the World Engineering Congress. 9. pp. 381–399.
    • Davis, A. C. (October 1930). "Development of the ventilation system of the Holland Tunnel". Heating, Piping and Air Conditioning. 2. pp. 866–874.
    • Fieldner, A.C.; Henderson, Y.; Paul, J.W.; others (February 1927). "Ventilation of vehicular tunnels (Report of U.S. Bureau of Mines to New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission and New Jersey State Bridge and Tunnel Commission)". American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers.
  17. ^ a b c d "PURE AIR IS ASSURED FOR THE VEHICULAR TUNNEL; There Will Be No Danger of Asphyxiation From Motor-Car Monoxide in the Big New Boring Under the North River, as Shown by Remarkable Experiments in Ventilation". The New York Times. February 17, 1924. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 6, 2018.
  18. ^ a b c "TESTS SHOW SAFETY OF VEHICLE TUNNEL; Ventilating System for Proposed Tube Under HudsonTried Out in Pittsburgh.SMOKE BOMBS EXPLODEDBut Air Remains Pure, as it AlsoDoes When Autos Are RunThrough Test Tube". The New York Times. October 30, 1921. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 5, 2018.
  19. ^ "STUDY TUBE VENTILATION.; Model of Hudson River Tunnel Being Built by Mining Bureau". The New York Times. April 3, 1921. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 5, 2018.
  20. ^ "BIG RIVER TOWERS GIVE AIR TO TUBE; Powerful Machinery Is Being Installed on Jersey and Manhattan Shores to Ventilate The Holland Vehicular Tunnel". The New York Times. November 28, 1926. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 8, 2018.
  21. ^ Cite error: The named reference :34 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  22. ^ a b "Saga in Steel and Concrete: Norwegian Engineers in America". 1947.
  23. ^ "TUNNEL AIR CALLED PUREST; Singstad Says Its Monoxide Is Half What Harris Found In Streets". The New York Times. December 9, 1927. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 10, 2018.
  24. ^ "Saga in Steel and Concrete: Norwegian Engineers in America". 1947.
  25. ^ a b c Krebs, Albin (December 9, 1969). "Ole Singstad, 87, Master Builder Of Underwater Tunnels, Is Dead". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved May 20, 2010.(subscription required)
  26. ^ Famous People of Agdenes, at Agdenes kommune,
  27. ^ The Ammann Singstad Lecture on Infrastructure


External linksEdit