November 3

This Day in History

Automotive

Nov 3, 1930:

Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opens to traffic

At 12:05 A.M. on this day in 1930, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel between the United States and Canada is officially opened to car traffic. As Windsor Mayor Frederick Jackson had bragged at the tunnel's elaborate dedication ceremony two days before, the structure--the only international subaqueous tunnel in the world--made it possible to "pass from one great country to the other in the short space of three minutes." (For his part, Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy cheered that the project signified "a new appreciation of our desire to preserve peace, friendship, and the brotherhood of man.") The first passenger car through the tunnel was a 1929 Studebaker.

Construction on the tunnel began in May 1928 and relied on all sorts of innovative methods and technologies. Workers known as "sandhogs" excavated the gray muck under the river by blasting at it with air-driver knives; then, they used powerful hydraulic jacks to push a huge shield forward through the mud. Behind the shield, workers lined the new tunnel with giant steel plates. Next, they completed the underwater part of the tunnel using a process they called the "trench-and-tube": After the sandhogs had lined the underwater trench with steel plates, they sank nine 250-foot-long, 8,000-ton steel and concrete tubes to the bottom of the river, where divers welded them together.

The tunnel had an amazingly sophisticated ventilation system. Each end of the tunnel had a 100-foot–tall ventilation tower; each tower held 12 huge fans, six for pumping fresh air into the tunnel and six for exhaust. (Each tower had 3,000 of what one engineer called "gill-like glass openings for the admission of fresh air to the blower system.") The powerful blowers pumped (and still pump) 1.5 million cubic feet of air into the tunnel each minute, completely changing the air in the tunnel every 90 seconds. As a result, though many people were concerned about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in the tunnel, the air under the river was actually cleaner than the air on the Detroit streets outside.

The tunnel's ventilation system still works just as well as it did 80 years ago. In fact, the air quality is so good that every year the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is a part of the Free Press Marathon--the only international underwater mile in road racing.

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