They were the first integrated workforce in America. Sandhogs were the name given to those who worked as underground miners in urban areas. They constructed the tunnels that connected parts of cities through subway systems. They worked underwater constructing bridge piers.
At first, sandhogs were mostly immigrants from Ireland and the West Indies. Their work was dangerous. In the construction of the Hudson River Tunnel, one worker died for every foot of the tunnel construction.
They worked in caissons, which are essentially pressurized chambers. They often suffered from decompression sickness which could paralyze a worker without notice. As a result of the isolation, they were separated from other workers. When their shift was over, they hung out in the sand house, hence their name.
The ground they were tunneling through was often soft mud. The sandhogs had to work under shields to keep the roof stable. When a number of sandhogs were killed in blowouts, the peril of their working lives came to public attention. They then became labor heroes. Their bargaining positions improved as well as their wages. Also, more safety features were required.
You would think the sandhogs would not encourage their children to pursue the same profession, but that was not the case. Generation after generation of families have been sandhogs.
Why would a person undertake such a difficult job? Certainly, pay was a factor. But perhaps, the satisfaction of creating such a lasting contribution is what motivated the sandhogs. And then what other workers had such a distinctive name?
* * *
“There’s a city that lies in the Kingdom of Rock.
In the beautiful land of the mud;
It’s peopled by folks from all over the world,
But mostly the Isle of Spud.
There’s aerial bridges of timber and steel,
And beautiful streets made of lime;
A gardenless Eden that has no police
‘Tis there that the sun don’t shine” – (Poem written by an unknown underground poet)