American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

Peter Woodland

Peter Woodland was a Dane. He had been in this country nine years and was foreman of some workmen who were helping to build the first tunnel under the Hudson River.

This tunnel was more than a mile in length, extending from Jersey City to the opposite shore of Manhattan. It was so deep down that its roof was beneath the bed of the river.

Day after day, month after month, Peter Woodland and his companions worked in this tunnel. Above them glided tugboats, ferryboats, steamships, and even mighty battleships; and but few people dreamed of the busy men who were toiling silently at the risk of their lives a hundred feet beneath the surface of the great river. The light of the sun never reached these men at their work; the roar and rumble of the city streets never disturbed them.

The work was begun at the Jersey City end. A great shaft or well was sunk straight down to the desired level, and then the tunnel was dug through mud and ooze and solid rocks and treacherous sand. As fast as it was dug, it was walled overhead and on the sides with bricks and stone and plates of steel. The masons kept close behind the diggers, and the wall was never more than a few feet from the farthest end of the excavation.

As the workmen slowly pushed their way out under the river, why did not the mud and rocks above them fall in before the protecting wall could be built? This was prevented in part by roofing the unwalled portion of the tunnel with strong iron plates; but the roof of itself was not sufficient to support the great pressure above.

Every boy knows how air when forced into the tire of a bicycle will expand the rubber tubing and enable it to sustain a very great weight. Similarly, compressed air was forced into the unwalled part of the tunnel, thus helping to support the vast pressure of mud and water and rocks upon the temporary roof. Had it not been for this device the whole thing would have collapsed and the tunnel would have been impossible.

Fitting closely inside of the walled part of the tunnel there was an iron chamber fifteen feet in length. This chamber was called the air lock, and it was moved along as fast as the wall was completed. It was made to fit so closely that no water or air could pass between it and the inner surface of the wall.

At each end of the air lock there was a heavy door, and in the center of each door there was a round pane of very thick glass called a bull's-eye. Both the doors opened toward the unfinished end of the tunnel.

At midnight, every night, Peter Woodland and twenty-seven other men went down into the tunnel to work. They entered by means of a ladder, through the deep shaft in Jersey City. They went on through the finished portion till they came to the air lock. This they entered, the farther or lower door being already closed. When all were in, the upper door was closed and air was forced into the chamber until it was of the same density as the compressed air in the unfinished portion of the tunnel below. Then the lower door was opened, and the men passed out to their work.

It was not possible for them to work long in such air. After a few hours they would return into the air lock. The compressed air would be drawn off. They would return to their homes for rest, and twenty-eight other men would take their places.

One night Peter Woodland and his men had been at work as usual for nearly four hours. It was about the time for their early morning lunch. A few of the men had already dropped their picks and were starting for their dinner pails. The lower door of the air lock was open.

Suddenly there was an ominous sizzling and a rushing of water between two of the iron plates in the roof.

Peter Woodland sprang forward.

"All hands to stop this leak!" he cried.

But it was too late. The water poured through in a torrent. There was no possible way to stop it. One of the iron plates was misplaced.

Peter Woodland stood upright, trying if he might be able with his two hands to stanch the flow a little.

"Quick, men!" he cried. "Into the air lock, every one of you."

[Illustration] from American Book of Golden Deeds by James Baldwin


He himself might have been the first to go. But, no; he stepped aside and pushed the others in as fast as they came up.

Seven men had entered; but as the eighth reached the door, the heavy iron plate above it fell upon him. He dropped down as though dead, while the iron plate rested against the door in such a way as to close it within a few inches. Not another man could pass through.

Peter Woodland and nineteen others were caught as in a trap, and the river was pouring in upon them.

The seven men in the air lock were also entrapped; for the pressure of the air against the upper door was so strong that they could not open it. The water was pouring through the lower doorway over the body of their dead companion.

"Stop up the doorway with your coats!" shouted Peter Woodland.

They had left their coats with their dinner pails in the air lock when they went out to work. These they seized and thrust into the opening of the doorway. They pulled off their shirts and pushed them in also. The flowing of the water into the air lock was checked, although the chamber was now almost half full.

Unless they could open the upper door, their respite would be but short. They would still be drowned like rats in a hole.

Then they heard the voice of Peter Woodland again, "Break the bull's-eye in the upper door! Kick it out!"

The men saw him. The water was already to his chin. The nineteen men behind him were in the same sad plight.

"Break it!" he cried. "It's your only chance. If you're saved, do what you can for the rest of us."

These were his last words.

They broke the bull's-eye. The compressed air escaped. The upper door was easily opened. The seven men rushed out, the water following them as they ran. They gained the great shaft at the entrance. They climbed the ladder in breathless haste. At the top they turned and looked back.

The tunnel was full of water. Of the twenty-eight men who had gone down at midnight, twenty-one would never return. The seven who were saved owed their lives to the presence of mind and unselfish heroism of humble Peter Woodland.