A Sandhog Recalls Being Shot Out of a Brooklyn Heights Subway Tunnel

The Montague Street Tunnel in 2012, shortly after trains resumed service following Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Marc Hermann for MTA New York City Transit

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For all the humanity packed into Brooklyn, it’s no wonder so many incredible stories get lost in the cracks of history — or, in this case, shot up into them.

In February, 1916, the New York Times published an article entitled “Tells How It Feels to Go Up in a Geyser” recounting the tale of sandhog Marshall Mabey, who, while working on the construction of a new subway tunnel under Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, was shot up into an opening in the tunnel and through the bed of the East River. He survived, though two of his colleagues weren’t as fortunate.

brooklyn heights subway

The original New York Times story on the incident

“The first thing that told me something was wrong,” Mabey told the Times following the incident, “was when I saw an opening in the earth ahead of the shield which was used to protect the tunnel as we went along.”

The hole, he said, was roughly 18 inches wide, and upon noticing it he and another tunnel worker, Frank Driver, attempted to stop it up with a plank. Due to a leak in the compressed air used in the tunnel, Driver, Mabey and a third man named Michael McCarthy were sucked into the hole, torpedoed through the East River’s muddy riverbed and shot up and out as far as 200 yards into the dirty waters.

As he was sucked through the mud of the riverbed, Mabey stated he had never been squeezed so tightly, and reported losing consciousness and not remembering most of the freak incident.

While Mabey survived the event largely unscathed, McCarthy’s body was recovered by harbor police and Driver died soon after.

brooklyn heights subway tunnel

The East River in 1916. Photo via PBbase

In addition to the two deaths, the blowout also caused a large amount of damage to the tunnel, and work on the tube was stopped for a few days following.

The point of break was located by the giant air bubbles which appeared on the surface above it. To fix the hole, hundreds of tons of clay were dumped above the spot.

Although the article does not state explicitly, it is fairly clear the sandhogs were working on the Montague Street Tunnel, which today carries the R train from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

The tunnel opened to the public four years after the “Up in a Geyser” event on August 1, 1920. The tunnel was badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy.

The event, today largely forgotten, has been immortalized in E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime, in which a fictional situation based on the incident occurs where Harry Houdini, fascinated and impressed by Mabey’s survival, visits him in the hospital to ask how he did it only to be carried from the room by one of Mabey’s sons.

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