Ole Singstad

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Ole Singstad
Born Ole Knutsen Singstad
(1882-06-29)June 29, 1882
Agdenes, Lensvik, Norway
Died December 8, 1969(1969-12-08)
New York, New York, United States
Resting place Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, United States
Occupation Civil Engineer
Known for Tunnel Designer
Spouse(s) Else Johansen Singstad (1890-1964)

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 "Sunk-tube" method of underwater vehicular tunnel building, a system of constructing the tunnels with prefabricated sections.

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

Early life[edit]

Ole Singstad was born at Singstad farm in Lensvik (now Agdenes) in Sør-Trøndelag, Norway. He was the seventh of nine children born to Knut Jacobsen Singstad (17 Mai 1831- 24 Nov 1906) and Anne Mikkelsd Auset Singstad (10 Jul 1843-30 Apr 1947).[1]

In 1898, Singstad went to Ålesund to study grammar school. Later, his sister Marie, a midwife, encouraged Singstad to further his education. He studied at the Trondheim Technical School from 1901–1905, today Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where he was chairman of the student body. In 1905, he emigrated to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1911.[1]


Early work[edit]

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]

NYC tunnels[edit]

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.

Singstad also designed the Lincoln Tunnel, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the latter two as chief engineer of the New York City Tunnel Authority, in which capacity he clashed with Robert Moses, who preferred bridges:

In 1946, the Tunnel Authority was merged with (rather, 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 Moses's specifications—which were mostly based on Singstad's original designs.[4] This new design leaked, and the TBTA fixed the leaks by reverting to Singstad's original design.

Other work[edit]

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 one, 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.[5]
  • 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.[5]
  • 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.[6]

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

Pioneering techniques[edit]

Ventilating the Holland Tunnel[edit]

Thomas Edison had contended it was impossible to ventilate a tunnel with the volume of traffic envisioned for the Holland Tunnel.[1] Previously, tunnels had been ventilated longitudinally. Singstad pioneered a system of ventilating the tunnel transversely.

Working with Yale University and the United States Bureau of Mines, Singstad built a test tunnel in the bureau's experimental mine at Bruceton, Pennsylvania over 400 feet 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. Singstad concluded that a conventional, longitudinal ventilation system would have to be pressurized to an air flow rate of 27 m/s (60 mph) along the tunnel.[1]

Singstad designed a tri-level tunnel with the large middle section accommodating vehicles and two plenums, a lower and upper plenum each respectively supplying fresh air and exhausting fumes at regular intervals — solving the ventilation problem.[1]

On opening day, the average carbon monoxide content in both tunnels was .69 part per 10,000 parts of air. The highest was 1.60 parts per 10,000. The permissible standard was 4 parts per 10,000 parts of air.[7] The public and the press proclaimed air conditions were actually better in the tube than in some streets of New York City.[7]

Prefabricated tunnel sections[edit]

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.[8]

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.


Ole Singstad married Else Johansen (June 28, 1890 – July 8, 1964). Together they had two children, Rita (2 May 1918 – 3 May 1975) and Paul (25 Apr 1925 – 27 Mar 1976). Singstad died on December 8, 1969; at the time he lived on Fifth Avenue in New York City.[9] He is buried at the Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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 the war, then returned in 1953 and again a final time in 1967 at age 85, still active in his consulting firm.

He was an avid fisherman.[citation needed]

Honors and awards[edit]

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;[10] and in 2008, a lecture in his honor was held at the Museum of Modern Art.[11]

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 j k "Ingeniør Ole Singstad (1882 - 1969)" (in Norwegian). Historier.Norway, . 
  2. ^ Saga in Steel and Concrete, pp. 181–190
  3. ^ About Agdenes Township
  4. ^ "The Power Broker" by Robert Caro. Vintage Books, 1975
  5. ^ a b Saga in Steel and Concrete, pp. 191–202
  6. ^ "Baltimore Harbor Tunnel 50th Anniversary". The State of Maryland, Maryland Transportation Authority. 
  7. ^ a b "Saga in Steel and Concrete: Norwegian Engineers in America". 1947. 
  8. ^ "Saga in Steel and Concrete: Norwegian Engineers in America". 1947. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Famous People of Agdenes, at Agdenes kommune,
  11. ^ The Ammann Singstad Lecture on Infrastructure

Primary source[edit]

Saga in Steel and Concrete is posted in sections at: Norway-L archives 2003-04 Norway-L archives 2003-05

External links[edit]