Building the Second Avenue Subway: Sandhog Tradition Stays in the Family

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New York, NY -- Tracy Samuelson, WNYC) Mark Barrett is wiry — muscular but lean — with tattoos up his left arm and sideburns that reach almost to his chin. The tools on his belt clink as he calls to his father, Tony Barrett, standing nearby. Father and son are part of a crew of tunnel workers — sandhogs, they’re called — mining a tunnel for New York City’s new 2nd Avenue Subway line.

A recent morning found them 100 feet under the intersection of 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue. A train that brings supplies into the tunnel and carries out rock debris came off its tracks on the over-night shift the night before and the morning crew was tasked with righting the 30 ton locomotive. It took hydraulic jacks, shims, more than a little cursing and a few hours before the train was back on its rails.

Digging tunnels can be dangerous, dirty, hard work, but the Barretts said they like the work — the camaraderie with the guys on their crew and working with each other. They commute into work together each day and Mark said his dad was a big part of the reason that he became a sandhog.

“I like working side by side with him, that’s kind of cool,” Mark said.

Tony had hoped that sending Mark to college would keep him out of the tunnels.

“A lot of people get hurt down there,” he explained. “And he went to college to avoid all this, that’s what I was hoping for, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Mark says he’ll work in the tunnels as long as his dad does.

Listen to Mark's story here.