Hart, Steven. The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. New York: The New Press, 2007. Pp.viii +216. Illus. Hardcover, $25.95.
This is the story of the Pulaski Skyway. I presume everyone who has lived in the New Jersey/New York area knows the Pulaski Skyway crosses the New Jersey meadowlands, connects Newark and Jersey City, and links New York City through the Holland Tunnel with major routes west and south. The name “Skyway” is used because at the time of its construction, the War Department insisted that bridges crossing the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers have 135-foot clearance although shipping on those rivers was essentially non-existent, the later New Jersey Turnpike is generally close to ground level. The insistence came after parts of the road were completed, so steep grades had to be incorporated in the bridge approaches. The bridge designers were guided by the best model for transportation at the time—a railroad. The result was a narrow roadway with no shoulders and access ramps on the left. It became clear after a few years that the viaduct was unsafe for trucks, and they were banned. The Skyway was dedicated in 1932, so much of the construction took place during the depression, when workers had little bargaining power. In fact, non-union workers, harassed by union labor, built the viaduct, and more than one person was killed in the battle between union and non-union workers. The union asked for $0.25 an hour more than what was actually paid. The expense attributable to protecting and working with non-union labor turned out to be about five times the total cost required to pay the extra 25 cents. Much of the book is about the mayor of Jersey City, Frank Hague, who ran a remarkably effective political organization—he did not like the term “machine.” One ward leader felt compelled to apologize to Mayor Hague, a Democrat, because two Republican votes turned up in his ward. Despite his party affiliation, and at least partly because of his antipathy to a labor leader, Mayor Hague insisted on an open shop for the viaduct construction and reacted with massive force to the murder of a non-union worker. The mayor’s shenanigans would be more fun to read if they had not been so brutal. The story is absorbing—hard to put down in fact. As Hart remarks, the story is also a lens to examine an industry in one locale at one time and to look for lessons.