Bilby on Hart, 'The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder and the Construction of America's First Superhighway'

Author: 
Steven Hart
Reviewer: 
Joseph G. Bilby

Steven Hart. The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder and the Construction of America's First Superhighway. New York: The New Press, 2007. 216 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59558-098-6.

Reviewed by Joseph G. Bilby (Assistant Curator, National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey at Sea Girt) Published on H-New-Jersey (June, 2008)

The Boss and the Bridge to the Future

Once upon a time in New Jersey everyone knew of Mayor Frank Hague. Today, however, he is little remembered outside his Hudson County homeland, save to historians and political junkies. Hague has so much faded from the popular imagination that many "boomer" adults, even those born in the hospital complex he built, don't recognize the name that struck fear, respect and even awe in a generation of state and national political figures.

Hague was a product of the "Horseshoe," a gerrymandered Jersey City election district into which Republican state legislators shoehorned immigrant Irish Catholic Democrats in 1871 to lessen their voting power. Republicans no doubt thought the Horseshoe, so called because of its geographical configuration, a clever idea, but it spawned generations of angry underrepresented voters with scores to settle--and Frank Hague became their instrument. Born in a Horseshoe tenement in 1876, Hague came up the hard way. Expelled from elementary school, he ran the neighborhood with the "Red Tigers" street gang, worked odd jobs, and was an unsuccessful prize fighter and manager before entering politics under the tutelage of local boss and saloonkeeper Ned Kenny.

Elected constable in 1899, Hague rose rapidly in the rough-and-tumble world of Hudson County Democratic politics. Running as a Wilsonian-style reformer, he was elected Jersey City public safety commissioner in 1913, closed firetrap theaters and hired tough Irishmen from the Horseshoe to sweep pickpockets, muggers and prostitutes from the streets of the city. In 1917 Hague was chosen as mayor by his fellow commissioners, and held that office for the next thirty years. The mayor's power base grew to include all of Hudson County, and he soon became the most powerful political boss in New Jersey. Although the dead often voted in Hudson County, Hague's amazing success was primarily due to his ability to create and fund (from legal and illegal sources) the most efficient "get out the vote" machine in American history. In 1920 twenty-five percent of New Jerseyans were immigrants, and most lived in the state's crowded northeastern cities. The Democratic boss of Hudson County became their champion against a native-born rural and small town majority. There were not enough urban voters to control the New Jersey legislature, which was based on county representation, but Hague and his candidates were able to dominate statewide elections with regularity.

"Duh Mare," as he was known in Jersey City-ese, picked the majority of New Jersey's governors in the two decades preceding World War II. Among them was A. Harry Moore, who set a modern state record with election to three non-consecutive three year terms under the Constitution of 1844, which prevented a governor from succeeding himself. Hague made senators as well, including Moore and former governor Edward I. Edwards, and, at the height of his influence, played politics far beyond his power base. The mayor's 1928 political rally for Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, held at the Sea Girt National Guard Training Center, where he turned out a crowd of over eighty thousand people, was certainly the largest such gathering ever held in New Jersey, and probably the country, and signaled Hague's arrival on the national political scene.

The 1928 rally provided a graphic demonstration of Frank Hague's exceptional organizational abilities. The candidate was in awe of the whole operation, to be sure. At the end of the affair a newspaper account had Smith relaxing on the porch of Governor Moore's summer home, "contentedly puffing one of his big cigars" and seeing "in the rings of smoke he blew a vision of himself in the Big White House in Washington."[1] Hague seemed at the peak of his power, but within months his empire began an apparent downward spiral. Smith, in an uphill struggle against Republican credited prosperity compounded by his New York City Catholic immigrant heritage, lost his presidential bid to Herbert Hoover in a landslide that included New Jersey and carried Senator Edwards down along with him. Morgan Larson, who had ironically gained the Republican nomination for governor due to Hague's infiltration of the opposition's primary process, won the state house against Democrat William L. Dill, and the Jersey City mayor was reelected by his smallest margin ever.

Despite his new status as a national political player, Frank Hague's popularity among rank and file Democrats began to ebb when his personal profit agenda became apparent. Stories of government worker kickbacks, dubious real estate deals, suitcases of cash dispatched from city hall to New York stockbrokers and the "horse bourse" bookie consortium and other gambling enterprises operating under Hague's protection for a fee, coupled with a new Republican governor able to appoint judges and prosecutors, made the days of "Duh Mare" seem numbered to some, yet he maintained his grip on power through a difficult period.[2]

Frank Hague's influence extended beyond elections, reaching into every nook and cranny of life in his Hudson County stronghold. And that influence looms large in Steven Hart's The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder and the Construction of America's First Superhighway. Although Hague, of necessity, holds center stage in this New Jersey drama, Hart's story includes more than the mayor's tale. It is also a chronicle of the beginnings of a national highway system, told through the construction of an elevated roadway spanning the meadowlands and Hackensack and Passaic Rivers between Jersey City and Newark, as well as an account of engineers transitioning from railroad to highway design and virulent and often violent corporate versus labor struggles played out against the background of the deepening Depression.

The road in question had its origins in the planning for the prosaically titled "Route 1 Extension," or "Newark - Jersey City Viaduct," proposed to mitigate the effects of the 1927 opening of the Holland Tunnel. Serious existing congestion in Jersey City was exacerbated by a stream of vehicles exiting the new tunnel and debauching into the city's labyrinthine nineteenth century streetscape, carved up by railroads like a Thanksgiving turkey. Once beyond the city, drivers encountered more traffic problems on the limited roads and archaic drawbridges spanning the rivers and marshes towards Newark, a journey that sometimes took as long as four hours. The New Jersey legislature authorized construction of a modern highway connecting the tunnel to Route 1 in Elizabeth as a remedy, and the state hired Fred Lavis, a self-taught consulting engineer, for the job. The science of highway planning was in its infancy, but Lavis had extensive experience designing railway routes over mountains and across rivers through Latin American rain forests, and so it seemed, at first glance, it would be a simple matter for him to plot a route across the Jersey meadows.

Lavis certainly looked at the job as a rather straightforward task. Construction began on sections of the bypass as early as 1925 and segments in Jersey City and Newark were opened in 1929, but the central link across the meadowlands remained unfinished at the close of the decade. Lavis designed that section as an elevated concrete-clad steel structure soaring above streets and meadowlands and crossing the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers via drawbridges significantly higher than those existing on parallel routes. After submitting his final design in 1928, Lavis resigned and was succeeded by Sigvald Johannesson, a Danish engineer with experience designing London railroad tunnels. Johannesson modified the original Lavis plan, most notably by stripping concrete from the steel understructure to save money and raising bridge height to accommodate Navy Department battleship passage requirements, which led to significantly steeper bridge approaches. When actual construction finally began it proved a far more troublesome task than it initially appeared, however--and brought Duh Mare directly into the process.

In the early 1920s, Hague befriended Theodore "Teddy" Brandle, a construction union leader with parallel careers as labor racketeer, banker and construction performance bond salesman. Conflicts of interest didn't trouble Brandle. At one time he was simultaneously a business agent for an Iron Worker's Union local, president of the New Jersey State Building Trades Council and president of the Iron League, an employers' organization. The Hague/Brandle alliance was a two-way street, affording Hague the political organization and financial support of Brandle's union in exchange for steering public construction bonding business Brandle's way and supplying Jersey City police to strong-arm strikebreakers. Their relationship, at one time so cozy that Brandle paid the mayor's income tax bill, went sour, however, during the construction of the Jersey City Medical Center, Hague's monument to his mother and himself. Contractor Leo Brennan used union labor to build the hospital's power house, but since his men were not participants in Brandle's payroll kickback scheme, Teddy asked Frank to remove Brennan from the job. Hague complied, but resulting fiscal problems caused the mayor, a master of the Irish art of the grudge, to turn on Brandle. His simmering anger would play out in a dramatic way as construction began on the final stages of the Route 1 Bypass.

Construction contracts for the project were awarded to the American and Phoenix Bridge Companies, the McClintic-Marshal Company and the Taylor-Fichter Steel Construction Company, and work began in the spring of 1930. The contractors were all members the National Erectors' Association (NEA), an industry group which refused, as a matter of policy, to deal with unions. Brandle, his bonding business and union bypassed by the NEA, called his men out to picket the worksites, and they were soon in conflict with NEA hired private detectives. Frank Hague, unhappy with Brandle, stood aside.

In November 1931 an NEA detective shot a union picketer and in February 1932 a group of Brandle's stalwarts pelted a carload of nonunion workers on their way to work with nuts and bolts, then beat them with iron bars, fatally injuring William T. Harrison. In response, Hague declared war on Brandle and his union. The Jersey City police arrested and indicted twenty-one union men for Harrison's death and beat a confession out of ex-boxer and Brandle organizer William Campbell, who later recanted. Evidence against the men proved minimal and flimsy, and by the time the trial concluded, thirteen indictments had already been dismissed. The remaining accused men were acquitted. The struggle against the NEA and Hague, coupled with his own dictatorial style and an income tax evasion conviction, ruined Teddy Brandle, however. The labor boss was expelled from the Iron Workers' Union and had to resign from the Building Trades Council in 1933. On the other side of the fence, Hague turned resolutely to the right, and for the rest of his career viewed labor leaders as potential "un-American" activists and "Reds." He used every legal and extra-legal weapon available to foil any organizing efforts within the boundaries of Hudson County.

In the aftermath of the construction struggle Frank Hague was branded by many as a dictator not unlike those rising in Europe at the time; nevertheless he continued to thrive. The mayor helped place A. Harry Moore back in the governor's office in Trenton, then backed another, bigger, winner. On August 27, 1932 he convened a mammoth Sea Girt rally of well over a hundred thousand people for Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Hague, along with twenty five hundred other dignitaries, attended the dedication of the completed elevated highway between Jersey City and Newark the day before Thanksgiving, 1932, the mayor did so in the knowledge that he had delivered New Jersey to an incoming president, and that the president-elect knew it. The following day traffic flowed back and forth high over the meadowlands. By October of 1933 the road had a new name. Now the Pulaski Skyway, after Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski, it was re-dedicated with great hoopla, with an army band playing before a host of dignitaries and Polish-American civic associations.

Although the Skyway dramatically reduced travel time between Jersey City and Newark, it rapidly gained a reputation, according to the Newark Evening News, as "a death trap and playground for speed demons," and a series of fatal accidents early on reinforced that perception (p. 161). It was a scary road to ride. And so it remains. To Lavis and Johanneson, both railroad design engineers, entry ramp merges from the left and the absence of a road shoulder were not a problem. Although that was the case where there were tracks, such features were far more problematic in a road designed for use by cars and trucks. The accident rate climbed and, even though a significant argument for building the Skyway was the removal of truck traffic from the streets of Jersey City, Mayor Hague petitioned successfully for a truck ban on the road.

Frank Hague is long gone, chased out of active political life by critical press and the reformist state constitution of 1947. The Jersey City Medical Center, which he envisioned as his enduring monument, and where Teddy Brandle died bankrupt in 1949, has become a high-end art deco condo complex. Hague died in New York in 1956 and is buried in the city he made a synonym for old-time political boss rule. Although memories of Frank Hague still linger with a few, the names of Teddy Brandle and Fred Lavis are unrecognizable to the vast majority of modern New Jerseyans. But the roadway that defined their lives and work in the early 1930s remains, an iconic bit of Jerseyana stretching across the horizon.

Steven Hart, a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Salon, has produced a first-rate piece of narrative history in The Last Three Miles . In doing so, Hart availed himself of a full spectrum of primary and secondary sources, including histories of labor, politics and the construction industry of the era, memoir literature, newspaper accounts, court records and family papers. He also interviewed people who knew the characters in this true life drama, including the indispensible authority on Hudson County politics, Thomas Fleming, as well as the unrelated Robert Fleming, who provided details on what it was like to work high-iron in the days of Brandle, Hague and the NEA.

Hart's story is splendidly written, with nary a wasted word. His account of a massive construction project and its travails, framed by the tale of one of its major players, Frank Hague, revives the story of New Jersey's original "boss" for a new generation. Hart also provides the reader with a gripping account of one of the state's violent Depression era labor struggles and a noteworthy analysis of early highway engineering and construction, a science with one foot firmly planted in the nineteenth century and another tentatively feeling its way into the twentieth.

Despite design missteps, the viaduct and bridge system crossing the Jersey meadows signaled, in a very fundamental way, the beginning of the superhighway era. To Hart, the Skyway is a symbol of the advent of modernity, with nineteenth century America finally giving way to the twentieth. The "Roaring Twenties" that preceded it was, in many ways, the nineteenth century with cars. He convincingly asserts that automobiles and the accommodations society was forced to make on their behalf led to fundamental changes throughout American society, including the decline of the cities and suburban sprawl. Although this view is certainly not unique to Hart, his belief that the process began with the building of the Pulaski Skyway provides an interesting and valuable insight into New Jersey's role in the development of modern America. Less certain is his conclusion that the ugly events surrounding the building of the road signaled the beginning of Frank Hague's downfall. In fact, unflattering national media attention would not begin to focus on Duh Mare until near the end of the decade. There is no doubt, however, that the labor troubles generated by the Skyway provoked Hague's vigorous anti-union activity, which in turn brought him that negative attention.

Like the old road network, Frank Hague, Teddy Brandle and Fred Lavis were products of the nineteenth century. Although they did not survive beyond the middle years of the twentieth century, the Pulaski Skyway, a memorial to their story, remains intact. It is a stark and compelling sight, with a bizarre beauty all its own, whether viewed from the window of a New York City bound New Jersey Transit train or in the opening scenes of The Sopranos. Its tale has been told in bits and pieces before, but never as completely and well.

Notes

[1]. Newark Sunday Call, August 26, 1928.

[2]. Thomas Fleming, New Jersey: A History (New York: Norton: 1977): 181-182.

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Citation: Joseph G. Bilby. Review of Hart, Steven, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder and the Construction of America's First Superhighway. H-New-Jersey, H-Net Reviews. June, 2008. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=14553

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