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Reconstructing an Urban Archive Lost on 9/11

A big brass model of the tunneling machine that carved out the Holland Tunnel was displayed in the engineering department.

Thick binders with years of detailed reports on the region’s key infrastructure operations, including Kennedy and LaGuardia airports and the Midtown Manhattan bus terminal, were kept in the executive office.

And tucked away in the basement were thousands of original glass slides showing the early 1900s rail work that later became part of the PATH train system that carries New Jersey commuters under the Hudson River to Manhattan.

All were pieces of the rich history of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the sprawling bistate transportation and infrastructure agency that built the World Trade Center and was headquartered in the North Tower. All were destroyed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Now the Port Authority has begun to recover some of this lost history two decades after the devastating World Trade Center attacks that killed 84 of its employees, including the executive director, police officers, engineers, legal counsels, secretaries, property managers and mailroom clerks.

The Port Authority has collected hundreds of old photographs, documents and artifacts since the attacks. Many items — including a giant bronze plaque of the Port Authority seal and letters written by former employees about day-to-day operations — were donated by the agency’s network of 6,441 retirees and their families.


The agency — originally called the Port of New York Authority — was created by a 1921 interstate compact authorized by Congress after a century of disputes between New York and New Jersey over rail freights, boundary lines and control of the vital harbor that sits between them.

“It was a total lack of cooperation,” said Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “The lack of cooperation resulted in a lack of infrastructure — no bridges, no tunnels, nothing.”

As a result, freight was carried to the region on rail lines that ended in New Jersey and had to be put onto slow barges to reach ships in New York Harbor, resulting in delays and a bottleneck.

But the Port Authority changed all that, building and operating a series of major crossings, including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel, and laying the infrastructure for one of the country’s busiest ports. The agency, which has no taxing power but is funded through tolls, user fees and rents, expanded to include the region’s main airports.

It was Austin J. Tobin, then the executive director of the Port Authority, who partnered with the banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller in the 1960s to plan the 110-story twin towers in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Tobin wanted a building big enough to bring together the region’s shipping and maritime industry under one roof to increase efficiency, and many companies did come, but it was not enough to fill up the World Trade Center, Prof. Gillespie said.

Read entire article at New York Times