NYC tunnel-borer named for Cornell engineer, suffragist

Nora Stanton Blatch Barney
NYC Department of Environmental Protection/Provided
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney

A tunnel-boring machine that will repair New York City’s Delaware Aqueduct – the world’s longest tunnel – has been named in honor of Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, a suffragist who became the first U.S. woman to earn a civil engineering degree when she graduated from Cornell in 1905.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) made the announcement, noting Barney’s role as a drafting technician who worked on the city’s first reservoir and aqueduct in the Catskill Mountains.

“Nora Stanton Blatch Barney was a talented engineer, architect and mathematician who paved the way for other women to employ their talents in these fields,” DEP Acting Commissioner Vincent Sapienza said in a press release. “While she worked on the city’s landmark water supply facilities in the Catskills, Nora also led the fight for women’s rights at the voting booth and in the workplace. Her achievements will provide considerable inspiration as we forge ahead with the largest repair in the history of New York City’s water supply.”

The $30 million boring machine, dubbed “NORA,” is being touted as one of the world’s most advanced tunnel excavators. It stretches 470 feet and features a rotating cutter head that is nearly 22 feet in diameter. As the machine excavates, it will pump away up to 2,500 gallons of water per minute while also partially lining the tunnel with 9,000-pound concrete segments.

NORA is being transported in pieces to the DEP’s construction site in Newburgh, New York, where it will be used to bore a 2.5-mile bypass tunnel for a leaking section of the aging Delaware Aqueduct. The bypass tunnel will then be connected to the existing aqueduct and the leaking section will be taken out of service. The entire repair project is expected to take about eight years to complete.

“Cornell Engineering has been producing amazing female engineers since our beginning,” said Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. “It is therefore fitting that the tunnel-boring machine for the Delaware Aqueduct be named after Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, as it represents her courage and her can-do attitude at a time when women had not been given access to those roles.”

After graduating from Cornell, Barney became the first woman elected to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as a junior member. But despite a notable career working as an engineer for the American Bridge Co. and the New York Public Service Commission, among other places, she was later denied ASCE associate membership status. To right what it described as a wrong, ASCE posthumously elected Barney a fellow in 2015. A plaque commemorating her fellowship hangs on the second floor of Hollister Hall.

“We’re happy that New York City is recognizing Nora’s important contributions by putting her name at the head of this impressive tunneling machine,” said Coline Jenkins, Barney’s granddaughter. “There is great symbolism in this – Nora will be pushing forward and breaking ground, as she did in life.”

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.

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Daryl Lovell