Tess the Toll Booth Operator

During World War II millions of men were called to fight in the war and women were called on to take their places at work in order to keep America’s economic engine operating. We all know about “Rosie the Riveter” but did you know about Tess the toll booth operator?

In honor of women’s history month, here’s a photo from the Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive of the first 12 women hired to be toll booth operators. The women are walking across the toll plaza at the Queens Midtown Tunnel on their first day on the job.  

In a press release dated April 15, 1943, Commissioner William Friedman of the New York City Tunnel Authority said the women were “replacing policemen who have either joined the armed forces or accepted jobs in specialized defense industries” and that “this step had been taken by the Authority to help conserve essential manpower for national defense.”

The women received two weeks of training in “pistol practice” and how to give traffic directions.

“They are helping the defense effort just as much as if they were in defense industries themselves, inasmuch as the Queens Midtown Tunnel is an essential interborough traffic artery which must be kept open and operating, especially since its use results in savings both rubber and gasoline by cars passing through it,” Commissioner Friedman said.

Five of the women replaced their husbands who went off to war. The women worked either an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 4 p.m. to midnight shift. The tunnel was closed from midnight to 6 a.m. as a war conservation measure.

“We are confident that these women will make for themselves an enviable record and look forward to their establishing a precedent which may be more widely followed in the future.”

That future took a few decades. After the war, the jobs were returned to men. Women were not given permanent jobs as Bridge and Tunnel Officers until 1979.

The New York Tunnel Authority was established by the state in 1936 to build the Queens Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn-Battery (now Hugh L. Carey) Tunnel. It was consolidated with the Triborough Bridge Authority in 1946 to create the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA).

The State Legislature voted to make TBTA, now also known as MTA Bridges and Tunnels, part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968.