Aqueduct Tunnel boring with the Nora

Nora Stanton Blatch Deforest Barney

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has named one of the world’s most advanced tunnel boring machines for a female engineer and women’s rights activist who worked as a draftsman in the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir and the aqueduct that carries water from the reservoir to New York City taps. Nora Stanton Blatch Deforest Barney was the first woman in the United States to earn a civil engineering degree, the first female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and a notable suffragist.

Her name has been applied to a $30 million tunnel boring machine that will be used to repair New York City’s Delaware Aqueduct, the world’s longest tunnel. The 85-mile-long aqueduct has been plagued by two substantial leaks, one of them located along the western bank of the Hudson River in Newburgh. The Nora Stanton Blatch Deforest Barney Tunnel Boring Machine will drill a 14-foot-diameter bypass tunnel alongside this section of the aqueduct.

The 2.5-mile bypass will be constructed 600 feet below the Hudson River, between Newburgh and Wappinger. It will be connected to structurally sound portions of the existing Delaware Aqueduct to convey water around the leaking section, which will be plugged and permanently taken out of service. The entire aqueduct will be drained for a short period, when workmen will enter the tunnel to seal up smaller leaks in the Wawarsing section, the cause of property damage in Sullivan County over recent years. The project is expected to be completed in 2022. The name “NORA” has been emblazoned on the 2.7 million-pound tunnel boring machine, which is being dismantled and shipped in pieces to DEP’s construction site in Newburgh over the next few months.

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According to DEP research, Nora worked from 1906-1908 as a draftsman for the New York City Board of Water Supply as it was developing the first parts of the Catskill Water Supply System. She was paid $1200 a year, the highest salary for draftsmen on the project. Little exact information is known about Nora’s work on water supply infrastructure in the Catskills. But a 1908 story from The New York Times said she had “done much difficult work on dams and weirs” for the project — a description that would suggest she drafted some of the infrastructure for Ashokan Reservoir and the headworks of the Catskill Aqueduct.

Nora’s grandmother was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of the “Declaration of Sentiments” that was presented at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, marking the start of an organized push for women’s rights and women’s suffrage in the United States. Nora’s mother, Harriot Stanton Blatch, was also a suffragist who broadened the movement to include working-class women in New York City. Nora continued her foremothers’ tradition by founding a suffrage club at Cornell, becoming president of the Women’s Political Union in 1915, and leading the charge for an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have guaranteed women equal rights in the workplace. The amendment was not ratified, but it has been debated in Congress almost every year since it was introduced, including as recently as 2015.

Nora’s daughter, Rhoada Barney Jenkins, described her mother’s powerful personality: “She always believed in pushing. You don’t question a hurricane.”

Nora Stanton Blatch Deforest Barney died in 1971 at the age of 87.

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