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Y ale’s white helmets crashed hard into Lehigh’s gold as the Bulldogs—trailing for most of the game, then gaining, losing and regaining the lead in the second half—grounded a feisty Mountain Hawks team 54-43. Another battle between white and gold—cloud and sun—was waged above, seesawing like the score of the game.

During the opening football contest of the Yale Bowl’s 100th-anniversary season last Saturday, with perfect sporting weather, announcements recalling grand moments in Yale Bowl history and a hotly contested match keeping fans on the edges of their long wooden seats, there arrived a moment when you could say time stood still.

At the start of the second half, the game clock froze.

Anything that’s been around for 100 years is going to experience some hiccups, of course, and compared to other challenges the Yale Bowl has faced, that temporary temporal issue barely registers. For example, before the stadium—which for a time would be the world’s largest—could open with the big Yale-Harvard game of 1914, it had to be built.

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It was the mother of all puzzles—demanding great and unprecedented achievements of scale, stability, functionality, aesthetic and economy, atop a bedrock of practical concerns like ensuring public safety and sufficient drainage, on a timetable of just a couple years, without the powerful heavy machinery used today—and it was given to engineer Charles A. Ferry to solve. Though he wasn’t alone—his work was subject to conference with and approval by the “Committee of Twenty-One,” put together by Yale to fundraise for and manage the project, which included hiring additional consulting engineers—he was still “the guy.”

But with all those cooks in the kitchen, even the pre-construction planning stages gave Ferry lots of headaches, which he noted in a private letter that’s been preserved in Yale’s archives. After a couple of time-consuming misfires, Ferry and his employers finally settled on a plan. It required building a playing field 27 feet below the surface of the earth, and creating a continuous embankment that would rise back up to ground level and another 27 feet into the sky, forming, naturally, the shape of a bowl. Reaching through the bowl itself would be 30 tunnels leading to stands with a capacity of 60,617 fans (later expanded to more than 70,000, then reduced back down to about 60,000), plus 2 larger, deeper tunnels spilling out onto the field itself.

According to proposals collected by Ferry from various suppliers, among the many materials needed for the initial construction phase—not including less foundational pieces like installing the concrete facing for the stands—were over 5,000 feet of sewer pipe, 15,000 barrels of cement and 650,000 pounds of steel. Catch-all bids from companies in Philadelphia, Boston, New York and New Haven ranged wildly, from about $175,000 to $499,000; a local one, the Sperry Engineering Company headquartered at 82 Church, got the nod with its bid of $187,520.50.

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On June 23, 1913, the construction process formally began when Yale’s president Arthur Hadley led a ceremonial groundbreaking, conducted beneath a large white tent pitched with wooden stakes. According to “The Yale Bowl,” a report Ferry delivered to the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1916, he and his team began their effort to reshape the land by first removing a layer of loam, averaging about two feet deep, from the entire construction area using scrapers and wagons.

That was probably hard, but compared to the next step—shifting, grading and shaping soil and gravel to create the “embankment,” or rise of the bowl—it sounds easy. The crew first rigged up a complicated system that, reading like a Rube Goldberg machine, involved:

…two drag-line scrapers running on adjustable cables and operated from two towers, 85 ft. high, by two 12 by 16-in. double-drum engines, supplied with steam from two 125-h.p. locomotive boilers. The towers ran on a four-rail elliptical track laid around the outside of the Bowl. One end of the carrying cable was fastened to a “deadman” on the opposite side from the tower; the other end ran over a pulley at the top of the tower and was fastened to one of the drums of the engine, by which means it could be regulated for filling or emptying the bucket, the cable being slackened for filling the scraper and then tightened for dumping it. The second drum was used for hauling the scraper up the slope; it ran back to the filling point by gravity.

When that tack didn’t work quickly enough on its own, even operating 24 hours a day, Ferry added steam-driven shovels into the mix, used to fill wagons that were “then drawn to the top of the embankment by a portable hoisting engine.” Horses were also employed to pull wagons of earth here and there. Through it all, “streams of water were always kept playing on the embankment where material was being deposited,” drawn from nearby wells and “a connection… made with the mains of the New Haven Water Company,” in order to help sculpt and pack the stuff. An enormous amount of water was used to do it, “at least 150 gal. of water per min., and this quantity was delivered continuously, day and night, including Sundays and holidays, while the embankment was under construction.”

And that’s just one piece of it. Between every aspect of the endeavor, the crew shifted 331,000 cubic yards of earth. Placed 16,000 cubic yards of mass concrete and 111,000 square feet of concrete facing, and another 145,000 square feet of wood facing. Handled 960,000 pounds of steel. Poured 26,000 barrels of cement. Installed 6,400 feet of sewer pipe and 18 miles of wooden benches.

If something as improbable as the Yale Bowl was achievable a century ago, what isn’t today? Who knows—Yale might even beat Army tomorrow. Go blue.

Yale Bowl
81 Central Ave, New Haven (map)
Next Home Game: 1pm on Saturday, Sept. 27, vs. Army
Yale Bowl at 100 | 2014 Schedule & Tickets

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Turning down a dream editing job right out of college, Dan instead went into marketing and media sales to better cover the rent. Stints at Spin Magazine and Yahoo! followed. But he kept scratching that writing-and-editing itch—first on the side, then at a couple of startups. Dan is now scratching it as Daily Nutmeg's editor.

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