Super Bowl

Super Bowl

Before what was then the world’s largest stadium could open with the big Yale-Harvard game of 1914, it had to be built.

Building the Yale Bowl meant solving an enormous puzzle, demanding major achievements of innovation, scale, stability, functionality, aesthetics and economy, on a bedrock of day-to-day concerns, on a timetable of just a couple years, without the powerful heavy machinery used today. And it was engineer Charles A. Ferry’s puzzle to solve, though he wasn’t alone. His work was subject to conference with additional consulting engineers and approval by the “Committee of Twenty-One,” put together by Yale to fund and oversee the project.

With all those cooks in the kitchen, even the pre-construction planning stages gave Ferry headaches, as he related in a private letter now preserved in Yale’s archives. But after a couple of time-consuming misfires, Ferry and his employers finally settled on a way forward. 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 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 two larger, deeper tunnels spilling out onto the field itself.

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According to proposals collected by Ferry from various suppliers, among the many materials needed for just the initial construction phase 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.

On June 23, 1913, the construction process formally began, with Yale’s president Arthur Hadley leading a ceremonial groundbreaking 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 efforts 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 simple. The crew first rigged up a system that reads like a Rube Goldberg machine:

…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, even operating 24 hours a day, Ferry deployed steam-driven shovels 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. Through it all, in order to sculpt and pack the material, “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.” 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.”

That was just one phase of the project. All told, the crew shifted 331,000 cubic yards of earth; placed 16,000 cubic yards of mass concrete, 111,000 square feet of concrete facing and 145,000 square feet of wood facing; handled 960,000 pounds of steel; poured 26,000 barrels of cement; and installed 6,400 feet of sewer pipe and 18 miles of wooden benches.

Saturday, the result of all that planning and effort and material will stage the 2021 edition of “The Game”—the 137th meeting between Yale and Harvard, continuing one of football’s oldest rivalries and giving New Haven something mercifully uncomplicated to cheer about.

Yale Bowl
81 Central Ave, New Haven (map)
Next Home Game: noon on Saturday, 11/20, vs. Harvard – “The Game”
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Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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