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An Urban Archive Was Lost on 9/11. This Agency Is Trying to Rebuild It.

A big brass model of the tunneling machine that carved out the Holland Tunnel was displayed in the engineering department. Thick binders with …

An Urban Archive Was Lost on 9/11. This Agency Is Trying to Rebuild It.

A big brass model of the tunneling machine that carved out the Holland Tunnel was displayed in the engineering department.

Thick binders with years of detailed reports on the region’s key infrastructure operations, including Kennedy and LaGuardia airports and the Midtown Manhattan bus terminal, were kept in the executive office.

And tucked away in the basement were thousands of original glass slides showing the early 1900s rail work that later became part of the PATH train system that carries New Jersey commuters under the Hudson River to Manhattan.

All were pieces of the rich history of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the sprawling bistate transportation and infrastructure agency that built the World Trade Center and was headquartered in the North Tower. All were destroyed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Now the Port Authority has begun to recover some of this lost history two decades after the devastating World Trade Center attacks that killed 84 of its employees, including the executive director, police officers, engineers, legal counsels, secretaries, property managers and mailroom clerks.

The Port Authority has collected hundreds of old photographs, documents and artifacts since the attacks. Many items — including a giant bronze plaque of the Port Authority seal and letters written by former employees about day-to-day operations — were donated by the agency’s network of 6,441 retirees and their families.

A Port Authority seal that was once embedded at its former headquarters is now at the agency’s new offices at 4 World Trade Center. Credit…Holly Pickett for The New York Times

“It was a bad day for everybody,” said Bob Kelly, 79, who spent three decades at the agency and donated the seal as well as old photos of the bus terminal where he worked in the 1970s. “There was no way you could make up for what was done, and you would just do what you could.”

The Port Authority, which is marking its centennial this year, has documented its history in a pop-up exhibit with archival photos that has been displayed at the Midtown bus terminal, at the Oculus in Lower Manhattan and at its current headquarters at 4 World Trade Center. The agency plans to publish a commemorative book later this year.

“9/11 is a very important, challenging and somber moment in the life of the Port Authority, but the agency existed for 80 years before that,” said Alfred Doblin, the director of strategic communications, who has been leading the centennial efforts. “It’s important to recognize that the Port Authority has a long, long history before 9/11 and will have a long history after 9/11.”

“It’s important to recognize that the Port Authority has a long, long history before 9/11,’‘ said Alfred Doblin, an agency official who has been leading its centennial anniversary efforts. Credit…Holly Pickett for The New York Times

The agency — originally called the Port of New York Authority — was created by a 1921 interstate compact authorized by Congress after a century of disputes between New York and New Jersey over rail freights, boundary lines and control of the vital harbor that sits between them.

“It was a total lack of cooperation,” said Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “The lack of cooperation resulted in a lack of infrastructure — no bridges, no tunnels, nothing.”

As a result, freight was carried to the region on rail lines that ended in New Jersey and had to be put onto slow barges to reach ships in New York Harbor, resulting in delays and a bottleneck.

But the Port Authority changed all that, building and operating a series of major crossings, including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel, and laying the infrastructure for one of the country’s busiest ports. The agency, which has no taxing power but is funded through tolls, user fees and rents, expanded to include the region’s main airports.

It was Austin J. Tobin, then the executive director of the Port Authority, who partnered with the banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller in the 1960s to plan the 110-story twin towers in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Tobin wanted a building big enough to bring together the region’s shipping and maritime industry under one roof to increase efficiency, and many companies did come, but it was not enough to fill up the World Trade Center, Prof. Gillespie said.

An aerial view in 1956 of New York International Airport, widely known as Idlewild, which later became John F. Kennedy International Airport.Credit…via The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Prof. Gillespie, 79, researched his 1999 book about the World Trade Center at the Port Authority headquarters, where Mr. Tobin’s weekly reports to the board of commissioners and news clippings were stored in an elaborate shelving system. Prof. Gillespie would request a binder, and a metal claw would grab the book and bring it to him.

A secretary made copies of the World Trade Center sections for Prof. Gillespie, who later donated them to the Rutgers University library, where they are still used by researchers. “It’s a tiny fraction of the whole thing, but at least we have something,” Prof. Gillespie said.

The Port Authority initially took up at least 20 floors in the middle of the North Tower, said Peter Rinaldi, an engineer who retired from the agency in 2010 after 38 years. The engineering department alone was spread out over several floors. In later decades, the agency reduced its footprint, moving some of its staff and operations to New Jersey.

Mr. Rinaldi was not at work on the day of the attacks, having just started a vacation. In his office on the 72nd floor, he kept the three-foot-long brass model of the Holland Tunnel machine, which had been passed down by generations of engineers. “It was a conversation piece,” said Mr. Rinaldi, who never saw it again.

Also lost were countless blueprints, brochures, financial records, photographs, film and video footage, and reference materials for Port Authority operations that were kept in filing cabinets across the various departments and in secured wire cages in a vast basement archive.

An observation car being tested on the Goethals Bridge in 1952.Credit…via The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

In some cases, Port Authority workers were able to replace destroyed records with copies from outside contractors who had worked on projects as well as from the personal files of retirees and through online searches of used books.

But many items were one of a kind, like the original 1921 charter for the Port Authority and thousands of glass slides of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, which was later taken over by the Port Authority in a deal to get New Jersey’s approval for the World Trade Center. Then known as the Hudson Tubes, it became the PATH.

Mr. Rinaldi, 72, recalled one afternoon about a month after the attacks when he was part of an emergency response and recovery team that unearthed several cardboard boxes full of archival Port Authority photos. “We started grabbing them and putting them aside,” he said. “We were able to save many of them.”

Many former Port Authority employees have also sent in photos, books, reports and letters that they had saved from their time at the agency to help recover some of the historical record. “The Port Authority is a pretty tight-knit family,” said Mr. Doblin. “There’s a very special bond that exists.”

Mr. Kelly, who retired as the agency’s director of aviation in 1999, shipped a three-foot-wide bronze plaque of the Port Authority seal that was once on the lobby floor of an earlier agency headquarters, a massive terminal in Chelsea, which today houses Google. The seal was removed when the Port Authority moved to the World Trade Center.

Mr. Kelly, whose father worked as a mechanic for the Port Authority, was presented with the seal at a farewell party thrown by co-workers in the late 1970s when he changed jobs at the agency. “I guess they knew I was a true-blue Port Authority person,” he said.

Mr. Kelly hung the 75-pound plaque on the wall of his home den, first in New Jersey and later in Georgia. As the agency approached its centennial, Mr. Kelly decided to send the seal back. It is now displayed outside the agency’s boardroom at 4 World Trade Center.

“I know they lost a lot of treasured goods in that building along with a lot of treasured people,” he said. “I thought they should have this.”

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