Sandhogsthe tough, clannish men who burrow tunnels and subways under rivers and streetsdon't startle easily. But a contract awarded in Baltimore last week startled them. What made them blink was the name of the successful bidder: Sam Rosoff, the world's No. 1 subway builder. The job, digging a $9 million, seven-mile-long water tunnel under Baltimore, will be Rosoff's first important contract within the U.S. since 1939. Sandhogs had thought that "Subway Sam" had finished with digging.
Samuel Rufus Rosoff had dug $50,000,000 worth (25%) of New York City's complex subway system, largely by virtue of his shrewd tunneling into Tammany and labor politics. Then loud-voiced Rosoff, whose short, fat (200-lb.) body conceals a lot of muscle and mustard, practically disappeared from the Manhattan scene just before the war. No one wanted tunnels built then. He popped up only in occasional newspaper dispatches from Mexico City.
Down Mexico Way. But Subway Sam had not quit. From his three-room suite in Mexico City's gaudy Hotel Reforma, Rosoff continued digging into 1) the earth and 2) politics. Last July he completed a $10 million aqueduct in Puebla, Mexico for the Mexican Government. Now he is building a $45 million steel mill for Paul Shields, another contractor, who will own and operate the mill. He bought controlling interest in a lumber company in Chihuahua. Last summer he teamed up with Mexican bankers, raised $3½ million and bought control of the 500-mile-long Mexico North-Western Railway, which runs from Juarez to Chihuahua.
In off hours' Subway Sam, 64, who fancies himself as a ladies' man, has made himself conspicuous in Mexico City's night life. A great partygiver, gambler and promoter of sport and charities, he has found Mexican politicos as susceptible to his loud charms as Tammany Hall was.
Down Under. An immigrant from Russia, Subway Sam peddled papers on the tough streets of lower Manhattan, learned to use his fists so well that he has been using them ever since. (Last summer at Saratoga he flattened a Latin American who objected to his favorite song, South America, Take It Away.)
When Sam got into the contracting business, he had had so little schooling that he could hardly read contracts. But that did not bother him. As he once said: "What the hell, I can always hire college graduates to do the pencil-&-paper work." Now he can read well enough for his purposes: he just skips the big words.
Rosoff quickly branched out into building roads and canals, raising sunken ships, running bus lines, etc. He made and lost several fortunes. It was not until 1923, when he discovered Tammany Hall and the political technique of wangling subway contracts, that he really hit the jackpot.
Up on a Horse. In a few years, he made millions, cut a wide swath on Broadway. He sank $40,000 in a play, acquired a swank Fifth Avenue apartment, took to horseback riding in Central Park and dealing with such labor racketeers as Joey Fay. In 1937 the murder of a striking sandhog labor leader, whom Sam had supposedly threatened to kill, almost toppled him from his throne. Police held Sam as a material witness, but freed him for lack of evidence.