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Know Your Landmarks: Bridges of the East River

October 27th, 2011 |  Published in Landmarks  |  2 Comments

Of all the architectural wonders we encounter every day in New York City, some of the most stunning and unique are the various bridges that carry commuters and cabs alike between the boroughs and neighboring states. Each is a unique attribute to the skyline of the city, no matter your perspective. And while anyone can appreciate the occasional drive across one of the seven major bridges, knowing a little bit about each and, of course, being able to identify which is which will help you know the city a little bit more.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn BridgePossibly the most iconic span crossing in all of North America, the Brooklyn Bridge is easy to spot – its only competition for recognizability is the Golden Gate on the opposite coast.  It is the southernmost bridge on the East river, reaching from Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn over to City Hall in Manhattan. Its span is 1,595.5 feet long (total length is a massive 5,989 ft) and when it opened in 1883 after 13 years of construction it was the biggest, longest, and first in nearly every category. It was the longest suspension bridge, the first suspension bridge built with steel cables, the first bridge to connect to Long Island, the first land connection to Manhattan from the East or West and remains the only stone passenger bridge over the Hudson or East Rivers.

The bridge was designed by John Roebling, a German immigrant, but he died before construction really got underway, so his son lead the effort for a short time until he suffered a severe case of decompression sickness. Decompression sickness was a major source of pain for construction workers on the bridge due to the ‘caissons’ used to drop the main columns into the bedrock. Check out the Wiki entry for caissons to see how they worked… basically an insane death trap by today’s standards. Washington Roebling continued to work remotely on the project and on paper was still the guy in charge, but in fact it was his wife that acted at the go-between for Roebling and his crews in the 11 years that followed. One of the most incredible feats of the bridge’s construction was the stringing of the 4 massive cables. Each 15 inch cable is made up of 5,434 smaller cables, each about the size of a pencil lead, wrapped around one another, allowing a single cable to support up to 11,200 tons. To make these behemoths, over 14 miles of cable was strung across the river and spun into the form you see now.

Today, the Brooklyn Bridge serves 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and 2,600 bikes on a daily basis. It is also in the midst of a reconstruction project that will go through 2014 and modernize the entrance/exits on both sides as well as upgrade the aging infrastructure throughout the bridge.

Manhattan Bridge

Going upriver from the Brooklyn Bridge, the next major crossing is the Manhattan Bridge. Distinguished by its tall, exposed blue metal arches with 4 blue spheres on each support, it also features a beautiful arch colonnade on the Manhattan side. Opened in 1909 and stretching 1,480 ft over the water with an incredible total length of 6,855 ft, this is the newest of the suspension bridges over the East River. While the story of it’s construction was not quite as dramatic as that of the Brooklyn Bridge, it was designed and built by Leon Moisseiff, one of the leading suspension bridge architects of the 1920s and ’30s. However, his reputation was later ruined by the collapse of what he described as “the most beautiful bridge in the world”: the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. If you have never seen the newsreel footage of that bridge blowing like a sheet in the wind, it is pretty trippy. Hopefully we never see the Manhattan doing the same.

Williamsburg Bridge

The Williamsburg Bridge was the 2nd bridge to be built over the East River and when it opened in 1903, it took over the Brooklyn Bridge’s record as the world’s longest suspension bridge span, a record it held until 1924, and was actually built by the Roebling Company, the namesake company of the builders of the Brooklyn Bridge.  It was also the first suspension bridge to feature all-steel support towers – with a span of 1,600 ft and total length of 7,308 ft, this bridge connects the Lower East Side at Delancey St with Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  The impact of connecting these two areas was so profound, the bridge is credited with directly influencing ethnic migration patterns. 1st and 2nd generation Irish and German workers had heavily populated the Williamsburg area, but following the opening of the bridge, many Jewish families moved across from the overcrowded Lower East Side, giving the bridge the temporary nickname of the “Jew’s Bridge.” As a result, many residents of Williamsburg relocated to Queens, giving rise to the Germanic communities that exist there today.

The Williamsburg Bridge is easily distinguished by its extensive trusswork and square frame but in total, it is a bit less imposing than the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridges. The Williamsburg Bridge does, however, know how to party.  When it was completed, the workers for the project celebrated by playing a huge game of capture the flag and 100 years later, the city celebrated the centennial of the opening with a truck-sized birthday cake made by Domino Sugar.

In the late 1980’s the bridge was in such a state of disrepair that it was closed to all traffic for two months in the spring of 1988. After initial repairs, it was reopened and a $1 billion reconstruction project took place from 1991 to 2006. This project was an incredible undertaking because when completed, the bridge had not been “fixed”, but rather “replaced”. Nearly every piece of the bridge had been replaced without ever having completely closed the bridge to vehicular traffic. However, for about 1 week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the bridge was closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles. Today, the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges are the only bridges in New York City that continue to support rail and vehicle traffic with the Williamsburg carrying approximately 140,000 vehicles per day.

Queensboro Bridge (Ed Koch)

The Queensboro Bridge, also known as the 59th St Bridge and more recently renamed for former mayor Ed Koch, doesn’t enjoy the same level of fame as it’s neighbors to the south, but as the only major cantilever bridge, it is quite unique and has actually had a few brushes with celebrity.  From the Simon and Garfunkle song to the poster of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, most people recognize the bridge without even realizing it.  Not only was it the longest cantilever bridge in the United States when it opened in 1909, but it was also designed for heavier loads than any other and had a major impact on traffic patterns. With 10 lanes of traffic on its 2 decks, it allowed for incredibly easy trips between Long Island City and Midtown East, crossing right over Roosevelt Island. (Side note: if you ever drive onto the bride and start to freak out because it feels like you are actually on a bike path sticking off the side of the bridge… it’s just keep going.. might have happened to me once upon a time)

Today, this unique span across the East River is the busiest bridge in all of New York City. According to 2009 estimates, over 180,000 vehicles cross from one side to the other an average weekday.

 RFK Triborough Bridge

Recently renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, few people in New York realize how incredible the story of this Northern-most commuter bridge really is. Rather than a single stretch of bridge, this behemoth is actually three linked spans accessing Manhattan, The Bronx and Queens (thus its original name) and is the product of one of the biggest initiatives ever undertaken in the history of the city. Mayor Jimmy Walker broke ground on the project in 1929, the day after Black Tuesday began the nation’s decent into the Great Depression, resulting in a tumultuous start to the construction. Funding dried up quickly and due to quixotic politics and competing egos in city government at the time, not much progress was made through 1933 when controversial/legendary New Yorker Robert Moses became interested. He sought to improve access from The Bronx and Westchester to the city parks on Long Island and after realizing how derailed the project really was, lobbied Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Governor Al Smith for control of its progress. Funded with the city’s first loan from the new federal Public Works Administration, LaGuardia succeeded in keeping the Tammany Hall political machine out of the project, stating:

We are going to build a bridge instead of patronage. We are going to pile up stone and steel instead of expenses. We are going to build a bridge of steel, and spell steel “s-t-e-e-l” instead of “s-t-e-a-l.” The people of the City of New York are going to pay for that bridge, and they are going to pay for it in tolls after its completion.

Once Moses gained control and had the support he needed, progress came quickly, aided by a country literally starving for jobs and industry. This project was far from just a bridge – it dwarfed anything Robert Moses had attempted before and its total cost would be greater than all of them combined.  The approach ramps were so big that hundreds of large-scale apartment buildings had to be demolished, the anchorages were comparable in size to pyramids of ancient Egypt, the concrete needed to build them and to pave the road across the bridge (not including the approaches) would be enough to pave a four lane highway from New York to Philadelphia. Just to supply the bridge, entire cement factories reopened from Maine to the Midwest, nearly 50 separate steel mills in Pennsylvania were reignited. All elements considered, this was the single largest traffic project ever undertaken anywhere in the world. By its end, the Triborough project had generated an estimated 31,000,000 man-hours of work in 134 cities in 20 states.

Today, the bridge carries over 165,000 vehicles a day and costs $6.50 per car to go between any 2 of the boroughs it serves.  In 2010, it was renamed in honor of Robert F. Kennedy though most people you hear will still refer to it as the Triborough (or Triboro… same thing).

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About the author: Andrew Cafourek

Andrew Cafourek Andrew lives in Brooklyn, and just got back from drifting around Eastern Europe for a few months. He makes stuff on the internet including Become A New Yorker, Alumni Spaces and a variety of other goodies with A022 Digital.

Andrew came to New York from the Midwest in the fall of 2008 after selling his car for $350... just enough for a one way plane ticket.

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