For four generations a familiar sight has graced the Hudson River that has connected New York and New Jersey. The George Washington Bridge opened on October 25, 1931, is a tribute of civil engineering to the people who conceived, built, and made the bridge what it is today.
Prior to the conception of the George Washington Bridge, there were numerous proposals for a bridge spanning the Hudson River. Between the years of 1866 and 1927, six companies offered eighteen different designs, and five different locations were considered for construction. One of the earlier proposals was for rail traffic with the use of a cantilever-designed bridge. As time progressed, tunnels were built from lower Manhattan to New Jersey to handle rail traffic, thus pushing the location of a bridge further upriver.
In 1890 legislation was passed in New York stipulating that any construction of a bridge should not have any piers in the river as this would have impeded river traffic delivering goods between New York City and small towns along the Hudson River, such as Albany, Garrison, and Tarrytown. This was similar to legislation that had already been passed in New Jersey.
In April 1921 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was organized. Governor George A. Silzer of New Jersey had given preliminary plans, which had been drawn by Othmar Ammann, to the Port Authority for consideration. Four years later New York and New Jersey passed legislation to construct, operate, and maintain a bridge across the Hudson River between 170th Street and 185th Street. By August 1926, Governor Silzer and Governor Smith had agreed to 179th Street for a suspension bridge connecting the two states.
In May of the following year work on a bridge designed by Gustav Lindenthal was begun, based upon the approval of the Port Authority and the War Department. Lindenthal had a design for a bridge to be located at 57th Street on the Hudson River. The towers would be 840 feet high, which would exceed the height of the Woolworth Building, which was 792 feet. Despite the protests of the Port Authority, Lindenthal submitted his designs to the governmental agencies and was eventually rejected.
The earliest discussions and issues regarding how to build a suspension bridge had been quite interesting. The two designs of a suspension bridge that came up for discussion were the wire and the eyebar design. The eyebar design outweighed the wire cables by two and one-half times and offered the advantage of greater rigidity and was agreed upon to be used.
Othmar Ammann, the engineer of the George Washington Bridge, had the foresight in designing it for the needs of the future. The bridge was to be built in three stages. The first stage was to handle the needs of the day, which were to connect New York and New Jersey for vehicular traffic via a bridge. The second stage was to be the completion of a lower level. The third and most important stage was to build a bridge that could handle the weight of an upper and lower level.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on September 27, 1927. Members of the Port Authority and State and municipal officials were in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and in Fort Washington Park at the foot of 178th Street for the occasion. The event was broadcast on WOR-AM Radio.
The initial cost for the bridge and its approaches totaled $60 million. It took four years to build and was completed eight months ahead of schedule, saving $1 million. At the time, the bridge was the longest suspension bridge ever built. The span from anchorage to anchorage is 4,760 feet, and the towers are 630 feet high. The width of the bridge is 119 feet with a clearance at mid-span of 213 feet above the water.
The towers were to have been clad in granite. As work progressed, the public became fond of the open steel and raised an outcry for abandoning the stone exterior designed by Cass Gilbert. With the onset of the depression, the Port Authority had an excuse to save money and was grateful to the public for this. The basic design of the bridge gives it stability with respect to the wind forces without storm stays.
On October 25, 1931, the bridge was dedicated and opened to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. At the ceremony, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt was moved to call the bridge “almost superhuman perfection.” According to the New York Times, Gustav Lindenthal and Othmar Ammann arrived together in an open car to the ceremony. The guests were seated in bleachers on the span and burst into rousing applause accorded anyone that day.
When the bridge was finally opened to vehicular traffic, 55,000 cars traveled the span. Morton Salomon, an adventurer of sorts, rode on horseback across the bridge that day. With the completion of the bridge, traffic problems arose in Fort Lee and in Washington Heights.
Highways had to be built to compensate for traffic in New Jersey. In New York the Westside Highway was constructed under the auspices of Robert Moses to connect lower Manhattan with the bridge. Two tunnels were constructed in Washington Heights to connect the traffic from the bridge to the East River highways and bridges. The tunnel under 178th Street connected with the highway traffic on the Harlem River Drive. The 179th Street tunnel handled the traffic from the east side.
Originally, there were six lanes for traffic, with a central area left undeveloped. In 1946 traffic had increased to the point where two additional lanes were constructed in the undeveloped central section of the roadbed. There was space below the roadbed on the towers for rail traffic. This was never developed.
On August 29, 1962, a new era was heralded for the bridge. The lower level was added to allow for six additional lanes for vehicular traffic, thus increasing the capacity of the bridge by 75%, making it the world’s first 14-lane suspension bridge. The cost of the lower level with its approaches was in the vicinity of $183 million and took four years to construct. The George Washington Bridge Bus Station was dedicated and opened for long-distance and commuter bus service on January 17, 1963. With the opening of the Bus Station and lower level, a 12-lane highway known as the Trans-Manhattan Expressway was constructed. The Alexander Hamilton Bridge was added to handle the increased traffic to the Bronx. As an added feature, middle-income housing known as the Bridge Towers were constructed over the expressway.
At the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., there is an exhibit called “Material World.” This exhibit contains a test cable of the bridge, which is 10 feet long and 3 feet wide and weighs 17 tons. Included in the display are photographs of the bridge being built and a diorama of the Manhattan tower with the Little Red Lighthouse.
The bridge was made famous in 1942 with a children’s book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegard H. Swift and Lynd Ward. The story told of the lonely lighthouse that needed help from the bridge. Every September there is the Little Red Lighthouse Festival in Fort Washington Park. The book is read as a part of the festivities. Such notables as James Earl Jones, Isabella Rosselini, and Didi Conn have read the book.
The George Washington Bridge is a towering monument to man’s genius. It has inspired artists and photographers with its massive towers and lighted cables. In 1947 Charles Eduard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) wrote of the bridge in his book When the Cathedrals Were White, “the most beautiful bridge, it is blessed; it is the only seat of grace in the disorderly city.”
When the bridge first opened, it was known as the Hudson River Bridge or the Fort Lee Bridge. The children of the New York City School system started a drive to have the name of the bridge changed to honor the first president of the United States.
Today the George Washington Bridge is the third-longest suspension bridge in the world. The towers have been recently enhanced with at least 400 halogen lights placed within them. These lamps replace the lamps that were used until the 1980s that lit the towers from the ground. The bridge continues to play a dominant role in acting as a major route connecting New York and New Jersey with other parts of the northeast and the rest of the country.
For more information on the George Washington Bridge, visit the Web sites of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and NYCroads.com.
(Published originally in Citizen News, October 1994.)