The Bridges of New York

The Bridges of New York

by Sharon Reier

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New York City boasts more spectacular bridges than any other city in the world. From the Gothic stone arches and gossamer steel webbing of the Brooklyn Bridge (perhaps the greatest engineering achievement of the 19th century), to the Verrazano-Narrows — the world's longest suspension bridge when completed in 1964 — more than 75 bridges span the city's


New York City boasts more spectacular bridges than any other city in the world. From the Gothic stone arches and gossamer steel webbing of the Brooklyn Bridge (perhaps the greatest engineering achievement of the 19th century), to the Verrazano-Narrows — the world's longest suspension bridge when completed in 1964 — more than 75 bridges span the city's waterways. This book is a stirring text-and-picture tribute to these awe-inspiring structures.
Beginning with Dutch New Amsterdam and continuing to the modern era and the achievements of legendary bridge builder Robert Moses, The Bridges of New York covers nearly 300 years of New York history and a century of accomplishments in modern engineering. At the time of construction, many of the bridges were considered breakthroughs in bridge-building technology.
Grouped according to geography and economics — two prime considerations facing bridge engineers — the spans are described in a highly readable text that explains the design principles of cantilever, swing, bascule, and many other bridge types. Over 150 archival engravings and contemporary photographs document the splendor of such remarkable bridges as the Brooklyn, George Washington, Bronx-Whitestone, Manhattan, Queensboro, Triborough, and dozens of smaller spans.
A section on bridge maintenance, a glossary, and charts noting each bridge's location, length, height, and other features complete this pictorial treasury — sure to delight engineering and architecture enthusiasts as well as anyone who has ever been astonished by the extraordinary scale and grandeur of New York's bridges.

Editorial Reviews

Reier, a New York City native, relates the history of New York's bridges with enthusiasm tempered by extensive research into the economic, geographic, and engineering challenges involved in the building of each. The engineering principles behind each type of bridge is described carefully as the volume proceeds from the dramatic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge to the Verrazano-Narrows, completed in 1964. Illustrated in b&w. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
New York City Series
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Product dimensions:
8.29(w) x 10.95(h) x 0.42(d)

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By Sharon Reier

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1977 Sharon Reier
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13705-6




The East River has long been known to navigators as one of the more hazardous passages on the continent. It is not a river, after all, but a broad tidal channel with a restless current that reverses with the rise and fall of the tide. For over 200 years it served as a boundary between two rival cities: Brooklyn and New York.

In fact, by the end of the Civil War, Brooklyn was America's third largest city. New York ranked first. Considerable commerce existed between the two cities but it was balanced by a serious antagonism. Brooklyn had a provincial image and called itself "City of Homes and Churches." New York was already cast as a center for tenements, crime and corrupt politicians. Many Brooklynites believed their city had all the advantages and saw no reason why it could not be bigger, richer and more successful than New York. Brooklyn did have the longer shoreline and its boatyards were busy.

However, the two cities had engaged in commerce from their inception. A Dutch farmer, Cornelius Dircksen, started a fairly regular passenger service as early as 1659. He charged a fee of three wampum to row a traveler across the river in his skiff. To gain transport, a passenger would ring a bell at the ferry slip to bring Dircksen from his fields. Weather and currents made the trip possible about once every three days, and eventually Dircksen sold out his business to a professional proprietor, who made more regular crossings, and a community sprang up around the ferry slip.

Sailboats called pirogues were running from Catherine Street, Manhattan, to Brooklyn by the time the Revolution started. These carried horse-drawn vehicles and livestock as well as passengers. Still, they could only run when the wind was right. Barges which limited their freight to foot-passengers ran more regularly, but they were considered unsafe.

In 1807 Brooklynites were finally given a secure means of crossing the East River. Robert Fulton's Clermont made its maiden voyage up the Hudson and a regular steamboat service began between Brooklyn and New York, as well as between New York and New Jersey. For three years Fulton and his mentor Robert Livingston held exclusive rights to run this service. A ride across the East River on the Nassau took five to 12 minutes, according to the tide. The ferries were odd-looking roundish tubs, but they were efficient and fairly safe. New residents flocked to Brooklyn. They found pleasure in working in New York and enjoying its advantages and then returning to comfortable safe communities. Fulton's boats were even hired out for pleasure parties.

By the time the first East River bridge was built, the ferries were carrying more than 120,000 passengers over the channel each day. When construction started on the Williamsburg Bridge, the ferries still were carrying that number of passengers and the Brooklyn Bridge was carrying an additional 150,000 people a day.

The main ferry line was the Union Ferry Company, which ran five lines—the Fulton Street, to Fulton; the Catherine Street, to Main; the Wall Street to Joralemon Street; the Whitehall Street to Atlantic Avenue, and the Whitehall Street to Hamilton Avenue.

It is said that the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the first over the East River, may have been the decisive factor in the union of the two cities. It certainly sped up Brooklyn's growth.

Sentiment for a bridge had been expressed by prominent Brooklynites since before 1800. At that time General Jeremiah Johnson, who later became Brooklyn's mayor, had written in his journals, "It has been suggested that a bridge should be constructed across the East River to New York. This idea has been treated as chimerical, from the magnitude of the design; but whosoever takes it into their serious consideration will find more weight in the practicability of the scheme than at first sight he imagines."

In 1811, Thomas Pope, an architect and landscape gardener, published a book called A Treatise on Bridge Architecture, In Which the Superior Advantages of the Flying Pendant Lever Bridge are Fully Proved. In it, he proposed to build a wooden cantilever arch bridge across either the Hudson or East River. The book, which deals with the practical aspects of building such an enormous bridge, ends, oddly enough, in a verse essay of 105 heroic couplets celebrating the proposed bridge. The bridge was to have been a very flat arch, consisting of twin cantilevers joined at the center and stiffened with diagonal bracing. Pope claimed that such a structure could reach 3,000 feet across the Hudson. But, as a start, he built a 94 foot model to exhibit in New York. He claimed it could be reproduced on a larger scale to cross the East River. The bridge became popularly known as Pope's "rainbow bridge."

Another proposal was advanced in 1836 by General Joseph Swift, a military engineer. Swift had refurbished for peacetime use the old line of entrenchments which Washington's Revolutionary Army had used, located on dikes between Wallabout, Brooklyn, and Gowanus. Swift's idea was to construct a dike across the East River upon which a boulevard would be laid out.

The hope for a bridge prompted Brooklyn to dub one street near the waterfront "Bridge Street." This street, near the terminals of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, was named long before either bridge was planned.

None of the early proposals suggested the technology which the crossing actually required. The wooden construction of the Pope bridge, even if technically feasible, would have been suitable only for pedestrians. Besides having the same drawback, Swift's plan would have impaired the navigability of the busy waterway.

In fact, a New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company Report mentions that by the late 1860s as many as 100 ships passed the bridge site within an hour.

It was not until after the Civil War that technology advanced enough to allow for the Brooklyn Bridge, which had to provide for the daily crossing of the city's masses of people, either by carriage or by train.

Today there are six bridges crossing the East River. Four of them, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Queensboro Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge—in order of construction—were built before World War I and were considered great feats of engineering. They are all under the jurisdiction of the New York Department of Highways. There is no toll charge on any of the four.

Each of these bridges has its own engineer to inspect daily for weaknesses and other problems. They were all built with pathways for pedestrians and this is probably the best way to appreciate them. In recent years Mayor John Lindsay furnished each bridge with a string of decorative night lights. The lights not only illuminate the harbor but add a luster to these triumphant structures.

The Brooklyn Bridge and the Williamsburg Bridge originally had tolls for carriage crossings and the Brooklyn Bridge even charged a penny to pedestrians. These tolls were removed in 1911 under Mayor William Gaynor's administration. Gaynor took office just as the Queensboro and Manhattan Bridges were finished. Most of the construction on these two bridges was accomplished under the administration of Tammany Mayor George McClellan, Jr.

A recent solution to the mass transit problems of New York, proposed in 1968, called for collecting tolls once again on these four East River bridges. It was defeated as the cost of setting up and manning toll booth plazas seemed prohibitive. The fifth span across the East River, the Triborough, is a toll bridge. Another bridge, The Hell Gate, was built by railroad interests and only accommodates trains.




The Brooklyn Bridge was the world's first steel suspension bridge. Its span—1595.5 feet between towers—made it the world's longest. But it would not have such universal appeal if it were not for the impressive appearance of its solid granite towers with their Gothic arches and the fine steel webwork which suspends the roadway. One controversy surrounding the sedate, gleaming structure is whether it is better viewed from the shores of Manhattan or from its Brooklyn side. Workers at New York's Municipal Building, which looks out upon the bridge, contend that from Manhattan one can contemplate the perfect form of the serene harp strung structure as it soars into the amorphous maze of Brooklyn neighborhoods. Brooklynites seem to prefer the more vibrant quality of the bridge with the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan etched against the sky.

John Augustus Roebling, engineer, visionary, spiritualist, metaphysician, inventor and businessman designed the bridge while living on the Brooklyn side at 37 Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights. His son, Colonel Washington Roebling, who took over as chief engineer after his father's death, also lived in Brooklyn at 110 Columbia Heights. From his window Washington Roebling could watch the masterpiece under construction. Living in these same quarters some time later poet Hart Crane claimed his imagination was fired by the sight of the bridge and wrote his famous poem to it.

The late David Steinman, who became one of America's most eminent bridgebuilders, attributed his ambition to the impact the Brooklyn Bridge had upon him. As a child Steinman lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he could see the impressive span from his bedroom window. He grew up to design the Florianapolis Bridge in Brazil, the Mount Hope Bridge in Rhode Island, the Grand Mere in Quebec, the Henry Hudson steel arch bridge across the Spuyten Duyvil Creek in New York, and was later chosen to modernize the bridge he most admired. In 1948 Steinman designed braces to be added over the traffic lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge which gave it greater strength.

As a tribute to the prophetic force the Roeblings had on the subsequent construction of bridges and the debt he personally felt, Steinman wrote The Builders of the Bridge, a painstakingly researched biographical work on John and Washington Roebling.

John Roebling, a German immigrant born in 1806, had seen his first suspension bridge during his student days at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin. It was a small structure which hung from iron chains over the Regnitz stream in the town of Bamburg, Bavaria. It was no match for the heroic spans Roebling envisioned himself designing.

He was well trained to fulfill his fantasies. Although he had come from the family of a poor, small town tobacconist, Roebling's mother was ambitious. Recognizing his intelligence and diligence, she secured for him an excellent education. His university studies included mathematics, engineering, architecture, languages, history and philosophy. During his university career he became a protege of the brilliant, charismatic philosophy professor Georg Hegel. Roebling was deeply influenced by the idealistic philosopher, and it may have partly been Hegel's enthusiasm for the American ideals of freedom and democracy that brought the young engineer to this country. Roebling's 2000 page treatise on his concept of the universe, which covers metaphysics, spiritualism, aesthetics and politics as well as mathematics and engineering, indicates the extent to which he absorbed the philosopher's teachings.

Alan Trachtenberg, an academician who explored the philosophy behind the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge in his book Brooklyn Bridge, Fact and Symbol, explains that Roebling considered physical matter as an expression of spirit, thinking of his suspension bridges as monuments to the spirit of progress and the harmony of nature. According to Trachtenberg, Roebling saw his bridge as a "world historical object" in Hegel's frame of reference.

It would probably come as no surprise to the utopian apostle of steel and engineering that his bridge has excited so many and has become a monument. After all, when presenting the idea in the Report to the New York Bridge Company in 1867, Roebling wrote:

"The contemplated work, when constructed in accordance with my design, will not only be the greatest bridge in existence, but it will be the greatest engineering work of this continent, and of the age. Its most conspicuous features, the towers, will serve as landmarks to the adjoining cities, and they will be entitled to be ranked as national monuments."

These grandiose claims were not the idle speculations of a dreamer. They are the words of an already successful man with a practical but expensive idea to promote. By 1867 Roebling had already constructed two impressive suspension bridges: The Niagara Suspension Bridge, the first successful railroad suspension bridge in the world, and the Covington Bridge across the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Covington, Kentucky, the longest suspension bridge up to that time. In addition, he had earlier built several suspension aqueducts over the Allegheny River. Despite his successes, Roebling had found each new project met with skepticism, ignorance, politicking, and worst of all, panic. He had learned that it was not enough to be merely inventive and competent. He had to write pamphlets, indoctrinate the public, overcome the opposition, sell himself.

His previous projects paled in comparison with his vision of the great East River span. Originally he had conceived the bridge in 1852 while his first bridge was just getting under way at Niagara. It took over fifteen years for him to get approval for the East River Bridge, the achievement of which was to cause his death and ruin his son's health.

By the time John Roebling emigrated to America he had earned a degree in civil engineering and had worked for three years building roads and bridges for the Prussian government. He found the work uncreative. He felt stifled by Prussian authorities, and it is believed the government considered him a subversive for advocating mass emigration. It was 1831 and there had been a number of minor revolutions throughout Europe. When he left, Roebling had to sneak out of the country.

He had virtually abandoned the idea of becoming a bridge-builder, and leaving his engineering ambitions behind, planned to establish a farming colony in the new world with his brother and others emigrating from his native town of Thuringen. The colony, called Germania at first and then Saxonburg, was near Pittsburgh and served as Roebling's home for six years.

Dark suited gentlemen stroll and rest on the promenade of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s. Even then it provided a respite from the busy city. Note that at the time, the walkway's wooden planking was laid longitudinally. There was also a toll booth at the tower.

Today the promenade is still a delightful place to walk and observe the imposing profile of Lower Manhattan. Its boardwalk is now laid horizontally and no tolls are charged.

Although Roebling devoted much of his energy to agriculture and building homes for more newly arrived immigrants, he spent time playing flute and piano, writing, and studying engineering. He was known as a man who was extremely prudent with his time and energies. One story David Steinman tells is that on an occasion during the Civil War, General Fremont sent for Roebling and kept him waiting in the anteroom. Finally, growing impatient, the engineer sent in a card with these words: "Sir, I am happy to do any work you want. But waiting in idleness is a luxury I never permit myself." It was said that if a man was five minutes late to an appointment, Roebling refused to see him.

By 1837 Roebling had become a United States citizen, had married and become the father of three sons, one of whom was to complete Roebling's greatest work. John Roebling decided he didn't want to devote his life to farm work. Living in Western Pennsylvania had shown Roebling the necessity for improved transportation of all types on the vast new continent, and he took a job as assistant engineer on the Beaver River Canal, then worked on the Allegheny River, constructing feeders for the Pennsylvania Canal. He then turned to surveying work, which led to the Pennsylvania Railroad's construction of a route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

It was during this period of his life that Roebling developed the wire rope which was to make the construction of his suspension bridges possible, and which is still used today.

While working on the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh route, Roebling observed that the hemp ropes which hauled canal boats up and down mountains frequently broke, sometimes causing tragic accidents. Roebling recalled a paper he had read while a student which dealt with the making of wire rope. He was unable to remember the details, but set out to reproduce the idea through his own ingenuity. He set up a "rope walk" in Saxonburg, purchased iron wire and taught his neighbors to twist the wire into cables. This was the first wire cable to be manufactured in America. It immediately won favor in the portage of canal barges and Roebling began to develop a reputation.


Excerpted from THE BRIDGES OF NEW YORK by Sharon Reier. Copyright © 1977 Sharon Reier. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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