The Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge is a wire suspension bridge that carries RI Route 138 over the East Passage of the Narragansett Bay near Newport, Rhode Island.
A seasonal sailing ferry connected the relatively undeveloped Conanicut Island with Newport (East Ferry) and Saunderstown (West Ferry). 15 The inauguration of the Jamestown, a steam-powered ferry service between Jamestown and Newport, in May 1873 provided a reliable and safe means of access to the island. It also led to the development of summer homes and transformed Jamestown, the only town on the island, into a seaside resort.
The Jamestown Bridge opened in 1940 and replaced the West Ferry between Conanicut Island and Saunderstown. 15 This led to the mass influx of automobiles to Jamestown and overwhelmed the East Ferry between the island and Newport. Planning efforts for a fixed crossing to replace the East Ferry was hampered by the onset of World War II.
Facing growing traffic on the East Ferry, the Rhode Island Turnpike & Bridge Authority proposed the construction of a bridge over the East Passage of the Narragansett Bay. It selected the Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas Company as the consulting engineering firm for the project. It was proposed that any new bridge feature a 400-foot-wide navigation channel and 215-feet of vertical clearance to accommodate the Navy’s largest ships. 1 5
It was estimated in September 1964 that the Newport Bridge would cost $39,085,000 to construct. 8 The figure included construction, right-of-way, engineering, inspection, and contingencies and was based on the cost of various phases of construction made by the major steel fabricating plants and by others in the construction industry.
In November, a state-wide referendum authorized the sale of bonds for financing construction of the Newport Bridge. 8 The design was delayed by an investigation of an alternative location of the eastern terminus of the crossing which resulted in a five-week delay. In January 1965, the state requested an advisory opinion of the Supreme Court concerning the use of tolls from the Mt. Hope Bridge for the construction of the New Hope Bridge. The court rendered its opinion on March 10 which required the matter to be placed before voters. Design and planning work on the Newport Bridge stopped. A special referendum in June 1965 approved the financing plan for the bridge.
It was not until August that bids on the first contract were requested. 8 Perini Corporation of Massachusetts was the low bidder of $18.7 million, significantly more than expected. Negotiations brought the cost down to $17.3 million. By September, the cost of constructing the new bridge was estimated at $45 million.
The new crossing was officially titled “Newport Bridge” after a resolution was adopted by the Authority on March 21, 1966. 10 The Authority had rejected the idea of naming the bridge for an individual and had narrowed down the possibilities to Narragansett Bridge, Newport Bridge, and Newport Bay Bridge. The Newport Bridge name stood out for its simplicity.
In April 1966, bids for erecting the steel superstructure were received. 8 Bethlehem Steel placed the low bid of $18.9 million which exceeding engineers’ estimates. By July, the cost of constructing the new bridge was estimated at $49 million.
A fleet of 200 workers, tugboats, barges, and scows began the underwater construction of the Newport Bridge in August. 14 Work focused on driving piles 235 feet below the water line to support the west suspension tower. The erection of the approach superstructures began later in the year.
A new concept in anchoring the main cables of suspension bridges, designed by Bethlehem Steel in 1964, was used in the construction of the Newport Bridge. 6 9 Instead of using tension linkages to connect cable strands to the front face of the concrete anchorage block, the cable strands were seated in direct compression against the back face of the block. The new anchorage system involved the use of embedded pipe assemblies and was designed to reduce encased steelwork to a minimum, simplify main cable erection, and improve anchorage block efficiency. Additionally, Bethlehem Steel wire strands used for the first time measured 15.25-inches in diameter and 4,5250-feet long.
In March 1967, after learning that the bridge construction costs had escalated to $53 million because of inflation and high steel prices, county legislatures approved of an additional $6.5 million bond. 7 Specifically, the money would be used to cover $2 million for direct construction costs, $1.75 million for construction contingencies, $1.5 million as a financing reserve, $700,000 to meet the interest on additional bonds during the construction period until the bridge is opened, and $750,000 for additional administrative and legal expenses.
With 95% of the construction bids already let, the county felt confident that the bridge costs would not further escalate. 7
The Newport Bridge was completed at the cost of $54.7 million 1 5 6 and opened to traffic after a dedication ceremony on June 28, 1969. 2 5 12 The ceremony included remarks by Secretary of Navy John H. Chafee, who was governor when the bridge was authorized, bonds issued, and construction started, Governor Frank Licht, Senator Claiborne Pell, and others. Following the ceremony, the official motorcade proceeded to the ferry landing and embarked on a final ferry trip. The ferry swung around the area of the bridge and received a salute from a Navy fireboat.
In 1970, the Authority filed a $2 million lawsuit against Bethlehem Steel over defective paint that had been applied to the bridge’s superstructure. 11 Bethlehem countered with a $7.8 million suit claiming that the paint specifications were faulty. The bridge’s failing paint was patched over several summers between 1970 and 1973 at the cost of $700,000. A judgment in favor of the Authority was awarded in December 1975. 13
The Newport Bridge was officially renamed the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge after Senator Claiborne Pell in 1992. 1 3 4
Proposed freeways at the west and east ends of the Newport Bridge remained unfinished in the years after its completion. A very short segment of the Fall River Expressway at the eastern approach to the Newport Bridge was built, which included half-completed interchanges with Farewell Street and Admiral Kalbfus Road. 16
In 1971, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Works (MassDPW) proposed Interstate 895 along a 40 mile routing through southern Rhode Island and Massachusetts, connecting Interstate 95 near RI Route 138 to Interstate 195 at Fall River, Massachusetts. 16 It would incorporate the Fall River Expressway. Citing opposition from the communities that the highway would impact, the states withdrew the proposal in 1979.
Funds that had been allocated for the construction of the interstate were used to replace the Jamestown Bridge over the West Passage of the Narragansett Bay between Conanicut Island and Saunderstown and to complete a freeway between US Route 1 and the Newport Bridge. 16
RIDOT plans to replace the short Fall River Expressway segment in Newport with a boulevard to increase connectivity to downtown Newport, improve safety at the eastern terminus of RI Route 138, and free up land for development. 17
- State: Rhode Island
- Route: RI Route 138
- Type: Wire Suspension
- Status: Active - Automobile
- Total Length: 11,248 feet
- Main Span Length: 1,600 feet
- Deck Width: 48 feet
- Above Vertical Clearance: 16.2 feet
- Lauro, Brittany. “The Newport Pell Bridge 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Discover Newport, 19 Jun. 2019.
- Gomes, Derek. “Pell Bridge 50th anniversary a celebration of what the span means to all.” Providence Journal, 28 Jun. 2019.
- “Span clearly has left mark on the region.” Jamestown Press, 28 Jun. 2019. p. 2.
- Gentile, Isabella. “For locals, it’s still the ‘Newport Bridge’.” Providence Journal, 24 Jun. 2019.
- Belmore, Ryan. “On This Day In Newport History – June 28, 1969: Newport Bridge Opens For First Time.” What’s Up Newp, 28 Jun. 2020.
- “40-Ton Blocks Anchor Cables.” Newport Daily News, 28 Jun. 1969, p. S4.
- “County’s Lawmakers Favor Third Bond Issue on Bridge.” Newport Daily News, 1 Mar. 1967, pp. 1-2.
- Forbes, T. Curtis. “Bridge Building: Inflation Predicament.” Newport Daily News, 1 Mar. 1967, pp. 1-2.
- “Cable Spinning Eliminated; Engineering History Made.” Newport Daily News, 28 Jun. 1969, p. S10.
- “‘Newport Bridge’ Its Official Name.” Newport Daily News, 22 Mar. 1966, p. 1.
- “State May Double Its Suit On Newport Bridge Paint.” Newport Mercury, 5 Oct. 1973, p. 3.
- Forbes, T. Curtis. “Bridge Is Dedicated, Opens To Traffic.” Newport Daily News, 28 Jun. 1969, p. 1.
- “State auditor advises bridge revise policies.” Newport Mercury, 16 Sept 1977, p. 8.
- Forbes, T. Curtis. “Bay Bustles with Activity as 200 Labor on Invisible Portions of Newport Bridge.” Newport Daily News, 8. Aug. 1966, p. 1.
- Bell, Michael. “The East Ferry, Jamestown.” Quahog.org, 10 Dec. 2001.
- Anderson, Steve. “Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge.” BostonRoads.com.
- “Newport Pell Bridge Approaches.” Rhode Island Department of Transportation, 2020.