George Washington Bridge

George Washington Bridge

The George Washington Bridge is a double-decked suspension bridge carrying Interstate 95, and US Routes 1 and 9 over the Hudson River, connecting New York City, New York and Fort Lee, New Jersey.


History

Plans for a vehicular bridge across the lower Hudson River were considered as early as 1906 during the planning for the Holland Tunnel, 1 with locations considered in the vicinity of 57th, 110th, and 179th Streets in Manhattan. 2 Those locations were considered only suitable for suspension bridges; other sites were rejected because of geography, aesthetics, or traffic concerns. 1 3 It was not until 1927 that the Holland Tunnel that the first vehicular crossing of the river opened, connecting Lower Manhattan with Jersey City. 4

The New York State Chamber of Commerce voted against a Hudson River crossing at 57th Street in favor of another location upstream in January 1924. 5 Despite the vote, engineer Gustav Lindenthal proposed that a bridge be built at 57th Street and carry 12 lanes of automobile traffic and 16 railroad tracks. 6 In May, Colonel Frederick Stuart Greene, the New York Superintendent of Public Works, announced a proposal to construct a suspension bridge between 179th Street at Fort Washington in New York and Fort Lee, New Jersey as it had the advantage of high cliffs on both sides of the river, which made it possible to construct a bridge without impeding maritime traffic. 7

A New Jersey state assemblyman introduced a bill for the bridge in December, 8 which was passed in the New Jersey Assembly in February 1925. 9 New Jersey Governor George Silzer rejected the bill initially, 10 but approved of it after amendments were made in March. 11 Similarly, the New York state legislature also considered a similar bill, 12 which was approved by New York Governor Al Smith in April 13 despite some opposition from the Parks Conservation Association. 14

It was discovered that the ledges of Fort Washington in New York and Fort Lee in New Jersey differed by 100 feet in elevation, 12 which meant that deep rock cuts would be required for the Fort Lee approach to the new bridge. 15 After funding was secured, surveyors began examining feasible sites for the future bridge’s approaches in August. Geologists made 300-foot test bores on the New Jersey approach to determine suitable locations for laying foundations. 16

The state of New Jersey hired Othmar Ammann as the bridge’s chief engineer 17 to devise preliminary plans for the Hudson River crossing. Working alongside him were design engineer Allston Dana, 18 19 and assistant chief engineer Edward W. Stearns. 18 20 Ammann proposed a bridge that would contain a roadway that could carry up to 8,000 vehicles per hour, four railroad tracks in the event that the two North River Railroad tunnels downstream were over capacity, and two sidewalks. 12 18 Cass Gilbert was retained as a consulting architect in January 1926 to design the architectural elements of the new bridge. 20

Gilbert released preliminary sketches of the Hudson River bridge in March, at which point it had been decided that the span would be a suspension crossing. 21 The sketches accompanied a feasibility report that Ammann and other engineers presented to the Port of New York Authority, the agency that was to operate the bridge. The central span was proposed to be 3,500-feet-long, longer than any other suspension bridge in the world, and 200 feet above mean high water. It would carry four lanes of vehicular traffic and two sidewalks, with space to expand the deck to eight lanes. 22

It was estimated that the new bridge would cost $40 million 21 to $50 million. 22 Final plans for the bridge were approved by the Port Authority 23 and the War Department in December 1926. 24 The Port Authority planned to sell off $50 million in bonds to pay for the crossing and sold an initial $20 million bond issue in December. 25

Construction

In April 1927, the Port Authority sought bids for the construction of the New Jersey suspension tower’s foundation, 26 which was awarded later in the month. 27 Bids for the bridge’s approaches and anchorage on the New Jersey side were opened in May. 28

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held at the sites of both future suspension towers on September 21. 29 30 Governors of both states attended, as well as Montgomery B. Case, the chief construction engineer. 31

Each suspension tower was to have a base with a perimeter measuring 89 feet by 98 feet, descending 80 feet into the riverbed. 30 32 To construct the tower, the riverbed around the tower sites were dredged, and then steel pilings were installed to create a watertight cofferdam. The cofferdams were the largest built at the time. 33 34

Two main methods were being considered for the main span’s construction: the cheaper wire-cable method and the more expensive eyebar method. 35 36 With the wire-cable method, vertical suspender wires would be attached directly to the main cables and the deck, which would require a stiffening truss to support the deck. With the eyebar method, suspender wires would be attached to a chain of eyebars and would be self-supporting. 20 37 Ultimately, the Port Authority selected the wire-cable design because of costs, and a contract to construct the deck was awarded to the John A. Roebling Sons’ Company. 20 35 38 A corresponding contract for the steel construction was awarded to the McClintic-Marshall Company. 39

Bids for the construction of the Manhattan suspension were advertised in March 1928. 40 At that point, 64% of the total projected worth of construction contracts had been awarded. In May, builders began blasting a 50-foot-deep cut through the Palisades for the New Jersey approach to the bridge and by October, nearly all blasting operations had been completed. 41

By March 1929, the concrete structure of the New York anchorage had been completed three months ahead of schedule and the anchorage on the New Jersey side, which consisted of two holes bored 250 feet into the face of the Palisades, were complete. 42 The suspension towers were also nearly fully assembled.

In April, the Port Authority acquired the last of the properties that were in the path of the Manhattan approach to the bridge. 43 Final plans for the approach were approved by the New York City Board of Estimate around the same time, which were to consist of scenic, meandering ramps leading to both Riverside Drive and the Henry Hudson Parkway at the bottom of the cliff in Washington Heights, ramps to 178th and 179th Streets at the top of Washington Heights, and an underground highway running between and parallel to 178th and 179th Streets. 44 Evictions in Manhattan began in October 1929. 45

After two temporary catwalks were built between the two suspension towers, 20 33 workers began laying the bridge’s four main cables. The first strand of the main cable was hoisted between both towers in July following a ceremony attended by the governors of both states and mayors of New York City and Fort Lee. 46 The catwalks also allowed 350 workers to spin the wires for the main cables on-site, 20 47 48 which were spun by dozens of reels at a dock near the base of the New York anchorage. 49 Each reel contained 30 miles of wire at any given time. A total number of 105,986 wires were used in the bridge. 33 49

Plans for the New Jersey approach were changed in January 1930. 50 Originally, the bridge would have terminated in a traffic circle in Fort Lee, which was revised to a grade-separated expressway approach that would include ramps to nearby highways. By February, the construction of the bridge was halfway complete. The first main cable was completed in July 1930, 51 and the other three main cables were completed in August. 52 After the main cables were laid, workers spun the suspender wires that connected the main cables with the deck. 49 53

Bids were opened in July 1930 for the construction of the Manhattan approaches, which included the Riverside Drive connection and the 178th and 179th Street Tunnels. 54 The tunnel contract for the 178th Street Tunnel was awarded later in the month. 51 The bidding process for the Fort Lee approaches was opened in August. 55 Bids for the Riverside Drive connection were received in September. 56

The girders to support the deck were installed in 1930, 57 with paving commencing in the spring. In June 1931, 40 bankers became the first people to cross the bridge. 58 Bids for constructing the tollbooths and floodlight towers were opened in July 1931. 59

It was estimated that the bridge cost $60 million to construct. 20 60

Dedication and Expansion

The George Washington Bridge was dedicated during a ceremony attended by 30,000 guests on October 24, 1931. 61 The ceremony was accompanied by an airshow by the U.S. Army Air Corps, as well as speeches from politicians including New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Jersey governor Morgan Foster Larson. The crossing was formally opened to automobile traffic the next day 62 and within 24 hours, 56,312 cars had used the span as well as 33,540 pedestrians. 62 63 A week after the bridge opened, the ten-lane tollbooth had to be expanded to 14-lanes because of heavy weekend volumes. 64

NJ Route 4, which connected directly to the bridge’s western end, opened in July 1932. 65 Ramps to Harlem River Drive and Fort Washington Avenue were opened in 1939. The 178th Street Tunnel in Manhattan was completed in 1940 which carried two-way traffic. It was reconfigured for westbound bridge traffic in 1951 when the 179th Street Tunnel for eastbound traffic opened in 1951.

Originally, the George Washington Bridge included a single deck with six-lanes and an unpaved center median. To alleviate congestion, the median was paved over and two reversible lanes were created on the upper level in 1946. 20 66 The lanes could serve either direction depending on traffic flows. 67

The completion of the lower deck, as well as the construction of a bus terminal and other highway connections, were recommended in a 1955 study. The lower deck proposal was supported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 68 69 and it received final approval by the New York City Planning Commission in June 1957. 70 The $183 million project included the construction of the lower deck, the George Washington Bridge Expressway, the George Washington Bridge Bus Station above the expressway, and ramps to and from the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan 71 72 and toll booths and a direct connection to the New Jersey Turnpike in Fort Lee. 69 72 73

Construction on the new lower level approaches began in September 1958, 67 and work on the lower level span started on June 2, 1959. 74 The new lower deck opened on August 29, 1962. 67 75 In addition to increasing the capacity of the bridge by 75%, 67 the lower level served to stiffen the bridge in high winds.

The George Washington Bridge was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers on October 24, 1981, the 50th anniversary of the bridge’s dedication ceremony. 76

Naming

Prior to and during construction, the bridge was known as the Hudson River Bridge or Fort Lee Bridge. 77 The Hudson River Bridge Association began seeking suggestions for an official name in October 1930 and through ballot voting that were submitted to the Port Authority, the Hudson River Bridge name was the most popular choice beating out numerous other names, including the Port Authority’s preference for the name George Washington Bridge.

The Port Authority formally adopted the George Washington name on January 13, 1931, honoring the general and future president’s evacuation of Manhattan at the bridge’s location during the Revolutionary War. 78 Because of the confusion with the Washington Bridge connecting 181st Street with the Bronx directly across Manhattan from the George Washington Bridge, 79 the Port Authority voted to reconsider the renaming of the crossing. 80 The most popular names were those of Washington, Christopher Columbus, and Henry Hudson. 81 The span was again officially named for George Washington in April 1931. 82 83

After the completion of the lower level deck in 1962, it was nicknamed Martha after George Washington’s wife, Martha. 84 85


Gallery


Information

  • State: New Jersey, New York
  • Route: Interstate 95, US Routes 1 and 9
  • Type: Wire Suspension
  • Status: Active - Automobile
  • Total Length: 4,760 feet
  • Main Span Length: 3,500 feet
  • Deck Width: 119 feet
  • Height: 604 feet
  • Above Vertical Clearance: 14 feet; 13.5 feet

Sources

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  39. “Bridge Steel Ordered.” New York Times, 21 Oct. 1927.
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  68. “Excerpts From Proposal to Meet City’s Bridge and Highway Needs for Next 2 Decades.” New York Times, 17. Jan. 1955.
  69. “Little Falls Resident Works On George Washington Bridge Project.” Little Falls Herald, 26 Jul. 1960, p. 12.
  70. “Bridge Program Advanced By City.” New York Times, 5 Jun. 1957.
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  79. “Informs President of Bridge Naming.” New York Times, 15 Jan. 1931.
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  84. “85 Years Strong, George Washington Bridge Still Adds Grace to NYC Skyline.” ASCE News, 21 Jun. 2018.
  85. Rockland, Michael Aaron. The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel. Rutgers University Press, 2008.

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