The Wittpenn Bridge carries NJ Route 7 over the Hackensack River near Kearny, New Jersey.
John Douw established the first ferry across the Hackensack River circa 1759, connecting Jersey City and Kearny via a causeway across the Kearny meadows that had been built several years prior by John Schuyler to access a copper mine. 2 Adjacent to the ferry was a tavern that Douw operated to entertain and house guests.
In a bid to improve connections between Philadelphia and New York, the New Jersey State Legislature authorized the construction of a four-rod road between Newark Court House and the ferry at Powles (Paulus) Hook in Jersey City in 1790. 2 This included the erection of two wooden draw bridges over the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, each which needed to provide a river navigational clearance of 24 feet. The Hackensack River crossing, 980 feet in length, was completed in mid-1795. 2 It included piers and abutments built of stone quarried from nearby Snake Hill.
The Legislature then chartered the Newark Turnpike Company in 1804. 2 Using the same path laid out in 1790, the tolled road started at Warren Street in Paulus Hook, along Newark Avenue, and then over the Hackensack River bridge to connect with the Belleville Turnpike in the meadows. The Hackensack & Passaic River Bridge Company acquired from the Newark Turnpike the franchise and the use of the bridges.
In 1911, Hudson County erected a new swing span 225 feet in length and three fixed spans over the Hackensack River. 2 Designed by county engineer Alexander S. Hamill, it rested nine-feet above mean high water and offered a channel clearance of 80 feet.
Swing span crossings were typically built where wide navigational channels needed to be crossed, but they had significant drawbacks as they were slow to open and close, and pilots with wide barges had difficulty navigating between the mid-channel pivot and river piers. 2 Additionally, swing bridges were often built just a few feet above mean high water which required that the crossing be opened for all but the smallest of vessels.
The passenger bridge became increasingly outmoded with each succeeding year as maritime traffic along the Hackensack River grew, with the bridge opening as much as 35 times per day, delaying river traffic and passenger trains alike. 2 As early as 1920, the swing bridge was noted as being a navigation hazard because of its close proximity to two other bridges for the PRR’s passenger line and the Newark Turnpike. 2 It was recommended by the New York, New Jersey Port & Harbor Development Commission that all three bridges be consolidated into one structure.
The crashing of the Glendaruel vessel into the Lincoln Highway swing span in June 1922 resulted in insurance underwriters no longer insuring large self-propelled vessels for damages caused to bridges because of the risk of navigating the Hackensack River near the swing bridges. 2 During the summer of 1924, Col. H.C. Newcomer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held hearings on the fate of the swing bridges as the Corps called the crossings as obstructions to navigation because of their low clearance above the water and narrow draw openings. 1 At public hearings, the representatives of various industries and commercial interests pleaded for larger, higher bridges that would provide a minimum vertical clearance of 35 to 40 feet to allow nearly all tugs to pass unimpeded.
On April 25, 1925, Secretary of War John W. Weeks signed an order notifying the county to replace the Newark Turnpike bridge within four years with a structure that could provide a navigational channel of 150 feet and a vertical clearance of at least 35 feet. 1
The New Jersey State Highway Department included the Newark Turnpike as part of Route 10 in the state highway system in 1927, effectively transferring ownership of the river bridge from the county. 2 In the same year, the state received proposals to design the a vertical lift bridge over the Hackensack River from Harrington, Howard & Ash, Waddell & Hardesty, and the Strauss Engineering Corporation. 2 Harrington, Howard & Ash was chosen to design the bridge superstructure because of their experience in designing numerous other movable spans. The project was headed by three key state personnel: William H. Hudson, Assistant Construction Engineer, Sigvald Johannesson, Engineer of Design, and O.C. Whitman, Resident Engineer.
Plans for the new Hackensack River bridge were approved by the War Department in June 1928 and construction began shortly thereafter by the Foundation Company for the substructure and the Stroebel Steel Construction Company of Chicago for the superstructure. 2 The new bridge opened at the cost of $3 million and dedicated on November 5, 1930, which included a half-hour of whistles from a fleet of tugboats and other vessels. 2 In attendance was Henry Otto Wittpenn, a former Jersey City mayor and member of the State Highway Department. The state named the bridge in his honor after he died in 1931.
The new Hassensack River bridge consisted of: 2 3
- A Parker through truss lift span 209 feet in length that provided a navigational channel of 158 feet, flanked by two Pratt truss tower spans;
- Approaches consisting of deck plate girders, two camelback through trusses, and a modified Pratt through truss;
- A deck width of 63 feet with room for four automobile lanes, two streetcar tracks, and two sidewalks.
The trolley tracks were removed in 1953 following a major rehabilitation of the structure that included truss reinforcement of the tower and lift spans. 2 3
A renovation project in 1971 included structural repairs and paving, while work in 1973 was focused on the fender system in the river. 3 Work conducted in 1992 included column and bearing patches to one pier, truss repairs to three spans, lift span repairs, and sidewalk work.
The repairs conducted to the Wittpenn Bridge in 1992, and subsequent emergency repairs and modifications were meant to be holdovers until the crossing could be replaced. 3 A report in 2000 noted the bridge was structurally deficient, functionally obsolete, and in an advanced state of deterioration. Specifically, full-depth cracks were found in the west abutment and several piers and the superstructure exhibited severe deterioration and section loss of structural members because of rust. The roadway deck exhibited water leakage in the concrete and the operating machinery required frequent maintenance because of its age. The crossing also featured narrow travel lanes, no shoulders, and an open steel grid deck that contributed to the occurrence of severe accidents on the bridge.
An alternatives analysis for the bridge was conducted in the spring of 2002, which called for a new vertical lift bridge on a new alignment with a vertical clearance over the mean high water of 70 feet to reduce bridge openings from 300 per year to approximately 63 per year. 3 The preliminary design was completed in November 2005 and the project underwent a Value Engineering Rightsizing Review in 2007. 4
The new Wittpenn Bridge is estimated to cost $600 million and funded in part by federal dollars and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. 5
The first phase of construction began in July 2011 6 and was completed in December 2014. 3 The second phase was finished in January 2016 while the third phase wrapped up in the fall of 2018. The fourth phase began in 2017.
Once complete in 2021, the new Wittpenn Bridge will feature four travel lanes with shoulders, and a multi-use path for the East Coast Greenway and the Meadlowlands Connector. 7
- State: New Jersey
- Route: NJ Route 7
- Type: Vertical Lift, Camelback Through Truss, Parker Through Truss, Pratt Through Truss
- Status: Active - Automobile
- Total Length: 2,169 feet
- Main Span Length: 209 feet
- Deck Width: 63 feet
- Roadway Width: 40 feet
- Navigational Clearance:
- “History.” Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 2020.
- Modica, Glenn R. “The Hackensack River Vertical Lift Bridges Historic District.” New Jersey Department of Transportation.
- Federal Highway Administration, 2003, Environmental Assessment/Draft Section 4(f) Evaluation.
- “Preliminary Design.” New Jersey Department of Transportation.
- Higgs, Larry. “Another new bridge quietly rises in shadow of the Pulaski Skyway.” NJ Advance Media, 17 Jan. 2019.
- McDonald, Terrence T. “5 years done, 6 to go for new $480M Wittpenn Bridge.” Jersey Journal, 16 Jan. 2019.
- Strunsky, Steve. “New bike, walking trail would link N.J.’s 2 largest cities.” NJ Advance Media, 16 Jan. 2019.