Category Archives: Bridges

History Tidbits: Magical Jazz Tapes, GANYC Apple Award Winners

Above: The High Bridge, taken by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao for the New York Times

Here’s a fun find courtesy Open Culture — hundreds of hours of classic jazz music from the 1920-1950s, courtesy music collector David W. Niven (not the famed British actor).  Niven collected jazz music records starting in the 1920s; later in life, he transferred the albums to cassette tapes, then recorded introduction for each collection.

He died in 1991 but his obsession lives on over at Archive.org you can listen to his tapes and even see his handwritten lists.  You can stream and download the entire collection for free.

One example: Here’s a collection of Billie Holiday tracks from 1955-1959. Tape 8.

 

 

Billie_Holiday_Tape_8_1955-1959

 

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The Guides Association of New York (GANYC) held their second annual GANYC Apple Awards, honoring the best in New York City culture, tourism and preservation. The event was held once again at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space. (Read about last year’s event here.)

The two big highlights of the show,  hosted again by Kevin James Doyle and Olivia Petzy, were two special awards.  A new Guiding Spirit Award was given to “the dean of New York tourist guides” Lee Gelber, i.e. the man you want guiding the tour should God come into town for the weekend.  And the GANYC Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Marjorie Eliot, the Harlem music doyenne who’s hosted Sunday afternoon concerts in her apartment for almost 25 years.

 

Here’s a list of the other winners of the night. Visit GANYC’s website for more information:

Outstanding Achievement in Support of New York City — Culture

—  Susan Henshaw Jones, Ronay Menschel Director, Museum of the City of New York (from 2003-2015)

Outstanding Achievement in Support of New York City — Tourism

— Gregory Wessner, Executive Director, Open House New York

Outstanding Achievement in Support of New York City — Preservation

—  Jeremiah Moss, Organizer of #SaveNYC, author of Vanishing New York

Outstanding NYC Website

 Vanishing New YorkJeremiah Moss

Outstanding Achievement in NYC Photography (singular image, published October 2015-15)

— Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, Highbridge 

(Top image, courtesy New York Times)

Outstanding Achievement in Radio Program/Podcast (Audio/Spoken Word)

— The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC 93.9FM

Outstanding Achievement in “Fiction” Book Writing (published October 2014-15)

— City on Fire: A Novel, by Garth Risk Hallbergcity-on-fire

Outstanding Achievement in “Non-Fiction” Book Writing (published October 2014-15)

— Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks edited by Donald Albrecht and Andrew Dolkart, Iwan Baan photographer

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Outstanding Achievement in Essay/Article/Series Writing (published October 2014-15)

— Grub Street, New York Magazine, Sierra Tishgart, Senior Editor

Outstanding Achievement in NYC Food (focusing on anniversaries and special accomplishments)

— Yonah Schimmel Knishery, Celebrating 125 years

Courtesy Untapped Cities
Courtesy Untapped Cities

 

Outstanding Achievement in NYC Museum Exhibitions (October 2014-15)

—  Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life; Adriana Zavala, Guest Curator, New York Botanical Garden

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We were on-hand to present the award for Outstanding NYC Website to Vanishing New York (Lee Greenfeld was there to accept the award):

Photograph courtesy GANYC
Photograph courtesy GANYC

The High Bridge Opens! And Other Links

Harlem River Speedway Course, looking south, towards the High Bridge. Picture from Port of New York Authority, courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

A new Bowery Boys episode every Friday this summer. WHAT?! Well, sort of. On top of a brand new show every two weeks, we’ll be updating the Bowery Boys Archives feed every other two weeks with past shows that have been missing in action.  To make sure you’re getting everything, make sure you are subscribed to both The Bowery Boys: New York City History  and The Bowery Boys Archives podcasts on iTunes and other podcast services.  The podcasts in the Archives will be enhanced shows, meaning that images of the things discussed will pop up on certain listening devices. So subscribe to both today!

The High Bridge in 1920. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
The High Bridge in 1920. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

— Biggest history news of the week — The High Bridge is open again for pedestrians! New York’s oldest bridge, built in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct water supply system, reopened on Tuesday following restoration of its brick walkways and formerly rusty handrails.  “Downtown may  have the High Line, but uptown we have the High Bridge.”  [New York Times]

— Help our friend Kyle Supley produce a new web series about life in New York City! You can find the pilot episode here and it looks terrific. He’s almost to his Kickstarter goal and will produce ten episodes about the history and culture of New York City. Plus you will be floored by his vintage shirt collection.  [Kyle Supley’s Out There]

— Did the famous Palm Restaurant just close forever? [Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York]

Ornette Coleman, picture courtesy Legacy Recordings
Ornette Coleman, picture courtesy Legacy Recordings

— RIP Ornette Coleman who died in New York today at age 85. The free jazz icon electrified (and possibly befuddled) the New York’s  jazz circuit after a controversial stint at the Five Spot in Astor Place. [In 1959]

— Here’s the location in today’s Tribeca neighborhood where you bought all your whalebone corsets in the late 19th century. [Daytonian In Manhattan]

— Was it easier to get around Brooklyn in the 1930s than it is today? This terrific 1930s trolley map seems to suggest that. [Gothamist]

— A little story on the day that McSorley’s Old Ale House finally started letting in women patrons. [Ephemeral New York]

New podcast out tomorrow! We started the Bowery Boys podcast eight years ago this month, and so we’re doing something a little special for our next two shows. Stay tuned……

 

And here’s a selection from Ornette Coleman’s pivotal 1959 album The Shape of Things To Come, one of the most important jazz albums in history.

A very happy 50th birthday to the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge! Ten facts you may not know about the bridge’s origins

[Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.]

The new span in 1964, photographed by the Wurts Brothers (MCNY)

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge — the first land crossing between Staten Island and the rest of New York City — officially opened for traffic fifty years ago today. It is one of America’s greatest bridges and a graceful monumental presence in New York Harbor.  Below is a list of ten things you may not have known about the bridge.  In addition, I’m also including our podcast on the bridge’s history via SoundCloud. (You can also download it from iTunes — it’s episode #119 — or from here.)

1)  The Tunnel to Staten Island
People have been dreaming of spanning the Narrows for several decades before the bridge was finally constructed. In New York’s subway fervor of the early 1920s, Mayor John Hylan authorized a tunnel be built to connect Staten Island to Brooklyn, ostensibly to link it to the city’s expanding subway network. Due to massive cost, however, the project was cancelled. For many years, the remnants of the aborted tunnels on either side of the Narrows were referred to as “Hylan’s Holes.”

2)  Verrazzano-on-Hudson
Giovanni da Verrazzano, who explored the shores of the North American continent in 1524, might have lent his name to the bridge which became the George Washington Bridge, a few decades before the Narrows Bridge was completed. The suggestion was made by a Newark resident and was at least passingly considered that the New York Times ran an article about it: “WOULD NAME NEW SPAN VERRAZANO BRIDGE.”  The article casts aspersions upon the notion that the explorer would ever be seriously considered enough to warrant his own bridge.

[Aerial view of Brooklyn, Staten Island and New York Harbor.]

Overlooking New York Harbor, Staten Island (and Fort Wadsworth) to the left. (MCNY)

3)  What’s In A Name? Tanto!
The Florentine explorer had much symbolic value to Italian New Yorkers, and in 1960, the Italian Historical Society of America managed to convince Governor Nelson Rockefeller to apply the name to the brand new bridge about to go under construction.

Some were not pleased with what many considered mere political appeasement. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the next move is to rename the Hudson River,” grumbled the vice president of the Staten Island chamber of commerce. [source]  Gripes over the name continued well up to its opening and beyond.  A couple weeks before its opening, one naysayer wrote the Times to propose alternate names: “Let’s call it Freedom Gate or Liberty Gate.” [source]

4) Spell Check
Even then, there was some debate about the proper spelling of the explorer’s last name — Verrazzano or Verrazano. (There was even a small, if vocal, group for Verazzano.) Official construction signs did say Verrazzano, in keeping with the traditional Italian spelling. However, despite strong support for the double Z version, the shorter spelling eventually won out.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

5) The Grand Builders
Although this would be one of the final great projects overseen by Robert Moses, it’s also the final project of New York’s great bridge and tunnel builder Ottmar Ammann.  He died on September 22, 1965, less than a year after the bridge’s opening.

Milton Brumer is sometimes overshadowed by those two great icons of city building, but the chief engineer of the Verrazano-Narrows had worked with Ammann on almost every one of his projects and was probably more involved in the day-to-day operations than his boss.  In total, there were 200 engineers employed on building the bridge, on top of the hundreds of construction workers employed to bridge the Narrows.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge, general view  from Ft. Hamilton S.E.
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

6) Curvature of the Earth
When it opened on November 21, 1962, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, so long, in fact, that bridge engineers had to take the curvature of the planet into account in its design.  As a result the tops of the towers are slightly farther apart than the bases. Or to put it another way, if the Narrows were drained, the towers would appear to slightly lean away from each other.

7) A Big Boy, and Loud Too
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge weighs 1,265,000 tons — the longest suspension bridge in the world at its completion, surpassing the Golden Gate Bridge — but was not the most welcomed neighbor to the areas of Bay Ridge and western Staten Island when ground was broken in August 1959.  Many residents railed against its necessity, the displacement of businesses, even the constant noise assault. “That bridge — who needs it?” [source]  Once construction began, however, many business owners benefited from the influx of hundreds of workers entering the area.

Three workers were killed during the construction of the bridge, including young Gerard McKee who fell to his death in an accident which could have been prevented.  His death sparked an improvement in safety procedures at the bridge.  He’s memorably commemorated by Gay Talese, who closely documented the construction of the span in his classic book The Bridge.

Fort Lafayette, 1861, from Harper’s Weekly (courtesy NYPL)

8) Goodbye Fort Lafayette
In building the Brooklyn anchorage, crews swept away the remainder of old Fort Lafayette, an entrenchment built during the War of 1812.  During the Civil War, Confederates were held prisoner here, including Robert Cobb Kennedy, who attempted to burn down New York during the Great Conspiracy of 1864. During the two World Wars, it held reserve ammunition. Moses personally fought an effort to turn the fort into a night club and now had a hand in dismantling it entirely.

Not only was the fort destroyed, the entire island on which it sat was virtually erased.  In addition, areas near Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth were cleared away to make way for the bridge’s approaches. Perhaps to nobody’s surprise, the construction company tasked with clearing away the old fort employed the son-in-law of Robert Moses.

9) First Class Reception
The U.S. government did something a little different to honor the opening of the bridge — it issued a postage stamp featuring the bridge, to be sold on opening day.  For its 50 year anniversary this year, the Postal Service replicated the honor with an anniversary stamp.  The original stamp was for five cents.  The commemorative stamp is for $5.60 priority mail. (Times change.)

Photo NY Daily News/Leonard Detrick

10) Opening Day, First Traffic Jam
The opening of the bridge not only brought great pride to New York City, although a small number of protesters noted that the span did not have pedestrian walkways or bike paths (and it still doesn’t).  Among the dignitaries as the ribbon cutting ceremony were Governor Rockefeller, the Archbishop of New York Cardinal Spellman, Robert Moses and Mayor Robert Wagner.  They were all transported over the bridge in a somber 52-limousine procession.  The press of vehicles was poorly handled for it resulted in “a traffic jam … a half-mile beyond the point where the ribbon-cutting ceremony had been held.”

The first ‘regular’ toll-paying person over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was a carload of young men in rented tuxedos (pictured above), “driving a pale blue Cadillac convertible with flags flapping from the fenders,” who had parked behind the toll gate for an entire week to earn the special privilege.”

Below: The bridge’s most famous film appearance in Saturday Night Fever — but don’t watch if you haven’t yet seen the entire film!

The story of ‘Painters On The Brooklyn Bridge’, a classic photograph taken 100 years ago this month

The photograph above (officially called “Brooklyn Bridge showing painters on suspenders”) is perhaps the best-known image taken by Eugene de Salignac, a city employee who took municipal photography of most major New York structures during the early 20th century.

His work had never appeared in a gallery until 2007, almost 65 years after his death.  His exquisite eye rendered otherwise ordinary shots with a captivating grandeur; this was certainly beyond the call of duty of his responsibilities for the Department of Bridges (later named the Department of Plant and Structures) for which he worked from 1906 to 1934.  In all, it’s estimated the city owns about 20,000 glass-plate negatives taken by de Salignac.

On September 22, 1914, de Salignac headed to the Brooklyn Bridge to observe workers painting the bridge’s steel-wire suspension.  Perhaps a bit inspired by modern artistic photography of the day, the normally workaday photographer returned to the bridge a couple weeks later, on October 7.

To quote Aperture:  “The image was obviously planned, as evidenced by the relaxed nature of these fearless men who appear without their equipment and are joined, uncustomarily, by their supervisor.”

It was, generally speaking, an unspectacular day for the 31-year-old bridge.  It’s believed that the original color of the Brooklyn Bridge was ‘Rawlins Red’ although by this time, the vibrant color might have been replaced with the less dramatic ‘Brooklyn Bridge Tan.’  Can you imagine what this image would have looked like in color?

I would like to think de Salignac took some inspiration from photographers like Paul Strand who were beginning to see New York City as a set of geometric abstracts.  The spirit of this photograph echoes into the work of Berenice Abbott and especially Lewis Hine.  In 1932, while de Salignac was still employed by the city, Hine was hired to document the construction of the RCA Building. In one photo, workers were posed in a way that eventually became quite iconic**:

Most likely, none of those other photographers saw de Salignac’s Brooklyn Bridge picture.  It was essentially lost among the thousands of archives pictures until the 1980s.  For his first film for PBS, Ken Burns used the photograph  in his Brooklyn Bridge documentary which went on to snag an Academy Award nomination.  In 2007, de Salignac was belatedly honored with an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

 De Salignac returned to the bridge to several times to catch more workers in the act of maintaining the bridge. Such as this photograph the following year:

Want to get lost for an hour or so? Check on the New York Municipal Archives vast trove of Eugene de Salignac photographs directly.

**This famous picture was attributed first to Lewis Hine, then to Charles C Ebbets.  Corbis officially lists the photographer as ‘unknown’.  Thank you to Michael Lorenzini for pointing this out!

Top photo courtesy New York Municipal Archives. Hine photo courtesy the George Eastman House

The ten greatest fireworks displays in New York City history

Above: One of my favorite pictures of the Williamsburg Bridge, at its opening in 1903
Nothing befits a fireworks display quite like a skyline to frame it, and no city has a skyline quite like New York City.  And so, despite the obvious dangers of setting off thousands of pounds of explosives in a crowded, flammable city, the city has been subject to some of the most beautiful feats of pyrotechnics in American history.
Here are ten of the greatest examples in the city’s history — celebrations not only of holidays, but vivid displays that highlighted the finest landmarks and accomplishments:

A View of the Magnificent and Extraordinary Fire Works Exhibited on the N.Y. City Hall

1. Opening of the Erie Canal — November 4, 1825
“On November 4, 1825, a spectacular extravaganza celebrated the just finished Erie Canal. City Hall, brilliantly illuminated, proudly overlooked a fireworks display in the park. There was good reason to celebrate:  the canal was the match that lit the fuse that detonated the boom of the 1830s” — Mark Caldwell, New York Night
(Illustration by John Francis Eugene Prod’Homme, Image courtesy MCNY)

 

2. Celebration for the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable — September 1-3, 1858
This called for a variety of elaborate pyrotechnic displays, including one 21-part program, which included “some new principles were attempted for the first time in the pyrotechnic art,” “two light houses connected by a line of rolling waters, on which the ships slowly moved towards their destination” and “all the splendor of the dazzling colors, assisted by all the mechanical contrivances of which the art is capable”. [source]

Incidentally, this fireworks festival caught City Hall on fire, burning down the cupola! (NYPL)

 

3. American Centennial — July 4, 1876
The all-day centennial celebration culminated in fireworks “representing the Goddess of Liberty sitting on a cloud in the act of greeting,” as well as several street-level “allegoric representations” illuminated in colorful fireworks. [source]

 

4. Opening of the Brooklyn Bridge — May 24, 1883
“Forty pyrotechnists superintended the display. There were 6,000 four-pound skyrockets, 400 bombshells and 125 fountains of colored lights.  Zinc bombshells of about ten inches in diameter were fired from mortars 500 feet in the air. Each bombshell held 600 stars of various colors.  A newly-invented rocket was displayed.  It held seven parachutes of cloth.  From these hung colored balls of fire.  The rockets burst, leaving the parachutes floating in the air. Five of these rockets were fired at once.  The result was thirty-five balls of colored fire floating in the air…..” [source]

 

5. Dedication of the Statue of Liberty — October 28, 1886
Well, actually, three days later, on November 1.  A soggy day killed off the fireworks on the day of the statue’s dedication, but were finally launched the following Monday.

“At precisely the hour fixed there came a burst of kaleidoscopic lights from Bedlow’s and Governors Island, and in an instant the air was filled with flying fire balls of every color of the rainbow.”

 

6. Hero’s Welcome for Admiral George Dewey — September 29, 1899
The arrival of Admiral Dewey, the face of the U.S.’s victory in the Spanish-American War,  inspired an exuberant celebration throughout the city.

“The day of Dewey celebration on the water ended in a roaring, popping, banging blaze of glory last night. Fireworks displays lit up the east side, the west side and all around the town. Not only did great boats loaded down with fireworks sweet down all the water-ways and circle about the lower Bay, but in the parks throughout the middle of the city the sky was painted red, white and blue and all the other shades of color known to the pyrotechnic art. ” [New York Sun]  (Illustration by GW Peters, courtesy NYPL)

7. Opening of the Williamsburg Bridge — December 19, 1903
“Then, without warning, the bridge was suddenly transformed into a sheet of flame.  From tower to tower the flames turned and writhed and flared high in the air, illuminating the waterfront for blocks.  Then came a kaleidoscopic medley of colors, red, green, purple, orange, violet — more colors than French ribbon dealer could enumerate — from huge rockets that sails two hundred feet above the bridge.” [source]

8. New York World’s Fair — July 4, 1939
“Fireworks colored the sky with the red, white and blue of the nation’s colors over the World’s Fair Grounds last night as two spectacular and elaborate displays of fire, water and music were set off, first from the Lagoon of Nations in the exhibit area and a short while later from Fountain Lake in the amusement area.”

 

9. America’s Bicentennial — July 4, 1976
This event was notable not only for its visibility across the nation — thanks to a television special — but it was the first fireworks display sponsored by Macy’s.   “New York Harbor became more brilliant than Broadway last night as the biggest and most colorful fireworks display in the city’s history exploded for half an hour in celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial.” [NYT]

 

10. Brooklyn Bridge 100th Birthday — May 24, 1983
“Then the sky simply exploded with fireworks. Red, white and blue shells, golden comets changing to silver, crackling stars in red and green, appeared to fill the entire sky, while hundreds of thousands of people gasped at the sheer dazzle of it all.” [New York Times]
(Bruce Cratsley, courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

How the cliffhanger was born 100 years ago

What does the George Washington Bridge have to do with The Perils of Pauline, the classic film serial which debuted 100 years ago this week?  They’re both cliffhangers of the literal sort — and almost the same cliffs, it turns out.

Many consider the Pauline film series to be the first “movie blockbuster,” filled with thrills and suspense.  Pauline (Pearl White) has an inheritance coming to her once she gets married, but as an adventurous single woman thirsting for some action, she puts off looking for a mate to explore the world.  The secretary in charge of the inheritance, hoping to keep it for himself, baits Pauline into various dangerous quests in hopes she will meet an unfortunate end.

Although the films are silent, a novelization from that same year fleshes out the melodrama and reveals a rather bold lead character:  “As an old, settled-down married woman, I couldn’t really do what I want.  I must see life in its great moments.  I must have thrills, adventures, see people, do daring things, watch battles.  It might be best for me even to see someone killed, if that were possible.”

Below: The first Perils of Pauline adventure, which debuted 100 years ago this week:

The serial was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, adjoining with the production studios of New York City and Jersey City to become America’s first film capital.  (Only a few movie studios had begun moving out to Los Angeles by this period.)  Pauline was the first American project for the French production company Pathe.

The Perils of Pauline was filmed along ragged cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades.  In fact, it is from one of Pauline’s own adventures — where she’s literally hanging from a cliff — that we get the phrase ‘cliffhanger‘.

Fifteen years after the success of Pauline, Fort Lee found itself almost completely without an industry, as most producers migrated out west to the flourishing Hollywood scene.  It was at this time that Othmar Ammann developed his strategy for a bridge spanning the Hudson River, one that took advantage of the Palisades’ high elevation.

A Fort Lee historian recently studied a 1918 publicity shot of a later Pauline serial called The House of Hate (below) and discovered it was taken near Coytesville, NJ. Had the film been made a dozen years later, the George Washington Bridge would have been in the shot!

The Bridge to Everywhere: The George Washington Bridge strangely political, unexpectedly naked, undeniably beautiful

PODCAST  The George Washington Bridge is best known for being surprisingly graceful, darting between Washington Heights and the Palisades, a vital connection in the interstate highway system.  It’s also been part of more than a few political scandals. And we’re not even counting the current scandal involving New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

Figuring out a way to cross over the Hudson River (not using a boat or ferry) between New York City and New Jersey has been a challenge that engineers and builders have tried to solve for over two hundred years.  With the formation of the Port Authority in 1921, there was finally an administrative body with the ability to bring a Hudson River bridge to life.

At the core of this story is a professional disagreement (or betrayal, depending on how you see it) between Gustav Lindenthal, the dreamer of a monumental crossing linking New Jersey with Midtown Manhattan, and his protegee Othmar Ammann who envisioned a simpler crossing in a less populated part of town.

The final bridge was eventually built thanks to a few strategic political moves by New Jersey’s Jazz Age governor George S. Silzer. But the original bridge design was quite ornamental, a bridge close in appearance (if twice the size) to the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge you see today is technically unfinished.

ALSO: The story of the little red lighthouse and the great big flag!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #162 George Washington Bridge

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A view of the landscape around the George Washington Bridge, clearly illustrating the two different sets of conditions on both sides of the bridge.  The New York side abuts an existing neighborhood, while the New Jersey side retains a bit more of its natural beauty.  July 4, 1947 (Courtesy New York State Archives)

Gustav Lindenthal worked with Othmar Ammann on the construction of the Hell Gate Bridge, completed in 1917….

…but his ultimate dream of building a colossal Hudson River bridge, with a entrance point on the Manhattan side in Midtown, was never realized.  His vision of a dramatically large span was illustrated in the New York Tribune in 1921:

Othmar Ammann, whose bridge design eventually won out, due to its relative economy (compared to Gustav’s design) and choice of location:

The cable crew of the George Washington Bridge. The daunting construction job was completed ahead of time. (Courtesy Flickr/dsearls whose father appears in this picture!)

Opening day on the bridge, 1931, with 5,000 people in the stands and thousands more gathered around the New York and New Jersey sides.  New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was there, as with Lindenthal and Ammann.  Who was not there? The mayor of New York City Jimmy Walker, who was attending an NYU football game. (Flickr/wavz13)

Margaret Bourke-White captures a Canadian Colonial Airways aircraft flying up the Hudson, October 1939.

Inside the bridge: a selection of photos from the Library of Congress from atop the tower, inside the anchorages, way extremely overhead and incredibly close:

From a cigarette card, showing the New Jersey toll booths:

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge….(Flickr/CPWview)

Footage from the bridge’s opening day featuring FDR in a top hat:

This is how a crossing would have looked in the late 1940s-early 1950s!

Over the river: Six New York bridges under construction

Manhattan Bridge, June 5, 1908 Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives

Queensboro Bridge, August 8, 1907 Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives

George Washington Bridge, 1927, Courtesy Life

Brooklyn Bridge, late 1870s

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, 1960, photo by Matthew Proujansky

Williamsburg Bridge, 1902, courtesy Shorpy

The patriotic story of how the Kosciuszko Bridge got its name


The approach to the Kosciuszko Bridge, photographed in 1939 by the Wurts Brothers.  Photo courtesy the Museum of the City of New York


“That sound that crashes in the tyrant’s ear – Kosciuszko!” — Lord Byron

Byron was talking about Polish hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was (most likely) born on this date in 1746.  Hopefully, within a couple months, the bridge that bears his name — and bears the grievances of those stuck upon it during rush hour — will begin a much-needed makeover.

But how did the span over the Newtown Creek, connecting Brooklyn to Queens, get named the Kosciuszko Bridge in the first place?

Kosciuszko wasn’t just Poland’s most famous revolutionary.  In 1776, he sailed for America to fight alongside George Washington and the Continental Army.  He was a brilliant strategist and engineer, helping bolster many American forts, and was greatly admired by Washington’s generals.  In one of his more clever displays, the man who would one day have a bridge named after him actually blew up several bridges to hamper British advances in upstate New York.**
After the war, he returned to Europe and led the fight for Poland’s independence (although his storied uprising against Russia was ultimately a failure).

Kosciuszko died in 1817 and has been celebrated the world over as the greatest of revolutionaries and perhaps the best known historical figure in Polish history.  But that alone doesn’t get one a bridge in Long Island.

The new automobile bridge, eventually part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was completed in 1939, replacing a smaller one called the Meeker Avenue Bridge.  The new crossing opened in August. Germany invaded Poland nine days later.

New York City’s affinity with Poland was strong by this time. The city had thousands of Polish-Jewish residents.  The Polish pavilion at the World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadow was among the most striking, featuring a bold statue of the Polish monarch Wladyslaw Jagiello.  (That statue was eventually moved to Central Park, where it sits today near the Turtle Pond.)  Some New Yorkers feared a similar invasion upon its own shores.

Below: Construction of the new Meeker Avenue Bridge in June 1939, later to be named Kosciuszko. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives) 

In July 1940, the Meeker Avenue Bridge was renamed the Kosciuszko Bridge, as a sign of the revolutionary spirit that bonded America and Poland.  It certainly made sense given that the Brooklyn anchorage rises from Greenpoint, a vibrant Polish neighborhood.

At an official ceremony on September 23 — a year after the German invasion — thousands of Polish-Americans cheered along to a rousing patriotic speech by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.  On either side of the bridge were parades featuring revelers in traditional Polish costumes.

“[I]n so far as the American people and the American government are concerned,” said La Guardia, “the free government of Poland still lives and will continue to live.”

The crowd roared with applause at the mention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  America would not be officially engaged in World War II until the following year with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ah, but that name!  It remains one of the more perplexing bridge names to say.  It’s correctly pronounced kohsh-CHOOSH-koh, although several slight variations are accepted.  At first, many people simply refused to say it.  In 1945, the New York Times mentioned that “Kosciusko Bridge the people will not have and they call it the Meeker Avenue Bridge to this day.”

Of course, many people preface the name today with an expletive, as the bridge is better known for its traffic entanglements and its lack of any kind of shoulder for stalled cars.  There have been plans for years to replace the bridge, plans which finally look to be rolled out this year.

The Kosciuszko’s younger brother bridge — the Pulaski Bridge, named for another Polish hero, Kazimierz Pulaski — spans the same body of water just a couple miles to the west.

**Tadeusz Kościuszko actually blew up and booby-trapped many bridges during the Revolutionary War on the command of Colonel Philip Schuyler, the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton.