Tag Archives: bridges

Visit the glorious High Bridge, New York’s tribute to the ancient world

The thirst for water has transformed New York.

The Dutch were sold on the island’s placement in the harbor at the mouth of the mighty Hudson River, making it a convenient waypoint for explorers and traders. Soon its ports had built the foundation for New York’s—and later America’s—financial sector.

The city’s most influential nineteenth-century businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, got his feet wet in business first with ferries and steamships before building his mighty railroad empire. Manhattan is surrounded by water, and yet early New York would almost be undone due to a lack of it.

Traces of the city’s centuries-long quest for clean drinking water can be found from the island’s tip to its top—from the site of spring water wells down in Bowling Green to the relics of old water systems that we’ve visited in the past few chapters.

But no monument to freshwater dominates quite like the High Bridge, the Romanesque wonder linking Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Courtesy NYPL

For many decades this majestic artifact, seemingly plucked from the hills of ancient Gaul, was a vital link in that great engineering triumph: the Croton Aqueduct.

With the dense river traffic below and the icky-brackish composition of the surrounding rivers, early New Yorkers had to look beyond their waterways for drinking water. They dug cisterns and hunted down springs, but these couldn’t support the growing city.

By the late eighteenth century, Collect Pond, a so-called freshwater source located northeast of today’s City Hall, had become polluted by the industries that surrounded it, and valiant efforts to bring water from other sources during the Colonial era were dampened by debt and war.

Courtesy MCNY

In 1799 future vice president/murderer Aaron Burr hatched a grand business plan to construct a reservoir system that would distribute water via an elaborate network of hollowed-out logs. (Above: The reservoir and grandest structure of the Manhattan Company system, pictured here in 1825.)

Unfortunately for parched New Yorkers, he ended up using most of the funding for his company to establish a successful bank instead. More than a century and a half later, Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank to become Chase Manhattan, known today simply as “Chase,” one of the largest banks in the world. But his water distribution efforts ended up being woefully inadequate, and left Manhattan high and dry.

NYPL

By the 1830s the city was on the verge of a health crisis, as putrid water, poor sanitation, and all-around squalid living conditions culminated in a series of health epidemics and breakouts—which only heightened the urgent need for clean water.

In April 1835 New Yorkers were so desperate for a freshwater supply that they voted in favor of a seemingly impossible plan: a pipeline that would bring the pure waters of the Croton River, forty miles north in Westchester County, down to city residents. Only underscoring the emergency, eight months later the Great Fire of 1835 would ravage the city. The aqueduct couldn’t be constructed quickly enough.

 

Wikipedia

The elaborate project employed thousands of mostly Irish immigrants for many years (1837–1842). They constructed a sophisticated system of iron piping and brick masonry, which drew upon gravity to run the water through pipes and over arches, across the lush terrain of Westchester, and through the small towns that would later form the nucleus of the Bronx.

But how would the water get into the island of Manhattan? The aqueduct’s architects would need to find a way to keep it flowing across the Harlem River. Drilling technologies were not advanced enough in the 1840s to allow for a tunnel, so planners thought bigger—and higher.

NYPL

The High Bridge, at an elegant 1,450 feet long, is the oldest surviving bridge in New York. Completed in 1848, it not only brought the Croton water into the city, but it also made one heck of a statement noticed around the world.

New Yorkers had pulled off a technological miracle, borrowing engineering and architecture principles not attempted, on this scale, since the glory days of the Roman Empire. They were changing the course of one river forty-one miles away and sending its waters high above another.

“Water! Water!” wrote diarist and former mayor Philip Hone on October 12, 1842, “is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

When the water was finally turned on—flowing on October 14, 1842—the city threw a bash bigger than any since the expulsion of the British in 1783.

The water flowed through pipes across the High Bridge and to a receiving reservoir in the area of today’s Central Park, and from there to a distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

From there it moved through the city, eventually to City Hall Park, where good, clean water shot high into the air and down into the City Hall fountain, to the delight of the public. Imagine— enough water to waste in a fountain!

(At the time of the celebration, the High Bridge had not yet been completed, so Croton water crossed a temporary low bridge. The lofty span replaced the modest one a few years later.)

Below: New Yorkers gathering at City Hall in celebration at the completion of the Croton water system. For more information, check out our podcast on the construction of the Croton Aqueduct

NYPL

 

But the celebrated new system struggled to keep up with the demands of the growing city. In 1872, as masses of new arrivals from far-off lands crammed into tenements, an attractive water tower was constructed near the High Bridge to help increase the water pressure into the city.

The High Bridge and tower in 1915

By this time the High Bridge itself had turned into an attraction, a festive promenade where young gentlemen and their parasol-clinging lady companions could stroll, taking in the striking views of the still-forested landscape that surrounded them, while millions of gallons of clean water coursed beneath their feet.

MCNY

But New York, growing larger every day, would need more water. Much, much more. The introduction of indoor plumbing would require an entirely new and much larger Croton system to be built, which opened in 1890 and employed the massive Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx to satisfy the demand.

But alas, with a million flushes came the end of the High Bridge as an active part of the water system. Its function replaced by unromantic pipes buried underground, the bridge and water tower were retired from service by 1949, and soon these structures modeled after antiquity became historical relics themselves.

Below: The High Bridge, lost in a haze, photographed in 1920

MCNY

In a surprising twist given the unforgiving tendencies of city planners of the day, it was probably the beauty of the bridge and the tower that kept them from being ripped down in a bit of “progress.” Motorists along the Major Deegan Expressway took moments from their traffic jams to reflect on the possible story behind these strange and magnificent artifacts, which grew more incongruous as the modern highway system developed around them.

MCNY

Two years ago this month, the High Bridge was restored, not for the movement of water but for those visitors and their parasols (replaced by headphones, we imagine) to enjoy a one-of-a-kind perspective on their buzzing metropolis.

If you go — or rather, when you go, because you really must see it — reflect upon the water that once passed below you—it helped this city grow.

HOW TO GET TO THE HIGH BRIDGE

Mass Transit: Take the A/C or the 1 train to 168th Street, get out and walk east. OR the M101 bus takes you right up to Highbridge Park

On the Bronx side, you can take the 4 train to Mt Eden Ave but it’s a bit of a walk west. Instead take the Bx11 or Bx13 bus

From the NYC Parks website:

“If you are entering the High Bridge from the Manhattan side, please enter Highbridge Park at West 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue and walk east to the High Bridge Water Tower Terrace staircase down to the bridge level. If entering from the Bronx side, enter at University Avenue and 170th Street in Highbridge, Bronx.”

Some images from my trip there in November. It’s three times as beautiful now!

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

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!

Aaron Burr’s cousin built the first bridge over the Hudson River – in the same year Burr shot Alexander Hamilton


Above: A wooden bridge in Kentucky using the Burr truss, invented by Theodore Burr and first used over the Hudson River’s first bridge span. (Courtesy LOC)

People has schemed to put a bridge over the Hudson River for over two hundred years.  That task would prove most difficult to those in Manhattan, given the distance between its shores and those of New Jersey. After several failed proposals, the two were linked with the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels (1910), the Holland Tunnel (1927), and finally, the George Washington Bridge (1931).

But further upstate, industrious New Yorkers had an easier time of bridging the two sides, as the river became narrower in places and engineers could work upon sparsely populated lands.  The first bridge over the Hudson River rose at the village of Waterford (near Albany) in 1804, the work of inventor Theodore Burr, the cousin of Vice President Aaron Burr.

From an 1820 map of the Hudson River. You can see where Burr’s bridge was located, situated over the Hudson until the 20th century (courtesy NYPL):

While Aaron was engaging in a vituperative war of words with Alexander Hamilton, his cousin Theodore was crafting an extraordinary bridge, described in a later history by his ancestor as “four combined arch and truss spans, one of 154 feet, one of 161 feet, one of 176 feet, and a fourth at 180 feet.”  By this point, he was already a well-known, even adventurous builder, but the Waterford bridge was truly something unique.  He eventually patented his design, which became known as ‘a Burr Truss,’ used in the construction of covered bridges throughout the United States.

A sketch of the Waterford bridge, as illustrated by Thomas Cooper in 1889, and an excellent view of what became known as the Burr Truss:

The bridge was coming along nicely by the spring of 1804.  The local paper noted that “the erection is proceeding rapidly, the abutments, (on shore sides) and one of three piers are already near finished, and the frames of the arches are in a state of equal preparedness.  Concerning the abutments and piers, there is not the least doubt that they will render the bridge secure from ice in spring seasons.”

I’m not sure where Burr was in July, whether at the bridge site or back at his grist mill in Oxford.  The bridge was over one-third completed that month when Theodore got word that his esteemed cousin had met Hamilton in a duel at Weehawken, 150 miles down river, leading to the death of Hamilton.

But while Aaron’s reputation would quickly deteriorate, Theodore’s would briefly flower, becoming America’s most prolific bridge engineer in the early 19th century.  His most impressive span, the Susquehanna River Bridge in Pennsylvania, survived until 1857.

Strangely, however, Theodore’s eventual fate would eventually mirror his cousin’s.  Many of his bridges fell apart, and his finances were ruefully mismanaged.  He actually disappears from the historical record; according to author Donald E. Wolf, “[h]is heirs report that he died in 1822, but they have been unable to say what caused his death or to identify the place of his burial.”

The Union Bridge, as the Waterford-to-Lansingburgh crossing is sometimes called, was called “the greatest wooden span of its time.”  Originally exposed to the elements, the bridge was later sheathed in a covering.  It held sturdy over the Hudson River until it was destroyed in a gas fire in 1909.

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.