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Almanac: Imposing Bridge Worthy of First President

September marks the anniversary of the groundbreaking of the George Washington Bridge and October marks the anniversary of its dedication and opening. A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new bridge on September 21, 1927 and when it opened four years later, on October 25, 1931, the bridge surpassed the Ambassador Bridge for the title of longest main span in the world.

Spanning the river to link New York City and New Jersey had challenged planners and engineers for decades. In 1888, Gustav Lindenthal proposed a suspension bridge at 23rd Street that would carry six railroad tracks. During the following years, arch and cantilever designs were also proposed and subsequently rejected. Although Lindenthal’s suspension bridge plans were approved by the War Department, the Panic of 1893 hindered financing of a bridge. Plans for a Hudson River crossing were revived in 1906 with the Interstate Bridge Commission looking at a bridge at 59th Street, but the commission ultimately opted for an underwater crossing. The North River Bridge Company developed another proposal, by Lindenthal, for a large Hudson River suspension bridge at 57th Street in Manhattan. This grand design would have been built at a cost of $200 million, to carry 20 highway lanes on the upper level and 12 railroad tracks on the lower level, all supported by eyebar chains, but neither the city nor the railroads were supportive.

In 1921, a bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate to create a corporation with the authority to construct a pontoon bridge between Alpine, New Jersey and Yonkers as a temporary crossing measure. The pontoon bridge plan was dropped but New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, Jr. and New Jersey Governor George S. Silzer urged the newly created Port of New York Authority to construct a Hudson River crossing. Preliminary designs for a bridge began in July 1925, and test borings were made at 178th Street. The site was chosen as the most desirable because of its topography and for its potential connections to adjacent roadways. Port of New York Authority chief engineer Othmar H. Ammann proposed a crossing near the northern tip of Manhattan where land prices were lower and the cliffs on both sides of the Hudson would lift the bridge over ship traffic.

The George Washington Bridge was designed by Ammann, the first of several major long-span bridges that Ammann designed in New York City. The design included a 3,500-foot center span suspended between two 570-foot steel towers, to carry two levels of bridge deck. When construction started, the estimated cost of the bridge was $75 million.

The world's largest cofferdams were constructed to excavate 80 feet below the water level to create the foundations for the New Jersey tower. The two towers consist of 43,070 tons of steelwork held together by more than a million rivets. The original design for the towers of the bridge called for them to be encased in concrete and granite; however, cost cutting measures taken during the Great Depression to keep the construction cost at $60 million indefinitely postponed a plan by architect Cass Gilbert to encase the bridge's towers.

After completion of the towers, workers strung the main cables over the towers from both sides of the shore. Work on the steel cables began on July 14, 1929 and the final wire was spun on August 7, 1930. A total of 107,000 miles of wire fabricated by the John A. Roebling's Sons Company were used in the cables, more than four times the combined amount used in the seven largest suspension bridges of the time. Each of the four main cables is comprised of 26,474 pencil-thin wires and is a yard in diameter. The New York anchorage, into which the main cables are anchored, consists of 110,000 cubic yards of concrete weighing 260,000 tons. The anchorage on the New Jersey side is the diabase rock of the Hudson Palisades.

 Old George Washington Bridge
 Bridge with single deck 1931-1962

 

 Othmar Ammann
 Othmar Ammann

 

 New George Washington Bridge
 Bridge with Double Deck 1962-present

 
With the cables strung, workers then hung steel suspenders from the cables, which would support the roadway and then the last step was to build the roadway and hang it from the suspenders. Workers built the six-lane road deck in sections foot by foot, out from the shores, hanging it from the steel suspenders as they went. They carried the pieces to the construction site by rail, hauled them into the river by boat, and then hoisted them into place by crane. With a span of 3,500 feet, the George Washington Bridge nearly doubled the previous record of 1,850 feet. It held this title until the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. The total length of the bridge is 4,760 feet.

The bridge was dedicated on October 24, 1931, eight months ahead of schedule, and opened to traffic the following day. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the bridge, noting, “This will be a highly successful enterprise. The great prosperity of the Holland Tunnel and the financial success of other bridges recently opened in this region have proven that not even the hardest times can lessen the tremendous volume of trade and traffic in the greatest of port districts." The efficiency exhibited by the Port of New York Authority in the design and construction of the George Washington Bridge impressed President Roosevelt, who used it as a model in creating the Tennessee Valley Authority and other such entities.

Originally known as the "Hudson River Bridge" or the "Fort Washington-Fort Lee Suspension Bridge," the bridge was officially named the George Washington Bridge by the Port of New York Authority on April 23, 1931. The Bridge is near the sites of Fort Washington (on the New York side) and Fort Lee (in New Jersey), which were fortified positions used by General Washington and his American forces in his unsuccessful attempt to deter the British.

During the first full year of operation in 1932 more than 5.5 million vehicles used the original six-lane roadway. As traffic demand increased, additional construction became necessary. The two center lanes of the bridge, which had been left unpaved in the original construction, were opened to traffic in 1946, increasing capacity of the bridge by one-third. In August 1962 the bridge capacity was increased by another 75% as six lanes of the lower roadway deck opened, which the New York Times called “a masterpiece of traffic engineering” and other observers referred to as the “Martha Washington.” With its fourteen lanes of traffic and over 100,000,000 vehicles per year, the George Washington Bridge is now one of the busiest bridges in the world.

The George Washington Bridge is considered by many to be an aesthetically elegant work of structural art. Although the scale of the bridge was great, Ammann’s application of deflection theory in the design made for a delicate, slender profile, through the use of horizontal plate girders in the roadway in lieu of vertical trusses. The exposed steel towers, with their distinctive bracing, have become one of the bridge's most identifiable characteristics, having gained public acceptance. In 1947 French architect Le Corbusier called the George Washington Bridge ''the most beautiful bridge in the world” and further lauded the structure:

“Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apron; the second tower is very far away; innumerable vertical cables, gleaming against the sky, are suspended from the magisterial curve which swings down and then up. The rose-colored towers of New York appear, a vision whose harshness is mitigated by distance."

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