1850 – 1935
"I estimate an engineer one-third by his character, one-third by his ability, and one-third by his experience."
Gustav Lindenthal was born in Bruun, Austria on May 24, 1850. He attended some classes at the Provincial College of Brunn and at the polytechnical schools of Brunn and Vienna. He began his engineering career on the Austrian Empress Elizabeth railroad in 1870 and moved to Vienna in 1872 as an Assistant Engineer for the Union-Baugesellschaft building a railroad and an inclined plane. After two years, he became a Division Engineer on the Swiss National railroad in charge of location and construction.
He decided to immigrate to the United States in 1874 where he anticipated greater opportunities. He landed in New York with a poor command of English. Finding no work there, he went to Philadelphia looking for a job in engineering or drafting in the construction of the buildings for the Centennial Exposition whose opening was scheduled for 1876. While working as a mason, he learned English and was moved up to draftsman and later engineer on the design and construction of the iron roof of Memorial Hall and later Horticultural Hall. Afterwards, he went to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania where he worked for three years with the Keystone Bridge Company under Jacob Hays Linville. In 1879 he started a two-year employment with the Atlantic and Great Western railroad. No record exists of any specific bridge that he either designed or supervised the construction of during this five-year period.
In 1881 he went into business on his own as a consulting engineer in the Pittsburgh area. His major bridges in the Pittsburgh area were at Herr's Island across the Allegheny River (1882), Smithfield Bridge across the Monongahela River (1881-1883), a suspension bridge across the Youghiogheny River at McKeesport (1883), and the Seventh Avenue Bridge over the Allegheny River (1884). John A. Roebling's Smithfield Street Suspension Bridge over the Monongahela River, which Roebling built in 1846, was in need of replacement. This was the first long span Pauli Truss built in the United States. It still spans the Monongahela River.
In 1885 he began his 50-year involvement with a plan to build a bridge across the Hudson River from New Jersey into lower Manhattan. He had bridge plans in 1886, 1890 and 1920 at Debrosses Street, 23rd Street and 57th Street, none of which were built. In 1902 he was appointed New York City Bridge Commissioner. At that time the Williamsburg Bridge was under construction, the foundations were under contract on the Blackwell's Island Bridge, the design of the Manhattan Bridge was well along and need to increase the capacity of the Brooklyn Bridge was imperative. During his two years in office, he was in constant conflict with engineers in his department. R. S. Buck resigned, O. F. Nichols was dismissed and an attempt to fire Leffert L. Buck was made but did not get the approval of the Mayor. He left office at the end of 1903 and in early 1904 R. S. Buck and O. F. Nichols were restored to their positions. The Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903 largely as designed by Buck. The Manhattan and Blackwell's Island, now the Queensboro Bridge opened in 1909. Many sources list Lindenthal as the designer of all three bridges but the only one that has the finger prints of Lindenthal on it is the Queensboro Bridge even though the deck plan was developed by a special Board of Engineers. He then designed the replacement bridge for C. Shaler Smith's Kentucky High Bridge originally built in 1876. The railroad was looking for a bridge to carry up to two tracks on a much higher elevation than then existed. His replacement bridge built around Smith's bridge was constructed in 1910-1911 without stopping traffic on the old bridge. [Hell Gate Bridge]
Back in New York and with the Pennsylvania Railroad he planned a line to connect New York City with the New England Railroads. The project consisted of the Hell Gate Bridge along with more than 17,000 feet of approach spans and viaducts. It also included an inverted bowstring truss bridge with four 300-foot spans crossing the Little Hell Gate and a 350 feet fixed truss bridge crosses the Bronx Kill. The Hell Gate Bridge, completed with the help of D. B. Steinman and Othmar Ammann, was for a 1,017-foot steel arch bridge between Astoria in the borough of Queens and Randalls and Wards Islands in New York City. It opened in 1917 and held the record as the longest arch bridge in the world until the Bayonne Bridge opened in 1931.
In 1917 the Sciotoville Bridge over the Ohio River was designed by Lindenthal. It was continuous over a single middle pier with two spans of 775 feet each making them the longest truss spans in the country. In 1922-23 he was called to the Portland, Oregon area to review designs of the Sellwood, Ross Island and Burnside Bridges. These bridges had been designed previously but irregularities in the bidding caused the designs to be rejected. He modified the designs of all three bridges, making the first two continuous trusses. O. Ammann was Lindenthal's chief assistant on these bridges and went to Portland to oversee their design. All three bridges opened in the mid-1920s and still served the area. He was awarded the first Thomas Fitch Rowland Prize by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1883 for his paper on the Monongahela Bridge replacement and again in 1922 for his paper on the Sciotoville Bridge. He was made an Honorary member of ASCE in 1929 but never held a position of leadership in the Society. He was awarded honorary degrees around the world and at the time of his death he was called by some journals "The Dean of American Bridge Builders." He was described as "big and broad-shouldered with deep-set, blue twinkling eyes and iron gray hair and bushy beard. He is genial and good tempered in his moments of relaxation from the tremendous problems he wraps himself up in." He died in his Metuchen, NJ home in 1935 James D. Van Trump, in Historic American Engineering Record, wrote of Lindenthal in 1974: "His designs were characterized by originality and boldness. He differed from many of his American contemporaries in his frequent choice of more complex structural forms."
Resources: Petroski, Henry, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America , Vintage Books, 1996. Plowden, David, Bridges: Spans of North America , W.W. Norton, 1974.