This 2000 photo shows the George Washington Bridge (I-95, US 1, and US 9) from the Fort Lee shoreline. (Photo by Mike Tantillo.)
"The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. 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 second tower is very far away; innumerable vertical cables, gleaming across the sky, are suspended from the magisterial curve that swings down and then up. The rose-colored towers of New York appear, a vision whose harshness is mitigated by distance." - Le Corbusier
IN THE PLANNING STAGES: As early as 1906, the governors of New York and New Jersey proposed a bridge over the Hudson River between 179th Street in Manhattan and Fort Lee. That year, the governors appointed an Interstate Bridge Commission for the purpose of constructing one or more trans-Hudson bridges at the joint expense of the two states. A 1910 report from the Commission recommended the Fort Lee location as follows:
From the purely engineering point of view, it is the most economical crossing from Manhattan over the Hudson River that it is possible to select, it being the narrowest part of the river, with comparatively small land damages on either side. The approaches over land are short, that from New York reaching 179th Street over Fort Washington Park, and that from New Jersey over the proposed limits of Palisade Park. The foundation problems are not likely to be of great magnitude as far as can be judged in the absence of borings. The rock is on the surface at Fort Washington point, involving no foundation work whatever, beyond leveling off the same. Furthermore, the channel span need not, in our engineer's opinion, be over 1,400 feet or thereabouts, which will give abundant passage for all river traffic, the north limit anchorage for large vessels being below this crossing. This site has not been bored, but in our engineer's opinion, from the apparent geological condition, 10 million dollars will cover the cost of a bridge at this point for highway and speed trolley service, being in their opinion one-third the cost of a bridge lower down the river.
EXIT LINDENTHAL, ENTER AMMANN: One of the great bridge builders of the early 20th century, Gustav Lindenthal, had dreams of constructing a Hudson River bridge from midtown Manhattan to New Jersey. Lindenthal's Hudson River Bridge was designed to connect rail lines in New Jersey with those in New York City and New England. Part of this rail link was completed in 1916, when his Hell Gate Bridge opened over the East River.
A protégé to Lindenthal, Othmar Ammann, who would become synonymous with mid-20th century bridge design, opposed his superior's idea. Ammann argued that the Lindenthal plan would require expensive approaches in already congested midtown Manhattan, which would be politically controversial.
Instead, Ammann pushed for a Hudson River Bridge between 179th Street in upper Manhattan and Fort Lee, New Jersey, which would accommodate both motor vehicles and light rail. The location of the bridge would be at high points in Manhattan and New Jersey, allowing enough clearance for tall ships without extensive approaches. Furthermore, the location was at a relatively narrow point on the Hudson River, simplifying construction. Ammann believed that the crossing would be an easier political sell, since it would require neither the approval of influential business leaders in midtown Manhattan nor the necessity of persuading railroads to use the bridge.
Facing internal opposition, Ammann struck out on his own, joining forces with newly elected Governor George Silzer of New Jersey. The new bi-state Port Authority had given lukewarm reception to motor vehicle projects, but thanks to the persuasion of Ammann and Silzer, there was enough support on both sides of the Hudson to construct the proposed bridge. In 1925, the Port Authority agreed to take responsibility for constructing the bridge, and employed Ammann as master bridge designer and chief engineer. Cass Gilbert, the designer of the landmark Woolworth Building, provided architectural assistance to Ammann at the new agency.
Three of the rejected designs for the George Washington Bridge. LEFT: The original Ammann design from 1923, which called for conventional suspension cables and concrete-encased steel towers. MIDDLE: This design called for conventional suspension cables and slender steel towers. RIGHT: This design called for an eyebar-and-chain cable design and granite-encased steel towers. (Designs from George Washington Bridge - Design," Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, vol. 97, 1933.)
WEAVING A GREAT BRIDGE: Soon after the Port Authority announced the Hudson River bridge project in 1925, Ammann commissioned consultants for various designs. Initial plans devised by the Port Authority and the Regional Plan Association (RPA) called for a suspension bridge with a 2,700-foot-long main span, with piers approximately 400 feet beyond the pierhead lines.
The final design of the proposed bridge posed an engineering challenge for Ammann. Its 3,500-foot-long main span would be twice that found on any existing suspension bridge. However, considering the length of the main span, the side spans between the anchorages and towers are relatively short. The side spans were of differing length: 650 feet on the New York shore and 610 feet on the New Jersey shore.
In a revolutionary shift from prevailing suspension bridge design convention, Ammann proposed eliminating the stiffening trusses that had been essential for suspension bridges in an earlier age, when they were designed for heavy rail traffic. Instead of using trusses, Ammann theorized that as the weight per linear foot of long-span bridges increased, the deadweight of the bridge deck and the four cables would be sufficient to resist heavy wind, thereby eliminating the need for trusses. Each of the 106-foot-long floor beams weighed 66 tons. Even with a single deck only 10 feet deep, and a depth-to-span ratio of 1:120, neither heavy traffic nor high winds caused the bridge to sway. However, the bridge was designed to accommodate a second, truss-stiffened deck that could be added later.
Two suspension systems were considered for the Hudson River span. One suspension system, known as an eyebar network, employed hundreds of thin metal bars that are connected at the cables and deck by eyelets. (This suspension system is employed at the Manhattan Bridge.) Another suspension system, known as the spun-cable system, employed tens (and even hundreds) of thousands of spun wires spun from anchorage to anchorage over the towers. Because Ammann viewed both systems as equally effective, he contracted out the suspension system for competitive bid. It was John A. Roebling and Sons, the firm founded by the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, which won the contract for its cable-spun suspension design. Each of the four cables was made with 61 large strands, and each strand was spun from 434 wires wound together across the river. Four 180-ton saddles atop each of the towers hold the main suspension cables in place.
A number of tower designs that borrowed from Gothic, Baroque and Art Deco conventions were submitted. One design featured monumental granite-clad, Gothic-style towers, similar to those found on the Brooklyn Bridge, which would house restaurants and observation decks. Economic pressures and public opinion, however, prompted Ammann to use exposed latticework on the 604-foot-high, 20,000-ton steel towers. Indeed, given the advances in steel construction at that time, it was determined that the steel frame alone would be sufficiently strong to carry both the towers' dead and live loads, while the frame's flexibility reduced the weight - and cost (the Port Authority saved approximately $1 million on the new design) - of the steelwork.
The New Jersey tower was located 76 feet into the Hudson River, while the New York tower was built on land to avoid the steep drop from the Manhattan shoreline. Both towers comprised of twelve 50-foot-long sections; each tower section was floated one-by-one to the piers. Each leg of the towers houses an elevator.
The 110,000-cubic-yard concrete masonry forming the anchorage for the cables on the New York side weighs 350,000 tons. On the New York side of the bridge, the tower foundation and anchorage were both constructed in Fort Washington Park. On the New Jersey side of the bridge, the anchorage lies in the solid rock of the Palisades. For the tower foundation, the largest cofferdam ever constructed was sunk into the Hudson River.
A PROFESSIONAL, COMPETITIVE SPIRIT: For the first time in New York, an entirely professional bridge crew was employed to build a major bridge. Like the engineers who designed the structure, the professional bridge workers had a great competitive spirit. They were divided into separate teams, one for each of the towers, one for spinning the cables and one for installing the roadway. A friendly rivalry even ensued between the New York and New Jersey tower teams, with each side racing to finish their tower first. The cables were spun in 209 working days with a work force of 300 men.
LEFT: This 1929 photo shows the erection of the two 604-foot-tall towers on the George Washington Bridge. RIGHT: This 1930 aerial view shows the completion of the four main cables across the Hudson River. (Photos by Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.)
THE BRIDGE PLAZAS: The original plan for the New York bridge approach had its genesis in the "City Beautiful" movement. It was to feature several ramps leading to a traffic circle, which would have been highlighted by a spectacular fountain. Although visually appealing, the design was not suited to the demands of high-speed, high-density traffic. Instead, a complicated series of ramps and overpasses was constructed.
The New Jersey approach, part of which was carved out of the solid rock of the Palisades, was designed for beauty, efficiency and safety. The original architectural design of the toll plaza, maintenance facilities and floodlight towers recalled the stylistic forms of the past. Nearly all of these features were lost in the two toll plaza expansions during the early 1960's and the early 1980's.
IN THE WORDS OF THE PORT AUTHORITY: The following is an excerpt from Perpetual Motion, a history of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:
The "Hudson River Bridge," as the George Washington Bridge was called in the early days, was twice the length of any existing span, and it required an intricate system of access roads to handle large volumes of traffic.
The bridge's two steel towers, embedded deep in rock and concrete, soar 604 feet into the sky, each as tall as some of Manhattan's great skyscrapers. They contain more than 43,000 tons of steel. Rope cables were strung from anchorages on each shore and draped in an arc between towers, like a giant silver braid. When 36 of them had been placed, catwalks were erected to provide walking platforms.
Cable spinning required two spinning wheels on each side of the river that traveled back and forth to create strands about the diameter of a pencil. The strands were spun into four great cables, each a yard in diameter. Steel suspender ropes were then hung from the cables, each containing some 107,000 miles of wire.
Within this silver web, steel sections were put in place to form the roadway, which progressed from each shore until the last section joined the other in the middle. Finally, the concrete was poured, the lanes were laid down, and the bridge was painted.
The Port Authority did its part to publicize the unprecedented project. In addition to print, the agency employed filmmakers and still photographers to chronicle construction highlights.
The George Washington Bridge in 1932, one year after it opened, looking west across the Hudson River toward New Jersey. Note the lack of stiffening trusses on the deck. These trusses would not be added until the lower level was completed in 1962. Also note the exposed cable saddles atop the towers. Decking atop the towers was added later to protect the cable saddles. (Photo by Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, LC-G612-18736.)
DEDICATING THE BRIDGE: The six-lane George Washington Bridge was completed on October 25, 1931, eight months ahead of schedule, at a cost of $59 million and 12 lives. First named the "Hudson River Bridge," other names for the bridge had been considered, including the "Palisades Bridge," "Fort Lee Bridge," "Columbus Bridge" and "Verrazano Bridge," before the Port Authority decided upon the "George Washington Memorial Bridge" in 1930. Later, the name was shortened to "George Washington Bridge."
Officials on both side of the Hudson praised the bridge as the realization of a long-sought dream. More than 30,000 people witnessed the opening of the bridge, and many more listened to the opening ceremonies on the radio. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, standing alongside Governor Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey, dedicated the bridge in honor of the first President as follows:
In every patriotic sanctuary, there is at least one figure so serenely certain of enduring honor that the scrutiny of centuries can never shake its permanence. In dedicating the George Washington Bridge, we pay tribute not so much to the military triumphs of a great general, not to the attainments of a great executive, but to a more precious heritage. We offer homage to great ideals, exemplified in Washington's career and stamped indelibly upon our national thought. Out of the wealth of vital principles demonstrated by his deeds, I feel that three are peculiarly significant and especially appropriate to this occasion. They are the worth of integrity, the need for intelligence and the fact of our independence.
It should be an inspiration to us to recall that here, at Fort Washington in 1776, our forebears made one of the most valiant stands against insurmountable obstacles of the entire Revolutionary War. Here, at Jeffrey's Hook, Washington and his generals once struggled to block this channel against a hostile fleet with the sunken hulls of ships. Here, in a defense unmatched for heroism, 3,000 Americans sacrificed all for a great cause. We may rejoice that this great bridge marks a site so sacred in patriotic memories.
When it opened, the George Washington Bridge not only connected New York with New Jersey, but also completed one of the earliest pieces of the tri-state arterial highway network recommended in 1929 by the RPA. In its first year of operation, it was forecast that 60 million vehicles would use the bridge. For six years, the Hudson River span held the title of the world's longest suspension bridge. It was eclipsed by San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, which has a main span of 4,200 feet, in 1937.
Several years after the bridge opened, new protective housing was constructed atop the towers for the cable saddles.
This 2002 photo shows the George Washington Bridge (I-95, US 1 and US 9) at mid-span approaching Fort Lee, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
EXPANDING AND IMPROVING THE BRIDGE: When constructing the George Washington Bridge, Ammann had foresight to allow for additional future growth. The median was reserved for either two additional lanes for vehicular traffic, or two light rail tracks. The Port Authority chose the former option, and in 1946, it increased the capacity of the bridge to eight lanes, and installed a movable median barrier to maximize peak-period flow during rush hours. (By 1970, as cross-Hudson traffic increased in both directions, the Port Authority replaced the moveable barrier with a permanent median barrier on the upper deck.)
In 1955, after nearly a decade of explosive traffic growth, Robert Moses chaired the Joint Study of Arterial Facilities between the Port Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The Joint Study was developed to spearhead construction of new bridges and expressways, including an unbuilt Hudson River Bridge between 125th Street in Manhattan and Edgewater, New Jersey. One of the proposals called for the addition of a six-lane lower level to the George Washington Bridge.
Construction of the $20 million lower deck began in 1959. The construction of the lower deck followed Ammann's original design. Without interruption to the eight traffic lanes above, 76 structural steel sections were hoisted onto the bridge from below. The lower deck was designed with a minimum clearance of 15 feet between the upper and lower deck roadways. Even with the addition of the lower deck, the bridge had a clearance of 213 feet over the Hudson River. Stiffening trusses were incorporated into the design of the lower deck to provide additional stability against torsion. The additional weight required a slight adjustment on the rollers atop the towers.
The Port Authority and other agencies allocated an additional $60 million for the construction of new approach roads, including the Trans-Manhattan Expressway and Alexander Hamilton Bridge (both part of I-95) on the New York side, and the Bergen-Passaic Expressway (which includes parts of I-95 and I-80) on the New Jersey side. The lower deck and new approach roads were completed on August 29, 1962.
The following year saw the completion of the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, a concrete wing-roofed building designed by Italian engineer Luigi Nervi. The terminal has a capacity for 200 buses and more than 10,000 people. Ramps connect the terminal to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.
REPLACING THE UPPER DECK: Work began in early 1977 on an $18.5 million project to replace the then-46-year-old upper deck of the bridge. The old concrete deck was lifted out in sections and replaced with pre-made, 11-foot by 60-foot steel roadway sections, each prefabricated and pre-paved so that it could be inserted in place and ready to use. All of the work was done at night so all eight lanes of the upper deck could be used by the morning rush hour. This project was one of the first uses of orthotropic deck replacement--where structural supporting units also form the deck--on a major suspension bridge. It was completed in late 1978.
THE BRIDGE AS LEGEND: In 1942, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge was written by Hildegarde Swift about a tiny lighthouse that stands next to the Manhattan tower of the George Washington Bridge. To this day, this story remains a favorite among children.
Ammann's theory about the strength of his bridge was put to the test in December 1965, when a private plane crashed on the upper deck of the bridge. Fortunately, both the bridge and the pilot escaped unharmed.
The New Jersey tower of the bridge stores the largest free-flying flag in the world. Flown on holidays over the roadway, the 475-pound U.S. flag, which measures 60 feet by 90 feet, features five-foot-wide stripes and three-foot-wide stars.
This 2000 photo shows the George Washington Bridge (I-95, US 1, and US 9) from the Manhattan approaches. (Photo by Mike Tantillo.)
THE "GWB" TODAY: Today, the George Washington Bridge has the 13th longest main suspension span in the world. As an important link in the I-95 corridor serving the Boston-to-Washington megalopolis, the George Washington Bridge carries approximately 300,000 vehicles per day (AADT), making the 14-lane span one of the busiest in the world. In respect of its innovative design, the bridge was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1981, on the occasion of the bridge's 50th anniversary.
In 2001, the Port Authority prohibited trucks from using the lower level of the bridge at all times. Three years later, the agency further restricted the use of the lower level to passenger cars with an EZ-Pass tag during the overnight hours (11 PM to 5 AM). The EZ-Pass restriction does not apply at other times.
The Port Authority has planned the following improvements to the George Washington Bridge:
In 1999, work began on the rehabilitation nearly five miles of ramps connecting the George Washington Bridge to roadways in New York and New Jersey. Some of the ramps date back to the original construction of the bridge in the 1920s, while others were built when the span's second level was added in 1962. The project involved the rehabilitation of girders, columns, bridge decks, drainage and electrical systems, and roadway surfaces. New roadway expansion joints, guardrails, crash barriers, signs and lighting were also installed. The $38 million project was completed in May 2001.
In 2000, the Port Authority completed a $2 million project to illuminate the steel-lattice towers of the George Washington Bridge. This special lighting is used to commemorate holidays and other special occasions.
In 2002, the Port Authority began work to repaint the 604-foot-tall towers and the underside of the upper deck. Workers are removing older coats of lead-based paint, and are applying a three-coat paint system that includes a zinc primer, epoxy intermediate coat and a urethane topcoat. The $85 million project was completed in 2006.
In November 2004, the Port Authority completed the installation of 25 MPH EZ-Pass lanes at the northbound (eastbound) lower level of the bridge, and at the toll plaza leading to the bridge from the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
WHAT WON'T GET BUILT (AT LEAST NOT NOW): The following projects remain on the long-range plans of the Port Authority, but have been postponed:
The Port Authority still plans to build new ramps between the lower level of the George Washington Bridge and the Palisades Interstate Parkway. Currently, access to and from the parkway is only available to the upper deck of the bridge. Originally scheduled for construction between 2005 and 2009, this project has been postponed indefinitely.
The Port Authority had planned to replace the vertical suspender ropes on the bridge in time for the diamond anniversary of the bridge in 2006, but instead has postponed the project indefinitely. Although the suspenders have lost an estimated ten percent of their strength over the years, the bridge is not in danger of failure because it was "over-engineered." The replacement project is not expected to disrupt traffic, but is expected to cost more than the original $59 million cost of the bridge.
This 1997 photo shows the George Washington Bridge looking south along the Hudson River. Note the "little red lighthouse" on the left, at the base of the Manhattan tower. (Photo by Paul Ward.)
Type of bridge: Construction started: Opened to traffic (upper deck): Opened to traffic (lower deck): Length of main span: Length of side span (New York): Length of side span (New Jersey): Length, anchorage to anchorage: Width of bridge: Number of decks: Number of traffic lanes: Height of tower above mean high water: Clearance at mid-span above mean high water: Steel used in towers and suspended structure: Weight of each cable: Number of cables: Diameter of each wire: Number of wires in each cable: Total length of wires: Cost of original structure:
Suspension October 21, 1927 October 25, 1931 August 29, 1962 3,500 feet 630 feet 610 feet 4,760 feet 119 feet 2 decks 14 lanes (8 upper, 6 lower) 604 feet 213 feet 43,000 tons 28,450 tons 4 cables 0.196 inch 26,474 wires 107,000 miles $59,000,000
SOURCES: "Two Governors Open Great Hudson Bridge As Throngs Look On," The New York Times (10/25/1931); "New Bridge a Test of Engineers' Skill," The New York Times (10/25/1931); George Washington Bridge, American Society of Civil Engineers (1933); "George Washington Bridge Approach and Highbridge Expressway Interchange," The Port of New York Authority, New York State Department of Public Works and New York City Construction Coordinator (1952); Joint Study of Arterial Facilities; The Port of New York Authority-Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1955); "Lower Deck of George Washington Bridge Is Opened" by Joseph C. Ingraham, The New York Times (8/30/1962); Arterial Progress 1959-1965, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); "New $18.5 Million Deck Slated for George Washington Bridge," The New York Times (7/09/1976); The Bridges of New York by Sharon Reier, Quadrant Press (1977); "Replacement of the Upper Deck of the George Washington Bridge" by R.M. Monti, Eugene Fasullo, and Daniel M. Hahn, Annals of the New York Academy of Science (Volume 352, Issue 1, 1980); Great American Bridges and Dams by Donald C. Jackson, Preservation Press-John Wiley and Sons (1988); Engineers of Dreams by Henry Petroski, Vintage Books-Random House (1995); "A Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," American Society of Civil Engineers (1997); Bridges by Judith Dupre, Black Dog And Leventhal Publishers (1997); Perpetual Motion: The Illustrated History of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by Joe Mysak and Judith Schiffer, General Publishing Group (1997); "GWB Spanned the Hudson, Defined a Region" by Don Stancavish, The Bergen Record (8/15/1999); The Creation of Bridges by David Bennett, Chartwell Books (1999); New York: An Illustrated History by Ric Burns, James Sanders and Lisa Ades, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing-Random House (1999); "Paying Toll May Soon Be a Zip" by Pat R. Gilbert, The Bergen Record (6/18/2000); Six Bridges: The Legacy of Othmar H. Ammann by Darl Rastorfer, Yale University Press (2000); "Happy Birthday: EZ-Pass Turns Ten" by Sy Oshinsky and Chris King, AAA-Car and Travel Magazine (December 2003); New Jersey Department of Transportation; Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Dave Block; Robert V. Droz; Hank Eisenstein; Dave Frieder; Ralph Herman; Carol Reese; Mike Tantillo; Carl Tarum; Stéphane Theroux; Douglas A. Willinger; William F. Yurasko.
I-95, US 1, US 9 and George Washington Bridge shields by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.