In this 1940 photo, the Henry Hudson Bridge is shown from Inwood Hill Park at the northern tip of Manhattan. The Spuyten Duyvil section of the Bronx is shown in the distance. (Photo by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
FULFILLING A LONG-DELAYED PROMISE: In the Riverdale section of the Bronx, there stood an unfinished 100-foot tall marble column amid a weed-filled lot. On top of this unfinished column was to stand a statue of Henry Hudson, who navigated the river that bears his name in 1609. This column was also to serve as the northern terminus of the Henry Hudson Bridge, a project planned by New York City in 1904 to alleviate congestion on the nearby Broadway Bridge (US 9).
The "Hendrick Hudson Memorial Bridge" (as it was called then) was to be completed in time for the 300th anniversary of Hudson's voyage in 1909. The original plan called for a single steel arch similar in design to the arch design of the Washington (Heights) Bridge. Elaborate masonry-arch approaches were to flank the main steel-arch span. However, the influential Municipal Arts Commission vetoed the design, judging that the classical arches were unfit for the forest cliffs along the upper reaches of the Harlem River.
Nearly three decades later, no work had been completed on the proposed bridge. Billboards from previous city administrations proclaiming its imminent start served as the only evidence that a bridge was to be built at that site. It took Robert Moses, the commissioner of city parks and arterial facilities, to bring the project to fruition.
As part of his 1930 arterial plan, Robert Moses planned a "Henry Hudson Parkway" from the West Side of Manhattan to the Bronx-Westchester line, at the beginning of the Saw Mill River Parkway. The project was to provide for not only a limited-access through route from lower Manhattan to Westchester County, but also new acres of parkland. Short of money for the parkway, bridge and park reclamation project, Moses devised an elaborate financing scheme to cover its $109 million total cost. The proposed bridge alone was to cost $10 million.
The original plans showed the parkway swinging to the east at Fort Tryon Park (and the Cloisters), in order to avoid harming the woodlands of Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan and the neighborhoods of Spuyten Duyvil and Riverdale in the Bronx. The parkway would cross the Harlem River on a low-level bridge, perhaps on a drawbridge paralleling the existing Broadway Bridge. Although many urban planners favored the route, as the influential Municipal Arts Commission (which said that the Spuyten Duyvil-to-Riverdale alignment would spoil the last vestige of "wild Manhattan") backed them, Moses opposed the easterly route.
In his Moses biography The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro described the elaborate logistics and financing of the Henry Hudson bridge and parkway project as follows:
Avoiding Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill parks meant that Moses would not be able to use the "free" labor provided for him on "park access roads" by the Civil Works Administration (CWA). The parkway would have to run alongside the parks, on city streets. Under existing federal legislation, it would therefore fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Public Roads - and the legislation establishing the Bureau specifically prohibited it from extending any aid, for laborers' pay or any other expenses, on any road leading to a toll facility. Since Moses was planning to finance the construction of the Henry Hudson Bridge through the sale of bonds of the Henry Hudson Parkway Authority he had had the Legislature create, he would have to have tolls on the bridge to pay off the bonds. The city would therefore have to pay for the parkway north of Riverside Park. Furthermore, there was the cost of condemning buildings needed for the right-of-way. Even if a state or federal agency had been willing to pay for the buildings, it could not legally do so; under one of the most fundamental provisions of the City Charter, only the city had the power to condemn property within its borders. Paying for both labor and land north of Riverside Park would cost the city about $5,000,000 more.
This 1998 photo of the Henry Hudson Bridge was taken from the Spuyten Duyvil section of the Bronx. Originally painted in forest green to blend in with the hillsides, the bridge was painted in medium blue (this application painted in 1989) to blend in with the river. The bridge has since been repainted gray. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
CONVINCING THE FINANCIAL COMMUNITY: By changing the route, Moses was able to reduce the cost of the bridge and its approaches from $15 million to $10 million. Still, he faced obstacles in raising this amount from Wall Street bankers, who were reluctant to issue new bonds during the Great Depression. The bankers were not interested in Henry Hudson Parkway Authority bonds unless the coverage of these bonds - the earnings that would enable the Authority to pay interest and amortize the bonds - was at least 1.75:1, and preferably 2:1. That is, the bridge had to earn as much as twice the amount necessary to pay the interest and amortized principal on the bonds.
After traffic studies and skillful negotiations, the bankers agreed to issue $3.1 million in Authority bonds, the money to be used for constructing a single-deck, four-lane bridge. In addition, the bankers agreed to incorporate in the purchase agreement a provision to purchase an addition $2 million in Authority bonds for a second deck and related reinforcement work, should traffic live up to Moses' expectations.
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: Construction on the Henry Hudson Bridge began in June 1935. Designed by famed engineer David Steinman, the high-level, steel-arch bridge rises from the cliffs on either side of the Harlem River. The 840-foot-long main span, a fixed plate girder arch that was the longest such arch in the world when it was constructed, provides 143 feet of vertical clearance. The main span is flanked by side spans of 300 feet and 409 feet on the Manhattan approach, and by side spans of 300 feet and 270 feet on the Bronx approach.
The bridge opened on December 12, 1936. During 1937, the first full year of operation, more than 17,000 vehicles per day paid ten cents to cross the new Henry Hudson Bridge, despite the close proximity of the free Broadway Bridge. By July 1938, a three-lane upper level was completed, allowing seven lanes of traffic to use the bridge. In 1940, Moses merged the Henry Hudson Parkway Authority into the larger Triborough Bridge Authority.
Originally painted in forest green to blend in with the surrounding geography, the Henry Hudson Bridge was repainted in aluminum gray. Later, the bridge was repainted in medium blue to blend in with the Harlem River.
THE HENRY HUDSON BRIDGE TODAY: Although traffic volumes on the Henry Hudson Bridge dipped when the parallel Major Deegan Expressway (I-87) opened in 1956, they have since returned to pre-Major Deegan levels. Today, approximately 75,000 vehicles per day (AADT) use the seven lanes of the bridge. Northbound traffic uses the three-lane upper level, while southbound traffic uses the four-lane lower level.
In 2005, MTA Bridges and Tunnels completed a five-year, $50 million rehabilitation of the Henry Hudson Bridge. The project, which was carried out by the engineering firm Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist and Birdsall, was comprised of the following phases:
The existing decks of the main span were refitted with steel orthotropic decks. On the viaducts, decks and supporting structures were replaced with concrete beams and slab.
The lower level toll plaza were reconfigured and expanded, and safety improvements were made to facilitate smoother traffic flow. MTA Bridges and Tunnels also made improvements to the nearby Dyckman Street ramps. A study for the replacement of the upper level deck area in the area of the toll plazas also was performed.
The agency also installed new variable message signs and traffic control devices on the main span and approaches.
This 2003 photo shows the northbound Henry Hudson Parkway (NY 9A) over the Henry Hudson Bridge. One lane was taken out of service for ongoing construction. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
Type of bridge: Construction started: Opened to traffic (lower deck): Opened to traffic (upper deck): Length of main span: Total length of bridge and approaches: Number of decks: Number of traffic lanes: Clearance at mid-span above mean high water: Structural steel used in main arch: Structural steel used in side spans: Reinforcing steel: Concrete used in pier and abutments: Concrete used in roadways: Cost of original structure:
SOURCES: "Hudson Parkway Opens Tomorrow," The New York Times (12/11/1936); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); The Bridges of New York by Sharon Reier, Quadrant Press (1977); "Hudson Bridge Turns a Quiet 50," Newsday (12/13/1986); 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); MTA Bridges and Tunnels Facilities, MTA Bridges and Tunnels (2000); "A Controversial '36 Span Through Dreamy Isolation" by Christopher Gray, The New York Times (8/10/2003); New York Metropolitan Transportation Council; Ralph Herman; Jeff Saltzman; Christof Spieler.
Henry Hudson Bridge and NY 9A shields by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman.