THE FIRST BRIDGE (1814): In 1800, wealthy landowner Alexander Macomb purchased a large amount of land along the eastern bank of the Harlem River in what was then part of Westchester County. Across the Harlem River in Manhattan, Macomb constructed a four-story, tidal-powered grist mill. To connect his land to the grist mill, and to provide additional power for his grist mill, Macomb proposed a dam and bridge, between Bussing's Point on the western bank to Devoe's Point on the eastern bank, in 1810.

In 1813, Macomb petitioned the New York Common Council to construct a toll bridge at 155th Street. He proposed to donate half of the proceeds to the poor of New York City. Later that year, the New York State Legislature granted permission to construct his toll bridge and dam. The dam had to permit marine navigation (which was to be regulated by a manned lock), and the dam could not flood the salt meadows.

The original Macombs dam and bridge opened to traffic in 1814. The hide tide from the East River was admitted through the dam gates, which were closed at high water, and the ebb tide flowing toward the Hudson River provided power to the grist mill. The tides also provided power for new industries that appeared along the river. Although the new transportation link afforded an economic boost for the area, the bridge itself was not financially successful. Nevertheless, tolls continued to be collected for the upkeep of the dam and bridge.

THE SECOND BRIDGE (1861): Over the years, the dam and bridge proved an obstacle to the growing traffic along the Harlem River. Moreover, travelers in lower Westchester County grew angry with the tolls imposed on them. Leading a force of one hundred men, Lewis Morris of Westchester County forced his vessel "Nonpareil" through the Macombs dam and bridge in 1839, tearing a hole in the dam.

Following the incident, the Renwick family, which now held title to the bridge, dam and surrounding land, sued Morris for trespass and damages. Despite the fact that the dam had existed for 25 years, Chancellor Walworth ruled in
Renwick v. Morris that the dam and bridge was a "public nuisance" as follows:

The Harlem River is an arm of the sea and a public navigable river; it was a public nuisance to obstruct the navigation thereof without authority of law. The act of the Legislature did not authorize the obstruction of the navigation of the river in the manner in which it was done by the dam in question.

A draw was constructed immediately following the ruling, but marine navigation through the facility was still difficult. Furthermore, tolls continued to be collected on the facility. To finally resolve this issue, the New York State Legislature directed the New York City Council and the Westchester County Board of Supervisors to build and maintain a free bridge in 1858.

Lewis Morris and Charles Bathgate of Westchester County, along with Richard F. Carman and William James Stewart of New York City, were appointed Commissioners by the act to build the bridge, which was to be completed within two years. The $20,000 cost of the bridge was to be divided equally between New York City and Westchester County. Before building, the old dam and bridge were to be torn down in order to keep the Harlem River navigable at all times.

Edward H. Tracy was selected as the chief engineer for the project. The iron-and-wood bridge featured a turntable draw with two 60-foot openings, and the 210-foot-long draw span featured a square tower design. Underneath the draw span was a main pier made of masonry. Flanking the draw span were a series of Howe trusses. The deck, which was comprised of an 18-foot-wide roadway and two 4-foot-wide sidewalks, was constructed of wooden planks.

Cost overruns and construction delays plagued the second bridge, now renamed the "Central Bridge." The bridge finally opened in 1861 at a cost of $50,000, but the problems did not end there. In the years after it opened, excessive traffic had worn out the wooden planking, and the string pieces of the draw had rotted out, but no monies had been allocated for maintenance and repair.

With the bridge in perilous condition, the New York City Parks Department took over all of the Harlem River bridges in 1871. (Before this was done, the city line was moved out to the eastern bank of the Harlem River.) The parks department undertook a major reconstruction project in the mid-1870's, reconstructing the draw span tower, replacing the wooden planks, and repainting the entire structure. Westchester County reconstructed the eastern approach to meet the grade of Jerome Avenue.

THE THIRD BRIDGE (1895): Even after the repairs, the bridge had become dangerous once again by the early 1880's. The wooden chords on the Howe trusses had deteriorated significantly, and additional piers constructed to support the bridge had weakened. At times, the dilapidated bridge had to be closed to all traffic. George S. Greene, construction engineer for the New York City Parks Department, recommended constructing a new bridge made of iron, a material that provided strength and efficiency.

A number of rehabilitative measures, including replacing the wooden trusses with iron trusses on the old bridge, were undertaken between 1883 and 1889 to buttress the existing span. During this time, the New York City Parks Department selected engineer Alfred P. Boller, who would go on to design the Madison Avenue, 145th Street and University Heights draw spans, to create plans for a new bridge.

In 1890, the parks department voted to replace the bridge, and one year later, the New York City Board of Estimate followed suit. That year, the New York State Legislature authorized construction of the new bridge, which was to take on the historically significant "Macombs Dam" name, and allocated $1.25 million for construction and right-of-way acquisition. The bridge was to be free of tolls, but no horse, cable or other trolley tracks were to be permitted. It was to be built in conjunction with an Army Corps of Engineers project to construct the Harlem River Ship Canal, which was to provide a navigable channel between the East River and the Hudson River.

Upon approval from the War Department, construction began in April 1892 under contract from the Passaic Rolling Mill Company. The old bridge was closed immediately, and demolition work on it commenced while work on the new bridge continued. (However, the old masonry pier remained until 1897.) A temporary bridge carried traffic from 156th Street, one block north of the new span. When it became apparent that the cost of the bridge would exceed $1.25 million, the state legislature allocated additional funds for construction and right-of-way acquisition expenses.

The new Macombs Dam Bridge opened to traffic on May 1, 1895 at a cost of $1.8 million. Initially, steam power propelled the draw mechanisms, and gas lighting provided illumination for the roadway. In 1904, steam and gas power sources were replaced with electrical sources.

Sharon Reier, author of
The Bridges of New York, described the design of the Macombs Dam Bridge and its abutments as follows:

The bridge has been humorously likened to a raffish tiara. Following the precedent of the currently novel Tower Bridge in London, which had used Tudor-style architecture in its abutments, Boller had designed Gothic-revival structures to abut the Macombs swing span. This choice of architectural style makes some sense, as drawbridges did originate with the moats surrounding medieval castles… It is the only movable bridge over the Harlem that warrants a walking tour. The others, also completed around the turn of the century, are less interesting, or are downright blights on the river.

DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: The Macombs Dam Bridge, a rim-bearing swing bridge, features a 412-foot-long draw span that allows 150 feet of horizontal clearance through the two navigable channels, and 25 feet of vertical clearance in the closed position. A two-stage electric engine powers the swing span. The 40-foot-wide roadway between the two exterior trusses permits two lanes of vehicular traffic in each direction, as well as two sidewalks.

The foundation of the Manhattan pier was sunk on a pneumatic caisson to rock, as was the foundation of the center pier. The Bronx pier was built on rock also, but in an open sheet-pile dam, and from that point across the swamp to 161st Street the plans called for pile foundations. However, the unstable swamp on the eastern bank required surrounding on Bronx pier in with collar of sand and concrete.

RAIL SERVICE ON THE BRIDGE: When the Macombs Dam Bridge opened, the New York City Department of Bridges had a provision prohibiting rail service across the span. This provision was lifted in 1907, when the IRT began trolley service over the bridge. The trolley service ran until 1918, when the IRT replaced the trolleys with an extension of the Ninth Avenue El. The new subway line, which provided continuous subway service from Manhattan to the then-new IRT Jerome Avenue Elevated (part of today's IRT #4 subway line), was built on a separate swing span - the Sedgwick Avenue Bridge - that ran parallel to the Macombs Dam Bridge. The parallel span was torn down in the early 1960's.

CONNECTING TO THE STREET GRID: The Macombs Dam Bridge has viaduct approaches connect to 155th Street and Bradhurst Avenue in Manhattan, and to Jerome Avenue and 161st Street in the Bronx. During the 1950's, the eastern viaduct was connected to the Major Deegan Expressway (at EXIT 5). According to the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), which now maintains the span, the Macombs Dam Bridge carries approximately 40,000 vehicles per day (AADT).

REBUILDING THE MACOMBS DAM BRIDGE: In 1999, the NYCDOT began a three-stage, $145 million project to rehabilitate the Macombs Dam Bridge. The project included the following work:

  • rehabilitating and repainting the superstructure

  • refurbishing the draw mechanism and electrical systems on the draw span

  • reconstructing the camelback truss over the Metro-North Railroad, the deck truss over the CSX Railroad, and the viaducts over the Major Deegan Expressway (I-87) and the Harlem River Drive

  • replacing the roadway deck on the bridge and connecting ramps

The project, which was undertaken during the winter months so as not to interfere with Yankee Stadium-bound traffic, was completed in 2004.

In 2010, the NYCDOT plans to begin a three-year, $36 million project to perform seismic retrofitting work on the bridge. Engineers plan to build small piles in the existing piers that support the swing span, strengthen columns and floor beams on the 155th Street Viaduct section, and install lock-up devices that would distribute loads during a seismic event.

Type of bridge:
Construction started:
Opened to traffic:
Length of main span:
Length of two channels:
Total length of bridge and approaches:
Width of bridge:
Width of roadway:
Number of traffic lanes:
Clearance at center above mean high water:
Foundation type:
Cost of original structure:

April 1, 1892
May 1, 1895
412 feet
150 feet
2,540 feet
60 feet
40 feet
4 lanes
28 feet

SOURCES: The Bridges of New York by Sharon Reier, Quadrant Press (1977); "A Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," American Society of Civil Engineers (1997); Modjeski and Masters; New York City Department of Transportation; Mark Feinman; David Jackino; David Pirmann.

  • Lightpost by Jeff Saltzman.




Back to The Crossings of Metro New York home page.

Site contents © by Eastern Roads. This is not an official site run by a government agency. Recommendations provided on this site are strictly those of the author and contributors, not of any government or corporate entity.