THE FIRST BRIDGE (1884): As early as 1874, residents and business owners petitioned officials in New York City and Westchester County (which governed the Bronx at the time) for a Harlem River bridge at 138th Street. After three years of studying not only the location of the bridge, but also what type of bridge should be built (whether a high fixed bridge or low moveable bridge), the New York City Parks Department, which at the time had jurisdiction over all bridges in the city, received a $100,000 appropriation from the Board of Estimate in 1878.

Between 1879 and 1881, engineer Alfred P. Boller and General John Newton prepared plans for the Madison Avenue Bridge. This planning was done in the context of improving navigation along the Harlem River. During this time, the New York City Parks Department put out various bids for constructing the bridge, which was estimated to cost $510,000.

In 1882, the engineers prepared plans for the bridge approaches. To the south, the bridge was to connect to 138th Street and an enlarged Madison Avenue in Harlem. To the north, the bridge was to connect to a widened 138th Street in the Bronx. Provisions were also made for public parks.

The Madison Avenue Bridge opened for public travel in November 1884, two years after construction began, but finishing work continued for some months thereafter. The iron superstructure consisted of a 300-foot-long draw span, flanked by two fixed spans on either side. On both sides of the main pier, which was made of masonry and protected by timber pilings, vessels had a horizontal clearance of 122 feet, and a vertical clearance that met the new 25-foot standard. The 22-foot-wide roadway was paved with granite blocks, and the 5-foot-wide sidewalks comprised of successive granite slabs, each slab the width of the sidewalk.

Regular trolley service began over the Madison Avenue Bridge in 1885 under the auspices of the Union Railway Company. Initially drawn by horses, the trolleys were converted to an electric service in 1892 by the Metropolitan Street Railway Company.

Over the next dozen years, the New York City Parks Department undertook a number of improvements on the Madison Avenue Bridge. A new engine room was built above the roadway, new machinery was mounted, sections of newly cast steel were installed, and the metal structure was painted.

THE SECOND BRIDGE (1910): When Greater New York was formed in 1898, jurisdiction over the city's bridges was transferred from the parks department to the newly created Department of Bridges. While the Madison Avenue Bridge was structurally sound, it did not provide enough capacity for the growing traffic needs of upper Manhattan and the Bronx. By 1900, the New York City Board of Estimate recommended that an "enlarged structure" be constructed, and that approaches "of suitable width" be built.

Plans were drawn up for the new bridge and revised approaches during 1903 and 1904. In 1905, the Army Corps of Engineers approved the new bridge, and two years later, the New York City Municipal Art Commission approved the project. Soon thereafter, the New York State Legislature approved more than $2 million for bridge construction and additional right-of-way acquisition.

Boller, who created the original Madison Avenue Bridge design as well as those for the 145th Street, Macombs Dam and University Heights swing bridges, returned to design the new Madison Avenue Bridge. Like the original bridge, the 300-foot-long draw span allows 122 feet of horizontal clearance (through each of the two channels) and 25 feet of vertical clearance. However, the new bridge provides two 27-foot-wide roadways and two 9-foot-wide sidewalks, doubling vehicular and pedestrian capacity.

In another departure from convention, the approaches were built of reinforced concrete, instead of earth between granite retaining walls. While the roadway was supported on columns, space was provided below for machinery. This also removed the problem of the settling earthen fill and the uneven pavement that often resulted.

The new Madison Avenue span also revealed Boller's penchant for ornamental ironwork. Originally, the square tower in the center of the swing span had four spires, one atop each vertical girder. (The spires were removed in later years.)

Construction of the new Madison Avenue Bridge began on October 8, 1907. While construction of the new bridge was underway, the New York City Department of Public Works diverted traffic to a temporary span adjacent to the old bridge. Once the temporary span opened, the old bridge was torn down. The temporary timber-and-iron draw span, which was constructed at a cost of $195,000, operated for more than two and one-half years.

The new Madison Avenue Bridge opened to traffic on July 18, 1910. Trolley service over the Madison Avenue Bridge came to an end when the Metropolitan Street Railway Company declined to apply for a permit to cross the new bridge. The company refused the steep new terms: five percent of the gross earnings of the line.

CONNECTING TO THE STREET GRID: The Madison Avenue Bridge, which today is maintained by the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), provides two lanes of eastbound and two lanes of westbound traffic between Manhattan and the Bronx. On the Bronx approach, the bridge directly connects to the Major Deegan Expressway (at EXIT 3). On the Manhattan approach, motorists must take side streets to connect to the Harlem River Drive. According to the NYCDOT, the bridge carries approximately 45,000 vehicles per day (AADT).

REBUILDING THE MADISON AVENUE BRIDGE: In 1994, the NYCDOT began a $54 million reconstruction of the existing Madison Avenue Bridge. The structural rehabilitation work was done by the engineering firm Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist and Birdsall. The final part of the project involves repainting the bridge, and is scheduled for completion in May 2005.

The NYCDOT plans an 18-month, $37 million project for seismic retrofit, mechanical, electrical, masonry and other work. The project is scheduled to begin in 2010, but the need to build a new center pivot pier (and foundations) to meet seismic requirements may push the project beyond the 18-month timeframe.

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

October 8, 1907
July 18, 1910
300 feet
122 feet, 6 inches
1,892 feet
54 feet
4 lanes
25 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); New York City Department of Transportation.

  • Lightpost by Jeff Saltzman.




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