This 2002 photo shows the Queensboro Bridge (NY 25) from the FDR Drive in Manhattan. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
"The structure of the bridge itself is an intricate mass of interlacing steelwork, seemingly incapable of architectural beauty because of the strict requirement imposed by the structural conditions in the design of compression and tension members. Yet, as we look upon the bridge from varying points of view, there is a charm, a certain gracefulness in the repetition of symmetrical parts… Wrought entirely of structural steel, at many points small adornments add appreciably to the delicacy of the structure." - Architecture and Builder (1909)
EARLY ATTEMPTS AT A BRIDGE TO QUEENS: Between midtown Manhattan and Long Island City, Queens, the East River splits into two narrower channels - West Channel and East Channel - that flow around Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island). As early as 1838, a multi-span suspension bridge linking the East Side of Manhattan with Long Island City, Queens was proposed over Blackwell's Island. Later, in 1856, John Roebling proposed a crossing at this location consisting of two suspension bridges, each with main spans 800 feet long. The two suspension bridges were to be linked by a cantilever bridge with a main span of 500 feet. The roadway was to be a mere 22 feet wide, and was to be flanked by six-foot-wide walkways on either side. Roebling estimated that the bridge would cost $1.2 million.
When the project stalled in 1857, Roebling wrote to Abram Hewitt, an industrialist who would become mayor of New York in the 1880's, and suggested that a bridge be built between Manhattan and Brooklyn. On April 16, 1867, both the New York and Long Island Bridge Company (the group in charge of the Blackwell's Island Bridge) and the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company (the group in charge of the Brooklyn Bridge) received their state charters on April 16, 1867.
The chief stockholder in the newly formed New York and Long Island Bridge Company was Austin Corbin, a railroad tycoon who had a majority interest in the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). He backed the bridge with the expectation that it would connect the Harlem Line in Manhattan with LIRR lines on Long Island, and with a proposed spur line to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The new company also had the support of Long Island property owners and industrialists, most notably from famed piano manufacturer William Steinway and steamship operator Dr. Thomas Rainey.
In 1881, the company proposed a two-mile-long, railroad suspension bridge that would enter Manhattan at East 77th Street. Access to street level in Manhattan was to be "by enormous passenger elevators not unlike those in first-class hotels." Not having to construct long suspension spans - the 800-foot spans were to be little more than half the 1,595-foot main span of the Brooklyn Bridge - were to keep the cost of the bridge under $5 million. Meanwhile, the enormous potential revenue that would be generated from tolls made the bridge appear to be a sound financial plan. However, the low population density of Queens hindered construction, and some officials charged that the bridge was being proposed for the benefit of real estate speculators. The New York and Long Island Bridge Company went bankrupt in 1893, having constructed only one pier.
In 1899, engineer R.S. Buck submitted one more preliminary plan for the "Blackwell's Island Bridge." The design, which was to have a deck 120 feet wide, called for two cantilever spans of unequal length carrying two carriageways, two pedestrian walkways, four trolley tracks and two railroad lines. The cantilever design took advantage of Blackwell's Island, and was therefore more economical than a longer suspension design. Although the Army Corps of Engineers approved the design in 1901, it was ultimately rejected.
The Queensboro Bridge under construction in August 1907. This photo was taken from the Queens shoreline, looking toward Roosevelt (originally called Blackwell's, later called Welfare) Island. (Photo by New York City Municipal Archives.)
PLANNING AND CONSTRUCTION: In 1902, Mayor Seth Low tapped noted bridge engineer Gustav Lindenthal to serve as commissioner of the new Department of Bridge. In one of his first acts in office, Lindenthal proposed a rail bridge over the East River that would link the Harlem Line (now part of Metro-North Rail Road) at East 59th Street in Manhattan with the LIRR in Long Island City, Queens.
Collaborating with Leffert L. Buck and Henry Hornbostel, who both designed the Williamsburg Bridge, Lindenthal proposed a twin cantilever design for the Queensboro Bridge, a design he believed appropriate for rail traffic. The chords of the cantilever are connected by a series of eyebars. Unlike most cantilever bridges, there is no center suspended span between the counterbalanced arms of the cantilever spans.
One year later, Lindenthal unveiled a final design proposal that called for two large cantilever spans of 1,182 feet and 984 feet, which are connected by a smaller span of 630 feet over Blackwell's Island. The main spans are flanked by side spans of 469½ feet on the Manhattan side, and 459 feet on the Queens side. Including approaches, the total length of the Queensboro Bridge measures 7,449 feet. Four 350-foot steel towers (originally topped with tall spires) were constructed on stone piers to support the bridge. The two 80-foot-wide decks had a greater vehicular capacity than R.S. Buck's previous design. Masonry approaches were to accommodate the passage of local street traffic, and on the Manhattan side, a marketplace lined with Guastavino tile.
Despite the urging of city officials and the "Committee of Forty," a group of Long Island business interests, a number of delays plagued construction progress. When Tammany-backed George McClellan became mayor, he replaced Lindenthal with George E. Best as the city's bridge commissioner. Moreover, the collapse of an uncompleted section during a fierce windstorm, a lengthy steel strike and the placement of dynamite on the span by union saboteurs opposing the project's open-shop policy, added to the construction delays.
The 1907 collapse of another cantilever span under construction, the Quebec Bridge, raised concerns about the safety of the Queensboro span among not only the engineering community, but also among New Yorkers. Two independent consultants stated that while the bridge design was not faulty, they did raise concerns about the overuse of steel and the lack of testing of compression members. (A rumor circulated among engineers that the United Pennsylvania Steel Company added extra steel to the bridge, prompting Hornbostel to respond, "My God, it's a blacksmith's shop!") The redesign work, which included the removal of the extra steelwork, delayed the opening of the bridge.
Original cross-section of the roadway on the Queensboro Bridge. (Figure by Paul Phillipe Cret and Rudolphe Modjeski.)
THE BRIDGE OPENS AND TRANSFORMS QUEENS: The final link in the superstructure of the Queensboro Bridge was completed in 1908. On March 30, 1909, the bridge opened to the public at a cost of $20 million and 50 lives. The opening ceremonies, which were sponsored by the "Committee of Forty," featured a two-hour fireworks spectacular that attracted the attention of even the most jaded Manhattanites.
When the bridge opened, The New York Times interviewed the 85-year-old Dr. Rainey, one of the original proponents of the Queensboro Bridge:
This is my bridge. At least it is the child of my thought, of my long years of arduous toil and sacrifice. Just over there, are the old towers of my bridge, which I began to build many years ago. I spent all I owned on the project, and then New York, with all its wealth and power, came in and took away my possessions, and I am now in my old age. I am in ill health and alone to eke out my remaining days.
It is a grand bridge, much greater than the one I had in mind. It will be in service to thousands in the years to come, when Dr. Rainey and his bridge projects will long have been gathered into the archives of the past.
The original configuration of the bridge allowed for the following roadway configuration:
Two elevated railway lines were provided on the north side of the upper level. Service on the IRT elevated lines began in 1917, providing connections from the IRT Second Avenue elevated line to Astoria (via the current N line) and Corona (via the current #7 line). The bridge's elevated railway tracks were removed in 1942.
Two trolley lines were provided on the outer lanes of the lower level. The trolley service, operated by the Queensborough Bridge Railway, went back and forth between stations at each end of the bridge. The trolleys also stopped at two other stops on the bridge: one above Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City, the other above Roosevelt Island. From these stations, trolley riders descended a small staircase to a catwalk underneath the roadway, where they entered an "upside down building" (the entrance was on the roof) in which they took elevators to street level. Trolley service ended with the completion of the Roosevelt Island Bridge in 1955. The old elevator buildings were demolished in 1970.
Six vehicular lanes were provided: four lanes in the center of the lower level, and two lanes on the south side of the upper level. In 1957, after the old elevated railway and trolley tracks were removed, the roadways were reconfigured to allow eleven lanes for vehicular use (seven on the lower level, four on the upper level). The center five lanes of the lower level had a traffic light above the middle lane to regulate traffic flow. During the 1980's reconstruction, the center of the lower level was reconfigured to four wider lanes and a median barrier (where none had existed before), bringing to total vehicular capacity to ten lanes.
Finally, walkways for pedestrians and bicyclists were provided.
In the early years, the Queensboro Bridge epitomized elegance. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the Queensboro Bridge played an important role in the travels of wealthy Long Islanders to Manhattan. Over the years, however, this crossing played a more utilitarian role, transforming Queens from a rural outpost into a borough with a population of over one million by 1930's, and swelling to over two million by the 1950's.
This 1932 photo shows the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge from the Long Island City shoreline in Queens. In the distance is the Manhattan skyline. (Photo by Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, LC-G612-17838.)
MOSES' PLANS FOR THE QUEENSBORO BRIDGE: In 1962, Robert Moses planned to construct a 2,000-car parking garage at the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge. Doing so would have required the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to condemn a square block of buildings. The proposal had the support of the New York City Planning Commission, which was also controlled by Moses.
Soon after he became New York City Traffic Commissioner, Henry Barnes soon learned more details about the proposal. From Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker:
And then they revealed that atop the garage was to be built a seven-story department store that would be leased to Macy's. To his astonishment, Barnes realized that Moses was planning to use powers and funds of a public authority ostensibly set up to aid transportation to condemn a score of buildings, evict the tenants, and turn it over, complete with Authority-financed parking facilities right in the store, to a private business. And he further realized, as the conversation unfolded, that the planning had advanced to the point at which even the details of the lease - its term was to be fifty years - had been finalized, and that Moses had persuaded Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. to approve.
Finally, after decades of neglect, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) announced a long-term project to rebuild the Queensboro Bridge. The NYCDOT hired the engineering firm Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist and Birdsall to oversee the project.
The reconstruction was divided into six contracts:
CONTRACT 1: This first part of the reconstruction focused on rehabilitating the lower outer roadways of the superstructure and rebuilding the elevated approaches to the bridge in Queens. The outer roadways had been closed since 1978 after engineers found structural deficiencies. Begun in 1981, this phase of reconstruction was completed in 1987.
CONTRACT 2: Under this contract, reconstruction work moved to the two-lane eastbound upper roadway. The upper deck was reopened to eastbound traffic in 1989.
CONTRACT 3: The largest of the six contracts included reconstruction of the two-lane westbound upper roadway and the Manhattan approaches. It also included the rehabilitation of the main bridge lower truss chords and the main bridge pier tops, the replacement of two outer roadway floorbeams, and the deck at the Manhattan anchor pier. Most of the reconstruction was completed in 1987, except for the westbound upper roadway (which reopened in 1989).
CONTRACT 4: With the completion of work on the upper roadway in 1989, engineers focused their attention on rehabilitating the four-lane inner roadway. During this period, work also was done to rehabilitate the trusswork and towers on the superstructure. This work was completed in 1996.
CONTRACT 5: Between 1996 and 2001, engineers replaced the roadway decks along the lower outer roadways (including reinforcement of stringers, floor beams, tie angles, plates and bearings, new curbs, barriers and railings), installed new drainage and electrical systems, cleaned and repointed the stonework, and restored the "Guastavino arch" marketplace at the Manhattan approach (which is home to upscale shops, a supermarket, and a restaurant).
CONTRACT 6: Begun in 2003, the most recent of the six contracts focuses on repainting the bridge and approach spans with an exopy-based paint. Prior to repainting, workers are sandblasting the old lead-based paint from the bridge. The work area is covered with a canvas tarpulin to prevent the old paint from entering the air or falling to the ground. Despite a fire in the construction zone that shut down the bridge for a day in October 2005, work still is scheduled for the completion in 2009.
During the quarter century of reconstruction work, the NYCDOT has invested more than a half-billion dollars into the span.
This 1999 photo shows the Queensboro Bridge (NY 25) from Queensbridge Park in Long Island City, Queens. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
TEMPORARY HOV RESTRICTIONS REMOVED: As part of larger-scale efforts to reduce congestion in Manhattan below 63rd Street after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) imposed new HOV restrictions on the Queensboro Bridge. The Manhattan-bound HOV restriction, which applied from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM weekdays, was removed on April 22, 2002.
TOLLS WON'T COME TO THE 59th STREET BRIDGE: In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to either transfer ownership or sell the Queensboro Bridge to MTA Bridges and Tunnels. According to one estimate, the Queensboro Bridge and the other toll-free East River Bridge under NYCDOT would bring in approximately $800 million in annual toll revenue. The tolls would most likely be collected electronically since there is limited space to construct new toll plazas, and congestion (peak-hour) tolls would likely be implemented. The transfer or sale would have required the approval of the City Council and the State Legislature. However, Governor George Pataki killed this plan.
THE BRIDGE TODAY: The Queensboro Bridge, known far and wide as the "59th Street Bridge" (thanks to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel), carries approximately 200,000 vehicles per day (AADT), making it among the most traveled bridges in the world. It also marks the beginning of NY 25, which extends some 110 miles east to Orient Point, Long Island. Nearly a century later, its main cantilever span remains the 12th longest in the world.
In 2000, the eastbound lower outer roadway was restricted to passenger cars, while the westbound outer roadway was closed off entirely to vehicular traffic when it opened as a full-time pedestrian and cycling path. The evening rush-hour reversal on the eastbound upper roadway also was eliminated, allowing four lanes of Manhattan-bound traffic and five lanes of Queens-bound traffic.
This 1999 photo shows the Queensboro Bridge (NY 25) from Roosevelt Island. The Roosevelt Island tramway shown here was opened in 1976 to connect Roosevelt Island with Manhattan. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
Type of bridge: Construction started: Opened to traffic: Length of western main span: Length of eastern main span: Length of bridge between anchorages: Total length of bridge and approaches: Width of bridge: Number of decks: Number of traffic lanes: Height of towers above mean high water: Clearance at center above mean high water: Total structural steel used on bridge: Cost of original structure:
SOURCES: The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); The Bridges of New York by Sharon Reier, Quadrant Press (1977); "City in Bridge Battle" by Margaret Gordy, Newsday (3/18/1987); Great American Bridges and Tunnels by Donald C. Johnson, Preservation Press-John Wiley and Sons (1988); "How a Bridge Shaped a City: Queensboro Span Key to Population Explosion," Newsday (3/27/1994); Engineers of Dreams by Henry Petroski, Vintage Books-Random House (1995); "Honk If You've Heard This One Before" by Kerry Murtha, Newsday (5/05/1996); "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); "Roebling's First Dream: The Queensboro" by Drew Fetherson, Newsday (3/15/1998); "Exit Strategies" by Clara Hemphill, Newsday (10/03/1999); "Mayor Weighs Plan To Turn Over Bridges to Transit Authority" by Jennifer Steinhauer, The New York Times (10/22/2002); "Fire on Queensboro Bridge Stops Traffic for Hours" by Ron Brownlow, The Queens Chronicle (10/20/2005); New York City Department of Transportation; Hank Eisenstein; Dave Frieder; Marvin Gruza; Ralph Herman; Christof Spieler; Stéphane Theroux.
NY 25 shield by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman. HOV sign by C.C. Slater.