THE FORDHAM FOOTBRIDGE (1881): In 1881, the New York City Parks Department constructed a footbridge between the Inwood section of Manhattan and the University Heights section of the Bronx. It was the first step in providing a permanent link at this location, a recommendation first proposed in 1874. The wooden footbridge featured a draw span of 32 feet and bottom chords only four feet above the Harlem River. Despite these dimensions, the bridge was not considered an obstacle to vessels because at the time, the Harlem River was not navigable north of Sherman Creek.
The bridge was removed by 1895, when the new Harlem River Ship Channel was completed. The new channel permitted vessels to travel unobstructed from the East River to the Hudson River. Several existing swing bridges were reconstructed in conjunction with this project.
THE NEW BRIDGE (1908): Between 1901 and 1903, the New York City Department of Bridges presented plans for a new swing bridge at 207th Street (Fordham Road) before the Board of Estimate. Gustav Lindenthal, the commissioner of the newly created New York City Department of Bridges, favored a lift bridge, then a new development in bridge engineering. The city was not eager to spend on this expensive design, and when the opportunity was presented to make use of the original Broadway Bridge span (which was about to be replaced by a dual-deck swing span), the city seized it. In August 1903, the War Department approved plans for the bridge, provided that allowances were made for navigable vessels at Fordham Landing, and the Board of Estimate subsequently approved the bridge.
Alfred P. Boller, who designed the Madison Avenue, 145th Street and Macombs Dam swing spans, created the design for the University Heights Bridge. In November 1903, work began on dredging and building the center pier on which the draw span was to rest. The center pier and side piers were constructed of masonry. The steel draw span, which was originally constructed over the Harlem River Ship Canal in 1895, was lifted from its pier, floated down the river and lifted onto the new center pier in June 1906. New machinery was installed to control the draw span.
Although it was not fully completed, the University Heights Bridge opened to traffic on January 8, 1908. The electrical work was not finished until ten months later. Trolley service began over the bridge in 1910, and continued for three decades.
Sharon Reier, author of The Bridges of New York, described the former Ship Canal Bridge - now reborn as the University Heights Bridge - in the following excerpt:
A walk on the University Heights span reveals the aesthetics of the 1890's, when ornament was considered beautiful. Amidst wrecked cars, rotted piers and oily water, the gay steel cut-outs of cartwheels and daisies lining the walkway give evidence of the playful mind that designed it, as do the green-shingled gazebos at either end of the bridge and the peak silhouette of the span itself.
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: The rim-bearing swing bridge is comprised of two continuous trusses supported by a drum girder at the center, and toggle end lifts at the end piers. A floor system at the level of the bottom chords supports a 33½-foot-wide roadway, which provides three traffic lanes (two peak-direction, one off-peak direction) between the two trusses. A six-foot-wide sidewalk runs along the southern truss. The 267-foot-long swing span provides two 100-foot-wide navigable channels and a vertical clearance of 25 feet.
The swing is operated by span drive machinery mounted above the drum girder on platforms that cantilever outward beyond the drum girder at the level of the load distribution framing. The machinery rotates with the draw when the bridge is operated. Operation of the bridge is controlled from a platform above the roadway.
REBUILDING THE WASHINGTON HEIGHTS BRIDGE: Between 1989 and 1992, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), which owns and maintains the University Heights Bridge, undertook a $35 million project to rebuild the bridge. A new swing span was barged to the site and hoisted into place, and new electrical and mechanical controls were installed.
THE BRIDGE TODAY: According to the NYCDOT, the University Heights Bridge carries approximately 45,000 vehicles per day (AADT). To the west, the bridge connects to 207th Street, which was widened in preparation for the bridge, and Tenth Avenue in the Inwood section of Manhattan. To the east, the bridge connects to Fordham Road, which also was widened in preparation for the bridge. Additional ramps connect the bridge to the Major Deegan Expressway, as well as to Fordham Landing.