A TRIBUTE TO NEW YORK CITY UNITY: The idea for the Washington Bridge - initially called the Harlem River Bridge - originated from Andrew H. Green, a New York City parks commissioner who was an early advocate of creating Greater New York. During the 1870's, the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan experienced rapid growth. Green believed that once streets were laid out and housing was constructed in Washington Heights, a fixed link would be necessary to carry traffic between Manhattan and the Bronx.

The New York City Parks Department, which had jurisdiction over all the Harlem River bridges, first considered widening the High Bridge, which stood about one-quarter mile to the south, for carriage traffic. However, upon finding that doing so would compromise the integrity of the High Bridge, the parks department held a design contest to construct a new parallel span. Several entries were submitted as follows:

  • Suspension bridge with an 800-foot-long main span; designed by William J. McAlpine.

  • Cantilever-arch bridge with a 428-foot-long main span, two 250-foot-long side spans and steel-viaduct approaches; designed by William J. McAlpine.

  • Steel-and-masonry arch bridge with a main 543-foot-long steel-arch span, flanked by masonry side spans and approaches; designed by Buck and McNulty.

  • Masonry-arch bridge with three 350-foot-long main spans; designed by Union Bridge Company.

  • Steel-arch bridge with two 510-foot-long main spans and masonry approaches; designed by C.C. Schneider.

Although the Schneider design won approval from the New York City Parks Department, its original, more ornate design was modified to bring the bridge's cost down to $3 million. The New York State Legislature and the Army Corps of Engineers approved the new Harlem River Bridge in 1885.

DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: Because of the relatively deep and narrow valley that surrounds the Harlem River, the large arch design was particularly well suited to the site. The two main arches of the Washington Bridge are 510 feet long, and consist of riveted plate girders with a maximum depth of nine feet. Each of the main arches has a clearance of 135 feet above mean high water.

The length of the main spans exceeds those of the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Louis, a bridge that is often considered the most impressive steel-arch bridge of its time. Each of the main spans is actually made up of six parallel arches that carry the traffic loads to the masonry foundations. The multi-ribbed, plate girder arches reveal the artistic sensitivity of the designer. On the Manhattan and Bronx approaches, a series of masonry arches supplement the two main steel-arch spans.

The New York Times described the Washington Bridge as follows:

(The Washington Bridge) is one of the most imposing, beautiful and substantial to be found anywhere about the metropolis, and is especially interesting as a perfect and consistent edifice in the arched style of bridge architecture.

The original roadway layout also reflected aesthetic considerations. Two 15-foot-wide walkways flanked the main roadway (which accommodated carriage traffic). A grassed mall was constructed at the center of the carriage roadway, between the opposing traffic lanes.

After two years of construction, the Washington Bridge was adequately completed for pedestrian traffic on December 1, 1888. The bridge was to formally open to all traffic on February 22, 1889 - a date that not only marked Washington's Birthday, but also the 100th anniversary of the first Presidency - but arguments among the bridge's commissioners prevented the full opening of the bridge until December 1889.

ADAPTING TO THE HIGHWAY NETWORK: Since the George Washington Bridge crossing the Hudson River opened in 1931, the original Washington Bridge has stood in the larger bridge's shadow. Nevertheless, the Washington Bridge, which was part of US 1, adapted to the highway era.

During the late 1940's and early 1950's, the roadway deck was modified to permit a 66-foot-wide roadway accommodating six traffic lanes and two 6-foot-wide walkways. (The grassed center mall was removed.) In addition, new ramps were constructed from the western end of the bridge to the 178th Street and 179th Street tunnels leading to the George Washington Bridge.

However, as early as 1952, Robert Moses, the New York City arterial coordinator, anticipated that it would not be long before a parallel span had to be constructed. He said the following when the Washington Bridge project was completed:

The New York State Department of Public Works (NYSDPW) is currently constructing the Cross Bronx Expressway, which includes the magnificent old Washington Bridge across the Harlem River. This bridge was widened and repaved, and a center divider was installed. It will before long have to be doubled in capacity by virtually adding another bridge next to it.

In his 1955 report
Joint Study of Arterial Facilities, Moses determined that the Washington Bridge would not be able handle the anticipated traffic demands from the then-proposed lower level of the George Washington Bridge. He proposed a new eight-lane arch span, the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, directly south of the existing Washington Bridge. The new bridge, which connects the Trans-Manhattan Expressway with the Cross Bronx Expressway, was opened to traffic in 1963. Not long thereafter, the US 1 designation was removed from the old bridge; US 1 was added to the I-95 designation on the new span.

For its significant contribution to bridge design, the Washington Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. In the years since, the bridge has undergone extensive rehabilitation to ensure its structural integrity for years to come. Today, the Washington Bridge, which connects 181st Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan with University Avenue (Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Boulevard) in the Bronx, provides a relief route to the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. Ramps leading from the approaches connect the bridge with the Trans-Manhattan and Cross Bronx expressways, as well as with the local street networks.

One option currently being considered in the NYSDOT "Bronx Arterial Needs Major Investment Study" would be for traffic between the Cross Bronx Expressway *(I-95 and US 1) and the Henry Hudson Parkway (NY 9A) to utilize the Washington (Heights) Bridge. This plan would relieve congestion along the nearby Alexander Hamilton Bridge, which is planned for either expansion or reconstruction.

Type of bridge:
Construction started:
Opened to traffic:
Length of main arches:
Total length of bridge and approaches:
Height at center above mean high water:
Arch clearance at center above mean high water:
Width of roadway:
Number of traffic lanes:
Cost of original structure:

October 1, 1886
December 1, 1888
510 feet
2,375 feet
151 feet, 6 inches
135 feet
66 feet
6 lanes

SOURCES: "The Washington Bridge Over the Harlem River" by William R. Hutton, New York City Parks Department (1889); "George Washington Bridge Approach and Highbridge Expressway Interchange," The Port of New York Authority, New York State Department of Public Works and New York City Construction Coordinator (1952); Joint Study of Arterial Facilities, The Port of New York Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1955); The Bridges of New York by Sharon Reier, Quadrant Press (1977); "Washington Bridge Over the Harlem River," New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (1982); Great American Bridges and Dams by Donald C. Jackson, Preservation Press-John Wiley and Sons (1988); "A Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," American Society of Civil Engineers (1997); New York State Department of Transportation; Dave Block; Christof Spieler.

  • Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company and Jeff Saltzman.




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