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This 2002 photo shows the Williamsburg Bridge from the FDR Drive in Manhattan. East River Park is in the foreground. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

"Considered from the aesthetic standpoint, the (Williamsburg) Bridge is destined always to suffer by comparison with its neighbor, the (Brooklyn) Bridge. Whatever criticism has been made against the conservative features of the latter structure, it has always been conceded to be an extremely graceful and well-balanced design. It is possible that, were it not in existence, we would not hear so many strictures upon the manifest want of beauty in the later and larger (Williamsburg) Bridge, which is destined to be popular more on account of its size and usefulness than its graceful lines. As a matter of fact, the (Williamsburg) Bridge is an engineer's bridge pure and simple. The eye may range from anchorage to anchorage, and from pier to finial of the tower without finding a single detail that suggests controlling motive, either in its design or fashioning other than bald utility." - Scientific American (1903)

No poetry has been written about it, as Hart Crane did with the Brooklyn Bridge. No songs have been written about it, as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did with the 59th Street (Queensboro) Bridge. No one ever attempted to sell this bridge. Indeed, before it was ever completed, the span was described by John DeWitt Warner as a "surrender of the City Beautiful to the City Vulgar." While not renowned for its beauty, the Williamsburg Bridge has fulfilled its original mission to relieve traffic congestion on the Brooklyn Bridge, and to serve as an important link between Manhattan and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

PLANNING THE SECOND EAST RIVER SPAN: As early as the late 1860's, John Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, anticipated the need for additional bridges across the East River to keep up with population growth in the cities of New York and Brooklyn. One bridge was proposed between the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Throughout the 1880's, leaders in Williamsburg battled officials in New York City and powerful ferry interests who did not want the bridge. Although legislative approval had been obtained from Albany for construction of the bridge, the bill was not followed up by appropriations.

In 1892, Frederick Uhlmann, who sought to extend his Brooklyn elevated railways across the East River into Manhattan, planned two new rail lines: one serving the West Side manufacturing districts, and the other serving the Wall Street area. He also planned two bridges: a suspension bridge for trains, carriages and pedestrians at the present site of the Williamsburg Bridge, and a cantilever bridge exclusively for trains just north of the present site of the Manhattan Bridge. In March 1892, the New York State Legislature approved a bill that founded the East River Bridge Company.

Stymied by legal battles between Uhlmann and the elevated railway interests in Manhattan, leaders in Williamsburg lobbied Albany for the creation of a new body, the New East River Bridge Commission, and in May 1895, the new commission purchased Uhlmann's charter for $200,000.

This 1901 photo shows the Williamsburg Bridge under construction just as the first cables were being spun being the Manhattan and Brooklyn shorelines. (Photo by Parsons Transportation Group, www.parsons.com.)

CONSTRUCTION OF THE WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE: Leffert L. Buck, the newly appointed chief engineer, first announced plans for the Williamsburg Bridge in an 1896 issue of Engineering News. The cost of the proposed bridge was originally estimated at $7 million, less than the $15 million cost of the Brooklyn Bridge. Construction began in November of that year.

From the onset, economic considerations strongly influenced the design of the Williamsburg Bridge. The decision to have the cables come down straight from the towers to the anchorages and not support the side spans meant that shorter and lighter cables could be used. Employing less expensive, lighter steel towers meant that foundations could be made smaller and that towers could be built taller. Steel was also used for the approaches, cutting the time and expense of constructing masonry-arch approaches.

The 1,600-foot-long main suspension span for the Williamsburg Bridge exceeded the previous record-holder, the Brooklyn Bridge, by four and one-half feet. Compared to the main span, the 300-foot-long side spans are relatively short. However, the side spans are supported not by suspender cables, but from steel arches from below. From approach to approach, the bridge was 7,200 feet long.

The 310-foot-tall towers, the first all-steel towers to be employed for a suspension bridge, support four main cables, which are carried on saddles atop the towers. Each of the 4,344-ton main cables, which measure 18¾ inches in diameter, is comprised of 37 strands of 208 wires. Unlike those found on other New York bridges, the wires on the Williamsburg Bridge were not galvanized, making them less susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement. (However, the wires do have the problem of rusting due to the absence of a commonly applied zinc coating.) Nearly 17,500 miles of wire are used in the cables that suspend the bridge 135 feet above the East River.

The 40-foot-deep stiffening trusses were designed not only to withstand high winds, but also to support rail traffic on the deck. Originally, the design had the above-deck truss shift below the deck at the side spans. Later, the design was changed such that the stiffening truss was above the deck from anchorage to anchorage.

Despite the technological advances, doubts were raised about the bridge after a fire in November 1902. The fire, which started in a worker shack atop one of the towers, spread to the cables and foot walks. However, damage to the structure was minimal. Proving the bridge's strength, the Roebling Company, which provided the wire rope and woven the cables, simply spliced new wires into the burned-out section.

When noted bridge designer Gustav Lindenthal took over as chief engineer of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1902, he had serious reservations about the design and appearance of the bridge. Nevertheless, with the bridge nearing completion, he continued the project. Upon the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge, Lindenthal avoided references to its design, emphasizing instead that it was twice as strong as the Brooklyn Bridge.

THE SECOND EAST RIVER BRIDGE OPENS: The Williamsburg Bridge opened on December 19, 1903 to horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and pedestrians. However, due to complications between Greater New York and the privately owned railway companies, elevated trains did not run on the bridge until 1908. The final cost of the bridge and its approaches was $24.2 million, more than three times the original cost estimate.

For a brief period, the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) ran passenger service along an elevated extension across the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan. The LIRR spur split from the existing Atlantic Avenue line northwest onto the Broadway elevated line (today's J, M and Z subway lines), crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and continued south to Chambers Street.

The bridge not only served the traffic needs of a growing population, but also greatly affected migration patterns of ethnic groups. Before the bridge opened, first- and second-generation Irish and German settlers (who called the enclave "Kleine Deutschland") lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. When it opened, an influx of Jewish settlers from the overcrowded Lower East Side crossed the "Jews' Bridge" into Williamsburg. In turn, long-time residents moved out to Queens.

In 1910, the City of New York removed the toll on the Williamsburg Bridge after it passed a law prohibiting the use of tolls to finance bridge construction and maintenance.

Two photos of the Williamsburg Bridge from 1904. The Williamsburg Bridge took the title of the world's longest suspension bridge from the Brooklyn Bridge, which had held the title for 17 years. It would not relinquish this title until the 1920's. (Photos by Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-17414 and LC-D4-33447.)

EARLY PROBLEMS WITH THE BRIDGE: Over the next decade, engineers noticed that the bridge began the sag under the weight of heavy traffic. Two additional supports were added under each of the unsuspended side spans, and additional steel was added to the deck so it could carry the heavier subway cars that had been developed since the bridge opened.

The Williamsburg Bridge strengthening report, which was released in 1911, stated the bridges must adapt to changing traffic conditions as follows:

Mr. Buck designed the bridge on the theory that traffic should adapt itself to the bridge. We are now proceeding on the theory that such a bridge should adapt itself to traffic, and that it should be as good as any other for traffic purposes, and not a weak link. Mr. Buck designed the bridge for small locomotives pulling trailers. Today, in a six-car train, there are generally four motors, all heavier than any of the old locomotives. The trolley cars have also increased in weight. The bridge is perfectly able to carry its traffic today, but as it now stands it would be inadequate for the future. Ten-car steel trains will probably be run through the subway loop, for one thing, and for such conditions we must provide.

The roadway of the Williamsburg Bridge had been adapted not only for the ten-car subway trains, but also for the automobiles and truck traffic that was unforeseen even in 1911. (Despite the uninterrupted growth in subway service across the bridge, the LIRR did not share in the good fortune: its service across the bridge ended in 1916.) During the 1920's, the bridge was reconfigured to allow for eight lanes for vehicular traffic.

Original cross-section of the roadway on the Williamsburg Bridge. During the 1920's, four of the bridge's six tracks were converted to vehicular traffic lanes. (Figure by Paul Phillipe Cret and Rudolphe Modjeski.)

SHOULD THE BRIDGE BE REPLACED? As early as 1964, The New York World-Telegram and Sun reported that the bridge had fallen in such a state of disrepair that rust rained down on pedestrians. The only fresh paint was the graffiti scrawled in by vandals. During the 1970's, the pedestrian walkways were closed after a maintenance worker was mugged while doing his job.

By the 1980's, the precarious situation on the Williamsburg Bridge became critical. In April 1988, after a thorough inspection revealed corrosion in the cables, beams and steel supports, the Williamsburg Bridge was shut to all vehicular and train traffic for nearly two months. After engineers performed emergency construction on the bridge and reopened it to traffic, a panel of design experts convened to determine if the Williamsburg Bridge should be replaced, or if it should be rehabilitated. Original cost estimates ranged from $250 million for rehabilitation to $700 million for a replacement span.

Among the most prominent of the redesign alternatives was a plan introduced by Henry N. Cobb, Harold Fredenburgh, and Dr. Bruno Thürliman for the New York design firm Pei Cobb Freed and Partners. The Cobb-Fredenburgh-Thürliman proposal called for construction of a cable-stay bridge with a main span of 1,600 feet (the same as the existing span) and side spans of 661 feet (longer than the existing spans). Two concrete towers - each 585 feet high - were to connect the supporting cable stays to the deck. The bridge was to have eight vehicular lanes on its upper deck and three subway tracks on the lower deck, and a single timber deck above the roadway was to carry pedestrian and bicycle traffic. There was to be a new Manhattan approach, including new direct ramps to the FDR Drive, while the existing Brooklyn approach was to be rebuilt. Although the new Williamsburg Bridge was to be built 48 feet south of the existing bridge, it was to be executed in a way that total traffic disruption during the estimated four-year construction period was to be only 80 hours.

In addition to the Cobb-Fredenburgh-Thürliman design, the following designs also were evaluated for the Williamsburg Bridge:

  • The first plan, by P.Y. Lin of San Francisco and N.H. Bettigole of New York, called for a single-deck, cable-stayed bridge both wider and taller the original bridge. Once completed, the old bridge would be demolished.

  • The second plan, by Figg and Muller of Tallahassee, Florida, called for a cable-stayed bridge with six traffic lanes on the upper deck and six subway tracks on the lower deck. Each deck would be 114 feet wide, and the lower deck would be 150 feet above high mean water. This bridge would be built in two sections on either side of the old bridge, and when the old bridge is demolished, the two sections would slide together on a giant Teflon plate.

  • The third plan, by Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist and Birdstall of New York, called for a conventional dual-deck suspension bridge to be built in two stages. One half of the bridge would be built just north of the original structure, and the other half would be built in its place and joined to the other. When completed, the new span, which would be located 65 feet north of the original span, would be 160 feet wide.

  • The fourth plan, by Arvid Grant and Associates of Olympia, Washington, called for a dual-deck cable-stayed bridge that would sit on a giant concrete block. It would be built directly south of the existing bridge, and after the old one was torn down, would be moved in its place on giant steel rollers.

  • The fifth plan, by Schlaich und Partner of Stuttgart, Germany, called for a hybrid design incorporating features of suspension and cable-stayed bridges. The design features two suspension towers with dozens of cables stretched out along the sides of the structure. The dual-deck bridge would be built on either side of the existing structure, and slid together on a giant Teflon plate when the old bridge is demolished.

LEFT: When the towers of the Williamsburg Bridge were rehabilitated during the late 1990's, workers encased them in canvas to protect those on the bridge and below. RIGHT: This 2001 photo shows a close-up view of the main cables of the Williamsburg Bridge looking toward Manhattan. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are visible in the distance. This photo was taken less than one month before the September 11 attacks. (Photos by Dave Frieder, davefrieder.com.)

REHABILITATING THE WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE: In November 1988, after evaluating other alternatives, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) determined that the Williamsburg Bridge should be repaired while it was kept open. This option was deemed to have the least detrimental impact on motorists and nearby communities.

The NYCDOT began a 15-year, $1 billion reconstruction of the bridge in 1991. The project includes an overhaul of the bridge's four main cables, steel towers, stiffening trusses, and roadways. Parsons Brinckerhoff, a worldwide engineering design firm, performed the design and construction support services of the various rehabilitation contracts.

The late 1990's and early 2000's witnessed the completion of the following contracts:

  • CONTRACT 4: This contract entailed the rehabilitation of the cable suspension system. Along the suspension span, the existing stringers and pedestals were replaced, and realigned closer to the rails. New web reinforcement plates were installed along the floor beams. The connection of the vertical hangers that transfer the loads from the floor-beams to the main trusses through overhead transverse trusses were retrofitted by installing additional splice plates and replacing deteriorated rivets with new high-strength bolts.

  • CONTRACT 5: During this part of the project, the NYCDOT replaced the south roadway along the entire length of the superstructure and the approaches. This contract also included the completion of the pedestrian-bicycle path. The NYCDOT replaced the older, thicker steel-and-concrete decks with lighter, stronger orthotropic decks.

  • CONTRACT 6: The NYCDOT and MTA-New York City Transit constructed new underpinnings for the two subway tracks that carry the J, M, and Z lines along the longitudinal axis of the bridge. The project included a new concrete-and-steel approach from the superstructure to the elevated structure for the subway lines. Subway service for about 100,000 daily riders was suspended for several months in 1999 during this phase of construction.

  • CONTRACT 7: During this part of the project, the NYCDOT replaced the north roadway along the entire length of the superstructure and the approaches. In conjunction with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), the project included a newly reconstructed viaduct connecting to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278). Once again, the NYCDOT replaced the existing deck with a new orthotropic deck. This contract was completed in December 2001.

Only the final contract to rehabilitate the towers remains:

  • CONTRACT 8: The final $173 million contact focuses on the rehabilitation of the towers. New copper cable saddle housings are replacing older, rusting stamped-steel housings. In addition, the truss bearings at the intermediate towers are being replaced. The new bearings feature a single large roller to minimize longitudinal and lateral forces transmitted to the towers. Begun in March 2003, this construction phase was completed in 2006.

The Williamsburg Bridge carries approximately 140,000 vehicles per day (AADT) over its eight lanes, using two inner and two outer roadways. Upon major completion of reconstruction (except for Contract 8) in 2002, it marked the first time since 1988 that all eight lanes were open to traffic simultaneously.

HOV RESTRICTIONS POST-9/11: For about one week after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Williamsburg Bridge was closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles. When the bridge reopened, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) imposed new HOV restrictions as part of larger-scale efforts to reduce congestion in Manhattan below 63rd Street. The Manhattan-bound HOV restriction applied during the morning rush until November 2003.

TOLLS WON'T COME TO THE WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE: In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to either transfer ownership or sell the Williamsburg Bridge to MTA Bridges and Tunnels. According to one estimate, the Williamsburg 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 WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE AND THE INTERSTATE SYSTEM: In 1958, the Williamsburg Bridge was planned to have been part of Interstate 78. The Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was planned by Robert Moses, was to continue the route of I-78 from the Holland Tunnel across lower Manhattan to the Williamsburg Bridge. After crossing the bridge, I-78 was to continue east through Brooklyn along the Bushwick Expressway. Both the Lower Manhattan and Bushwick expressways were canceled in 1971. During the 1960's and early 1970's, directional signs along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278) posted I-78 shields with signs for the Williamsburg Bridge.

This 2000 photo shows the Williamsburg Bridge looking toward the Lower East Side. Reconstruction of the span continued until 2006. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

Type of bridge:
Construction started:
Opened to traffic:
Length of main span:
Length of side spans:
Length, anchorage to anchorage:
Total length of bridge and approaches:
Number of traffic lanes:
Number of subway tracks:
Height of towers above mean high water:
Clearance at center above mean high water:
Number of cables:
Length of each of four cables:
Diameter of each cable:
Total length of wires:
Weight of cables and suspenders:
Structural material:
Tower material:
Deck material:
Cost of original structure:

Suspension
November 7, 1896
December 19, 1903
1,600 feet
300 feet
2,200 feet
7,308 feet
8 lanes
2 tracks
310 feet
135 feet
4 cables
2,985 feet
18¾ inches
17,500 miles
4,344 tons
Steel
Steel
Steel
$24,200,000

SOURCES: 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); "State Weighs Plan To Tear Down Bridge" by Margaret Gordy, Newsday (5/12/1987); Great American Bridges and Dams by Donald C. Jackson, Preservation Press-John Wiley and Sons (1988); "Williamsburg Bridge Closed Indefinitely to All Vehicles" by Alexis Jetter and Alison Carper, Newsday (4/13/1988); "Williamsburg Bridge Panel Selects Five Design Finalists," Newsday (6/03/1988); Engineers of Dreams by Henry Petroski, Vintage Books-Random House (1995); "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); "A Brief History of the Williamsburg Bridge," Benchmark Communications (1998); "Many Project Aid Williamsburg Bridge Rehab" by Jamey A. Barbas, Jay A. Patel, and Frank X. Progl, Better Roads (May 2001); "Mayor Weighs Plan To Turn Over Bridges to Transit Authority" by Jennifer Steinhauer, The New York Times (10/22/2002); "In New York, A Span of Lesser Origin Is Finally Getting Its Due" by Paul Lieberman, The Los Angeles Times (6/22/2003); New York City Department of Transportation; Bob Andersen; Maria Grazia Bruschi; Hank Eisenstein; Dave Frieder; Ralph Herman; Jeff Saltzman; Christof Spieler; Kevin Walsh.

  • I-78 shield by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman.
  • HOV sign by C.C. Slater.

WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE LINKS:

WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE CURRENT CONDITIONS:

PEDESTRIAN AND BICYCLE ACCESS:

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