Queenswalk: History of the Queensboro Bridge

    by

    “Slow down, you’re moving too fast. Got to make the morning last…” I was in high school when Queens’ own Simon and Garfunkel sang those lines. I lived upstate, and didn’t even know where the 59th Street Bridge was, except that it was in New York City. I loved Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and being a rather solitary and over-thinking teenager, I vicariously loved the New York City they sang about, a place filled with poets speaking truth about deep things, and musical adventures. When I moved to New York City after college, I remember seeing the 59th St. Bridge and remembering the song. Well, NYC was not filled with poets and Simon and Garfunkel parted ways, but the bridge remains. And it’s a pretty great bridge, too.

    By the beginning of the 20th century, it was very apparent that more than one bridge was necessary between Manhattan and Long Island. Greater New York City was a reality now, and the boroughs were now part of a greater whole, not just independent cities and towns. The Brooklyn Bridge, at that point still less than 20 years old, was packed with traffic, pedestrians, trolleys and a train. Plans were in the works, and construction had begun on the Williamsburg Bridge, but a span over the East River between Manhattan and Queens needed to happen, as well.

    Astoria and Long Island City were very busy industrial areas, with important rail and road lines bringing in goods from factories and warehouses in those neighborhoods, as well as other parts of Queens and Long Island, and even Brooklyn. Float bridges which carried train cars across the river on barges with tracks were in use, as were ferries, barges and tugs, but a bridge which like the Brooklyn Bridge, could carry trains as well as vehicles, would be a boon to both boroughs. Plans for a bridge began in 1901.

    In 1902, Mayor Seth Low appointed bridge engineer Gustav Lindenthal to serve as the first Commissioner of the Department of Bridges. His first task was to examine the existing to plans build a bridge between Manhattan and Queens that could accommodate a rail line joining the Long Island Railroad and the Harlem River Rail Line at East 59th Street. Lindenthal thought that a cantilevered truss bridge would be a better design. That design, in terms of bridges, is defined as “a structure at least one portion of which acts as an anchorage for sustaining another portion which extends beyond the supporting pier.” (John Alexander Low Waddell, “Bridge Engineering”)

    A cantilever bridge would allow for large expanses between supports. These bridges are engineering marvels, the technology developed in the late 19th century. The Tappan Zee Bridge is a cantilever bridge, a perfect example of supporting long distances of roadway between supports. Lindenthal was also a believer in double decker bridges, with one roadway underneath the other, and he was a pioneer in building railroad bridges that were lighter and less overbuilt than the general thought of the day. He correctly calculated that although trains were very heavy, they were also moving, and their weight was distributed across the span. These calculations changed bridge engineering and design for the future.

    There was already a bridge design on the table, but Commissioner Lindenthal chose Henry Hornbostel, one of the designers of the Williamsburg Bridge, to work with him on the Queensboro. They wanted something that was worthy of the great crossing, not just a functional railroad bridge. Their design for a cantilever bridge consisted of two long spans across the East River, with a shorter span in the middle, passing over Blackwell’s Island, now called Roosevelt Island. Having the island in the middle would allow for convenient land footings for the bridge.

    It would have two roadways; the upper roadway had two rail tracks and two pedestrian roads, the lower had two trolley lanes and four vehicular lanes. The men thought that the bridge should be beautiful as well as functional, and designed a graceful structure with decorative elements such as decorative spires on the four 350 foot towers. The Manhattan approach had two large bronze torchieres to light the way. The greatest of the Beaux-Arts features of the bridge was the creation of the Bridge Market, a series of open air Guastavino tile vaults under the Manhattan approach, designed by Hornbostel.

    Construction began in 1903. So did the problems. Since this is New York City, politics entered the construction. When George McClellan took over as mayor in 1904, he removed Lindenthal from his post as Bridge Commissioner. The bridge was his pet project and with him gone, the critics started in, as prominent business leaders started trashing the design and wanting changes. To add to that, there were labor problems which got so bad that at one point, strikers tried to dynamite one of the spans. All of this meant delays that lasted for years.

    During the course of construction, all kinds of disasters happened. Bridge building is dangerous, and over the years fifty workers died in work related incidents. There was also a partial collapse of a section during a windstorm, and graft and corruption charges as the Pennsylvania Steel Corporation illegally added tons of steel to the bridge in order to boost profits. When that was discovered, the excess steel had to be removed, and the bridge examined by outside engineers to determine its viability. All of that delayed the opening even more.

    As per the nature of cantilevered bridges, it was constructed from both sides, and met in the middle. That didn’t happen until 1908. A year later, the unofficial opening was held on March 30th, when traffic first crossed, followed by the official opening on June 12, 1909. 300,000 people participated in the celebrations that lasted a week, and consisted of parades, fireworks, theatrical performances, circuses, a marathon and other athletic contests. 1,500 school children were on hand at the opening ceremony to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” The ceremonies and celebration took place on the Queens side of the span, as the governor and other dignitaries praised the great event.

    Originally, the bridge was called the Blackwell Island Bridge. It was supposed to cost $12 million, but ended up costing $20. It is the only one of New York’s East River bridges to be a cantilever bridge; the others are all suspension bridges. The Williamsburg Bridge was finished in 1903. Both the Queensboro and the Manhattan Bridges opened in 1909, although it took several more years for all of the features on the Manhattan Bridge to be completed. The bridge was the longest cantilever bridge in North America, until the completion of the Quebec Bridge in 1917.

    Many of its original features are now gone. Originally, trolley cars crossed the lower roadway. They stopped in the middle of the span, at Blackwell (Roosevelt) Island, and commuters could take an elevator or the stairs down to the island. Between 1934 and 1955, there was also a vehicular elevator that lifted cars to the bridge from the island. The El trains also ran across the bridge, connecting the Second Avenue El to the elevated Queensboro Plaza station. The el train ran until the late 1940s, early 50s, when the Second Avenue El was demolished. The trolley operated until 1957, after which the elevator and stairs were removed a year later. The vehicular elevator was demolished in 1970.

    Over the last century new approaches and ramps were built on both sides, and eventually, all of the trolley and train tracks were removed. Today, there are four lanes of traffic on the upper roadway, while the lower roadway had five, with one, the southern outer lane dedicated to Queens-bound traffic. The North Outer Roadway was made into a permanent bike and pedestrian lane in 2000.

    Like all of New York City’s bridges, the Queensboro suffered from neglect, especially during that later quarter of the 20th century. Serious bridge repair began in 1987 and continued until 2012, costing over $300 million. The idea for making the disused and closed up Bridge Market a viable shopping area had been in the works for years, but did not come into reality until 1999, when the very upscale Food Emporium Bridge Market opened, along with a Terence Conran Store and a restaurant called Guastavino’s. The bridge’s 100th anniversary was held in 2009. That year the bridge was declared a National Historic Civic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It had already been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

    Today, the Queensboro Bridge is first entry point into Manhattan in the New York City Marathon, and the last exit out of Manhattan for the Five Boro Bike Tour. It’s more crowded and packed with traffic than ever and its pedestrian and bike lanes are well used. In 2010, the city decided to rename the bridge in honor of former mayor Ed Koch, officially naming it the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. A poll taken soon afterward showed that over 70% of Queens’s residents hate the name. Depending on which side of the river you are on, it’s still the Queensboro or the 59th Street Bridge. Just like the song title. The view from the bridge is spectacular, how can you not be feelin’ groovy? GMAP

    (1907 Photo: Municipal Archives, via nycroads.com)

    Bridge in 1908. Library of Congress

    Bridge in 1908. Library of Congress

    Photo: nycbridges.com

    Photo: nycbridges.com

    Photo taken from Manhattan Citigroup building by apricot50, for wikimedia

    Photo taken from Manhattan Citigroup building by apricot50, for wikimedia

    Photo: Kevin Fitzpatrick for Wikimedia

    Photo: Kevin Fitzpatrick for Wikimedia

    Bridge Market on the Manhattan side. Photo: Jim Henderson for Wikimedia

    Bridge Market on the Manhattan side. Photo: Jim Henderson for Wikimedia

    What's Happening