Monday, December 05, 2011

The Bridge Nobody Wanted


The Bear Mountain Bridge officially opened 87 years ago--on Nov. 27, 1924, to be exact--and wrought great changes in travel patterns over a wide area. Until that date, the only way a motorist or trucker could cross the formidable barrier of the Hudson River anywhere south of Albany was on a ferry.
But ferry service was woefully inadequate. Ferries were agonizingly slow. They took time to load and unload. And they were subject to frequent delays. When ice choked the river in winter, ferry service ground to a halt
Long waits at ferry slips were common on weekends and holidays. "Even the hotels in the river towns cannot take care of the stranded ones when there is a glut of traffic. People have been known to sleep out in their cars all night," The New York Times reported.
Early in February of 1922, the Legislature at Albany passed and Governor Nathan Lewis signed a bill chartering a private corporation to construct a toll bridge across the Hudson River "near the village of Peekskill."
. Incorporated with a capitalization of $5 million and headed by E. Roland Harriman, the newly formed Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company had three years to build the bridge and its access road on land owned by the state, and 30 years to operate it before it would become the property of the state. During that period, New York reserved the right to buy the bridge.

Opposition Surfaces

From the start, the 1922 bridge proposal faced hostility. Veterans of successful battles for the preservation of the Palisades and the Highlands were loud in their condemnation of the proposed design. Writing in the influential magazine The Outlook, Lawrence F. Abbott scorned the bridge. "With all due respect, it looks, in its wonderful setting of mountains and river, like a piece of tin frumpery.”
The influential New York Times entered the fray with an editorial titled, "An Infliction of Ugliness on the Hudson." It denounced the bridge company for proposing "a bridge so wholly out of accord with the scenery around it and indicative of the desire on the part of the builders to make it as cheaply as they can."
The anonymous editorial writer went on: "Ugly bridges, indeed, have been built in ancient and modern times, but they are so few that apparently it is easier to make them beautiful than ugly and that to attain ugliness no small amount of ingenuity and determination must be misapplied."
The New York Times editorial concluded: "There is no excuse at all, consequently, for what is about to happen near one of the most admirable manifestation of natural beauty in the vicinity of this city, and in this part of the country, for that matter--the erection of a bridge across the Hudson that will be an offense to the eye as long as it stands."

Construction Begins
Despite the widespread howls of disapproval from environmentalists, construction of the Bear Mountain Bridge began on March 24, 1923. Built by the firm of Terry and Trench, with Wilson Fitch Smith as chief engineer, it opened on November 27, 1924, only 20 months and four days later.
Completing the 2.5-mile access road to the bridge required excavating and moving 21,000 cubic yards of soil and rock, and the construction of 11,000 cubic yards of masonry retaining wall.
To add to the complexity of the road building, the New York Central Railroad tracks lay directly below a mile-long section of the highway. Safety of the rail line imposed extraordinary precautions.
The Carey Construction Company built the road in the surprising time of seven months. To this day, the road offers breathtaking vistas and sheer drops of 400 feet.
John A. Roebling’s Sons Company of Trenton, N.J., manufactured the cables for the bridge in place at the site. The two main cables are each 18 inches in diameter, made up of 7,252 individual wires in 37 strands.
The Roebling Company was the most experienced bridge builder in the nation, having produced cables for the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge and other bridges, including the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges in New York City.

A World Record
Spinning the bridge support cables took a record-breaking 13 weeks. With the addition of bridge girders and a concrete deck, 1,632-foot Bear Mountain Bridge became the longest suspension bridge in the world, exceeding by 32 feet New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge, which had held the record for 21 years. The total length of the bridge between abutments is 2,257 feet. Its height above mean high water 153 feet.
      It would hold that record only for two years before being surpassed in 1926 by the Benjamin Franklin Bridge over the Delaware River linking Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.
Although the Bear Mountain Bridge’s history is replete with engineering details, we know comparatively little about its designer, Howard C. Baird. He designed another bridge in Westchester in 1931: the graceful 750-foot steel arch bridge that now carries the northbound Taconic State Parkway across the Croton Reservoir.
Built by the Mount Vernon Bridge Company for the Westchester County Park Commission, Baird’s bridge employs an ingenious three-hinged design. By 1970, increased use of the Taconic required the construction of an adjoining bridge—an unexciting traditional deck-truss design that carries southbound traffic.

Opening Day
The first informal automobile crossing of the Bear Mountain Bridge, on September 10, 1924, was by M. Belknap, the engineer in charge of construction whose first name has been lost to history. Former New York Governor Benjamin Odell symbolically drove the last rivet on October 9, 1924.
Official opening ceremonies took place on November 26th. Led by the band from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, four hundred automobiles assembled in Peekskill and drove slowly along the highway that had been blasted into the steep sides of Manitou Mountain and Anthony's Nose, and then across the bridge.
At the western end, a bronze tablet was unveiled by Mary A. Harriman, generous donor of much of Harriman State Park. It acknowledged the efforts of "all who with thought, labor and loyalty have contributed to the construction of this bridge and highway."
The following day, Thanksgiving Day, the Bear Mountain Bridge was formally opened to a public that could only have been dismayed at the comparatively high tolls. Some 5,000 automobiles crossed the bridge on that first day.
Fares wee collected at the western end of the bridge and at a toll house on the access road. Passenger cars and drivers paid 80 cents. Cars with wheelbases longer than 100 inches were charged one dollar. Each additional passenger cost ten cents. Pedestrians paid ten cents to walk across.
These rates, the result of unrealistic monopoly pricing, were high in comparison with ferry rates—and remained high even during the years of the Great Depression.
Once the novelty wore off, however, bridge traffic declined. From opening day in 1924 to 1940, the Bear Mountain Bridge lost money in thirteen of its sixteen years of operation.

New York State Takes Over
In a February 1940 letter to Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Robert Moses, then Chairman of the State Council of Parks, pointed out the importance of the Bear Mountain Bridge: "It is unnecessary to emphasize the interest of the State Park Council in this bridge, which is one of the main approaches to Bear Mountain Park and to the entire Palisades Interstate Park system.”
In April of 1940, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing the purchase of the Bear Mountain Bridge for "not more than $2,300,000." The actual purchase price was $2,275,000. The New York State Bridge Authority took over the bridge at midnight on September 25, 1940.
The first change made by the new owner was the immediate reduction of motor vehicle tolls to a flat 50 cents regardless of the number of occupants. This was later reduced to 35 cents in 1942 and 25 cents in 1945. In 1970, the Bridge Authority doubled tolls and imposed them only in the eastbound direction. The toll today is one dollar.
Over the years, the starkly beautiful Bear Mountain Bridge, like the Eiffel Tower, has gained grudging acceptance from former critics. In its striking mountainous setting, it has become a favorite of artists and photographers for its understated yet elegant design, its totally appropriate scale and extraordinary integration into its dramatic location.

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