Also known as the 59th Street Bridge
(and, in fact, originally
known as the Blackwell's Island Bridge
, since it crosses the island that once held that name
), the Queensboro Bridge was actually the first
bridge planned by John Roebling
to link New York City
with the villages
of Long Island
across the water. It was also the second
bridge started, although it would be the third
completed -- narrowly
edging out the Manhattan
for that title -- due to delays
that plagued its construction for decades. Essentially, this was the unluckiest
bridge in New York.
Roebling had been considering this spot for his first East River bridge since the 1850s, possibly inspired by articles dating back to 1836 discussing plans to cross the East River at spots near Blackwell's Island. Roebling's plan of 1856 called for a bridge, 22 feet wide and 2100 feet long, divided into three separate sections. The sections crossing the East and West Channels that surround the narrow island would be 800' long suspension bridges, joined in the middle by a 500' cantilever portion. The bridge would also have 6' wide walkways on both sides, supported from below.
Unfortunately, and for undocumented reasons, the project stalled in 1857. This would prove fortunate for Roebling, at least, since he wrote a letter that year to Abram Hewitt, later a mayor of New York City, suggesting a bridge be built crossing from Manhattan to Brooklyn instead.
The idea was a hit, and a state charter was given to the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company to build the Brooklyn Bridge on April 16, 1867. The same day, a charter was also given to the New York and Long Island Bridge Company to build what would one day be the Queensboro. As history would show, however, the former bridge would be completed while the latter was still being discussed.
The NYLIBC was influenced by railroad executives, who desired to link the Long Island Railroad across the bridge with Manhattan's Harlem Line. But these plans would never bear fruit. William Steinway, the famous piano manufacturer and later backer of a tunnel under the East River, resigned as chair in 1877. His replacement was a steamship operator, Thomas Rainey. The company offered a contract to a company in Philadelphia to construct a grand design. The bridge was to be a railroad bridge, two miles long, that would join with Manhattan at 77th Street. There would be "first-class" elevators that would lower passengers to the Manhattan soil, and the bridge would be cheaper than the Brooklyn since the suspension spans (still only 800'; it is unknown where the rest of the two miles were to be located) would be half the size of that other bridge. A pier was built on the Queens side, but due to the low population of Queens, harassment from officials, and the fact that the Tweed ring was far more interested in the Brooklyn Bridge, the company went bankrupt in 1883.
The bridge plans would go forward again in 1895, but the company faced serious legal difficulties. Even more serious, however, was the death of major backer Austin Corbin, then president of the Long Island Railroad. Construction was again halted.
The unification of New York City stirred desire once again for completion of this bridge to the new borough of Queens. Engineer R.L. Buck submitted a design in 1899 for a cantilever bridge 120' wide with space for carriages, pedestrians, trolley lines, and railroad tracks. The design was approved two years later by the Army Corps of Engineers, and work was started on the piers in 1901 although Buck's plan would be rejected by the city.
In 1902, New York City Mayor Seth Low appointed Gustav Lidendthal commissioner of the Department of Bridges. Working with Leffert L. Buck (no relation) and architect Henry Horbustel, a final plan was drawn in 1903. Two large cantilever spans would be connected by a smaller one over Blackwell's Island. The bridge would be 80 feet wide rather than R.S. Buck's proposed 120', but it would be a double-decker, New York City's first. A marketplace was even designed as part of the bridge approach on the Manhattan side. The contract was given to the Pennsylvania Steel Company, and work was again started.
Of course, life could not be easy for this bridge. New mayor George McClellan removed Lindenthal as bridge commissioner, appointing George Best in his stead. An uncompleted section was destroyed during a windstorm. Steel workers went on strike. Union officials, incensed by the "open-shop" policies of the company, set dynamite on the bridge. The collapse of a similar bridge in 1907 in Quebec raised fears among the public. Even the construction company added too much steelwork to the bridge, which then required a redesign.
Finally, the bridge was completed in 1908 and opened to the public on March 30, 1909, having cost the city $20 million and the lives of 50 workers. The two decks carried two railway lines (connecting the IRT Second Avenue el to what are now the 7 and the N trains), two trolley lines (with stops in the middle of the bridge, allowing passengers to ride elevators down to Long Island City and Blackwell's Island), six vehicular lanes (two on top, four on bottom), and an unlisted number of pedestrian walkways and bikeways.
The Queensboro, as Rainey predicted years ago when he was in charge of the project, spurred massive growth in Queens, nearly doubling it to 470,000 in just ten years and bringing it over 1,000,000 by 1930. F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned the bridge in his The Great Gatsby, using it as a route for the rich of Long Island to travel into Manhattan. The Department of Corrections also used the bridge, using it to transport inmates or patients down to the prisons and hospitals that made up Blackwell's Island.
The bridge underwent more changes over the next few years. The railway tracks were removed in 1942, and the trolley service was discontinued in 1955 after the Roosevelt Island Bridge was built. The elevators lasted a few more years, finally being destroyed in 1970.
Robert Moses, of course, had dealings with the bridge, although not as intensely as with his other projects. His major plan was to destroy a block of buildings on the Manhattan side and use the funding of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to build a parking garage on the site. Mayor Robert F. Wagner approved the deal, until the newly appointed Traffic Commissioner, Henry Barnes, learned that Moses had planned to lease the space above the garage to Macy's. Macy's would build a seven-story department store directly atop this government-funded parking garage, leased from the city for fifty years. Barnes threatened to reveal this to the public until Wagner killed the Moses plan.
The Queensboro was the first of the East River bridges to require rehabilitation. The New York City Department of Transportation started a 14-year project in 1987. The vehicular capacity became ten lanes, down from eleven after some of the lanes were widened. The Manhattan plaza was reconstructed in 2000, and the pedestrian walkways were reopened in 2001 (possibly dropping the number of vehicular lanes to eight (nine during rush hour)).
The bridge is 7,449' long in total, with two main spans of 1,182 feet and 984 feet, and is 100' wide. The towers rise 350' over the mean high water level, and the lower deck clears the East River by 130'. The bridge is, as of this writing, the 12th longest cantilever bridge in the world.
The bridge is run by the NYC Department of Transportation; like the other three bridges so governed, there has been no toll to cross the bridge by car or on foot since 1910. This may lead to its being one of the busiest bridges in New York City (carrying approximately 200,000 vehicles per day); the two closest East River crossings from Queens are both toll roads, and the next free bridge requires a long drive down into Brooklyn.
Like most of the New York City river crossings, the bridge operated under HOV restrictions following the September 11th attacks. The restrictions were lifted in 2002, with the only remaining restriction keeping commercial vehicles off of the upper level.
Streetlight admirer Kevin Walsh discusses a beautiful lamppost on the Manhattan side of the bridge, at 2nd Ave and 59th St. The light was recently renovated to its original design, after having gone missing since 1998. The four edges of the base are inscribed with the names of four of the five boroughs of New York. It is likely that this is the famous lamppost that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel salute in their song dedicated to this crossing.