Of the three bridges that connect Brooklyn and Manhattan, the Williamsburg is probably the least celebrated of the three. It is not as pretty as its sister bridges to the south, the Manhattan and the Brooklyn; it goes to what was until fairly recently an unfashionable area; it's not even physically close to the other two bridges, despite the fact that the Manhattan Bridge opened six years after it. The Williamsburg Bridge doesn't figure as heavily in the mythology of New York City as the Brooklyn Bridge or even the Queensboro Bridge (although a search here on E2 turns up a song written in 1999 dedicated to the Williamsburg and nothing about the Manhattan).

The bridge was first imagined in the 1860s. John Roebling, already a famous bridge designer who would become even more so a few years later for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, proposed other bridges to span the East River, uniting the cities physically (remember, this is still years before the "Mistake of '98" joined Brooklyn and Manhattan politically with the other three boroughs into Greater New York City). Williamsburg liked the idea, but officials in New York City were against it, as were the heads of ferry companies whose boats provided the service the bridges would reduce or eliminate. A bill was passed in Albany, but still nothing was done to actually build the bridge.

After several legal battles, including the chartering of a bridge to extend Brooklyn's elevated railways into Manhattan and the subsequent purchase by Williamsburg leaders of that charter after the formation of yet another bridge company, construction was finally started on the bridge on November 7, 1896, under the supervision of chief engineer Leffert L. Buck. The bridge was originally designed to cost only $7 million, less than half as much as the recently completed Brooklyn Bridge. Most of the original design of the bridge came from this desire to keep it cheap: running the suspending cables straight to the anchorage; building the towers purely out of steel (not the granite of the Brooklyn); even building the approaches out of steel rather than masonry; all were choices made to keep the time and money required to a minimum. Even during its construction, the bridge was viewed as ugly in comparison to its southerly companion. Gustav Lindenthal, appointed chief engineer in 1902, would point out the strength of the bridge as being twice that of the Brooklyn while avoiding comments upon its design. The cost, however, ended up being three times the original estimate, coming in at $24.2 million.

On December 19, 1903, the bridge was opened to pedestrian and carriage traffic. The six lanes of rail service originally designed within the bridge were not utilized until 1908 due to more legal hassles between the recently unified New York City and the private rail companies. The Long Island Railroad ran trains across the bridge from its current Atlantic Avenue line into Chambers St.; the elevated tracks are currently being used by the J/M/Z trains. A trolley line was run across the bridge starting in 1904 and ran until 1948; the former terminal can be seen from the Essex St. station on the J train.

The bridge also opened up the Williamsburg area to further settlement; the bridge itself was known for a while as the "Jews' Bridge", as thousands of Jews fled the overcrowding of the Lower East Side for the area then known as "Kleinedeutschland" (due to the large amounts to German settlers, who themselves moved further east into Queens).

The traffic which it had been designed to relieve started to take its toll on the bridge fairly early. By 1911, additional supports were built under the side spans, and the deck was strengthened to better take the weight of the latest subway cars. The bridge was redesigned in the 1920s to double the number of vehicular lanes to eight. The trolley tracks abandoned in 1948 were also converted into automobile lanes. (Sources do not specify how the vehicular lanes, designed for horsecart traffic, were converted into the current eight automobile lanes.)

The bridge went mostly unmaintained for a number of years. The suspension wires were never coated with zinc and started to rust; in 1964 local papers were reporting a rain of rust falling on pedestrians as they crossed the bridge. The pedestrian walkways were closed in the 1970s when a bridge worker was mugged while on the job. A massive inspection on the bridge in the late 1980s showed corrosion throughout the bridge, and in April 1988, the bridge was entirely closed to all traffic so that emergency repairs could be done, and plans were made concerning the fate of the bridge.

In November 1988, plans to replace the bridge were scrapped, and the City decided to make repairs to the bridge while keeping it open to traffic, all over the course of fourteen years. The final projects were finished on June 10, 2002, 50 days ahead of schedule. The pedestrian walkways were reopened in 1999, and the construction on those is due to be completed in 2005.

BRIDGE FACTS:

The bridge is maintained by the New York City Department of Transportation, and like the other three Manhattan Island-Long Island bridges, has been toll-free since 1910.

The bridge is 7308' long; the main span length of 1600' beat out the previous record holder by four feet, six inches.

The towers rise 310 feet over the East River at mean high water; the deck allows 135 feet of clearance for ships to pass under.

Currently, there is one pedestrian walkway shared between those on foot and those bicycling; there are two subway lanes which carry the north- and southbound J, M, and Z trains, as well as eight lanes for cars and buses. As of this writing, the bridge is under HOV restrictions, with cars only with two or more passengers allowed into Manhattan between 6 and 10 AM.

Sources:

http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/williamsburg/
http://www.newyorkled.com/williamsburg.htm
http://www.transalt.org/bridges/williamsburg.html
http://www.columbia.edu/~brennan/abandoned/willb.html
http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/dot/html/get_around/willb.html
http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/manhattan/
http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/brooklyn/

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