In 1776, George Washington
fought the British armies
at Jeffrey's Hook
, New York
, sinking ships between New York's Fort Washington
and New Jersey
's Fort Lee
in an attempt to block the passage of British ships up the Hudson River
. The attempt was a failure
, and Fort Washington (and soon after, all of New York City
) was lost to the enemy
. Nearly two centuries later, a bridge
was built on the site and dedicated to those who gave their lives
trying to defend
it, and given the name of the general
who inspired them to do so.
The historic nature of this area was not the only consideration for the location of the bridge; indeed, it was probably only the source of its name. The Hudson is narrowest between Washington Heights and the Palisades, with solid enough rock on either side to minimize the amount of foundation building. Both sides of the riverbank were also quite high up, limiting the need for extensive approaches.
The bridge was originally planned, in the work and dreams of Gustav Lindenthal, to be located in midtown Manhattan; there, it would serve as a link in the railroad chain between the New York City/New England area to New Jersey and points west. Lindenthal saw part of his dreams realized with the Hell Gate Bridge, although his Hudson River rail bridge was never to be. The railroads decided that they would rather build tunnels for their exclusive use, and Othmar Ammann, one of Lindenthal's lead engineers, realized that building a bridge in midtown Manhattan would be politically unfeasible and financially painful.
Ammann went over Lindenthal's head and talked to New Jersey governor George Silzer. Ammann and Silzer joined forces and managed to convince the newly created Port Authority to take responsibility for building the bridge at the Harlem-Palisades site. Ammann was selected as chief engineer in 1925, with Cass Gilbert (famed for his building of the Cathedral of Commerce) as the architectual consultant.
The main span of the bridge, twice as long as any existing suspension span at 3,500', required new engineering leaps. The bridge was built without stiffening trusses, with Ammann feeling that the sheer weight of the deck and cables would hold the bridge steady in even the highest winds. The bridge was deliberately over-engineered in order to allow a railroad or a second deck to be added at some later date. The suspension method chosen was a revolutionary spun-cable design invented by the firm of John A. Roebling and Sons, the very same firm founded to design the Brooklyn Bridge. The towers were originally planned to be covered in granite, with restaurants and observation towers built within; however, the exposed steel skeleton was viewed as beautiful by many. The elimination of the granite skin also allowed the bridge to be more flexible; this would save the Port Authority about $1 million, not counting the money saved by not using the stone.
The George was the first professionally built bridge in New York, using only veteran builders rather than employing people off the streets. The two tower teams got into a friendly battle, with each side rushing to complete their tower first. Ground was broken for the bridge on October 21, 1927, and would be opened to traffic four years and four days later.
The bridge was originally known as the Hudson River Bridge. In 1930, after rejecting other location-based and explorer-based names, the bridge was officially christened the George Washington Memorial Bridge. (The 'Memorial' would be officially dropped later.) New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Jersey Governor Morgan F. Larson dedicated the bridge together in Washington's honor on October 25, 1931.
Ammann's overengineering of the bridge would soon prove useful. The six-lane bridge was expanded by two lanes (disallowing any usage for light rail, but rail had many ways of getting between the two states already) in 1946. In 1959, Robert Moses headed a study that decided to add the proposed six-lane lower deck to the bridge. The deck was built in three years, without closing any of the lanes on the upper deck. The approaches to the lower deck were tunneled into the rock underneath the existing bridge, and the roadway was lifted to the bridge from below. A truss was added to protect the now larger and heavier bridge from high winds, and on August 29, 1962, the second deck was opened to traffic, making the GWB the world's only fourteen-lane suspension bridge. The overengineering was put to a very intense test in 1965, when a private plane crashed into the bridge. Both the bridge and the pilot were unharmed.
There are many structures in the area related to the bridge. The George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal was built in 1963, with dedicated ramps connecting the terminal to the bridge's upper deck. Connections to the Bronx were originally through two tunnels that led to the Washington Heights bridge. Moses designed a twelve-lane expressway and second Harlem River bridge to cross Washington Heights. The ventilation systems for the tunnels were destroyed in the laying of this expressway, and the tunnels were abandoned. Most famous, however, is a lighthouse under the New York anchorage. The Jeffries Hook Lighthouse (originally located in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and moved to its present site after the larger lighthouse was built there) was immortalized in Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward's 1942 book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. The lighthouse was rendered redundant by the addition of navigational beacons to the bridge, and it was put up for auction. Fans of the book joined together to save the lighthouse, and it was purchased by the Parks Department and is now the site of a fall festival. I am also informed that raves are also thrown in this area, underneath the bridge.
The bridge is 4,670' from anchorage to anchorage, with a main span of 3,500'. It is 119' wide in total, and has cleared the Hudson River by 215' since the addition of the lower deck. The towers rise 604' above the water, and support the dual roadways with 4 cables, each composed of nearly 30,000 individual wires. The New Jersey tower rests 76 feet from the Jersey shore, while the New York one is built on land; both towers contain elevators. The bridge was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1981 by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The bridge has been run since its creation by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The car toll on the bridge (as of this writing) is the Port Authority standard $6 one way, with E-Z Pass discounts. The New York toll plaza was originally designed as part of the City Beautiful movement; unfortunately, function won over design and the approach consists of a tangle of ramps and crossings. The New Jersey side was constructed in part out of the rock of the Palisades, and echoed sentiments of the past. Most of the beauty was lost in renovations during the 1960s and 1980s.
The bridge is an integral part of Interstate 95 as well as US Highways 1 and 9, connecting New Jersey and points south to Connecticut and points north. As a result, the bridge is one of the busiest in the world, carrying about 300,000 vehicles per day. This is probably exacerbated by the fact that the nearest crossings are the Tappan Zee bridge, 14 miles north on I-87; and the Lincoln Tunnel, seven miles south through the heart of Manhattan. Incidentally, this is the last bridge to cross the Hudson River before it becomes New York Bay, and the only overland connection between Manhattan Island and New Jersey; every other connection is a tunnel.
The bridge was designed with two pedestrian walkways/bikeways along the side. The north walkway was closed for renovation until 2001. Bikers are in the midst of a fight to connect the bikeways directly to Palisades Park. Other renovations currently in effect are a repainting of the bridge and redesign of the onramps.
Contained within the New Jersey tower is the world's largest free-flying flag, an American flag 60' x 90', weighing 475 pounds. The flag is flown from the tower on holidays, hanging down inside the arch.
The bridge may also be familiar to children due to a song on a Sesame Street album, in which Ernie sings the name of the bridge; a sad song with a happy ending, he claims. I've only found the lyrics; anyone who can provide a copy of the song will be greatly rewarded. Composer William Schuman also wrote a song inspired by the bridge; it is fairly safe to assume the two are unrelated.