It’s easy to take them for granted, but New York City would be a much different place without the many bridges that connect the boroughs. Over its long history, this city has seen an incredible variety of spans go up, and these are just a few shining examples from the over two thousand bridges traversing NYC. These six are all part of a larger story, however, of the evolution of an incredible city that’s grown one connection at a time.
The King’s Bridge
The city’s very first bridge went up in the colonial days while the city’s namesake Duke of York (later King James II) was still alive. Built in 1693, The King’s Bridge was built in a then-remote spot of the landmass, the northern tip of the island. Spanning the Spuyten Duyvil Creek in what’s now the Marble Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, it wasn’t quite as momentous as it could have been. Contemporary accounts described the bridge as “small, very narrow, and badly built.” After a partial rebuild during the Revolutionary War, the bridge lived on into the 20th century, even serving as the starting point for the second car race in US History in 1896. Its eventual fate is somewhat of a mystery, but historians believe it was buried in construction in the South Bronx, an appropriately humble end for an underappreciated piece of New York history.
This eternal emblem of NYC may feel timeless to us now, but it’s construction probably seemed similarly eternal to citizens of the time. The bridge’s building suffered so many setbacks, it’s a wonder it was ever finished. Before a single brick was lain, bridge designer John Roebling succumbed to gangrene from an accident and his son Washington took over the project. Washington Roebling was a hands-on manager, so much so that he was stricken with the bends from working in the dangerous caissons used to build the bridge’s massive towers (27 workers died in total from this and other maladies). Roebling was forced to dictate the building from his sickbed, and his wife Emily took the lead in managing construction. 14 long years after it was started, the Brooklyn Bridge was finally completed in 1883 to much fanfare. The massive celebration represented not only a new era in New York City’s existence but a major sigh of relief that the span was, after so many years and setbacks, finally done.
While the Brooklyn Bridge was the overpowering, impressive span of its day, it was soon joined by several other East River overpasses that went up relatively quickly: the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Queensborough (now Ed Koch Bridge) all went up in a 6-year time period from 1903 to 1909. While that area became well covered, giving easy access to Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens, the spot where New York’s waterways meet the Atlantic Ocean remained bare, leaving Staten Island again left behind. That changed in 1964 when the Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened, connected the Bay Ridge neighborhood of southern Brooklyn to the island borough just south of Fort Wadsworth. At the grand opening, the Verrazano was the longest suspension bridge in the world (it’s now 13th), but it remains the longest span in the Americas, running over two miles from end to end.
3 New Links to the 21st Century
It’s been over 50 years since a bridge last went up in the New York area, but that’s rapidly changed over the last couple of years. A trio of bridges now represents a new era in NYC-area architecture, replacing older connectors between Staten Island and New Jersey (The Goethals Bridge), Westchester and Rockland counties (The Tappan Zee Bridge), and Queens and Brooklyn (Kosciuszko Bridge). These new structures are all in the style known as cable-stayed bridges, a modern update on the old suspension technique that allows one main tower to sustain the entire span. It’s an elegant and simple-appearing design that’s popped up across the world and is finally making its long-awaited New York debut. For a city that’s all about making connections, these new bridges are a fittingly modern path to the 21 century for motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike.