History Of The George Washington Bridge

History Of The George Washington Bridge

Feature Photo: GagliardiPhotography / Shutterstock

The George Washington Bridge is currently regarded as the most frequently traveled bridge by automobile in the world. Anyone who lives in New York or New Jersey is usually not a big fan of the bridge simply because it is a traffic nightmare. It doesn’t matter what day or time, seven days a week, almost twenty-four hours a day, except for maybe early Sunday mornings,  you will sit in traffic on the George Washington Bridge. In fact, you will usually sit in even more traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway in the Bronx or on Route 80 or 95 in New Jersey just trying to get on the George Washington Bridge. It is also one of the last bridges in New York that has toll booths still standing and working. Nonetheless, this is an article about the history of the George Washington Bridge, so we will leave our New York attitude behind and take a look at this amazing technological feat that has played a significant role in the American Experience of anyone who has driven consistently between New York and New Jersey.

George Washington Bridge

Eastbound on the GW. Photo: Brian Kachejian ©2021

Currently, the ownership of The George Washington Bridge is in the hands of the bi-state government agency known as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. From 1931 until 1937, the George Washington Bridge was considered the world’s longest spanning bridge at 3,500 feet while the full length of the bridge itself was measured at 4,760 feet. In 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge of San Fransisco, California, out-spanned the lengthy GW Bridge at 4,200 feet.

This double-decker bridge currently features an eight-lane upper deck capacity, allowing four lanes of vehicular traffic to trek across the Hudson River from each direction. Prior to this, however, the upper deck started out as a six-lane until it was upgraded into eight lanes. The upper deck of this bridge also accommodates pedal bikes and pedestrians. The later-added lower deck has a total of six lanes, allowing three from each side to do the same. In total, there are fourteen lanes altogether, accommodating the heavy traffic that also comes in from the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, and four different highways, one of them being Interstate 95. This is the same Interstate highway that drives along the east coast of the United States, stretching from Miami, Florida up to the Houlton-Woodstock Border Crossing between the state of Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick. From start to finish, this is slightly over a 1,908-mile drive. Nearly eighty-nine miles of this highway passes clean through the state of New Jersey while twenty-three and a half miles stretch across New York.

From Concept to Construction

The location of the George Washington Bridge was destined to be near the sites of New York City’s Fort Washington and New Jersey’s Fort Lee. These were fortified positions held by George Washington as a general, long before he became America’s first elected president. During the American Revolutionary War, Washington and his army attempted to prevent the occupation of New York City by the invasion of the British military that was sent by King George of England. When the attempt failed, General George Washington fled across the river from what is known as Manhattan today to New Jersey’s Fort Lee. Once the war was over and America officially became recognized as a free nation, the crossing of the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York was only done by ferry.

In 1906, there were talks of building a bridge across the Hudson River that would connect New York to New Jersey. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that there would be a legislative vote to put this concept into motion. Starting in October 1927, the construction of the George Washington Bridge officially began. Going off the architect and designs brought forth by the team of Othmar Ammann, Edward W. Steams, Allston Dana, and Cass Gilbert, this constructed connection between Fort Lee and Manhattan Island saw over several thousand tons of fabricated steel, masonry, and wire in order to get the job done.

On October 25, 1931, the completed bridge was opened up to welcome motorists to drive across it, eight months ahead of schedule. While this bridge was under construction, it was often referred to as the Fort Lee Bridge or the Hudson River Bridge as real estate developers saw the potential growth that was bound to spark once the states of New Jersey and New York were connected in such a manner. At the time, this was only a six-lane suspension bridge, allowing three lanes of traffic to drive across either from New York City’s Manhattan Island or New Jersey’s Fort Lee. As for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, while the upper level of the George Washington Bridge has a sidewalk on each side, the northern side has been mostly closed off since 2008, allowing only the southern side of this bridge to be accessible. This came as a necessity while permanent bridges and fixtures are put into place as a means to reduce the number of suicides that have taken place since the day this bridge first became accessible to the public.

By width, the George Washington Bridge is measured at 119 feet. Using the deflection theory, Othmar Ammann designed the upper deck to be less thick, using the concept longer suspension bridges didn’t need trusses in proportion to their overall length. The weight of the construction materials alone was enough to make this bridge heavy enough to perfectly balance any counterweight against the deck’s movement. In place of the stiffening truss was a layout of plate girders that spanned along the underside of the upper deck. This was also done for the lower deck when construction of it began in 1958.

The George Washington Bridge’s four main cables have exactly 105,986 wires that are used to support the upper deck, all of them held by suspension towers that stand over six hundred feet high. Each side of this bridge contains an anchorage for these main cables. New York has a concrete structure while the cliff of New Jersey’s Pallisades serves as the other. At the time of construction, the desire to put into place anything ornamental to the bridge was abandoned as a means to have off monetary costs. With America’s financial portfolio appearing rather bleak after the stock market crash, only for it to be followed by the Great Depression, any beautification ideas were held off for the time being. Interestingly enough, while the critics didn’t care for the appearance of the all-steel design of the George Washington Bridge, the general public approved. It was also the public that voted for its current name, preferring it over the original name, which was the Hudson River Bridge.

Cause for Celebration

On October 24, 1931, the George Washington Bridge was dedicated during the opening ceremonies carried out by state officials from New Jersey and New York. This impressive structure became the new record holder as the longest main bridge span in the world, beating Detroit, Michigan’s Ambassador Bridge which held this title after it was completed in 1929 at 1,850 feet. It was the intent to establish the George Washington Bridge’s suspension-style development as an economically feasible means to build something solid enough to do the job of accommodating large volumes of traffic without too much worry. Not only did this bridge serve as one of the world’s greatest feats at the time, but served as a trigger for the state of New Jersey to realize substantial growth, especially in the Bergen Country region, and Fort Lee.

The world’s largest free-flow American flag proudly waves its ninety-foot by sixty-foot presence above the George Washington Bridge whenever it is brought out of storage for special occasions, weather permitting. Whenever there is a special day revolving around American history, this flag is brought out from the bridge’s girders and put on display. This form of celebration began a few short years after the conclusion of World War II and still continues to this day. When the flag is up, the lights from the bridge towers shine on from dusk until midnight.

Expansionism

Due to the amount of heavy traffic that relied on the George Washington Bridge, the original six-lane trek across the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York expanded to the width of ninety feet in order to accommodate a total of eight lanes of traffic in 1946. This was accomplished by removing the median that ran along the center of the bridge and putting two new lanes in its place. Once installed, these central lanes were reversible, meaning it was controlled by a traffic light system that would accommodate the flow of the traffic according to which time of day saw the most amount of traffic head in a specific direction.

This, however, wasn’t enough as vehicular congestion was still a problem as so many travelers relied on this bridge to trek back and forth, especially commercial traffic and commuters. The increasing demand for improvements to better accommodate travelers saw the desire to install a bus terminal, as well as better highway connections, which became a project that was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Starting in 1958, a six-lane lower deck began its construction. As of 1962, it was opened up to the appreciative public. It had been intended all along for the George Washington Bridge to be double-decked but it wasn’t until 1962 that this became a physical reality. It certainly appeared the anticipation of Bergen County, New Jersey to boom as a thriving community through Fort Lee was not just realized but surpassed.

With an overall capacity of fourteen lanes of traffic, the George Washington Bridge is the largest of its kind as a suspension bridge. It is also the busiest, accommodating more traffic than any other. With the upper deck having less than a fourteen-foot clearance above the lower deck, commercial and oversized vehicles are prohibited from traveling across a level that is reserved for passenger vehicles only. As for vehicles carrying enclosed hazardous materials, they are normally restricted to travel along the lower deck unless the driver has agreed to follow the guidelines laid out by state port authorities.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has a publication known as the Red Book, which lays out detailed information on what each vehicle carrying hazardous materials needs to follow as far as its layout of rules and regulations go. Much of the reasoning behind this was due to an incident in 1977 when three tractor-trailers and two passengers found themselves entangled in a situation that nearly saw two of the trailers break through the roadway barriers. These two came very close to falling off the bridge completely but were fortunate enough to avoid such a fate. Although this was the most extreme incident revolving around oversized vehicles, it wasn’t the first time.

Additional Modifications

As the usage of the George Washington Bridge grew, so was the need to keep up with maintenance concerns as well as different modifications to improve upon its original design. Prior to officially becoming a double-decked suspension bridge, direct approaches to and from the bridge finished installation as of 1937, followed by the 1938 installments of tunnels. There were also lights installed to assist the pilots flying at night to be wary of this bridge. However, during World War II, as a safety precaution, the lights were kept off.

Additional modifications to the George Washington Bridge also came out of necessity as it became one of the favorite locations for people wishing to either perform a stunt or commit suicide. Although the first jumper to plunge to their death was unintentional, a publicity stunt performed by Norman J. Terry on September 21, 1930, resulted in his demise before a crowd of thousands. He broke his neck upon impact against the Hudson River as his body was not facing the right way. The first known suicide took place just one week after the bridge opened and has since witnessed several more attempts made. Some have been successful while others either survived or were prevented from carrying out their self-destructive intention. Since then, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has installed protective barriers to prevent potential jumpers from carrying out their self-destructive intent.

Additional George Washington Bridge History

When the George Washington Bridge first opened in 1931, the toll to cross it was fifty cents per vehicle. Over the stretch of time, it has since raised to $16, at least as of January 5, 2020. The toll charges vary between commercial vehicles and passenger vehicles, as well as among commuters and visitors, pending whatever the circumstance happens to be. The funds are used to keep up with the bridge’s maintenance needs and operational costs.

Before a new median barrier was put in place on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, a young pilot used it as an emergency landing platform when the plane he was flying had an engine failure. Thankfully, there was not enough traffic at the time to cause any serious issues such as death or serious injury. In fact, the only injuries belonged to the pilot and his passenger. This fateful event took place on December 28, 1966. Not many years passed before a median was installed along the upper deck.

On October 24, 1981, fifty years after the dedication ceremony of the George Washington Bridge, the American Society of Civil Engineers declared it a National Historic Engineering Landmark. Nearly ten years later, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began a rehabilitation project to improve the overall condition of the bridge. This included rebuilding and replacing the ramps, structures, and steel. Although the work resulted in extensive traffic jams, it was needed due as there were over two billion vehicles that had already used the George Washington Bridge since it first opened to the public. Aside from routine maintenance, the need was there to give the bridge the upgrades it deserved.

As of September 11, 2006, the George Washington Bridge American Flag has waved as a means to pay homage to the Port Authority’s eighty-four lives that were lost when the 2001 terrorist attacks made their impact on New York City, America, and the rest of the world. Seven years later, on Monday, September 9th, two of the three toll lanes located at the Fort Lee, New Jersey access point were shut down by the order of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. This was an action performed without consulting the appropriate authorities and was done so during the morning rush hour, causing massive traffic congestion. By order from the Port Authority, the closed-off tolls were forced to reopen as of Friday, September 13th. It wouldn’t be the first time the George Washington Bridge would be used as a means to carry out protest-style agendas as Black Lives Matter gathered on it on September 12, 2020, before marching up to the New York City Police Department’s location in Manhattan.

On a lighter note, the George Washington Bridge has been a Hollywood star on a number of occasions, either serving as a chosen location for filming, as a backdrop for imagery, or as a frame of reference to a song or story. It has also been making its presence felt in the world of video games, especially if there is a New York theme that has been embedded into it.

Written by Millie Zeiler.

Introduction paragraph by Brian Kachejian

Sources:

https://911families.org/event/worlds-largest-free-flying-flag-on-george-washington-bridge-to-honor-911-victims/ (Regarding 9/11 and the flag)

(https://www.britannica.com/topic/George-Washington-Bridge)

(https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/george-washington-bridge-is-dedicated)

(https://www.liquisearch.com/george_washington_bridge)

(https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/nyregion/george-washington-bridge-scandal-what-you-need-to-know.html)

(https://www.foxnews.com/us/blm-protesters-clash-with-nypd-after-marching-onto-george-washington-bridge)

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