has always been the "forgotten borough
" of New York City
. Closer to New Jersey
than to the rest of Greater New York
City, it was even politically part of the former state
until 1664. Legend has it
that this transfer occured when a boat race
between the two states was won by New York and Staten Island was the prize
. Staten Island is also the most "rural
" of the five boroughs, and a Republican
enclave in a largely Democrat
ic city. Staten Island even voted in 1993 to secede
from New York City, although ten years later they still remain a part of the metropolis
. But we're not here to insult
Staten Island and Brooklyn are separated by a strait known as the Narrows which divides the Atlantic Ocean from New York Bay. Obviously a strategic military location, the Narrows was used by the British to stage an invasion of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War. Two forts were built on opposite sides of the straits, with Brooklyn getting Fort Hamilton in 1831 and Richmond County turning a 1779 British fort into what would become Fort Wadsworth in 1812.
For years the only connection to Staten Island was by ferry. The first real bridge to the island was built in 1883 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This line, called the North Shore Line, connected to existing trackage in New Jersey over a lifting bridge built over the Arthur Kill. However, railroad cars would still have to be ferried across the Narrows or the bay to Manhattan and Brooklyn. The railroads were not the only ones who wanted a permanent crossing. The ferry across New York Bay took half an hour. The ferry to Brooklyn took only ten minutes, but ice or fog or other problems could delay or even stop the ferry service.
The B & O proposed a rail tunnel in 1888. Unfortunately, internal problems within the rail company delayed approval. In 1910, long after Staten Island was made part of Greater New York, Charles Worthington unveiled designs for a 2500' long, 260'-clearance bridge across the Narrows, meant to not only connect Staten Island to its sister boroughs but also to serve as a gateway to The City. The Army, unsurprisingly, nixed the idea, pointing out that yes, the bridge would be wonderful and all, and great for the city, but if the bridge were to fall or be destroyed, then New York Bay and the Brooklyn Navy Yards would be paralyzed.
New York City Mayor John Hylan authorized construction of a twin-tube rail tunnel for the BMT between Brooklyn and Staten Island in the 1920s. Construction was started, and holes were dug, but the costs were higher than expected and the site was abandoned. The city never filled in the excavation, however, and the site was referred to as "Hylan's Holes". (Supposedly, the holes can still be found in Owl's Head Park. Further exploration in the late fall of 2003 turned up no evidence, however.)
Three more bridge ideas were run up the pole in 1926, 1929, and 1937. The 1926 bridge would have been a Gothic masterpiece which would have included observation towers and beacons. The military was not alone in denying this particular bridge; the public stood behind them, including then-Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia.
By 1931, the three vehicular bridges that connected Staten Island to New Jersey were built, but were barely used because, let's face it, who wants to go to Staten Island? The Port Authority had to be given control of the Holland Tunnel in order to stop losing money on the bridges. The City proposed another tunnel in 1941 but, as the Depression shelved the earlier projects, the war would shelve this one.
In steps Robert Moses. The Narrows crossing fell under his jurisdiction in 1946 when he gained control of the Tunnel Authority. Moses carefully studied the proposals and then decided that the tunnel should instead be a bridge. It would be cheaper, he said, and take less time. Of course, it would also be the first thing sailors into New York City would see, and he already lost his chance to stick one of his structures in front of the New York City skyline.
The Army was again a problem. Although they had dropped the argument that a Narrows crossing would weaken the city's defenses, and the two forts that faced each other across the narrowest part of the Narrows were long since useless, the Army did not want to give up any part of their land. Eventually, through Moses' shrewd negotiaton, enough land was granted even to allow the bridge to be shorter than originally planned. An example of Moses' negotiations came with his acquisition of Hendrick's Reef, a small island in the Narrows that was home to Fort Lafayette. The fort was abandoned after World War II, and Moses argued successfully that the island should be placed under the Parks Department's jurisdiction, claiming that "commercial interests" would ruin the site. The only real opposition came from the American Legion, who wanted to place a headquarters on the island. Moses, unsurprisingly, won, and essentially owned the site. Rather than developing it, or turning it into a park, he demolished it in 1960 and used the reef as the base for the Brooklyn tower of the bridge.
After Moses released his Joint Study, detailing all of the work he felt should be done in the city, he ran into what would have been another problem for anyone except him. In order to construct the bridge and its approachways, he would have to condemn houses that lay in the right-of-way he wanted. The residents of Bay Ridge protested and picketed and petitioned that the bridge approachways run along the shoreline and connect to the Shore Parkway there, rather than the approach from the Gowanus that Moses proposed. Moses carefully considered their requests, but maintained that his way would require less condemnation of property and cost less. The right-of-way was acquired in 1957, and despite vehement efforts by the public and politicians, seven thousand residents were removed from their homes in 1959. Interestingly, some of these residents (including some of the most violently opposed) ended up working on the bridge.
Incidentally, the opposite was occuring on the Staten Island side. Twice as many homes would be destroyed in Richmond County, but the residents were all for the bridge; it would finally link their isolated community with the rest of the city of which it had been a part for over 60 years. 1959 saw a massive land rush on the island, with lots doubling or tripling in price, some even during the same day. The bridge was seen as Staten Island's savior.
What may have been Moses' master stroke came with the payment of the bridge. The Port Authority, the TBTA's chief rival, wanted the Narrows Crossing more than anything. The problem was, the Port Authority had the money to build it, but not the power; Moses, of course, had the power, but wanted to use the money he had for other projects. A "Joint Program" between the Port Authority and Moses' TBTA was entered into. The contract of the Program stated that the Port Authority would pay for the construction of the bridge, but would lease it to the TBTA with the option to buy once sufficient revenue was generated. Moreover, the TBTA would have total control of the bridge: operation, maintenance, everything. Finally, the PA would be paying for the bridge with money that they had set aside to build a bridge at 125th Street in Manhattan (which Moses would have had nothing to do with); they would be forced under terms of the contract to defer the project indefinitely. Moses' funds were therefore freed up to work on his other bridges and highways, and he essentially came out of the deal with a free bridge.
With the land problems out of the way and the public dealt with, the last problem was that of naming the bridge. Staten Island residents wanted to call it the Staten Island bridge, their reasoning being, well, it's the first New York bridge to Staten Island. The Staten Island Chamber of Commerce even went so far as to charter a small plane carrying a banner urging the support of that name. Official support was behind naming it after Giovanni da Verrazano, the first white explorer of New York Bay. There was much popular opposition to this name, some complaining that it was hard to spell or pronounce, others (mainly the Irish) not wanting a bridge named after an Italian. Some of those opposed took to referring to the bridge as the "Guinea Gangplank", a name that became even more apt when thousands of Italians, soon after its completion, began to flee one island to settle on another. Other names were thrown out: "Gateway Bridge"; "Freedom Bridge"; "Neptune Bridge"; "New World Bridge"; "Narrows Bridge". One person expressed, in a letter to the Times, that the name Verrazano was neither "romantic" nor "tremendous" enough, and suggested that the bridge be called the "Commissioner Moses Bridge". The Italian Historical Society threw their weight in support of their countryman from centuries past, and after a few months of debate, the bridge received the title of "Verrazano-Narrows Bridge".
Othmar Ammann was chosen as the chief engineer, and the bridge was officially started on August 13, 1959. Construction began first on the anchorages that would hold the weight of the cables, and cofferdams were sunk to build the piers that would hold the towers. The two massive arches themselves were built during 1962. The cables were spun during the early part of 1963, and then in October the deck was begun. The laying of the cables was done against tradition: rather than finding a way to lay the original rope that would later hold the catwalks on which the cablespinners would travel from the ground, the first ropes would be hauled to the top of the two towers from barges in the Narrows, and the Coast Guard had to stop all traffic in the area during the process. The deck was, also against tradition, built from the middle outward, in order to reduce the strain on the towers and cables. 75 "boxes", 115' x 27', were built on the ground and hoisted up to the level at which they would be installed. Nets were hung under the bridge after the third (and final) death on the bridge in 1963, although an additional five-day strike by the ironworkers would also be required.
The bridge (then the world's longest) and its six-lane upper deck would be open to the public on November 21, 1964. The six-lane lower deck was scheduled to be opened in 1975, if traffic proved that it was needed, or possibly it would be converted to rail use, connecting the Fort Hamilton line to the B & O tracks on Staten Island. Moses, of course, would not hear of one of his projects being used to carry public transportation, and as by 1966 the bridge was carrying traffic at a level he hadn't predicted would happen until 1980, Moses went over the opposition of then-Mayor Lindsay and opened the second deck in June 1969.
The impact on Staten Island was incredible. The meager population of the borough doubled in just a few years after the bridge opened (many of the new residents the Italians mentioned before); now, Staten Island was at least sort of useful. Unfortunately, not all of the effect was beneficial. The toll plazas were built on the Staten Island side, and collected the tolls from people crossing either way. Richmondites complained about the pollution caused by millions of idling cars waiting in both directions to pay their tolls, and about the congestion found on the Staten Island Expressway because people who wanted to get around the island had to compete with those who wanted to leave. In 1986, a compromise was struck, and the toll was doubled, but only collected in one direction.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was, at its completion, the longest suspension bridge in the world, beating out its nearest competitor by a meager 60 feet. Since 1981, it has fallen behind other bridges to become 6th longest in the world; however, it still remains the longest in America. If the Army had not given up its land, the bridge would today be the fourth longest in the world, at 4,620'.
The bridge is long enough that certain factors had to be considered in its creation. It is somewhat famous for requiring the curvature of the earth to be taken into consideration: the tops of the towers are 1 5/8 inches further apart from each other than the bottoms. The curve of the bridge, designed to meet the Army's requirements with a four-point grade on the approaches, lowers up to 12' during the summer months, due to expansion of the joints between the "boxes" which make up the roadways. The bridge even expands differently depending on the time of day: on long summer afternoons, the sunny side could be significantly lower than the shaded side. Because of this, the more precise measurements of the bridge had to occur at night.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is 6,690' long, anchorage to anchorage. Throw in the approaches as well and the total length becomes 13,700'. It is 103' wide, and carries 12 lanes of traffic: 3 in each direction on both decks. The center of the arch rises an average of 228' above the surface of the Narrows; the two towers rise 693' above mean high water. The whole thing was completed at a cost of $320,126,000. An average of 190,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily. The toll, as of this writing, is $8, double the usual MTA toll, for it is collected Staten Island-bound only.
There is currently no support for pedestrians or bicyclists to cross the bridge. Pedestrian walkways were included in the original design, but Moses feared that people would use the bridge as a means for suicide and so the walkways were not built. Pedestrians are only allowed on the bridge for the New York City Marathon, and bikers during the 5-Boro Bike Tour. A movement has been lobbying since 1994 to have these walkways installed.
The views from the bridge are unsurpassed by anything short of those from the Staten Island Ferry. Moses had this in mind when the bridge was planned; his emphasis when creating many of his bridges and parkways was that the driver should enjoy the scenery. However, signs on the bridge explicitly prohibit picture taking from the bridge (the only bridge in New York City that obviously has this restriction). Since there is no pedestrian access to the bridge, the only way a driver can appreciate the views of the city is during one of the frequent traffic jams.
The bridge was red as it was built and clad in steel, painted "battleship grey", before the opening. The bridge was formerly illuminated at night, dramatically sillhouetted against the night sky. For some unexplained reason, the only lights that remain on the bridge at night are the navigation lights upon each tower, the lights on the cables, and the streetlights which illuminate the two decks. The bridge, however, rendered obsolete a lighthouse that was situated at Fort Wadsworth.
Talese, Gay. The Bridge. Harper & Row: 1964
The New York Times, The Curious New Yorker. Random House: 1999
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City. Kondansha America, New York:1997 (originally published 1966)
Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City. Henry Holt, New York: 1994
Miller, Stuart and Sharon Seitz. The Other Islands of New York City. W.W. Norton & Co: 2001
Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker. Vintage Books-Random House: 1974
Wright, Carol von Pressentin, Stuart Miller, and Sharon Seitz. Blue Guide: New York. W.W. Norton & Co: 2002
phone calls to Fort Hamilton and the Brooklyn Historical Society