If you are originally from one of the five New York Boroughs, you must have either seen or traveled on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The bridge doesn't just have a unique history, but also has some shocking secrets that the majority of New Yorkers never knew about.
Initially in 1888, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad made a proposal to link Brooklyn to Staten Island. At the time, Staten Island had a tiny population of only 38,000 people. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad focused greatly on creating blueprints for the construction of an underground tunnel which would ultimately link the two boroughs together. After much scrutiny, the plans for the tunnel were abandoned due to high costs and potential dangerous working conditions.
A few decades later, another tunnel plan for the Narrows was backed by New York Mayor, John F. Hylan, in 1923. Hylan managed to obtain $500,000 in public funding to finance the partial digging of two access shafts. The two tunnels were dug around 150 feet but were never completed. These two holes eventually earned the nickname “Hylan's Holes”. Over the next year the costs surged and the plan quickly evaporated.
In 1926, a bridge designer, David B. Steinman (who was responsible for constructing the Mackinac bridge), sought legislative approval to construct a privately owned toll bridge across the Narrows. New York congressman Fiorello H. La Guardia successfully opposed the measure, believing such a bridge would not enrich private investors. In 1929 and 1937, two more proposals for tunnels were once again suggested, but these too were later canceled due to high costs.
By the early 1940s, American involvement in World War II was the primary concern of the local, state, and federal government. The government halted several projects so that many resources can be directed to winning the war. La Guardia (by then New York City's mayor) began thinking about the construction of a bridge across the Narrows, but the idea gained little momentum. In 1946, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) chairman, Robert Moses, also thought about ditching the tunnel plan altogether and seriously considered the idea of building a bridge.
Moses, who was the head of managing transportation projects, typically preferred bridges to tunnels. In 1949, he obtained permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a bridge across the Narrows. Moses' major obstacle was the fact that the bridge would not be a draw bridge. It would be a suspension bridge and once it was built, ships of all sizes (including some of the largest warships in the U.S. Navy) had to fit under it, no matter what. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed with Moses that the bridge would have to provide clearance of 228 feet.
Even with the approval from The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Moses still could not build the bridge as quickly as he wanted. Moses had to wait until 1954, when the TBTA and the Port Authority of New York issued the Joint Study of Arterial Facilities. Once this was completed, Moses had the green light and could begin construction of the bridge.
The Joint Study of Arterial Facilities favored a suspension bridge linking Moses's previous road projects in Brooklyn to Staten Island. Moses then encountered a dilemma; who would he choose to construct the bridge? After narrowing down his selections, Moses chose Othmar Hermann Ammann. Ammann was a Swiss-born, structural engineer, who attained a degree from ETH Zurich (the same university that Albert Einstein attended).
Eventually, Ammann wrote two thesis papers about bridge collapses. The papers focused on the collapse of both the Quebec Bridge and the Original Tacoma Narrows Bridge. After reading the report on the Quebec bridge collapse, Gustav Lindenthal, a prominent civil engineer, became interested in working with Ammann. Lindenthal gave Ammann a job and eventually became his mentor. Over time, Amman was appointed bridge engineer to the Port of New York Authority. As Ammann slowly rose up the ranks he eventually was appointed chief engineer of the George Washington Bridge, Bayonne Bridge, and the Triborough bridge (now called the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge). Moses was extremely satisfied with Amman's work and leadership, and asked him if he could construct the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which later opened in 1939. Moses continued to admire Ammann's passion and dedication to bridge building and wanted him to construct the Walt Whitman and Throgs Neck Bridge as well.
As Amman gained tremendous respect and popularity throughout the engineering community, Moses knew that his Brooklyn/Staten Island project would be a job that Amman was fit for. This project would be the largest that Amman ever worked on in his entire career.
But before Moses was able to begin construction he faced an array of complex obstacles. One issue was that if the bridge were to be built, Moses would be have to pay the U.S. government a large sum of money in order to build the bridge on federally-owned property. For two years, Moses and Triborough conducted complex negotiations with the army to provide easements at two 19th-century forts standing at each side of the Narrows where the bridge reached shore (Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island). Triborough eventually agreed to pay the U.S. government $24 million.
Another obstacle was that the construction of the bridge created a link to the belt parkway, where the area of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn fell. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, federal regulation was limited and federal aid was non-existent when it came to roads and bridges. Moses used eminent domain which forced residents of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn out of their homes. Demolition destroyed almost 1,000 homes and ultimately led to the displacement of over 8,000 people. Still today, many residents of the area will never forgive Moses for these actions.
Construction of the bridge began on August 13,1959. It took a year just to build the two towers which both stand an astonishing 693 feet into the sky. Both towers are not parallel to each other. In fact, they are nearly two inches farther apart at their tops than at their bases to compensate for the curvature of the Earth. Each tower contains 10,000 steel boxes bonded by almost 3 million rivets and 1 million bolts. Together, they contain as much steel as the Empire State Building. Furthermore, it took around 380,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the bridge's bases which descend 170 feet underwater.
Ammann made sure that the primary cables suspending the bridge would be enormous in size so that potential swinging of the bridge would be put to a minimum, even with high winds. The four cables weigh a colossal 9,800 tons each. If the cables were unraveled, they would stretch more than halfway to the moon. The color of the bridge is quite interesting as well, initially it was a reddish color, but Ammann didn't want it to resemble the Golden Gate Bridge. After several applications which consisted of 11,530 gallons of paint, the Verrazano officially received its distinctive grey look.
The length of the bridge's central span, which made it the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened is 4,260 feet, the equivalent of just over 14 football fields. In total, the bridge weighs 1,265,000 tons. If you compare that to the Golden Gate Bridge it looks like child's play (Amman estimated that this bridge would weigh 70 percent more than the Golden Gate). At first, Moses and Amman believed that the bridge would cost between $150 million and $200 million to complete. In the end it cost over $300 million ($2.5 billion today). After five years of construction the bridge officially opened on November 21, 1964.
On the day it opened, a man wearing a rented tuxedo drove a blue Cadillac convertible with flags flapping from the fenders and was the first man to officially drive over the bridge. He parked his vehicle behind the Staten Island toll a week in advance to guarantee the position.
Since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated a year before the opening of the bridge the majority of Americans wanted the bridge to be named in his honor. Eventually the Kennedy family agreed to name the bridge after Giovanni da Verrazzano, who sailed a French ship into the narrows in 1524, becoming the first European to enter New York Harbor. Today, some people still want the name to be changed to the JFK bridge, especially due to the fact that Verrazzano spent his early years as a ruthless pirate.
If you ever look closely at how the explorer and the name of the bridge are spelt, they are both different. The name of the bridge is missing a Z. Apparently, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller preferred Americanizing the name and dropped one of the Z's.
In the film Saturday Night Fever, it is stated that a worker is buried in the structure’s foundation. This is false, however, three men did fall to their deaths while working on the bridge. When this event occurred, many workers walked off of the job demanding more safety features and netting. Once the netting was installed, four men were caught by the net, rescued from falling to their own deaths. Of all the 12,000 workers that constructed the bridge, not one of them were invited to the opening ceremony. Instead, they attended the funerals of their fellow workers.
In 1973, an oil tanker and container vessel collided with one another, which resulted in the bridge being scorched. The bridge suffered serious damage and 16 men lost their lives. Both vessels then ran aground in Gravesend Bay. A few years later, the world’s largest American flag was hung on the bridge to celebrate the country’s bicentennial. The designer of the flag neglected to account for how windy it’d be on the bridge, and the 71,000-square-foot flag shredded to pieces in 15 minutes.
The toll to cross the bridge when it first open was 50 cents. Moses shot down repeated pleas from a Staten Island politician to reduce fees for the island’s residents. His Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority imposed a permanent 50-cent toll. At the time, many commuters used Mexican pesos, which were about the right size to fool the coin-collecting bins. Over time, the cost kept on creeping up. The toll for cars today is $15. A common urban legend has it that tolls were to be abolished once the bridge's construction bonds were paid off. Many experts believe that these toll revenues simply “feed the system” so that more construction and maintenance can occur on other bridges and tunnels. Clearly, the toll fee is interminable.
On October 18, 1995, the Verrazano-Narrows was the first structure to accept EZPass, an electronic toll-taking system that eliminates the need for cash or tokens. Nearly 11,000 Staten Islanders signed up for the discounted toll service in the weeks leading up to its institution.
Many historians and urban planners would agree that Moses specifically engineered the bridge to only carry automobiles (The bridge has no subway or walking/biking lane, although there have been talks of opening a walkway which could cost up to $30 million.) This forced many Irish and Italian Brooklyn families to purchase a car if they were to move or travel to Staten Island. The absence of Public Transportation on the bridge was most likely designed to keep Staten Island as a predominantly Caucasian borough. Moses later received much criticism for not allowing a subway to operate on the bridge. Moreover, some believe that the bridge was a more profitable venture if only automobiles were allowed to travel over it.
The construction of the Verrazano-Narrows ended up being a double-edged sword. There is no doubt that many people lost their homes, and that was a true tragedy. On the other hand, the Verrazano-Narrows forever changed the face of Staten Island by helping boost the borough's population. According to a 1960 census, Staten Island's population stood at around 210,000 people. In a 2000 census, Staten Island's population nearly doubled to almost 444,000 people. This occurred while the rest of New York City's population either leveled off or even declined. The population growth also allowed a real estate boom to occur in the borough.
It is a fact that the Verrazano-Narrows is a structure that only the greatest minds with limitless amounts of ingenuity could have created. Mayor John Hylan initially implemented the idea, and even though he never saw the behemoth structure standing, his ambition to better Staten Island is why Hylan Boulevard was named in his honor.
Even with all of the criticism that Moses received, the majority of scholars would agree that he was the reason that the Verrazano-Narrows exists today. His collaboration with Ammann led to one of the greatest modern marvels of our time. Today, the Verrazano -Narrows is still one of the largest suspension bridges in the world (right behind some of Asia's largest suspension bridges).
So, next time that you are driving on the Belt Parkway or the Staten Island Expressway, remember the three men that sacrificed their lives to built this awe-inspiring structure. Also, you should realize that the 12,000 workers that spend nearly five years working on this bridge built so much more that just steel beams, cement, and pieces of metal welded together. They built a piece of not just Brooklyn and Staten Island history, but American history.