vintage photo of Bayonne Bridge during construction

The Bayonne Bridge was the last of three related bridges planned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (then the Port of New York Authority) to connect New Jersey with Staten Island. They were built as part of a circumferential highway network envisioned for the greater New York metropolitan region. In addition to its role in the regional network, planners speculated that the Bayonne Bridge would serve automobile traffic from commuters who worked in Lower Manhattan and lived in bedroom communities on Staten Island-communities that would spring up as a result of the bridge.

The site selected for the bridge paralleled an existing ferry service between Bayonne, New Jersey and Port Richmond, New York. By building over the ferry route, the planners preserved the street patterns of both towns. However, this arrangement also meant that the bridge would cross the Kill Van Kull slightly askew, requiring a longer span than a right-angle crossing.

Initially, the bridge was planned for motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians only. Accordingly, a suspension bridge design was developed since this type of bridge offered the most economical way to engineer a single span across the Kill Van Kull for motor vehicles. However, the suspension scheme was abandoned when the Port Authority commissioners insisted that considerations be made for at least two rail transit tracks to be added at some future date. (Studies showed that adapting a suspension design for rail traffic would be cost-prohibitive.) With rail traffic in mind, the bridge's chief designer, Othmar H. Ammann, began developing a scheme that spanned the Kill Van Kull with a single, innovative, arch-shaped truss. As with the suspension bridge scheme, Ammann worked on the arch design in partnership with architect Cass Gilbert. The arch bridge that emerged promised to be a remarkably efficient solution, well suited to the site from both an engineering and aesthetic standpoint.

Because the arch spans a shipping channel, the suspended roadway would be held 150 feet above water level-clearance for the U.S. Navy's tallest ships in the 1930s. To get the roadway from ground level to 150 feet in the air, a viaduct would be built on both ends of the arch. Monumental in their own right, the viaducts and the arch would support one and a quarter miles of elevated roadways.

Constructing the arch posed a special challenge. Most arches are built using a fully formed, temporary support system that mirrors the curve of the completed arch. However, such a system could not be used for the Bayonne Bridge since it would block shipping on the Kill Van Kull, one of the world's busiest channels. So a method was devised to build the Bayonne Bridge's arch using truss segments, which were fabricated off-site, transported to the bridge, lifted into position, and attached to the previously assembled segment. Movable hydraulic jacks were used to prop up the arch during erection.

Construction of the Bayonne Bridge began in September 1928. The projected date of completion was early 1932. Thanks to thoughtful planning, careful management, and ingenious construction technology, the $13-million bridge was completed in November 1931—several months ahead of schedule, and $3 million under budget.

Once constructed, the truss was the world's longest. To this day the truss stands as one of the world's most elegant arches, made of a sleek and modulated form of high-strength alloy steel.

The American Institute of Steel Construction selected the Bayonne Bridge as the most beautiful steel bridge to open to traffic in 1931. As Ammann said at the opening ceremony, "The Port Authority recognized the fact that its structures must not only be useful, but they must also conform to the aesthetic sense. This was one of the motives for the selection of an arch spanning the entire river in one sweeping graceful curve."

For 45 years, the Bayonne Bridge was the world's longest steel-arch bridge. At 1,675 feet, the arch is 70 percent longer than the previous record holder, the Hell Gate Railroad Bridge in New York City. When the Port Authority opened the Bayonne Bridge in 1931, its "sister bridge," the Sydney Harbour Bridge, was under construction in Australia. It closely follows the design of the Bayonne Bridge, but its span is 25 inches shorter, and it wasn't until 1977 that the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia surpassed the Bayonne Bridge in length with an arch of 1,700 feet.

At the Bayonne Bridge dedication ceremony on November 14, 1931, representatives from the Sydney Harbour Bridge Commission participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony where a pair of custom-made golden scissors was used. Four months later, a delegation from New York and New Jersey participated in the ribbon cutting for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The pair of same scissors was used, and following the ceremony, it was taken apart and each bridge authority carried away a golden blade.

In 1951, the Port Authority and the City of Bayonne redesigned the bridge's New Jersey toll plaza with new shrubbery, trees, benches, and walks. In 1956, a portion of the land under the Bayonne Bridge approach was made available by the Port Authority to the Bayonne community for the Juliette Street Playground. A new toll plaza on the Staten Island side, with an administrative office building, was completed in 1964. In 1970, one-way toll collection was implemented at the Port Richmond Plaza.

In 2013, the Bayonne Bridge Navigational Clearance Project contract was awarded to raise the bridge to 215 feet above mean high waters. In 2017, the new elevated roadway was opened and Cashless Tolling at the Bayonne Bridge began.

SOURCE: Bayonne Bridge: A Landmark by Land, Sea, and Air, written by Darl Rastorfer, commissioned by the Port Authority.


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