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The George Washington Bridge

The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel

Michael Aaron Rockland
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The George Washington Bridge
    Book Description:

    Since opening in 1931, the George Washington Bridge, linking New York and New Jersey, has become the busiest bridge in the world, with 108 million vehicles crossing it in 2007. Many people also consider it the most beautiful bridge in the world, yet remarkably little has been written about this majestic structure.Intimate and engaging, Michael Rockland's rich narrative presents perspectives on the GWB, as it is often called, that span history, architecture, engineering, transportation, design, the arts, politics, and even post-9/11 mentality. Stunning archival photos, from the late 1920s when the bridge was built through the present, are a powerful complement to the bridge's history. Rockland covers the competition between the GWB and the Brooklyn Bridge that parallels the rivalry between New Jersey and New York City. Readers will learn about the Swiss immigrant Othmar Ammann, an unsung hero who designed and built the GWB, and how a lack of funding during the Depression dictated the iconic, uncovered steel beams of its towers, which we admire today. There are chapters discussing accidents on the bridge, such as an airplane crash landing in the westbound lanes and the sad story of suicides off its span; the appearance of the bridge in media and the arts; and Rockland's personal adventures on the bridge, including scaling its massive towers on a cable.Movies, television shows, songs, novels, countless images, and even PlayStation 2 games have aided the GWB in becoming a part of the global popular culture. This tribute will captivate residents living in the shadow of the GWB, the millions who walk, jog, bike, skate, or drive across it, as well as tourists and those who will visit it some day.First major book on the George Washington BridgeFull of amazing facts about the GWB that will surprise even bridge historiansIncludes over 30 spectacular illustrations, ranging from archival photographs of the building of the bridge to those that show it draped in an enormous flag after 9/11Includes personal accounts of the author's adventures on the bridge

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4554-7
    Subjects: American Studies
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Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. ix-1)
  3. Introduction (pp. 3-11)
    Michael Aaron Rockland

    I have lived most of my life on one side or the other of the George Washington Bridge. It is the busiest bridge in the world and, since its 1931 inauguration, has gotten steadily busier. Some 108 million vehicles crossed it in 2007, utilizing its two decks and fourteen lanes. Many people have deep affection for it and consider it the most beautiful bridge in the world. The George Washington, which celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2006, is in a class of its own.

    When I was a young boy growing up in the Bronx, I knew about the bridge...

  4. 1 A Day on the G. W. B. (pp. 13-25)

    On April 11, 2006, Robert Durando, general manager of the George Washington Bridge, and Robert McKee, physical plant manager, took me on a tour of bridge facilities the public never sees, some of which I didn’t know existed. As general manager, Durando supervises some 220 full-time staff members (not including the 86 bridge police) while McKee, one of two key assistants to Durando (the other is concerned with daily operations such as toll collecting), manages regular and long-range maintenance.

    It was Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, and Durando and McKee had agreed to accompany me in the hours after New...

  5. 2 The George and the Brooklyn: New Jersey and New York (pp. 27-37)

    Given my lifelong affection for the George Washington Bridge, I am not likely to be entirely objective about it. There is more to confess: writing a book on the G.W.B., an author must contend with two eight-hundred-pound gorillas, the Brooklyn Bridge and New York City. The Brooklyn has always overshadowed the George, as New York City has always overshadowed New Jersey. And partisans of the George and partisans of New Jersey—I am both, despite my Bronx origins—may develop a chip on their shoulder about that. Nevertheless, biases and all, I mean to confront those two gorillas.

    In magazine...

  6. 3 Othmar Ammann (pp. 39-53)

    Othmar Ammann was, by any measure, the most important bridge designer and builder of the twentieth century and possibly, as some have argued, of all time. Six of Greater New York’s major bridges were exclusively his creations—that is, he both designed them and supervised their construction; and in the case of the George Washington Bridge he also served as “entrepreneur,” garnering political support and funds. The other five, in addition to the G.W.B. (1931), are the Bayonne or Kill Van Kull Bridge (1931), the Triborough Bridge (1936), the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge (1939), the Throgs Neck Bridge (1961), and the Verrazano-Narrows...

  7. 4 Building the Bridge (pp. 55-67)

    It is surprising that citizens of New York and New Jersey put up so long with the lack of a bridge over the Hudson, but the river for centuries seemed an impassable moat. There were sometimes waits in Manhattan and in New Jersey of five or six hours for a ferry, and ice occasionally precluded any kind of passage over the river in winter. Foodstuffs spoiled. There were coal famines in New York City. The George Washington Bridge changed all that.

    In 1925, the same year Ammann was named chief bridge engineer of the Port Authority and began to build...

  8. 5 The Accidental Icon (pp. 69-79)

    One person was less happy than the politicians and the crowds at the George Washington Bridge’s inauguration. Othmar Ammann considered his bridge unfinished, naked, undressed. It lacked the stone of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the attitude of traditionalists toward unadorned steel was in 1931 not unlike how many of us regard plastic today. And though steel bridges had been built before, the George did not look like any other steel bridge. It referred to no architectural tradition, in no way evoked the past, was utterly unadorned. Cosmetic plans drawn up for Ammann by the architect Cass Gilbert, whose works included...

  9. 6 “The Martha” and the Bus Station (pp. 81-91)

    I had been working on this book for some time when, at a party, a friend asked, “Will you be including a chapter on ‘the Martha’?” “The what?” I asked. I already knew that one of Fort Lee’s major streets, which leads to the bridge, is Martha Washington Way. I couldn’t imagine that this fact would be worth more than a brief mention.

    My friend laughed. “You don’t know about ‘the Martha’?” he said, incredulous, and told me that when he was growing up in New Jersey the boys in his neighborhood would always refer to the Upper Level of...

  10. 7 Dramas, Dangers, and Disasters (pp. 93-105)

    Despite its beauty and grandeur, the George Washington Bridge is occasionally the scene of tragedy. In 2005 two workers fell to their deaths—one in the process of removing scaffolding from the lead abatement and repainting project on the bridge towers, the other from a catwalk inside the New York anchorage.

    Motorists have also died in accidents on the bridge. Some have met their fates at the plainly restricted official vehicle turnarounds that my guides used to access the secret places of the bridge. Serious accidents on the bridge have often involved tractor trailers. One tractor trailer went out of...

  11. 8 The George Washington Bridge in Literature (pp. 107-121)

    Bridges have a figurative as well as a literal utility. For some writers, they serve as metaphors for what brings people together and, also, for what divides them. For others, they are emblematic of the collision between nature and the human-built environment. For others still, they provide a romantic or dramatic backdrop for events. A random sample comes immediately to mind: James Michener’sThe Bridges at Toko-Ri; Pierre Boulle’sThe Bridge over the River Kwai; Ernest Hemingway’sFor Whom the Bell Tolls; Cornelius Ryan’sA Bridge Too Far; Robert James Waller’sThe Bridges of Madison County; HenryWadsworth Longfellow’s fine poem...

  12. 9 The George Washington Bridge in the Other Arts (pp. 123-133)

    All along, I have been arguing that the George Washington Bridge is a work of art of a special kind. As one commentator has put it, Othmar Ammann “found in New York the perfect setting for his artistic expression, where his works could span masses of land and be written across the sky.”¹ The G.W.B. also has a symbiotic relationship with the arts. It inspires artistic expression, and that expression, in turn, affects how we look at the bridge.

    The George Washington Bridge, like the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty, is one of the familiar...

  13. 10 Life Along the Walkways (pp. 135-145)

    The George Washington Bridge has inspired much art, but none of it offers quite the aesthetic pleasure, not to mention the adventure, of being on the bridge itself. This is especially true on the walkways, where everything is slowed down and you find yourself not so much on the bridge as in it. Unlike motorists, who often frantically cross the bridge unaware the walkways exist, those on the walkways are relaxed, unconcerned about rushing vehicles or about when and where to exit.

    The G.W.B. has two walkways, both on the Upper Level, one on the north side, one on the...

  14. 11 The G. W. B. and Me (pp. 147-154)

    I had another opportunity to familiarize myself with the bridge in an uncommon and intimate way on October 26, 2006, the day after the two-day seventy-fifth anniversary festivities for the George Washington Bridge. Even though I had been told that the New York tower is essentially identical to the New Jersey tower, I wanted to experience it anyway; there hadn’t been time during my April tour.

    I also was keen on examining the New York anchorage to see how it might differ from the New Jersey anchorage, since it is entirely manmade. Late that day, Patrolman Michael Barnable of the...

  15. Acknowledgments (pp. 155-158)
  16. Notes (pp. 159-174)
  17. Selected Bibliography (pp. 175-178)
  18. Index (pp. 179-184)
  19. Back Matter (pp. 185-186)