Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bridge of the Week #12; Macombs Dam Bridge

This week's bridge is one that a lot of people might not have heard of, but is probably the most significant bridge in the history of New York sports, in at least three sports, not because of what takes place on the bridge, but because of what takes place, and has taken place, in the immediate vicinity on both sides. Macombs (rhymes with tombs) Dam Bridge is near landmarks in the worlds of baseball, football and road running.

The bridge itself spans the Harlem River between 155th St. in Manhattan and the southern end of Jerome Ave, near 161st St. in the Bronx. It was constructed from 1892-1895, is a swing bridge with a main span of 412 feet, and an overall length of 2,140 feet. Its approaches include a viaduct in Manhattan that stretches all the way on 155th St. to Edgecomb Ave./St. Nicholas Place, although there is pedestrian and vehicular access at Macomb's Place/7th Ave. On the Bronx side, there is pedestrian access immediately over the second truss at the Major Deegan onramp that leads to a grassy area (and eventually a pedestrian overpass at 161st St.), and then a sidewalk along a ramp to Ogden Ave./Jerome Ave. 161st St., stairway access to 161st St. and finally to Jerome Ave. proper. The bridge carries two lanes of traffic in each direction and has sidewalks on both sides. It carried an IRT trolley from 1907 until 1918, when a separate bridge, the Sedgwick Ave. Bridge, was built parallel to the Macombs Dam Bridge that carried an extension of the 9th Ave. elevated to connect to the Jerome Ave. el. This bridge was torn down in the early 1960's. When open, the bridge allows two navigable channels of 150 feet each. When closed, there is 25 feet of clearance over the Harlem River.

The bridge is named after Alexander Macomb, who bought a large tract of land on the Bronx shore, then part of Westchester County, in 1800. He built a grist mill on the Manhattan side of the river, and in 1814 built a dam/bridge at 155th St. to connect to his land and to power the mill. Growing public dissatisfaction with the obstacle to navigation and with the tolls collected on the dam led Lewis Morris of Westchester County to use his ship to ram a hole in the dam. Legal action eventually led to destruction of the dam and construction of a wood and iron turntable drawbridge (named the Central Bridge) in 1861, free from tolls. This bridge quickly fell into disrepair and despite reconstruction in the 1870's was replaced with the current iron bridge, which opened on May 1, 1895, and given the historic name Macombs Dam Bridge.

Very near the bridge on the Bronx side is a significant landmark in the history of running in New York City. Macombs Dam Park, between 161st St and 164th St, and River Ave. and Jerome Ave., was the home of the New York Pioneer Club, founded in 1936 by Joe Yancey and Ed Levy. The track there came to be named after Joe Yancey. Years before the integration of professional baseball, football or basketball, the Pioneer Club accepted all runners, and won many AAU national championships. On the same spot in 1958, the New York Road Runners Club was founded, and Ted Corbitt, a Pioneer Club member and Helsinki 1952 Olympic marathon runner, was named the first president. Many road races were held there, as a start/finish point, including the Cherry Tree Marathon from 1959 to 1970. This race was the precursor to the New York Marathon, which had its first running in Central Park in 1970. In 2008 Macombs Dam Park was razed to make way for the new Yankee Stadium, and it was a terrible shame to see it go. Supposedly there will be a park built on the site of the old Yankee Stadium across the street once it's completely demolished (not quite there yet a year and a half after the last game played there). Currently there is a new track and football/soccer field, named Joseph Yancey Track and Field, sitting atop a parking garage adjacent to the old stadium. Having been there, I must admit it's a pretty decent facility, with some bleachers and even some grass and trees planted, but still a patio is no substitute for a park.

The first sports facility in the area, though, would be the Polo Grounds, built on the Manhattan side at 155th St. and 8th Ave. in 1889. It was the location for a number of sports, oddly enough none of them being polo. It replaced the original polo grounds at 110th St. and Lenox Ave., just north of Central Park, (built in 1876) which was used originally for polo, and also New York's first professional baseball teams, the Metropolitans (1880-1885) and the Giants (starting in 1883 and originally called the Gothams), among other sporting activities. When the field was destroyed to complete the street grid, it was relocated at 155th St., in Coogan's Hollow, with Coogan's Bluff standing over. In 1890 a new ballpark was built just north of this field for a New York Giants baseball team of a separate league, the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, the field named Brotherhood Park. This league lasted only one year, and in 1891 the original Giants moved into the new park, taking with them the name of the Polo Grounds, and the first field remained for other sports, and was named Manhattan Field. A fire at the stadium in 1911 required reconstruction, and temporary relocation of the Giants to Hilltop Park to the northwest in Washington Heights, home of the New York Yankees (then most often called the Highlanders). It was one of the first concrete and steel stadiums and named Brush Stadium after Giants owner John T. Brush, but the name didn't stick and by 1919 came to be called Polo Grounds again. In 1913 the Yankees moved to the Polo Grounds, sharing with the Giants until they built their own stadium across the river in 1923. In 1925 the New York Football Giants were founded and played at the Polo Grounds through 1955, after which time they moved across the river to Yankee Stadium, where they played until 1973 before moving to Yale University and Shea Stadium before settling for, I mean IN, New Jersey in 1976. After winning five world series titles at the Polo Grounds, the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1957. The Polo Grounds lay basically empty for a few years until the founding of the football team New York Titans in 1960 (renamed the Jets in 1963) and the New York Mets in 1962. This was only intended as an interim home for the two teams while Shea Stadium was being built in Queens. After the 1963 seasons both teams moved to Shea and the Polo Grounds was demolished in 1964. Housing projects currently sit on the site.
Back on the Bronx side, Yankee Stadium was built in 1923 for the New York Yankees baseball team between 157th St. and 161st St., west of River Ave. Because of its age and because it doesn't have enough luxury boxes, Yankee Stadium was torn down (or is being torn down) and replaced with the new Yankee stadium which opened in 2009 on the site of Macombs Dam Park, as mentioned above, for approximately the same cost as the Burj Dubai (not that mob contracts have anything to do with that). For over 30 years the Yankees and the Giants had a healthy cross-river rivalry. Both the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium were also used for many other sporting and entertainment events, including boxing, college baseball and college football, soccer, Gaelic football, rock concerts and Papal Masses. There are plans to bring college football into the new Yankee Stadium, and perhaps even place a bowl game there.

So you can see that there is a very rich sports history in the areas surrounding Macombs Dam Bridge.

*Pics: 1. Macombs Dam Bridge main span; 2. Sidewalk on Macombs Dam Bridge; 3. Joseph Yancey track and Field; 4. Demolition of Yankee Stadium, 4-22-10; 5. Nearly abandoned stairway leading to old Polo Grounds from Edgecomb Ave: "The John T. Brush Stairway Presented by the New York Giants"


  1. Thank you for this post. I am not a runner or a baseball fan. However I have walked and partly skated my long board over the bridge to the areas around Yankee Stadium a few times with my boys. Our interest is in exercising while exploring neighborhoods. The bridge is of particular interest to me because of the views and interesting body of land just underneath which the bridge divides in two. I am a landscape and garden designer you see...Also, I did not know that Macombs is pronounced Macoombs. Good to know.

  2. This bridge also provided access to Jerome Park, which was further up in the Bronx along Jerome Avenue. Jerome Park was a race track, built by Leonard Jerome and August Belmont. It's where the first Belmont Stakes was run, as well as the Jerome Stakes. When the track opened in 1866, the towns of West Farms and Morissania (this was before the consolidation of the boroughs) paved Jerome Avenue with wooden planks to facilitate access. The track was active until the early 1890's, when construction of the new Macomb's Bridge made access impractical. The track was purchased by the city and became a reservoir for the city's water system.

    1. Thanks for that! I love to read about development of the city like that!

  3. Great article. Tomorrow I'm going to take the #1 Train to 157th St and walk over the Macombs Dam Bridge to the Court House on 161st St. I love finding new walking opportunities in the City.