Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bridge of the Week #71: George Washington Bridge

I was going to save this one for last, but seeing as how this week was its 80th birthday, this week's bridge is the massive, majestic, beautiful George Washington Bridge. It opened on October 25, 1931 after four years of construction.

At the time it opened it was the world's longest suspension bridge. Its main span is 3,500 feet long and has a total length of 4,760 feet. It has 212 feet of clearance above the water at mid-span. Originally it was built with a single deck with six lanes of traffic, and an open section in the center that could accommodate either two additional lanes of traffic or a rail line. Eventually the roadway was built, giving the bridge eight lanes of traffic. In 1962 the lower roadway was added for an additional six lanes. It is still the bridge with the greatest vehicular traffic in the world. The bridge connects the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, between 178 and 179 Sts. across the Hudson River to Fort Lee, New Jersey. The main connecting thoroughfares in New Jersey are Route 4 and Interstate 80 westward, and the Palisades Interstate Parkway northward. In Manhattan, the bridge has access to the Hudson River Parkway and Riverside Drive, or leads directly to the Trans-Manhattan Expressway which in turn leads either to the Harlem River Drive, or across the Harlem River to the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Major Deegan Expressway, as well as street exits. The nearest street access for motor traffic is at 178 St. and Fort Washington Ave coming off the bridge or 179 St. and Fort Washington Avenue entering the bridge.

There are sidewalks on each side, but they are never open at the same time that I've seen. Ususally the south walkway is open, which can be accessed by a ramp just west of the intersection of 178 St. and Cabrini Blvd. If there is some sort of maintenance work going on that they need to close the walkway for, they open the north walkway, which is at 179th St. and Cabrini Blvd. (But to get from one to the other, you have to walk around to Fort Washington Ave.) Both walkways have street access on Hudson Terrace in Fort Lee. The walkway is open only from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, and might be closed altogether in bad weather, such as heavy snow or very high winds. Hope you don't get stuck on one side, because the nearest foot crossings are the Bayonne Bridge (previously covered) about 15 miles to the south and the Bear Mountain Bridge about 35 miles to the north (well outside the city).

Much has been written about the history of this bridge, so I won't repeat all of that, but just a few of the items I found to be most interesting. A bridge across the Hudson from Manhattan had been considered for many years and at many locations. Prior to the GWB, the only road connection between Manhattan and New Jersey was the Holland Tunnel, completed in 1927. One location that had been given the strongest consideration was at 59th St. The current location was eventually favored for two main reasons: thanks to an outcropping of land at that point in Manhattan, the Hudson is at its narrowest there; and the high cliffs on both sides eliminate the need for long, extended onramps. Another interesting fact, the working title of the bridge during planning and construction was simply the Hudson River Bridge, and it was assumed that that would be it's final name. As construction neared completion, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who built the bridge (and still operates it) polled the public to decide on a name. The Authority seemed to favor the George Washington Bridge. Although it seemed fitting to honor him thus since a fort he defended in the Revolutionary War was nearby in Manhattan, others opposed it, in part because there already was a Washington Bridge at 181 St. across the Harlem River to the Bronx. The public voted overwhelmingly in favor of Hudson River Bridge, so the Port Authority naturally went ahead and named it the George Washington Bridge.

The bridge is very nice to run on, the walkway is about 10 feet wide, with enough room for everyone. It is very well-used by cyclists, who sometimes ride in packs, and sometimes there are clusters of tourists, but generally it's easy and safe to run, and except for the Manhattan on-ramp, it diesn't have too much of a hill, and the rise to the center is not very noticeable.

It has plenty to offer runners, even aside from the bridge itself. Northern Manhattan has great places to run, and the bridge entrance is close to access to the Hudson River Greenway, which can be accesseed at W. 181 St. or indirectly from W. 177 St. The Hudson River Greenway runs the length of Manhattan; this section runs through Fort Washington Park from the water treatment plant at 145 St. along the riverside and passes next to the Manhattan tower (and near the Little Red Lighthouse at the foot of the tower), under the bridge and up the hill to go alongside the northbound lanes of the Henry Hudson Parkway. About 3/4 mile north of the bridge on Fort Washington Ave. is Fort Tryon Park, a beautiful park with seom good opportunities for hill repeats. The George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, between Fort Washington Ave. and Broadway, 178 and 179 St., built at the same time as the lower deck of the bridge, has a deli and restroom facilities if needed (although it will soon be undergoing renovations and promises to have much more to offer).

The real treat is actually in New Jersey. Just on the north side of the bridge at Hudson Terrace is the entrance to the Long Path - a trail that extends all the way to the Adirondacks. At Hudson Terrace, you take a couple of stairways towards the north walkway (which is usually closed), and follow the stairs on up to the woods. The path leads along the top of the Palisades and is a great place to leave the city behind. You can even enjoy the Palisades staying on roads by following Hudson Terrace south past the Fort Lee Historical Center and downhill to the vehicle entrance of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. This road runs along the middle of the cliffside, has access to a few riverside dock/park areas and continues on to the park headquarters about seven miles north of the bridge. There is also a trail directly on the riverbank and occasionally trails from the top to bottom, so there are plenty of good places to run here on the Palisades.

This is my favorite bridge of the bunch. It's become an icon, and besides its crucial role in transportation between New York and New Jersey, it's a thing of beauty and a real New York City landmark.

Pics (the first three are my pics): 1. The bridge with towers fully illuminated on Sept. 11, 2010; 2. The view of the bridge from Fort Washington Park below; 3. The view of Manhattan from the bridge; 4. Opening day of the bridge, October 25, 1931, in a photograph by Weegee. Pre-Henry Hudson Parkway, I'm fascinated by the differences with today's spaghetti mess of onramps and offramps. Note also the undeveloped center lanes of the bridge. 5. The bridge under construction with Riverside Drive (currently the northbound HHP) in the foreground.

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