The George: Building the Bridge

This is the third of five excerpts from "The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel," the new book by Michael Aaron Rockland. A new excerpt is posted here each week.

Men manning the squeezer, which is simultaneously compressing the components of two barrel cables into a rounded form.
Photo courtesy of the Port Authority.

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, both New Jersey and New York passed legislation authorizing a Hudson River bridge. But it was not until 1926 that each state came through with its promised $5 million loan to the Authority and bonds were issued for $50 million more, for a total budget of $60 million. 
On September 27, 1927, in simultaneous ceremonies, ground was formally broken for the George Washington on both sides of the Hudson. Work began immediately on the foundations for the great towers.

Creating the single New York tower foundation would be a relatively simple matter, basically smoothing out the rocky surface of Jeffrey’s Hook, the promontory of Manhattan schist sticking out into the Hudson that is ten to twelve feet above mean high water. The two New Jersey tower foundations would be far more complicated: they had to be erected out in the Hudson River, because the Palisades descend directly to the river’s edge. 

As early as December 12, 1927, work was proceeding at a rapid pace on the foundations for the New Jersey tower. As chief bridge engineer Othmar Ammann would write his mother, "We are already working 75 feet below the water level. Until now, everything has progressed as planned and all the constructions are
further ahead than anticipated."

One reason things were going so well is that giant steel coffer dams were being utilized to create the forms for the New Jersey tower foundations instead of the caissons used in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Unlike caissons, coffer dams were not pressurized, so the bends was not an occupational hazard.

Nevertheless, on December 23, disaster struck. The coffer dam for the New Jersey tower’s north foundation, receiving the full pressure of the Hudson River, buckled and three men drowned. Until the tragedy the north coffer dam had been considered so inviolable that only a small pump had been thought necessary to keep river leakage into the dam at a manageable level.

In all, twelve men died in building the George Washington, including one when an explosive charge improperly placed in Palisades rock went off prematurely, but the deaths in the north coffer dam received the greatest amount of publicity and are likely the origin of a legend about the bridge: that during the pouring of the immense quantity of concrete that forms the New York anchorage, on the other side of the river, three workers fell in and were entombed forever.

People knowing I was writing this book often would say to me, "Of course, you already know about the men buried in the wet concrete of the New York anchorage, right?" Others told me with great authority that it wasn’t workers, but the bodies of assassinated Prohibition-era gangsters that were routinely deposited in the wet concrete of the developing New York anchorage.
"Urban folklore!" Bob Durando, general manager of the GWB, says, and my research confirms his statement. The legend seems to have originated in the tall tales staff working on the bridge enjoyed telling.

Samuel Owens, a young engineer, once said in an interview: "A lot of reporters from the New York papers would come up to the bridge to look for stories. . . . They believed anything we told them."

The foundations on both sides of the river were the first of six steps in the building of the bridge. Though several steps can proceed simultaneously, this order is typical for suspension bridges: tower foundations; towers; anchorages; the major, or barrel, cables; the suspender, or stringer, cables; and, finally, the roadway.
Once the foundations of the George were in place, the tower footings had to be bolted to them, sixteen for each tower. With these mounted, the towers themselves could rise; although they seem to be single, unified units, each is made up of sixteen columns of steel.

Preassembled sections were floated to the work sites on barges, and since the towers were erected simultaneously, heavy machinery and large crews of workers had to be available at both sites. The erection of the towers began in June 1928, with a friendly competition between those building the New Jersey tower and those building the New York tower as to who would finish first. Nine or ten teams of four riveters each worked on assembling each tower. Taking one year and over one million rivets to assemble, the towers were completed by June 1929.

The anchorages followed. The anchorage is where a suspension bridge is tied to the earth, the way one end of a volleyball net is staked to the ground. An unusual feature of the George is that it has only one visible anchorage: its New Jersey anchorage is carved into the Palisades. The New York anchorage, in Fort Washington Park, just west of Riverside Drive, is, in effect, a "Palisade" of concrete created so that the bridge’s four barrel cables could be anchored in exactly the same way they are anchored in the Palisades. 

Next the four huge barrel cables had to be laboriously strung across the towers wire by wire, passing over the giant saddles in each tower and then being tied down in the anchorages. It took almost a year to methodically build the four main cables, each three feet in diameter. To carry out the process, footbridges between the towers had to be built and pulleys mounted on them over which the wires, only 0.196 inch in diameter, could move smoothly.

Spliced into a continuous loop, 434 wires made up a strand three inches in diameter, and there were 61 strands in each barrel cable. If the 26,474 wires in each of the four barrel cables were laid out end to end they would, at 107,000 miles, girdle the planet at the equator more than four times and, together with the wire in the suspender cables, or stringers, would extend virtually halfway to the moon.

Once complete, the barrel cables had to be compacted by a machine called a squeezer, which, with a crew aboard, traveled over two barrels at a time compressing them into their rounded shape. Then the barrels had to be painted, wrapped in fine twice-galvanized wire, and painted again. The fact that just ten feet of a barrel cable weighs 34,000 pounds gives some sense of the strength and weight of the bridge’s barrel cables.

Entering the anchorages over somewhat smaller saddles than those in the towers, the barrel cables were splayed out into their sixty-one component strands. These were wrapped around the first of a chain of huge eye-bars that extended deep into the rock or concrete, finally attaching to a steel girder placed crosswise. Concrete was inserted to surround all of this steel in the 150-foot tunnels that were bored into both anchorages.

In the fifth step, suspender cables, hung vertically, had to be clamped to the barrel cables. It is of interest that all of the wire for the GWB’s cables was contracted for with the Roebling Company. Roebling also provided the skilled workers who supervised the spinning of the GWB cables on-site. The New Jersey town of Roebling may still be found just off Route 130, immediately south of Trenton. Though the Roebling works are closed and covered over with vines—indeed, are a Superfund cleanup site—the citizens of Roebling live in the row houses that once made up that company town.

Finally, beginning in September 1930, work on hanging the roadway from the stringers began. Like the towers, prefabricated sections 110 feet wide, 90 for the roadway and 10 for each walkway, were lifted by cable from large river barges anchored at all four corners so as to be motionless during the delicate operation. To keep the structure in balance, sections were alternately fastened in place beginning at both towers and moving toward the center and then outward from the towers to the anchorages.

A great deal more work had to be done to complete the bridge, including elaborate sets of approaches on both sides of the Hudson. Also, to permit the passage of the bridge roadway, the Palisades had to be cut forty-five feet down, extending 150 feet back into New Jersey.

A total of 300,000 tons of traprock was removed. Passing over the bridge from Manhattan or approaching the tollbooths from the New Jersey side, motorists looking to left and right will notice that they are bracketed by Palisades rock. In the late 1950s, further excavation of the Palisades was necessary to create a passageway for the Lower Level and its New Jersey approaches.

History will find it difficult to determine a date when the George Washington Bridge was truly complete. The bridge was inaugurated in 1931, but the center lanes of the Upper Level were left unpaved, and they remained thus until 1946. The Lower Level would not be completed until 1962 and would have its own inauguration.
Copyright © 2008 by Michael Aaron Rockland. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.

We will be posting the fourth installment of the series, "The Martha," on Monday.

If you missed the first installment of "The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel"Click here to read: Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

If you missed the second installment of "The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel"— Click here to read: A Day on the George.

Click here to read the fourth installment: The Martha.

Click here to read the fifth installment: Drams, Dangers and Disasters.



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