The George: The Martha

This is the fourth 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.

Photo courtesy the Port Authority.

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 the George Washington Bridge as "the George" and the Lower Level as "the Martha." Another person at the party remembered distinctly the traffic reports that would say, "There’s a thirty-minute wait for the George, only ten for the Martha." Traffic reports no longer say this. Perhaps "the George" and "the Martha" were judged to be sexist or otherwise not appropriate for radio or television.

The Lower Level was inaugurated on August 29, 1962, thirty-one years after the opening of the Upper Level. Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Richard Hughes of New Jersey were driven from their respective states onto the Lower Level in convertibles of 1931 vintage that recalled the original inauguration.

The large crowd that greeted them at the state-line midpoint of the Lower Level stood thirty-eight feet below where the 1931 festivities took place. In his remarks, Rockefeller said, "Like millions of others, I have come to regard this great structure as an old friend. I have crossed it many times; I have noticed its great beauty many more." Hughes’s remarks included these words: "We open . . . in effect a second George Washington Bridge" — which is almost accurate: the six new lanes on the Lower Level increased the bridge’s capacity by 75 percent.

There was a brief period in the 1950s when, instead of adding the Lower Level, a bridge across the Hudson at 125th Street was considered. Such a bridge would have routed traffic across Manhattan to the Triborough Bridge, but it would have disrupted city life far more than has the Lower Level of the George Washington Bridge, more than fifty blocks farther uptown. And it would have cost a great deal more.

At one point in the 1920s, the bridge’s chief engineer, Othmar Ammann, had considered only one barrel cable on each side of the George but had put two to ensure that a second level, if desired, could be added someday. It is remarkable that the Lower Level was added without any additional cabling. Both levels hang from the suspender cables that support the Upper Level and descend from the barrel cables. The Lower Level is simply bolted to the Upper Level by a crosshatch of steel girders.

The most challenging aspect of building the Lower Level was connecting it to a web of approaches and highways on both sides of the river, making certain motorists could reach their desired destination regardless of whether they took the Lower or the Upper Level. Depressed ramps and new tollbooths were constructed in Fort Lee at the approach to the Lower Level.

The tunnels under 178th and 179th streets were abandoned, and the twelve-lane Manhattan Expressway
was built. It was connected to the Cross Bronx Expressway over the newly constructed Alexander Hamilton Bridge that spanned the Harlem River. In addition, a new bridge headquarters building was erected in Fort Lee and a bus station was built at the eastern end of the bridge, basically to accommodate commuters to and from New York. Also, four apartment towers were built over the Manhattan Expressway to compensate for the apartment buildings taken down to allow its construction. All of these projects proceeded simultaneously with the building of the Lower Level itself, a remarkable feat of coordination.

Although Ammann had long ago left the Port Authority to found his own engineering firm, his foresight had proven remarkable. First, the Upper Level had to have been hung in 1931 with sufficient clearance between its underside and the bottom of each tower’s main arch for another roadway to pass through — a roadway sufficiently elevated above the Hudson to meet Defense Department navigational standards. As it is, the Lower Level is 212 feet above the river at midspan. Also, Ammann, in his original design, had seen to it that steel plates were attached to the Upper Level to which the girders supporting the Lower Level could be bolted.

When the Lower Level was added, it was discovered that the extra weight had raised a bump in both roadways. Port Authority engineer Charles Druding, general manager of the Lower Level project, knew
that pulling down on adjoining suspender cables would jack up the roadway in the bump areas. But how? Inspecting the cables that needed to be pulled on, Druding discovered that they had handle-like wires attached. Ammann, in the 1920s, had foreseen the bumps and had provided the means of alleviating them.

Originally, Ammann had thought that were a Lower Deck ever built, it would be for light rail. By 1962, virtually all thought of using the Lower Level for trains had been abandoned. Six of the eight lanes were paved for automotive traffic, the two center ones left vacant with the vague thought that they might someday be used for rapid transit tracks. The lanes remain vacant to this day, covered with a thick steel mesh to prevent a vehicle, in a freakish accident, from going over the inside barriers and crashing through to the river. Shortly after the Lower Level opened, a truck did go over a barrier, but the mesh held.

I asked Vicky Kelly, director of Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals for the Port Authority, why, given the congestion on the bridge, the two vacant lanes on the Lower Level have not been made available for use —
which would give the bridge sixteen lanes in all, making it still more busy than any bridge in the world. She told me that it’s a question of capacity on the New York side. The off-loading of even more traffic onto the West Side Highway and the Cross Bronx Expressway would be untenable. Nevertheless, she agreed that someday these two lanes might have to be made available for use — but almost certainly for automotive traffic, not mass transit.

There are no walkways on the Lower Level, though this is, perhaps, as it should be. Roofed by the Upper Level and shut in by girders obstructing the view, it is something of a tunnel and would not be a pleasant place to walk or bike. I generally avoid the Lower Level when driving across the bridge. It feels confining and dangerous, only utilitarian and absent any grace. 

The absence of walkways on the Lower Level, while understandable, is symptomatic. By 1962, Robert Moses’s automobile-focused plans for New York City were being realized everywhere, and we would see their effect in Ammann’s last bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows, where there are no pedestrian or bicycle walkways whatsoever. In retrospect, we could wish that Ammann had more often considered the social and environmental consequences not only of building a bridge without walkways but of increasingly ignoring mass transit considerations. In this respect he was not a visionary but very much reflected his times.

Similarly, when the huge towers of the Bridge Apartments above the twelve-lane Manhattan Expressway, the road that carries bridge traffic across Manhattan, were built, they were considered an immense novelty and a fashionable address. Today we question how anyone could have imagined that homes built above a giant highway might be fit places to live. But Americans had not developed much of an environmental consciousness by 1962. Now we wonder to what extent the people living there are victimized by noxious air rising into their apartments — even though there are huge ventilators underneath the buildings that are supposed to convey elsewhere the exhaust fumes of the 300,000 vehicles that daily cross the bridge.
Copyright © 2008 by Michael Aaron Rockland. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.

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 third installment: Building the Bridge.

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

[justified_image_grid exclude="featured"]
Read more Towns & Schools articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown