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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archived Edition

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Recollections of the Great Gray Bridge

By Edward "Ted" S. Olcott
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GWB Rail Crossing?

Excerpts from Joint Study of Arterial Facilities–New York, New Jersey Metropolitan Area, published by the Port Authority, 1955 :

"In the opinion of the Port Authority, the public interest requires that the George Washington Bridge be able to accommodate rail rapid transit at any future time. It is solely because of this look to the future that the second deck of the Bridge would be designed to permit conversion of two vehicular lanes to rapid transit use. Rail rapid transit across the Hudson does not appear to be in immediate prospect . . . . The new lower deck of the George Washington Bridge would support a double-track rapid transit line, should the two center lanes be converted to trackage use . . ."

"A rail rapid transit plan was studied and direct track connections with four New Jersey commuter railroad were found to be physically feasible . . . In New Jersey, the tracks of the transit line, after passing through a mile and a half of tunnel through the Palisades, could run through Leonia, Teaneck and Bogota to a junction with the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad in Hackensack just west of the Hackensack River. Track connection could be made with the rails of the Northern Railroad of New Jersey, West Shore Railroad, Susquehanna Railroad and the New Jersey and New York Railroad . . . The total length of mainline construction from the Manhattan terminal to the junction with the Susquehanna Railroad would be about seven miles. "

The George Washington Bridge (GWB) is the busiest bridge in the world, accommodating nearly 100 million vehicles each year.

  • Designed by Swiss-American engineer, Othmar H. Ammann, chief engineer for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, construction began in October of 1927 for the six-lane bridge across the Hudson River between Fort Lee, New Jersey and New York City.
  • It opened to traffic on October 25, 1931, and accommodated more than 5.5 million vehicles that year. Two additional lanes were added in 1946.
  • On August 29, 1962, a lower level was opened, making the GWB the world's only 14-lane suspension bridge. On the first day, 55,523 vehicles, 33,540 pedestrians and a man named Martin Solomon riding a horse named "Rubio" crossed the bridge.
  • On October 25, 1981, Martin Solomon said, "Give me a horse and I'll try it again."
  • Four 3-foot diameter cables hold the bridge in place. The cables contain 26,424 wires, each thinner than a pencil. Stretched out, the wires would reach 107,000 miles–nearly halfway to the moon. These 107,000 miles of cables would go around the earth about four times at the equator.

It was April 1950. I was a young civil engineer given the task to head a five-man Port Authority (PA) inspection team to tighten the bolts on the George, the short name we all used for the George Washington Bridge (GWB). Tighten the bolts? Yes, all 3,368 of the cable band bolts, each 28 1/2-inches long, 2 1/4-inches in diameter and holding in place the cable bands on the 36-inch main cables. The cable bands, in turn, support the vertical cables from which the main bridge deck is suspended.

Why do it? Who's crazy enough to do it? How? How safe is it? What kind of wrench should be used?

The bridge built in 1931, was nearing maturity at 19 years of age. Adjustments were necessary. The tension on the bolts after years of heavy traffic varied all over the lot. Some, it turned out, were virtually hand loose or painted light; others were way over-stressed. To loosen the over tightened nuts there were 5-foot long wrenches with 6- to 8-inch sockets that equaled the leverage of as many as four, 200-pound men.

Tightening the Bolts

While the GWB was in no danger, the bolts needed to be tightened to avoid the theoretical possibility of a slipping of the cable bands. The task to be performed while 250- to 600-feet in the air was to adjust all 3,368 bolts to a constant tension of 29,000 pounds per square inch (psi).

We operated special strain gauges that were measuring the 29,000 psi tension. Our workstations were specially designed cages that were rolled by winches along the main cables of the 600-foot high towers. Every day we climbed the cables to reach the cage, either from the tower or from the saddle at the middle of the main span.

One of the PA inspectors, who ordinarily walked the cables like a monkey, froze with fear on the 12-foot ladder placed at mid-span to reach the main cables.

Once, after cooling off with a beer at lunch on a hot, sunny day, another inspector nearly passed out climbing on the steep end cables to reach the cage.

Still another time, we helped the PA police prevent a suicide. Having run down the cable to mid-span on to the roadway and to the sidewalk, there, alongside a parked car, a youth was hanging over the edge and threatening to jump. As we tried to talk him in, one of our group grasped him by the hair where he hung for a split second until another one of us grabbed his arm and hauled him in. He went to Bellevue Hospital. We went back to work.

We grew to know and love this magnificent structure and the little red lighthouse too, at the river's edge on the New York side. One of the first books my young son read was the wonderful children's book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, because you see, it was about Daddy's bridge.

And speaking of nuts, five young PA engineers – we did not volunteer– supervised 30 contractor's men, many of whom were Mohawk Indians. In 1950 and 1951, there was only one thing wrong about this job. The contractor's men whom we supervised were making $8 an hour and the five of us who were PA inspectors made only $2 an hour. As PA chief, the inspectors dispatched me to talk to the boss. Ten days later, there was a 30 percent bonus in our paychecks. Today, a lengthy study would be commissioned and the job would be long over before a recommendation on a pay raise would even be considered.

The Second Deck

While we were there tightening bolts, there was talk about a lower level to the George being added.

Now the 20-year old bridge was in great shape and ready to take on the job of carrying the additional load of a six-lane lower deck that the premier bridge engineer, O.H. Ammann had so brilliantly designed in the 1920s.

Eventually, I came out of the sky and sought refuge as a highway-planning engineer. Planning for a second GWB deck and its approaches was one of the Port Authority's major post-World War II projects. I became the project coordinator on this job and loved every minute of it.

The project was an exciting one and all of us were thrilled to be working on it, but there were some residents who weren't so enamored by the second deck and its approaches. One of the early opponents to the project was Louie Stern, president of the Chamber of Commerce for the Washington Heights neighborhood in which construction took place. A 4-foot, 10-inch dynamo who ate two raw eggs and drank a glass of scotch for breakfast every morning, he came around eventually. Perhaps the reason he became a strong proponent later on is because we fondly referred to the second deck as "Stern's Passover." He liked that.

There were only nine years between the germ of the idea in 1953 and the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1962. Equally amazing was that the project was authorized for $183 million but came in at $145 million! These were not times of deflation, either.

Actually, the $183 million figure was a little distorted. In 1957, Austin Tobin, the legendary executive director of the Port Authority from 1942 to 1972, went to the New York City Board of Estimate with a $182 million job. When he emerged several hours later he said, 'Call it $183 million. They insisted we put a roof on the bus station.'" Thus, the origin of what became known as the Nervi- roof on the GWB bus station designed by the Italian architect.

During construction, Doug Tuomey, then manager of property acquisition, and later the PA's Washington, D.C. representative for many years, found an urn containing ashes in one of the vacated Washington Heights apartment buildings. Scared, Doug took the remains to the local police precinct. Leaving the urn on the captain's desk and making a hasty retreat, he never learned who it was or what the police did with the remains.

Many were involved in the planning for the second GWB deck and its approaches. In 2001, only Warren Quimby and I are still around, both long retired.

In a project of this scope, there are many reasons why a ramp or a roadway was located where it was; the reasons often were beyond planning and engineering. For example, in the functional and geometric design of the New Jersey approaches, we also had to locate the route for the Bergen Expressway, the I-95 approach to the bridge.

Readers familiar with the geography of the area may wonder why the route takes a long loop around from the south to approach the bridge from the north. The highway is located precisely on the boundary between the towns of Englewood and Leonia. A more direct alternative route would have bisected the town of Leonia. While that might have set up an interesting Thanksgiving Day rivalry between North and South Leonia, it was made clear to us planners and engineers that we better take out our T-squares and french curves and lay out something different. We did and it works.

The second deck project opened in September 1962 with a grand ceremony marking the completion of a great project. Those of us who had the privilege to work on it, under it, across it, or with it, will, I think agree, that the great gray bridge is the jewel in the PA crown, even as it celebrates its 70th birthday in 2001.

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