Manhattan Bridge: Facts | Design | History

The Manhattan Bridge is one of New York’s great bridges that runs between Canal Street in Chinatown Manhattan and Flatbush Avenue Extension in Downtown Brooklyn. It carries truck, automobile, bicycle, subway, and pedestrian traffic over the East River.

Although it’s not the structure people talk about the most, it has a fascinating history, art connections, and a unique architecture that will surprise you. Let’s visit the bridge on foot and discover all things you should know about the Manhattan Bridge.

Manhattan Bridge Profile

Type: Suspension bridge
Designed by: Leon Moisseiff

Longest span: 451 meters

Length: 2,089 meters
Height: 102 meters
Width: 37 meters

Opened on: 31st December 1909
Construction cost: $31 million

Construction Timeline

In the late 19th century, New York City’s population grew exponentially, mainly as a result of large numbers of immigrants arriving from Germany and Ireland. A couple of bridges were constructed to connect the boroughs, but they soon became overcrowded. Another bridge was needed to carry the traffic over the lower East River.

Plans were made to build another suspension bridge — a structure could be a pure symbol of industrial ingenuity and modernity. The construction began in 1901.

1901: The foundations for the bridge’s towers were poured.

1904: A $10 million budget was granted for the construction.

Delays: Several plans for the suspension bridge span were rejected. The major dispute in the mid of 1904 revolved around whether wire cables or eyebars should in installed on the bridge. The Municipal Art Commission eventually voted for wire cables. Furthermore, months of delays arose due to the disagreements on the placement of the bridge’s termini.

1907: Plan to construct a subway line across the bridge was approved.

1908: The two sets of cables, each 53 centimeters thick, were strung in pairs on both sides of the deck. By this time, nearly $22 million had been spent on bridge construction. And by the end of the year, all suspension ropes supporting the main cables had been installed.

1909: About 30,000 tons of steel was required to construct the bridge span. In February, the Phoenix Bridge Company started placing girders. It completed the majority of the span construction within three months.

On New Year’s Eve (1909), the Mayor of the NYC, George Brinton McClellan Jr., officially opened the bridge for public use.

It is the youngest of the three bridges currently spanning the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the fourth of the five NYC bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan. The following are listed in the order of their construction: 

  1. Brooklyn Bridge (1883)
  2. Williamsburg Bridge (1903)
  3. Queensboro Bridge (1909)
  4. Manhattan Bridge (1909)
  5. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964)

Design

The design of the Manhattan bride was quite controversial: it was the first structure to be constructed based on deflection theory, an idea developed by an Austrian engineer Josef Melan.

It was one of the most challenging engineering theories of that time. As per the design, the bridge would not include large stiffening trusses like those used on the Williamsburg Bridge.

The term ‘deflection’ refers to the movement of a beam from its original position due to the externally applied loads or from the weight of the structure itself. It can occur in frames, trusses, beams, and basically any other structure.

The initial plan was to install diagonal cable stays and vertical suspender ropes, but the project engineers Othniel Foster Nichols and Leon Moisseiff went with conventional wire-spun cables supported by the 98 meters tower to incorporate both design concept and deflection theory.

Because of its radical design and engineering, the bridge served as the model for several record-breaking bridge spans constructed in the first half of the 20th century.

Traffic 

The bridge has 7 lanes, 4 transit train lines (B, D, N, Q), a Class 1 bikeway, and a pedestrian walkway. Every weekday, the structure carries more than 450,000 travelers, including 106,700 commuters in 85,400 vehicles, 340,900 mass transit rider in 950 subway trains, and 4,000 bicyclists.

Average Daily Traffic Volumes on Manhattan Bridge (both direction) | Credit: NYC.gov

While the bridge is toll-free both ways, over 75% of all crossings are by public transit. Whether crossing the bridge by train, car, bike, or foot, you are guaranteed stunning views of New York City.

Reconstruction

Since the 1980s, about $920 million have been spent on repairing the Manhattan Bridge span — 30 times more than the original cost of construction.

The subway train tracks started showing major problems in the 1940s. When two trains crossed on opposite sides simultaneously, one of the sides would dip 4 feet to the south and the other 4 feet to the north, forming 8 feet of total roadway deflection.

In 1956, a minor renovation was made to rectify this tilt. However, by the end of the 1970s, the bridge had deteriorated to such an extent that the US Congress voted to allocate significant funds to repair the bridge.

The reconstruction program began in 1982 and continued till 2013. The following are the major repairs made on the bridge:

  • Reconstruction of the south and north subway tracks
  • Reconstruction of the south and north upper roadways
  • Reconstruction of the south walkway
  • Replacement of the lower roadway
  • Restoration of Manhattan Plaza
  • Installation of a new north bikeway
  • Installation of a truss stiffening system to decrease twisting

Hand rope and necklace light replacement under contract #14 | Credit: NYC.gov

The rehabilitation program under contract number 14 began in 2010. It included re-wrapping of the main cable, complete replacement of all 628 bridge suspenders, installation of maintenance platform at the towers, and replacement of necklace lighting.

Read: 12 Longest Bridges In The World

Less known Facts About Manhattan Bridge

Manhattan Bridge may not be NYC’s most attractive or beloved structure, but it has a deep history full of unknown stories and interesting facts.

7. Bicycle And Pedestrian Path Was Closed For 40 Years

After being closed for 40 years (to renovate the south side of the bridge), the original bicycle and pedestrian path of the bridge was reopened in June 2001. This shared path was separated in the summer of 2004 when a dedicated path for bicycles was opened on the bridge’s north side.

6. A Diamond Pattern Is Hidden All Over The Bridge

Manhattan bridge diamond railing

When you walk down the bridge and look past the gates unto the original railings, you will be able to find a stunning diamond pattern. You can also spot the pattern on top of the towers and below the walkway.

5. It Has Many Architectural Embellishments

Unlike most modern bridges that are covered in graffiti, the Manhattan Bridge contains several architectural embellishments. If you look closely, you can find multiple retro satellite-like dishes on the top of the towers. There were white frosted lights on the canopies to light the Manhattan skyline, but most of them have been replaced with clear glass.

4. Statues Standing On Either Side Of The Bridge

Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn | Photo by Nathan Haselby | Bklyner

At the time of opening, the bridge was adorned with statues of two females: one symbolizing Manhattan and the other Brooklyn. Both were designed by the sculptor Daniel Chester French, who is also known for designing the monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln.

These statues were there for 5 decades but later moved to the Brooklyn Art Museum (in the 1960s) to improve visitor movement on the bridge.

3. Bridge No. 3

As per the earliest plans, the structure was going to be called “Bridge No. 3” because it was the third bridge built across the East River. However, the name [Manhattan Bridge] was finalized in 1904. The New York Times criticized the name by calling it “meaningless” and stating that “all bridges across the East River are Manhattan bridges.”

2. The Bridge Was Originally Gray

Manhattan Bridge is known for its signature blue color, but it was originally painted gray. In the 1970s, the structure was repainted (blue) to reflect the official color of the borough. The original color can still be spotted around the main colors and in the columns.

1. Centennial Anniversary

In October 2009, the New York Bridge Centennial Commission organized a series of events and exhibits to celebrate Manhattan Bridge’s centennial anniversary. This included a ceremonial parade across the bridge in the morning and a fireworks display on the evening of 4th October.

Read: 23 Different Types Of Bridges

The American Society of Civil Engineers named it a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. One can find a bronze plaque commemorating this honor hanging near the intersection of Jay Street and Sands Street on the south side path.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from GGSIPU University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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