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At the peak of his career, Gustav Lindenthal would be hailed as “the Nestor” (as had Cooper before him) and also would become known as the “dean” of American bridge engineers, but his life seemed to be a constant striving to establish and maintain himself as precisely those things while holding fast to a dream that was never to be realized, even though he invested in it vast amounts of time and energy. Lindenthal was born in 1850 in Brünn, a manufacturing city in the Austro-Hungarian province of Moravia that, renamed Brno, became a part of Czechoslovakia after World War I. What appears to be incontrovertible about his background is that he was the oldest son of a large family born to a cabinetmaker and his wife, and that Gustav received a formal education through about age fourteen. The details of his further education have recently been revealed to be even more uncertain than one might gather from a close reading of standard biographical works like The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, where he is said to have been “educated at the Provincial College in Brünn and the Polytechnic schools in Brünn and Vienna.” We may speculate that Lindenthal himself was the original source of such information, and, further, that his claim of having been “educated at” a school may have meant little more than having used the library and attended some public lectures there. However, it was natural to assume from the wording that the connection had been somewhat more formal.

The issue of Lindenthal’s education was raised to a higher consciousness, however, in a 1991 article in The New Yorker that dealt mainly with Lindenthal’s masterpiece, the Hell Gate Bridge, upon which he was working at the same time that he wrote so authoritatively on the Quebec Bridge competition and related professional matters in Engineering News. The writer of the New Yorker article, Tom Buckley, revealed that none of the schools contacted in Brünn or Vienna could find any record of a Gustav Lindenthal’s ever having been a student in the 1860s or early 1870s. According to a memoir of him published in the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers five years after his death, Lindenthal was educated at the Polytechnicum College in Dresden, Germany, but that may have been merely an error based on his receiving an honorary degree from this institution in 1911. Long before then, his career had reached the point where the amount of formal education he had received mattered little in practical terms, for he had risen to the very top of his profession. But it may well have mattered to the man himself, or to his rivals.

What does seem certain is that young Gustav “received practical training from 1866 to 1870,” for at the age of sixteen or so he “was put to work as a mason and carpenter,” and “also worked in a machine shop.” Perhaps he was forced to help support the family rather than enroll in school, but “the home soon became too confining for him,” according to a tribute published in his hometown on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, and he ran away to Vienna “to start a life of his own.” So young Lindenthal appears to have left home at about the age of twenty to make something of himself in Vienna, where he became an assistant in the engineering department of the Austrian Empress Elizabeth Railroad. Two years later, he joined the Union Construction Company, which was engaged in building an “incline plane and railroad,” and the next year, 1873, he joined the Swiss National Railroad as a division engineer in charge of location and construction. Without a formal engineering degree, however, Lindenthal would have seen his future limited in Europe, and he emigrated to America, where self-educated engineers like James B. Eads and apprenticed ones like Octave Chanute could still, in the young profession, rise to considerable heights.

Among Lindenthal’s first jobs in America was that of a journeyman stonemason, in which he found himself “working for several months on the foundation of the memorial granite building of the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia” for the 1876 World’s Fair. Lindenthal was to be remembered by his daughter as a man who “stood a little over six feet tall and was solidly built,” and who “wore a mustache and a beard from the time he was a young man.” His physical characteristics and his European experience, along with the self-determination of an immigrant wanting to make something of himself in the land of opportunity, no doubt helped him before too long become “an assistant engineer in the erection of the centennial exhibition permanent buildings in Philadelphia,” a position that he would hold for the next three years. The judgment haltingly expressed by Buckley in The New Yorker—that “it appeared that the most eminent bridge designer of his time had been, in a sense, an impostor”—seems too harsh, for in the 1870s it was still possible to establish oneself as a professional on the basis of performance rather than college degrees. Indeed, the judgment seems to have been too harsh even for Buckley, who had just sung the praises of the engineer’s Hell Gate Bridge, and who now seemed to want to soften the impact of the revelation:

Lindenthal was neither the first immigrant to these shores nor the last to invent or to embellish his accomplishments or his ancestry—some did it to erase a criminal past, to free themselves from unhappy marriages, or simply to create new, more agreeable, and, perhaps, truer versions of themselves. His ersatz degrees doubtless opened doors, but he would have been quickly booted back onto the street if he had not been able to do the work. What his deception concealed, in fact, was the extraordinary intelligence, energy, and self-discipline that enabled him to teach himself mathematics, engineering theory, metallurgy, hydraulics, estimating, management, and everything else a successful bridge designer had to know—not to mention, in his case, English.

Whether Lindenthal ever proffered “ersatz degrees” may never be known, but it may indeed have been a “truer version” of himself that enabled him to become the engineer with the grandest dreams on the continent. These dreams were to be articulated in his adopted language in technical papers, prospectuses, tracts, letters, and a steady stream of words which belie the conventional wisdom that engineering and writing are alien endeavors. Indeed, Lindenthal, like virtually all great engineers before and after him, was a master of the pen and pencil as well as of bridge design, which should not be surprising. The dream of a bridge, which typically takes its first tangible shape in the form of a pencil sketch, would win no financial or political support were its engineer not able to flesh it out in words that convey not only the technical excitement of the project but also its benefit to the community of investors, merchants, politicians, and people generally.

After the Centennial Exhibition closed, Lindenthal began working for the Keystone Bridge Company on projects in Chicago and Pittsburgh. This experience, in turn, enabled him to become, in 1879, bridge engineer in Cleveland with the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad. Like many a young engineer of his time, Lindenthal thus followed a peripatetic career among the expanding railroads and bridge-building companies. However, shortly after he turned thirty, he decided to strike out on his own and returned to Pittsburgh to set himself up in private practice. There was plenty of work for a confident and competent engineer; many of the railroads needed help in carrying out surveys, designing and constructing new bridges, and replacing their old wooden-truss bridges with wrought-iron ones more capable of supporting the increasingly heavy locomotives that had come into use. Through such work Lindenthal came into contact with many of the most prominent engineers of the time.


Among the long-standing bridge needs in Pittsburgh was a crossing of the Monongahela River to reach the city’s South Side. In the early nineteenth century, that need was provided by ferry service, but in 1810 a bridge charter was obtained, and by 1816 a fine covered wooden bridge was in place. This bridge was the work of Lewis Wernwag, whose earlier Colossus Bridge across the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia has been called “an American engineering superlative.” Although the Colossus had a single clear span of more than 340 feet, which certainly contributed to its being referred to as “the most stunning and visually compelling engineering structure built in the early United States,” the Monongahela bridge had eight much more modest spans of 188 feet each. Fire, however, the fate of many a covered bridge, destroyed the Colossus in 1838, and the wooden superstructure of the Pittsburgh bridge in 1845.

John Roebling thus was given the opportunity to build his first wire-suspension bridge to carry a road as opposed to a canal, and he was able to complete the structure especially quickly by employing the original masonry piers, which had not been harmed in the fire. Though Roebling’s bridge was a great success at first, “in the course of time it became very shaky and loose, and its continuous swaying and creaking convinced every one that it was becoming unsafe for travel.” In fact, the Pittsburgh suspension bridge was so flexible that at times of high water riverboat captains could arrange to have the headroom under one of its eight spans increased by a foot or two by hiring teamsters to position heavy wagons on the spans on either side of the one under which they wished to sail. As roadway traffic grew increasingly heavy, however, the large deflections and vibrations of the bridge became unacceptable, and in 1880 a new suspension bridge with larger spans was commissioned. After the new piers were under construction, the bridge company reconsidered its plans, and looked to something other than a suspension bridge, which “would not be subject to undulations and would be capable of enduring the constantly increasing traffic without limitation of load or speed.” Lindenthal himself may have pointed out the limitations of the suspension-bridge design, and he was invited by the directors and managers of the company to prepare alternative plans. He was subsequently awarded the commission for a new type of bridge of European design.

The Colossus of 1812, a wooden bridge of uncommon span (photo credit 4.1)

The Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh was Lindenthal’s first important design project. Its principal structural form is now technically known as a lenticular truss, because it is lens-shaped, but was then called a Pauli truss, after its German inventor, Friedrich August von Pauli. The structural principle under which it functions is not unlike that of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Saltash Bridge, built across the Tamar River in southwestern England in the 1850s, in which a top tubular member and a suspended chain act in opposing ways to produce a self-equilibrating truss, a variation on the bowstring girder that Eads described. Lindenthal’s adaptation of the Pauli design was of a much lighter construction, however, because of the use of steel in some of its parts, and it showed “the triumph of architectural skill over the gross bulkiness that in the past was considered inseparable from an adequate amount of strength.” In fact, Lindenthal’s “use of steel instead of iron wherever possible was based upon economy as much as anything,” and the decision saved about 5 percent of the bridge’s total cost of $458,000. As originally completed in 1883, the Smithfield Street Bridge carried a single roadway on two main spans of 360 feet each through towering portals with iron-fringed roofs. In 1891, as Lindenthal had made provision for in his original design, a second roadway was added on the already wide piers and a third set of lenticular trusses was erected, thus providing separate roadways for trolley and horse traffic. The original Victorian-style portal motif was retained after widening, though it was changed in 1915 to the less ornate dual-portal cast-steel design that exists on the bridge today, and the Smithfield Street Bridge remains one of Pittsburgh’s most significant landmarks.

The original portal design of Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Street Bridge (photo credit 4.2)

The widened Smithfield Street Bridge, with a less ornate portal (photo credit 4.3)

An etching of the original portal design of the “new bridge at Pittsburg” dominated the front page of Scientific American for September 22, 1883, with a profile of the bridge relegated to a rather small inset engraving. Approaching a bridge like this one from Smithfield Street, or approaching Pittsburgh’s Point Bridge, whose functional towers provided even more imposing portals to the main span, must have been an experience not unlike the one Victorian travelers encountered upon entering the crystal palaces that housed the world’s fairs of the 1850s and 1860s. In fact, Lindenthal had been inspired—if not constrained, as all engineers are—by the style and technology of his own time, which in this case included the buildings for the Centennial fair in Philadelphia.

Among the curious features of the Scientific American story of the new bridge was the opening note that the cover engraving was made “from an excellent photograph by S. V. Albee, for a copy of which we are indebted to Mr. Alex. Y. Lee, C.E., of Pittsburg.” That the engineer Lee’s name was prefixed and suffixed in ways that Albee’s was not suggests the status of the engineer, if not the profession itself, at the time, at least in Scientific American. All the more notable, therefore, is the fact that the “chief engineer, Mr. Gustavus Lindenthal,” who was identified as the source of the particulars about the bridge, had no initials following his name. Evidently, at this early and important stage in his career, not only had Lindenthal not Americanized his given name but, more significantly, he seems not to have conveyed to the reporter that he held any such degree as C.E. Indeed, if anything, Lindenthal seems to have kept the reporter from making such an assumption—as well he might have. Lindenthal’s engineering achievements were and would be his credentials.

In addition to his bridge over the Monongahela, Lindenthal also built one over the Allegheny River, at Seventh Street in Pittsburgh. This was a suspension bridge with four cables that employed not wire but chains composed of eyebars to hold up the roadway. The eyebar chains were suspended in pairs one above another from either side of the towers, and they were interconnected with bracing. Lindenthal may have been influenced in the design by the Point Bridge, completed in Pittsburgh in 1877, which also employed trussed chains to support its roadway. This scheme gave a considerable degree of stiffness to the chain structure, so that the relatively flexible roadway suspended from it was not subject to the degree of deflection and vibration that had been found unsatisfactory in wire suspension bridges. This preference for the use of eyebars rather than wire cables for suspension bridges was to be central in some of the debates Lindenthal would have with other engineers when he became involved in the design of bridges for New York City. Although Lindenthal’s Seventh Street Bridge was to be replaced about a decade before the death of its engineer, it was, along with the Smithfield Street Bridge, one of the major structures erected in the 1880s in America.

Whereas the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883, dwarfed Lindenthal’s Pittsburgh bridges and thus captured the imagination of the wider public, his engineering reputation was firmly established, albeit principally in one locality. He had received the Rowland Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers for his paper on the Monongahela bridge, which he read before the society in 1883, and he was well established as an engineer not only of bridges but also of unique forms of transportation like the inclined railroads used for moving wagons and streetcars along the steep slopes in and around Pittsburgh. Lindenthal, however, appears to have wanted to be more than an important engineer in Pittsburgh or among his colleagues in the American Society of Civil Engineers. One way of gaining wider recognition would be to design and build a bridge larger than the Brooklyn Bridge, then the largest anywhere in the world. If Pittsburgh did not need such large bridges, New York did, and spanning the Hudson River was a problem whose solution everyone would appreciate for its grand achievement. This would place its engineer in the category of a Roebling, if not higher.


According to his own account, almost fifty years after the incident, Lindenthal was approached in the fall of 1885 by Samuel Rae, assistant to the vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, regarding the “practicability of a railroad bridge across the Hudson River.” Being a “very able engineer with a penetrating and cautious mind,” Rae also consulted other engineers over the situation at New York:

There was keen competition among the railroad companies for Western traffic. The New York Central Railroad Company advertised a direct entrance, with four tracks, to the heart of Manhattan, while the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and the other railroads terminating in New Jersey were handicapped and had to transfer their passengers across the Hudson River by ferries. A tunnel under the Hudson River had been started at Hoboken, N.J., but it was intended only for small [railroad] cars and local traffic. A larger tunnel for locomotives and standard cars appeared objectionable because of the smoke, which was then a subject of daily complaint in the tunnels of the New York Central Railroad.

As Rae also noted, the situation favored an immense bridge with open-air railroad tracks. In the wake of the Tay Bridge failure, however, the Firth of Forth cantilever design of Fowler and Baker had succeeded the suspension-bridge design of the discredited Bouch, and so a cantilever had also been talked about for the Hudson River, which was about three thousand feet wide and very deep at New York. However, there were serious questions whether a pier would be allowed in the river, and whether the depth of the foundations might be practical. Having “given thought to the matter before,” Lindenthal turned to a suspension-bridge design for New York, and he was convinced that it was technically possible. He reported as much to the Pennsylvania Railroad in the spring of 1886, but Lindenthal’s integrated approach, which included a terminal plan, was prohibitively expensive for a single railroad to finance. Thus the North River Bridge Company, with Lindenthal as chief engineer, was organized in 1887 to seek financial support from several railroads, which would share the bridge and terminal facilities. This seemed like a very promising enterprise, for the otherwise uninterrupted transcontinental tracks then terminated in New Jersey, just across the river from New York, which was the ultimate destination of an enormous volume of passengers and freight. The closest bridge across the Hudson River was at Albany, over 150 miles north. Construction of the cantilever bridge at Poughkeepsie, about sixty miles upriver, had just begun, and ferry service between New Jersey and New York was slow, expensive, and subject to interruption by the weather. Furthermore, there was “annoyance and even danger to the landed passengers on the overcrowded and nasty streets” of New York City, which also housed the offices of Engineering News, the trade journal that was then poised to grow and expand its influence under the vision and energy of its new editor, A. M. Wellington.

Arthur Mellen Wellington, born in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1847, was the son of a physician. He attended the Boston Latin School, and he learned engineering not through formal education but as an assistant in the Boston office of John B. Henck, himself a self-made engineer. Henck, born in Philadelphia in 1815, was self-educated until he entered Harvard, from which he was to graduate first in his class in 1840. He remained in Cambridge to serve as principal of Hopkins Classical School for a year before moving to the University of Maryland, where he spent a year as a professor of Latin and Greek. After five more years in a similar position at the Germantown Academy, and with a growing family, he returned to Boston to enter the employ of Felton & Parker, Civil Engineers. After a couple of years there, he left to join in a partnership with the engineer William S. Whitwell. Henck eventually set up his own consulting offices in Boston to do general engineering work, which included work on street railways, the Charles River Basin, and the development of Boston’s Back Bay district. In 1865, he became head of the Civil Engineering Department of the newly established Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 1881.

Though Wellington was introduced to engineering in Henck’s firm in Boston, the young man did not wish to remain in that city. He took and passed an examination for assistant engineer in the U.S. Navy, but the war ended before he could assume such a position. Wellington then went to Brooklyn, New York, where he joined the Park Department under Frederick Law Olmsted, who with Calvert Vaux had laid out Prospect Park. Wellington apparently had wanderlust, however, and he began to work for a succession of railroads, beginning as a transitman on the Blue Ridge Railroad in South Carolina and working himself up from assistant engineer, principal assistant engineer, and locating engineer to engineer in charge. However, when railroad construction was suddenly stopped during the panic years of 1873 and 1874, Wellington found opportunities for engineers scarce. On his application for membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers, he wrote: “1874–78, was engaged in miscellaneous professional, business and literary occupation more interesting than lucrative and not always particularly interesting.” According to one who knew him, however, he was later to refer to this “period of enforced idleness—so far as idleness was possible to a man of his restless energy—as a blessing in disguise.”

One of the outlets for Wellington’s energy was explicating his experience with railroad construction in books. His first dealt with the very important task of computing how much earth needed to be moved to construct a railroad, a key factor in its cost. The same year this book was published, 1875, Wellington began his “great work, and that by which his fame as an engineer would be established, The Economic Theory of the Location of Railroads.” It was in this work, first published in 1876 as a series of articles in the Railroad Gazette and in 1877 as a book, that Wellington’s famous definition of engineering appeared:

It would be well if engineering were less generally thought of, and even defined, as the art of constructing. In a certain important sense it is rather the art of not constructing: or, to define it rudely, but not inaptly, it is the art of doing well with one dollar, which any bungler can do with two after a fashion.

Wellington’s success as a writer brought him opportunities, and in 1878 he became principal assistant to Charles Latimer, chief engineer of the New York, Pennsylvania & Ohio Railroad. After three years at the “Nypano,” as Latimer’s company was known, Wellington went to Mexico to become first engineer in charge of location and surveys for that country’s national railroad, and later assistant general manager and chief engineer in charge of location. He again grew restless, however, and in 1884 he returned to the United States to become one of the editors of the Railroad Gazette, a position for which his practical experience was invaluable. In January 1887, he left the Gazette to join Engineering News as one of the editors-in-chief and as part owner. According to another of the editors, “the influence of his energy and ability was at once seen in every department of this journal. Within two years its subscription list had more than doubled.”

The juxtaposition of Wellington’s name and the word “energy” was ubiquitous, and he seemed always to be looking for new challenges. In the summer of 1892, instead of taking his usual vacation, he stayed in New York and “devoted his leisure to working out some ideas in thermodynamics which had occurred to him years before,” which led to the invention of an efficient engine whose development “became the all-absorbing work of his life, and in his earnestness and zeal all thought of care for his health was forgotten.” As he spent more and more time on his invention, he worked less and less on writing and editing, finally giving up work at Engineering News entirely in May 1894. He soon thereafter embarked on the European rest trip his physicians had advised earlier, but he became acutely ill while in Norway. Though he recovered sufficiently to return to America, his health again failed, and he died in April 1895, from overwork, according to those who knew him most closely.

Gustav Lindenthal could not have helped interacting with Wellington during the course of his editorship at Engineering News, for that journal was to follow closely the great bridge project of which Lindenthal dreamed. Among the first public mentions of a new plan for a New York City bridge over the Hudson River, which was then also known as the North River (as opposed to the South or Delaware River), appears to have been a letter that ran in mid-1887 in a newspaper in Philadelphia, the hometown of the Pennsylvania Railroad. According to Engineering News, and most probably according to editor Wellington, it was “from a man whom [sic] we happen to know is eminently qualified to discuss the subject on the great question of how to eliminate the Hudson river from the New York terminus problem.” Though the letter-writer was not identified, it was almost certainly Lindenthal, whose name in 1887 was quite unlikely to be meaningful to New Yorkers generally, but who may very well have himself fed the letter to Wellington. The subject of the letter was itself of immense interest, however, and it was quoted at length. As in most preliminary reports of engineers setting out a complicated problem and a proposed solution, both were stated concisely:

Are the proposed tunnels under the river the proper remedies for the present inconveniences? The projected tunnel is estimated to cost $11,000,000 for two tracks. But two tracks would not begin to accommodate the passenger business of a single railroad, much less all that now terminate on the Jersey side. The Pennsylvania Railroad alone would require four tracks for its steadily increasing business. There should be not less than six tracks, requiring six tunnels.… Six mud tunnels for necessarily slow trains with noisy, cramped terminals, from which dampness could not be excluded for $33,000,000, with no assurance that this amount would be sufficient, and with the certainty of great expenditures for maintenance and repairs, for tunnels must be pumped dry, ventilated, and perhaps thoroughly lighted. This is certainly not the kind of improvement that New York City is most in need [of], and it is not the kind of terminal railroad station which could meet the ever growing demands for greater convenience, safety, comfort and expeditious travelling.

Progress by 1882 on a Hudson River tunnel begun in 1874 (photo credit 4.4)

Imagine now, in a central part of New York City, within a stone’s throw of its greatest avenue, a grand, imposing station, combined with every convenience and comfort of a first-class hotel, with numerous tracks and platforms, accommodating thirty trains at one time, arriving and departing, having all the elevated railroads running their trains directly into this station. Then imagine a massive stone viaduct and lofty columns supporting a six-track roadbed, through and over blocks of buildings to a magnificent bridge over the North river, leaping with a single span over its entire width, without a pier or other obstruction and with a clearance above highest tide of 140 ft., carrying six tracks. Then imagine the six tracks continued on a viaduct and gently descending to the level of the country in New Jersey to connections with all existing railroads and for future lines that will be built. No doubt such imagination may seem fantastic and profitless, though everybody will grant, were it possible to realize such a project, it would be a grand and eminently useful undertaking. But such a project can be realized. It is perfectly feasible and practicable to execute it at less cost than the proposed tunnels with corresponding terminals. The matter has been studied with the greatest possible care for a number of years, and all conditions have been weighed impartially and soberly. There cannot possibly be objections to a bridge spanning North river without a pier in the river and at such a height as to allow the largest steamers to pass under it freely. Bridge engineering has progressed so much that such a large bridge can be built with greater facility to-day than it was possible for the Brooklyn Bridge when it was proposed.

Later that year, Lindenthal prepared a four-page report on this solution of his to the problem, which he copyrighted in 1887 under his own name and had privately printed “not as a publication, but simply for convenience of the promoters of the project and for their exclusive use.” His booklet was entitled The Proposed New York City Terminal Railroad, Including North River Bridge and Grand Terminal Station, in New York City, and the bridge was only one part of the integrated scheme. Six train tracks would be constructed on viaducts “high above the houses” of New York City between a huge bilevel Terminal Station, located “as close as convenient to the principal hotels,” which then meant somewhere above Eighteenth Street and near Sixth Avenue, and the “great North River Bridge,” also referred to as the Hudson River Bridge. Since at the time the Hudson could be considered the “most important water highway in the United States,” any obstruction of it by bridge piers was out of the question. Thus Lindenthal proposed bridging the river “between established pier lines with a single span, 2,850 feet long and 145 feet above high tide.”

Lindenthal’s proposed North River Bridge compared with the Brooklyn, Forth, Poughkeepsie, and Eads bridges, drawn to scale (photo credit 4.5)

As with all responsible engineering proposals, Lindenthal’s report included an estimate of cost and a projection of revenue based on use. Since “surveys, plans and estimates for the entire project” had been made, and since, “except for its magnitude,” the work was “as definite and free from experimental features as any other railroad or bridge project,” Lindenthal must have been confident in his estimate of $23 million for the terminal station, viaducts, bridge, four miles of railroad, and a tunnel through Bergen Hill in New Jersey. When the cost of acquisition of the right of way was added, the total cost of the project was estimated to be $37 million. He projected that eight railroads, including the Pennsylvania, could run their trains directly to the Grand Terminal Station, collectively carrying about sixty thousand passengers per day plus freight. At ten cents each, those passengers alone would bring revenue of over $2 million annually. Because the expenses of operating the system were expected to be covered by the railroads using it, the overall plan looked like a sound moneymaking proposition. Lindenthal dated his report “New York, October, 1887,” and identified himself not with letters such as C.E., denoting a college degree, but with the descriptive declaration “Gustav Lindenthal, Civil Engineer, of Pittsburgh, Pa.,” which he certainly had established himself to be.

Whereas the North River Bridge was only one part of his Grand Terminal plan, it was the component that was to capture the attention of engineers, financiers, and laypersons alike, and to remain Lindenthal’s unrelenting dream for almost five decades. The first formal professional presentation of his bridge plans appears to have occurred at a New York meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers on the evening of January 4, 1888, which was described in a report in The New York Times the following morning. That the speaker was identified as “Prof. Lindenthal” confirms that he was not then widely known in New York, but the reporter may possibly have used the academic title in the belief that no other was appropriate for the author of “an exhaustive paper on ‘The North River Bridge Problem’ ” whose reading “consumed over three and a half hours,” even though the speaker “confined himself to the salient points of the general project.” Nevertheless, Lindenthal, who may have done little to discourage the professorial image, apparently could not pass up an opportunity to criticize New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, pointing out “enough defects in the East River Bridge to test the faith of any understanding mortal compelled to cross that iron thoroughfare in the course of his business.” There seems little doubt that Lindenthal wanted to better the great achievement of Roebling and to build the greatest bridge in the world. Though he estimated then that it would cost no more than $15 million, he admitted in a report only three months later that the total railroad project might reach $50 million.

In his talk, Lindenthal also argued against a tunnel, which many engineers favored because of the great width of the river. Indeed, a tunnel was the greatest immediate threat to the realization of his dream, and he had concluded his report by citing the clear advantages of a bridge over a tunnel: “Utility, the greatest convenience, plenty of light and air, absence of smoke and noise shall be the leading features.” Even though there had been some success with driving tunnels under water—Marc Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames River in London having been completed over four decades earlier—there remained a general aversion to going underground and under a river in the dark for a mile or so, and bridges were the communication link of choice—if their costs could be afforded. However, a tunnel beneath the Hudson was already under construction, and the competition between tunnels and bridges would remain real and ever-present.

In the meantime, there was growing public interest in an interstate bridge. In late 1887, citizens of New Jersey had asked Congress to authorize and direct the president to appoint a commission of army engineers to look into the matter. This appeared to be the first “public move in a very ambitious project,” according to Engineering News, which was sanguine in spite of the project’s involving an “amount of money, for construction and real estate, that would have made a previous generation stand aghast at its mere mention.” The journal that expressed on its masthead an interest in “all new engineering works or designs, large or small, of interest from their magnitude, novelty, or originality,” believed in Lindenthal’s dream, however, for the country then had “engineers capable of surmounting all the physical difficulties of the problem, and a people rich enough to pay for it, just as soon as the necessity is really felt for such a structure—and that time approaches.” The necessity was already felt by the likes of Lindenthal, of course, but the time when enough others would feel it was to approach and recede for decades.

To complicate things further, rumor had it that some railroad men were becoming interested in developing plans for a bridge across the Hudson between Steven’s Point, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and somewhere near 42nd Street, on Manhattan Island. Their scheme differed from Lindenthal’s in several respects. For one, it was to carry “wagon-ways, foot-ways, and a cable road system,” in addition to a good number of railroad tracks. For another, it was to be a cantilever bridge, with a maximum span of 780 feet and a headway of 165 feet above the water. The rumor had it that “no engineer has yet made plans, otherwise than to say it was feasible,” which was certainly believable, since the cantilever bridge with multiple 548-foot spans was then under construction over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie and the 1,710-foot spans of the Firth of Forth bridge were nearing completion in Scotland.

Another group of investors was seeking approval for a bridge between Fort Lee, New Jersey, and the section on the New York side of the river known by its Dutch name, Spuyten Duyvil. They wished to place one or more piers in this relatively narrow part of the lower Hudson River, but steamboat operators were already complaining about the piers at Poughkeepsie, where the tides were not nearly so tricky as they were in the river around Spuyten Duyvil, past which tows of sixty to a hundred barges stretched out “anywhere from 200 or 300 feet to nearly a mile” (though the latter estimate was very possibly a zealot’s hyperbole). Thus the stage was set for battles on several fronts, not only between the advocates of tunnels and those of bridges but also between proponents of cantilever and suspension designs, and, as always, between builders of bridges and operators of tugs and ferryboats, with all manner of variation in detail. These battles, not unfairly likened in emotion and intensity to those between the sheep- and cattle-herders of the Old West, would also rage in various forms and at various strategic locations for the next few decades.

True to its promise to give early publication to plans for new engineering works, Engineering News soon ran serially the details of Lindenthal’s design, introducing them as the first item on the first page of the first issue of 1888 with assurances that the cost was “certainly not so formidable an obstacle for to-day as was that of the Brooklyn bridge for 1868,” and that “there is probably no one on either side of the ocean who could be counted on more confidently to deal successfully with the intricate engineering problems involved than Mr. Lindenthal.” His reputation—at least to editors of, and hence to readers of, Engineering News—seems to have been well served by his technical tracts and lectures of earlier years.

A profile diagram, with horizontal scale compressed five times more than that of the vertical, showed the bridge in context, complete with the proposed tunnel through New Jersey’s Bergen Hill and the terminal with two track levels in New York City. An undistorted drawing of the bridge itself appeared above uniform scale drawings of the Brooklyn, Firth of Forth, Poughkeepsie, and Eads bridges. Unlike the chains used for his Seventh Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, Lindenthal proposed braced steel-wire cables enclosed in steel envelopes to “protect them absolutely against rain and weather.” The stiffening trusses of the roadway proper were “principally designed to form the frame work for two large horizontal wind trusses [to] make the bridge safe against the most violent tornadoes,” and the bridge was so designed that four additional railroad tracks could be added “at any time in the future, should it become necessary, making a double deck bridge.” Actually, the first bridge to connect New York and New Jersey was still over forty years away, but it would share a remarkable number of features with Lindenthal’s late-Victorian dream.

Lindenthal’s plans, as published in Engineering News, showed him to have given considerable thought and effort to the great bridge. In addition to describing the technical details, his report kept returning to the architecture of the bridge, especially to the form of the towers, they being “the most prominent feature” of the structure. He acknowledged that the largest suspension bridges then built all had stone towers, but he cited the recent replacement of the cracked stone towers of the Niagara Gorge Suspension Bridge with metal ones, and explained that, “for bridge towers 500 ft. high, wrought iron or low steel is without question the most suitable material.” The towers of his bridge would have columns shaped “for the double purpose of good appearance and to produce initial strains in the bracing between them, by which the rigidity of the towers is enhanced.” The bracing itself was so arranged also to form “a grand and lofty portal” through which the train tracks would pass.

Lindenthal’s New York City Terminal Railroad scheme, drawn with an exaggerated vertical scale and showing the proposed bridge and tunnel through Bergen Hill in New Jersey (photo credit 4.6)

Engineering News was understandably proud to publish a “very liberal extract” from Lindenthal’s paper, which it described as “the first definite description of a work which has at least a very fair chance of becoming the greatest of its kind on this continent, or in the world.” This proponent of great schemes assured its readers that the fact that “some such structure will be built over the North River is as certain as any event still in the future can be,” adding that its prospects were especially good because “it certainly has that solid basis which was so sadly lacking in the Panama canal scheme” that recently had been effectively abandoned by the French. Engineering News concluded its introduction to one of several extracts with optimism, for, “fortunately, engineering difficulties do not by any means vary in direct ratio with magnitude, as the cost does, and there seems to be little in the proposed design which previous experience does not indicate to be entirely practicable.” Unfortunately, editor Wellington and engineer Lindenthal both seem to have underestimated the importance of nontechnical factors, which perhaps vary to an even greater extent with magnitude than does cost. The political and mercantile complications and competitions that accompanied such technically solid great projects as the Eads and Brooklyn bridges were evidently forgotten, at least by some, in the late 1880s in New York.

Lindenthal himself also seems to have worried less about general opposition to the plan than he did about attacks on the aesthetic integrity of his design. Considering the “architectural excellence of the bridge” to be of the “highest importance,” he ridiculed the “hackneyed phrase” that “correctly designed structures have an innate architectural beauty, requiring no adornment, unless perhaps that of a well selected color of paint.” Lindenthal pointed to various bridges (some recently completed) that he saw as embodying the best of engineering and architecture in a single structure:

The graceful suspension in Buda Pesth (without question the finest existing specimen of this class of bridge-architecture), the early bridges in Paris, and a few over the River Rhine were built by engineer-architects, when the field of engineering did not yet justify exclusive devotion to one specialty, to the neglect of other branches of the science of building. But for the taste and stubborn persistence of the late Capt. Eads, the St. Louis bridge would have been built so as to be not the finest specimen of a metal arch-bridge architecture in this country, which it is, but on the plans of the old Omaha bridge, now worn out, and soon fit only for the scrap heap.…

The standpoint of utility has, in our time, become with many almost the only professional point of view for judging of the merit of engineering work, so that the incentive for better things is wanting. A good deal of the blame is with the engineering schools. There is not one text book, to the author’s knowledge, in the English language, on “Bridge Architecture,” and no attempt is made to teach the students even the rudiments of good designing. It is thought to be of more consequence to furnish an elegant graphical solution of the strains in a polygonal truss, or in the invention of a new formula for the very least weight of iron in a bridge, than to design with a decent regard for pleasing appearance, and for the feeling of fellow men and the opinion of posterity.

An early version of Lindenthal’s Hudson River Bridge design, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background (photo credit 4.7)

His apparent contempt for engineering schools may perhaps have stemmed partly from his own disappointment or private embarrassment at not having been more formally educated, and partly from the realization, based on his own achievements, that formal education was not a sine qua non for creating good bridge engineering and architecture. That Lindenthal had established himself so well by building significant bridges in Pittsburgh appears to have given him a self-confident, if not arrogant, belief that he was the pre-eminent American bridge engineer, and so entitled to serve as an arbiter of taste for another city’s bridges. He went on to relate anecdotes of being told by a railroad manager how, “every time he hears of a new project for a larger bridge,” he feared another “common hideous looking structure” would go up. When another gentleman spoke to him of “recklessly vulgar structures,” Lindenthal defended engineers by arguing that they “cannot always do as they please and public sentiment must be educated” in appreciating “better things.” He left little doubt that he was referring in particular to a “shameful conglomeration of iron structures as are found in New York and Brooklyn,” which deserved better:

It is certainly true that if the New York Harbor, acknowledged to be the most beautiful in this country, should be defaced by a utility bridge of shabby appearance, it would be an unpardonable offense against the civilization of mankind. A pleasing architectural appearance of the bridge [proposed] was therefore held to be worthy of as much study as the engineering features, and the design aims to combine them in the best manner attainable out of a variety of designs made for the purpose.

Lindenthal expected his digression to be “pardoned in view of the importance of the project.” Years later, his apparent inability to compromise on any front, functional or aesthetic, was blamed for the great dreamer’s ineffectualness in getting the North River Bridge plans approved. But whereas Lindenthal was talking aesthetics, others were talking politics and economics, each of which was a sine qua non of great bridge building. And perhaps the biggest obstacle of all was the almost strictly technical decision as to whether a suspension bridge of the record span he proposed was indeed practicable. As the great bridge over the Firth of Forth neared completion, the cantilever type was day by day gaining support. In the end, it was Lindenthal himself who publicly raised the issue of a suspension versus a cantilever bridge.

Proposed cantilever bridge over the Hudson River (photo credit 4.8)


The full title of the long paper Lindenthal read before the American Society of Civil Engineers was “The North River Bridge Problem, with a Discussion on Long Span Bridges.” Many pages of Engineering News in the months of January and February 1888 were given over to Lindenthal’s solution of the bridge problem, but many more for the month of March were devoted to his discussion. His definition of a “long span bridge” was one whose structural metal (concrete bridges were not even under consideration) was at least as heavy as the traffic it was designed to carry. There were four types of bridges most suitable for long spans, he asserted: the suspension bridge, which, after Eads, he termed a suspended arch; the erect arch, which was the familiar kind; the continuous girder, of which the Britannia tubular bridge was an example; and the cantilever.

First discussing the cantilever, Lindenthal pointed out that the type generally lacked rigidity under fast railroad trains, unless it was built with great height and depth, as over the Firth of Forth, at the sacrifice of headroom near the piers, which he thought unacceptable in the Hudson River. In addition to some more technical objections that he raised, he finally condemned cantilever bridges then built for “their general ugliness of appearance.” Such aesthetic concerns, according to Lindenthal, “may not be of much consequence for a railroad bridge off in the woods, but even then it would not be more expensive to build them with an eye to better appearance, if for no other reason than to set a good example in imitative engineers.” Among the things he found objectionable in contemporary cantilever bridges were the “indiscriminate use of eyebars and bulky compression sections in the same chord lines and the irregularity of truss frames,” which he thought to be “as needless as it is ugly looking.” He concluded his diatribe against cantilevers by alluding to two recently built ones in certain unnamed large cities. One of these bridges was the one in Philadelphia over Market Street, whose design was defended in a letter to the editor in a subsequent issue of Engineering News. The writer admitted that “cantilever fever” was prevalent at the time, but that Lindenthal was in fact “entirely ignorant of the special conditions of the case” which led to the bridge that he so criticized. Later in his own career, in fact, Lindenthal would argue precisely that some special conditions caused him to design an unusual bridge in an unusual location, but that continuous girder span was still then far in the future.

Lindenthal’s discussion of arch bridges was quoted at considerable length from the 1868 report of Eads, including many of his illustrations, and his arguments were presented by Lindenthal as being as true in 1888 “as they were then, and as they always will be.” The discussion of suspended arches, or suspension bridges, was the longest. Whereas Eads had, of course, found the erect arch superior to the suspended, Lindenthal concluded just the opposite—namely, that the suspension bridge presented “the most favorable conditions of stability and rigidity.” Such a diametrically opposed conclusion from one engineer who had just agreed so much with the other with regard to the erect arch is not so much a contradiction as a demonstration of the complexity of the issue. In fact, there are in bridge design, as in all engineering problems, so many competing objectives and contrary constraints that in the final analysis the decision can be purely a question of personal preference and aesthetic taste, taking into account any special conditions at the bridge location. One engineer, because of his prejudices, might choose to design an arch rather than a suspension bridge for a particular site, whereas another might do just the opposite. Both bridge designs might be equally safe and reliable, but they might not have the same functional, aesthetic, and economic qualities.

In Lindenthal’s case, he was so committed to the suspension concept for bridging the Hudson River that he turned the argument naturally and not unfairly to his use. Lindenthal admitted, for example, that it was “a popular assumption that suspension bridges cannot be well used for railroad purposes,” and further conceded that throughout the world there was only one suspension bridge then carrying railroad tracks, Roebling’s Niagara Gorge Bridge, completed in 1854, over which trains had to move slowly. However, rather than seeing this as scant evidence for his case, Lindenthal held up as a model the “greater moral courage and more abiding faith in the truth of constructive principles” that Roebling needed to build his bridge in the face of contemporary criticism by the “most eminent bridge engineers then living.” In Lindenthal’s time, three decades later, it was not merely a question of moral courage; “nowadays bridges are not built on faith,” and there was “not another field of applied mechanics where results can be predicted with so much precision as in bridges of iron and steel.” He did not promise such precision in the cost of his suspension bridge, however, and concluded his discussion by revealing an estimated cost of “approximately $15,000,000,” which still might have seemed more dreamlike than the bridge itself.

In the meantime, the legislatures of New York and New Jersey had become involved again. In 1868, the New-York and New-Jersey Bridge Company had been chartered under the laws of New Jersey, which allowed one or two piers in the river as long as there was a thousand-foot clearance between them and a clear height of 130 feet in the center. With the renewed interest in a bridge, there was also renewed interest in getting the New York Legislature to pass a law so that cooperative progress could be made. There was, however, opposition on the New York side among supporters of a bridge farther up the Hudson River, nearer Albany. Early in 1888, a bill was introduced into the New York Legislature, but Engineering News, which by then had become an outspoken proponent of Lindenthal’s plan, if not a downright mouthpiece of his, criticized the proposed legislation:

It plainly contemplates the erection of a cantilever, and stipulates for the placing of one pier in the river channel, neither of which should be permitted unless found absolutely necessary, even if the cost be considerably increased. If there be one place in the world where a mere “utility structure” should not be permitted, but where dignity and beauty of form should be a controlling feature, it is over the North River at New York, and in that and other respects the suspension type seems to us to have great advantages for the location.

By midyear, federal legislation was also being proposed that would authorize a bridge company to build, within ten years of the approval of plans by the secretary of war, what was effectively a suspension bridge, for no piers were to be in the river. Among the promoters of the scheme were Lindenthal and Henry Flad, whose reputation, based on the Eads Bridge, was impeccable. As the wheels of Congress turned, there was considerable public discussion of the matter. With at least two bridge proposals competing for government approval, an editorial in The New York Times was optimistic that “we shall have a bridge across the Hudson into this city ere the century closes.” Though the editorial did not mention Lindenthal by name, he was clearly being paid attention to: “An engineer of Pittsburgh, who makes bridges a specialty, has succeeded in gaining the ear of capitalists, and his calculations meet with respectful consideration from those who ought to know.” The Times seemed to be alluding to the editors of Engineering News, but the newspaper itself had some reservations about his design: “The picture of this greatest of all wonders of bridge making offers much the same beauty of curve in the main span as the East River Bridge and more grace of outline in the towers, though the openwork steel construction of the latter compare unfavorably with the granite piers at Brooklyn.” In fact, the open steel towers recalled unfavorably—to the editorial writer, at least—the Eiffel Tower, then under construction in Paris.

As The American Architect and Building News emphasized, the problem was not so much the length of Lindenthal’s proposed bridge, for the “much-talked-of bridge over the English Channel would be 20 miles long.” Furthermore, the longest bridge in the world was New York’s elevated railroad, which consisted of a thirty-three mile-long “continuous bridge.” What distinguished Lindenthal’s proposal was the length of its main span, almost three thousand feet between two gigantic towers. Some readers of other publications were not so understanding. In the year following the public explication of the plans, London’s The Engineer carried a critical appraisal by Max Am Emde. Lindenthal responded in a lengthy article in Engineering News, showing the more blunt and acerbic side of his personality, which included a tendency toward ad-hominem argument and sarcasm. Regarding the availability of information about the strength of steel wire for bridge cables, Lindenthal was critical of Am Emde’s lack of knowledge: “Ignorance of it is inexcusable in an engineer, and unpardonable in a critic.” And regarding the weight and number of trains that would be present at any given time, Lindenthal pointed out that “the bridge is not intended for use as a storage yard for loaded freight cars.” This was an especially important point in designing bridges on the scale Lindenthal had proposed, and his argument that such bridges would be heavily loaded over their entire floor only during testing or with “special discipline” enabled him and subsequent American bridge engineers to design relatively light structures for their size, thus making them economically feasible, if potentially structurally unstable.

Late-nineteenth-century proposal for a railway bridge over the English Channel (photo credit 4.9)

English engineers, on the other hand, still remembering the Tay and watching the Forth Bridge grow, remained sensitive to the consequences of too light a structure. That there was a rivalry in fact as well as in judgment between engineers on the two sides of the ocean was brought home by Lindenthal’s closing his defense with the assertion that, in building bridges, American contractors had already established that they could hold their own with “contractors from England and other parts of the world.” When the Forth Bridge opened in March 1890, Engineering News would also appeal to national pride: “If English and Scotch railways can afford to bridge the Firth of Forth … the great trunk lines of this country and the City of New York combined should surely afford to bridge the North River.” The Brooklyn Bridge had for too short a time “stood unrivaled among bridge structures for its length of span,” and the North River bridge project was an opportunity for American engineers once again to “eclipse the latest effort of the Old World’s engineers.”

Lindenthal’s great bridge may have brought him some prominence among railroad executives and readers of Engineering News, but two years after his report he was still a newcomer to New Yorkers generally. This was evident, for example, in a front-page story in The New York Times that described the thirty-five-foot-long model being made to help convince representatives of the federal government to “take hold of the project and build a national bridge,” since private capital seemed impossible to raise and both New York and New Jersey were balking at the price tag. In one place in the story, the “Pittsburgh man” had his first name misspelled “Gustave,” and in another his surname was given as “Lilienthal.” In spite of, or perhaps to overcome, such misnonymity, he seemed to take his case wherever there was an audience, which in 1889 included the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto. Lindenthal, furthermore, like Eads and Roebling and Baker before him, and like the builders of the greatest bridges after him, understood that different audiences had to be addressed in different ways. Politicians in Washington might best be swayed with a tangible model, but scientists meeting in Toronto would more likely listen to reason couched in terms of anthropology and natural science and of units of time approaching the scales used in geology.

“That facility and rapidity of communication is a primary cause of civilization is recognized as an axiomatic truth,” Lindenthal began, and he proceeded to demonstrate that through practice his rhetoric was coming to be as sharp as his science: “The art of bridge building is ancient; the science of bridge building is modern.” He traced the development of bridge types, concluding that the suspension bridge was “as old as mankind itself, perhaps even older,” and he showed himself capable of scientific thinking in the Darwinian mode:

Zoölogists tell us of the methods employed by apes in crossing streams. Failing to find a fallen tree to act as a beam or truss bridge, or failing to find meeting tree branches forming a sort of cantilever bridge, apes, we are told, form a chain by hanging together hands and tails, and suspended thus over a stream from tree to tree, the rest of the tribe climb along this living bridge from shore to shore. The strength of the chain with its weakest link, was, in this case, the weakest monkey; and there can be little doubt that occasional failures of such living bridges must have engrafted that bit of wisdom early on our anthropological ancestors. Modern bridge engineering, based on mathematical deductions, could not improve it.

A popular view of a possible stage in the evolution of bridges (photo credit 4.10)

The address was also full of technical details about strength and economy, demonstrating Lindenthal’s rational approach to bridge design and sound judgment about it that would, decades later, influence favorably the best of those engineers who would work under and learn from him. Engineers who would not heed the lessons of the master, especially with regard to a sense of natural and artifactual history, would find themselves embarrassed.

Near the end of his address to the scientists, Lindenthal asked rhetorically of his dream, “How long will such a bridge last?” And he answered:

If well maintained under the most competent engineering superintendence, there is no reason why it should not last as long as the Egyptian pyramids. They were built of more perishable material than steel and iron, provided iron and steel are kept well painted and free from rust. Rust and man are indeed the only destructive agencies for such a structure. No tornado could blow the structure over. No earthquake could shake it down, unless it were so great that the rock would cave and split, and swallow up the North River.

He also recognized, however, that there was a potentially more destructive force, and Lindenthal began to slip into a political mode that was out of character for this address but would become more and more a part of his rhetoric in his later years. Some of his observations were prophetic; in his desire for aesthetically pleasing bridges he found a silver lining even in the clouds of war.

Man is more destructive to structures than decay and rust. The necessity of war may bring about the destruction of large bridges in the future as it has in the past. This may not always be an unmixed evil, if inferior structures are destroyed and rebuilt by grander ones. The taste and desire for architectural harmony is growing, though as yet the standpoint of utility, without regard to appearance, is too prominent in most of our bridge structures.

As Benjamin Baker, near the end of his lecture on the Forth Bridge, had invoked and quoted Thomas Pope, so Lindenthal closed his address by recalling that Pope, “an ingenious and ambitious shipwright,” had eighty years earlier designed a gigantic wooden bridge, “partly cantilever, partly arch,” that would have crossed the East River between New York and Brooklyn in one eighteen-hundred-foot span. At the time, Pope had exhibited a model of his bridge, which was never realized. But, rather than see in the story of Pope a fatal paradigm for his own endeavors, Lindenthal saw hope. Pope had also proposed a single-span bridge to cross the North River, which he described, as he did other of his bridge plans, in “quaint verse”:

Thomas Pope’s early-nineteenth-century proposal for a bridge across the East River between New York and Brooklyn (photo credit 4.11)

Like half a rainbow rising on yon shore,

While the twin partner spans the semi o’er,

And makes a perfect whole that need not part

Till time has furnished us a nobler art.

Lindenthal took it upon himself to take over Pope’s dream and to fulfill it in a more modern material and form. He believed that he was indeed a master of the “nobler art” that had evolved into an “exact science” by the end of the nineteenth century, and he was resolute. Determination alone, however, does not build bridges.


In the early spring of 1890, a bill was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, and by early summer in the Senate, authorizing the North River Bridge Company to begin construction within three years, and requiring it to complete the structure within ten years after it was begun. With the approval of Washington, no further action by the notoriously contentious state legislatures was needed, nor was it sought, though it might have helped generate more solid local support for the bridge. In the meantime, the Consolidated New York & New Jersey Bridge Company had been formed out of the old 1868 charter issued by New Jersey and a more recent one issued by New York. The consolidated company did not have the federal authority needed to cross the interstate waterway, however, and so Lindenthal’s North River company seemed to have the edge. Engineering News, comparing the two companies, noted that Consolidated had plans of which “the public has never seen even an outline,” although there were newspaper reports that “the big bridge is started.”

In fact, a ground-breaking did occur on Christmas Eve, 1891, but “the circumstances attending the ceremony of turning the first sod were somewhat inauspicious,” for there was a pouring rainstorm, and the New York dignitaries and New Jersey delegates never did meet because of unclear directions to the site. However, even though some temporary trusswork was erected over an excavation for a tower on the Bergen County line, the company was believed to have had very little capital to proceed much further. It was reasonable to speculate, in fact, that Consolidated was hoping to have its charter bought out by the North River Bridge Company. Engineering News ridiculed the “spectacle” of “a few hackfuls of projectors trying in vain to find each other in the open country, turning over a single sod in a pouring rain storm,” but the journal was dead serious when it commented that it would be “sorry, indeed, to see any bridge design carried out in which symmetry and dignity of appearance are ignored, or in which the river channel is needlessly obstructed.” But two bridge companies continued to lay claim to charters for a Hudson River Bridge, and the similarities with the situation in St. Louis almost three decades earlier were not lost on close observers.

There is often a good deal of uncertainty as to exactly where a great bridge will be built, not the least for reasons connected with raising the capital. Among the most costly of items can be the purchase of land for the piers, anchorages, and approaches to the bridge, and if the location of these was fixed too early in the planning stage, real-estate speculation could increase the cost manyfold. Thus, as Engineering News pointed out in comparing the styles of the rival companies:

The North River Bridge Co. is wise enough to see that before an enterprise involving the expenditure of from $60,000,000 to $80,000,000 can be honestly and successfully launched something besides printer’s ink and wind is necessary. In enterprises of a great magnitude like this, everything depends, not upon the sale of isolated small blocks of stock to an uninformed public, but upon convincing great capitalists of the feasibility and future of the project. Before the latter can be done every detail of the plan must be worked out, every item of cost estimated upon sound data and traffic problems so carefully and exhaustively studied that the scheme can successfully stand the searching inquiry into its intrinsic merits that capitalists will surely inaugurate before putting money into it. It is worse than folly to invite general investment before this is done. And wide publicity of the exact location of proposed terminals and of other construction details is just the thing the business man will not seek until he has secured a considerable portion of the real estate necessary for his purposes. Nor will the promoter of a bona fide bridge take active steps in raising capital until he is fully informed as to the total cost of his scheme.

As an engineer, Lindenthal may have been cautious to a fault, for good engineering also involves decisiveness and an ability to fix on best estimates and go ahead with the business of raising money and turning sod. The strategy of detailed engineering analysis and uncertainty of location, as articulated in the journal that had virtually become Lindenthal’s soapbox, was not exactly working. To give a sense of the obfuscation and the concomitant confusion that in some cases may have been deliberately introduced by both bridge companies during the years from 1886 to 1890, the location of the bridge was reported in various sources as terminating in Manhattan: “near Desbrosses St.” … “somewhere between Seventieth and Eightieth streets” … “at about Sixtieth St.” … “between 10th and 181st Sts.” … “between Washington Heights and Spuyten Duyvil” … “at Fourteenth-Street” … “at Fort Washington”… “at any point in the city of New-York” … “near 13th St.”… “about Forty-second St.”

Financial conditions turned poor in 1893, and the prospects for any bridge across the Hudson looked bleak, especially as talk of tolls began to worry the railroad companies, among others. Cost of use was a real concern, for in early 1894 President Grover Cleveland had vetoed a bill that had passed Congress and that appeared to authorize the Consolidated New York & New Jersey Bridge Company to charge tolls on mail that passed over the proposed structure. The bill was vetoed also because it allowed for piers in the river, but they were still considered essential by those who did not believe a single span, suspended or not, to be possible.

With rival factions continuing to propose conflicting solutions, Cleveland appointed a commission of engineering experts “to recommend what length of span, not less than 2,000 ft., would be safe and practicable for a railway bridge across the Hudson River, between 59th and 69th Sts.” The board comprised Louis Gustave F. Bouscaren, William H. Burr, Theodore Cooper, George S. Morison, and Colonel C. W. Raymond, “all well known to American engineers.” Bouscaren had been born on the island of Guadeloupe in 1840 and was an 1863 graduate of France’s Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures. He had, among many other accomplishments, strengthened the cables of Roebling’s suspension bridge across the Ohio River at Cincinnati, and had built a railroad bridge across the Ohio that was at one time the longest truss span in the world. Burr, born in Watertown, Connecticut, in 1851, was an 1872 C.E. graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who had taught at Rensselaer, worked as assistant to the chief engineer of the Phoenix Bridge Company, and taught civil engineering at Harvard before joining the faculty at Columbia. Cooper was, of course, at the peak of his career. Morison, born in Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1842, was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, from which he was an 1863 arts graduate and an 1866 law graduate. Though admitted to the New York Bar in 1866, he never practiced the legal profession. He did go on to gain extensive experience in bridge designing and building, however, beginning in 1867 with work in Kansas City under Octave Chanute on the bridge over the Missouri River at Kansas City. On his own, Morison had been engaged in many bridge projects, including the Cairo Bridge over the Ohio River, which was among the longest bridges in the world in the 1880s. Charles Walker Raymond had been born in 1842 in Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated in 1860 from the newly formed Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where his father was professor of English language and literature, and entered West Point the following year. He had a distinguished career with the Corps of Engineers, including charge of the Mississippi River levees and work on important harbor improvements, and would go on to play a key role in supervising the design and construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s improvements in, under, and around New York City. It was Raymond (who had shown an early talent for mathematics) who was to draft the analytical discussion of the theory of suspension bridges contained in the report of the board over which he presided.

Within three months of its appointment, the board reported that it was “of the unanimous opinion that a cantilever span of 3,100 ft. in the clear could be built and would be a safe structure,” but it would cost in excess of $50 million to cross the river thus without a pier. A pier in the center of the river would reduce the spans to two thousand feet and cut the cost of the bridge’s superstructure in half, but the foundations would have to be dug to 260 feet below the water, which not only would be dangerous for the workers but also would add an uncertain amount of $10 million or so to the cost. A suspension bridge, with six tracks and a span of thirty-one hundred feet, could be built, it was thought, for about the same amount as the shorter-spanned cantilever. Furthermore, if a lighter bridge was acceptable, a safe but more flexible suspension bridge could be built for about $30 million. On balance, taking into account the uncertainty associated with digging deep foundations, the board concluded in favor of a suspension bridge.

Another board of experts had been appointed earlier in 1894 by the secretary of war to look into questions relating to building bridges over navigable streams and, in particular, into the question of “the maximum length of span practicable for suspension bridges,” and to look into matters of “strength of materials, loads, foundations, wind pressure, oscillations and bracing.” The board comprised three members of the Corps of Engineers—then Major Raymond, and Captains William H. Bixby and Edward Burr—and its report acknowledged Lindenthal, Wilhelm Hildenbrand, and Leffert L. Buck, “for information and valuable suggestions.” Appendixes were contributed by Lindenthal (on temperature strains in hinged arches) and Josef Melan (on the theory of the stiffening girder). Clearly, the board of army engineers had gone into considerable technical depth in the nine months it took to prepare its classic report, which treated in detail matters of oscillation and other causes of failure in suspension bridges, and thus provided “one of the most valuable and instructive engineering investigations of the day … in a field that has hitherto been practically unexplored,” according to Engineering News. The conclusion of the board was that a six-track suspension bridge of thirty-two-hundred foot main span was practicable at an estimated cost of $23 million, and that traffic in 1894 warranted such a bridge, although it should be so constructed that its capacity could be increased in the future, as needed. In addition to addressing the Hudson River problem, the board had looked at the more general feasibility question, and concluded also that it was possible to build a suspension span as long as 4,335 feet.

Though the report of the army engineers removed technical objections to the suspension bridge, it did not fully dispose of financial objections. Indeed, even Engineering News admitted that, whereas it had been projected that there was rail traffic enough to cover the actual construction cost, it was not clear that the bridge could “attract a traffic sufficient to pay the interest on its cost.” The Consolidated New York & New Jersey Bridge Company challenged the objections to a pier in the river, and also questioned whether the foundation for such a pier had to be dug so deep and therefore had to be so expensive as was feared, but the secretary of war continued to rule in favor of a suspension bridge. The argument for a cantilever did not end, however, in part because of the success of the Forth Bridge and in part because of the vulnerability of the suspension-bridge type to attack. Traffic on Brooklyn Bridge was an ongoing problem, aggravated in part by the structure’s inability to carry heavy engines, thus requiring that cable cars be used on the bridge, and switching them about at the terminals presented an endless scheduling and capacity problem. To make matters worse, the bridge that had been held up as the counterexample to the persistent belief that suspension bridges could not carry railroad traffic, John Roebling’s Niagara Gorge Bridge, was in the process of being replaced—and a cantilever was being proposed. The forty-year-old landmark bridge was showing signs of wear, and the weight of railroad trains had increased considerably since it was built. In reporting this development, the praise of Engineering News sounded faint indeed:

To Mr. Roebling belongs all the credit for teaching engineers how to use wire in this form in a railway bridge; and that his connections were faulty in the light of modern practice, and that his stiffening truss was no such truss at all, does not detract from his boldness as an engineer and the services he performed in developing the manufacture of wire in this country.

The cantilever was well suited to the eight-hundred-foot span over the Niagara Gorge, and it would be the “cheaper, stiffer, and better structure,” admitted Engineering News, but the suspension bridge was still the bridge of choice for spans on the order of three thousand feet.

The recent competition for a bridge over the Danube at Budapest was cited as an indication that “engineers are only now beginning to more carefully study the principles and details of suspension bridge construction.” Indeed, first prize in that competition went to a thousand-foot-main-span wire-cable suspension bridge, but the design did not receive the bonus prize money that would have been awarded had the cost of the bridge not exceeded $1 million. In fact, the bridge—whose land spans looked like the side aisles of a Gothic cathedral, and whose tollbooths were built over the anchorages, also forming pedestals for equestrian statues—was estimated to cost almost twice that amount. Second and third places went to some very handsome cantilever designs, one of which looked like a suspension bridge in profile, and each of which was estimated to cost under $1 million. Of the remaining seventy-odd designs that were submitted from Europe and America, three additional ones were bought for possible use in Budapest. Among these was a chain suspension bridge, the only design of its kind submitted. This bridge and the top three winners were illustrated in Engineering News in 1894; the journal unfortunately used words alone to describe some others, “which seemed to be intended only to furnish amusement to the jurors in their arduous work”:

One design for a one-span bridge at Eskuter shows curiously curved trusses, freely resting on abutments. The widely separated chords of the trusses are stiffened by enormous rings, and are ornamented by a legion of saints’ statues. The wagon traffic moves over a suspended roadway, while the foot passengers climb over the bold curve of the top chord. Another fantastic design consisted of an iron tube of 1,020 ft. span, made up of Mannesmann tubes placed parallel and connected with each other by iron bars, riveted in spirals to the tubes.

As Engineering News was to editorialize, on the occasion of the replacement of the Niagara Gorge Suspension Bridge with a stiffer steel structure, “there is no knowing to what flights over space the bridge of the future may attain.” Money was admitted to be the limiting factor. In bridging the Hudson, the question was not of money alone, however, for the secretary of war would simply not approve a cantilever design with a pier in the river. The Consolidated New York & New Jersey Bridge Company thus asked Theodore Cooper, its consulting engineer, to prepare specifications for a suspension-bridge design. Since he had never designed such a bridge himself, his specifications only covered such things as the load the bridge was to carry, the foundation conditions, and materials of construction. Bidders were invited to select the geometrical outlines, and Cooper’s firm leaned toward the design of the Union Bridge Company, which guaranteed to build for no more than $25 million a 3,110-foot span with “immense rigid trusses” supported by twelve cables. The design was that of Charles MacDonald, organizer and president of Union, who had been born in Ontario, Canada, in 1837. After working on surveys for the Grand Trunk railroads, he entered the United States in 1854, immediately began studies at Rensselaer Institute, and received a degree in civil engineering in 1857. Among much other railroad and bridge-building experience, Mac Donald supervised the design of the great cantilever bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, but his suspension-bridge design for the New York crossing was an unharmonious concoction.

Lindenthal’s North River Bridge Company was denying rumors that it was going to relinquish its charter, which was to expire in mid-1895, “unless something were done by that time showing the sincere purpose of the company to construct the work for which they have obtained powers.” The company claimed that “work had quietly commenced some time ago upon the New Jersey anchorage,” and that it had spent more money acquiring property and advancing the plans than its rival. In fact, according to a cornerstone reportedly snatched from the jaws of destruction almost a century later by Lindenthal’s grandson, ground was indeed broken on June 8, 1895, and the first foundation masonry was laid at the site of the Hoboken anchorage, opposite Manhattan’s 23rd Street. What was needed back then, however, was not ceremony but $21 million for the bridge proper and $15 million for property and accessories, which was admitted to be “an enormous sum of money, and the financiering of the bridge far exceeds in difficulty the engineering problems presented, unprecedented as these last are.”

In the meantime, support was growing for completing construction of a tunnel under the Hudson, since the bridge companies continued to focus on elevated approaches, which was the costlier method of getting railroads into the city. Late in 1897, an editorial in Engineering News accused the bridge promoters of failing “to appreciate the fact that it is the suburban traffic, and practically that alone, on which their structures must depend for income” from tolls. The journal, which after the death of Wellington had no longer simply embraced Lindenthal’s ideas, had become a voice of reason. In a letter challenging the editorial, Lindenthal simply reiterated his position on the bridge, which pretty much everyone by then knew, or was expected to know. But there were alternatives.

The Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company had been chartered in 1873, and ground was broken the following year. There were to be two tunnels, each containing a single track, but opposition lawsuits delayed the work until the end of the decade, and work was stopped in 1882, after over a million dollars had been spent but no more money could be raised in America. John Fowler and Benjamin Baker were approached in late 1887 and asked if they thought the tunnels could be completed for the amounts American contractors were estimating—namely, $900,000 for one tube and $1.2 million for the other. After consulting European tunnel engineers, and after a visit to the unique New York site by Baker, who inspected the books of the contractors to understand the cost of American labor, the designers of the incomplete but already famous Forth Bridge gave their support to the Hudson River tunnel scheme, which brought $1.5 million of British money into the project.

By the turn of the century, tunnel projects in and around New York were inextricably associated with the names of William Gibbs McAdoo, an entrepreneurial lawyer from Georgia, and Charles Matthias Jacobs, a Yorkshire-born, privately tutored, and apprentice-trained engineer who had come to America in 1889 and subsequently designed tunnels for rapid transit and gas lines under New York’s East River. An exact contemporary of Lindenthal’s, Jacobs had become involved with Hudson River tunnels in 1895. As Jacobs and McAdoo were demonstrating the feasibility of tunneling under the Hudson, electric-traction locomotives were being developed, obviating the objection that smoke would choke passengers in the tunnels. Thus the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to build its own rail tunnels under the river, thereby removing themselves as the most significant potential supporter of Lindenthal’s bridge. In the meantime, over the past decade, Lindenthal had become established and well known as a consulting engineer in New York. In 1902, he found himself appointed by reform mayor Seth Low as the city’s commissioner of bridges; this necessarily redirected his attention from the North to the East River, which was contained wholly within the city of New York. But intracity and intrastate politics could complicate bridge design and construction at least as much as interstate issues.


Even before the Brooklyn Bridge was formally opened in 1883, there were calls for additional bridges between Manhattan Island and Long Island, on which the then separate city of Brooklyn was located. A new bridge was proposed to connect New York with Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. Another was proposed farther north; here the presence in the river of Blackwell’s Island reduced the size of spans needed, while an approach convenient to Brooklyn’s City Hall was still possible. A charter for a Williamsburg bridge was obtained in 1892 by Frederick Uhlmann, whose interest appears to have been in extending the Brooklyn elevated railways into New York; this would have been a lucrative endeavor, given the congestion on the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, which was being loaded to its limit. When an East River Bridge Commission was formed, it bought out Uhlmann’s charter and appointed L. L. Buck as chief engineer to design a bridge capable of carrying an elevated railway as well as trolley cars.

Leffert Lefferts Buck was born in Canton, New York, in 1837 and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the local college, St. Lawrence, before attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated in 1868, his studies having been interrupted by the Civil War, which he entered as a private in the Sixtieth New York Infantry. After a period as assistant engineer on New York’s Croton Aqueduct project, he worked on railroad bridges and other engineering projects in Peru, Mexico, Aruba, and many locations around the United States. He oversaw the rebuilding of various parts of Roebling’s Niagara Gorge Suspension Bridge during the period 1877—1886 and, later, its replacement with an arch, which had superseded the cantilever proposal. He became chief engineer of the Williamsburg Bridge project in 1895 and would continue in that capacity until the bridge was opened in 1903 as the largest suspension bridge in the world, with a central span of sixteen hundred feet—four feet six inches longer than the Brooklyn Bridge. Its approaches were to be so long that the entire length of the bridge would stretch for seventy-two hundred feet, between Clinton Street in Manhattan and Roebling Street in Brooklyn.

Leffert L. Buck, chief engineer of the Williamsburg Bridge (photo credit 4.12)

When plans for the Williamsburg Bridge were first published in Engineering News, in 1896, it was criticized “from an aesthetical point of view,” and there appeared to be considerable visual discontinuity associated with the roadway at the towers, which were nothing like the monumental stone towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, the shift at the towers from an above-deck truss to an under-deck truss made the truss itself look as if it had been severed by some angled guillotinelike device. In spite of this image, Buck’s towers were remarkable in that they were all steel, and they were defended by Engineering News, which was “utterly opposed to false ornamentation in similar structures and to any attempt to disguise the real materials of construction or the chief lines of stress.” The journal did admit, however, that, “in a monumental work of this character, in the center of a great city, good taste in design and proper ornamentation must be considered; and if a more pleasing effect can be secured … the effort should certainly be made and is worth the added cost.”

In his report to the commissioners in September 1896, Buck asserted that the bridge could be completed by January 1, 1900, at a cost of $7 million, which compared very favorably with the $15-million final price tag of the Brooklyn Bridge. With regard to the cost, Engineering Newscriticized the commissioners for being overly frugal with the salary of the chief engineer, upon whose “judgment, skill and experience the safety and convenience of the great numbers who will use the bridge for generations to come, depend solely.” Buck’s salary was $10,000 per year, whereas “the same commission pays out about $75,000 for two and one-half years’ work of a legal counsellor.” The editorial went on to anticipate what Lindenthal would say of Cooper a decade later—namely, that the low compensation granted engineers was a reflection of the “ignorance of the true value of the engineer” in such a large project, and it was “humiliating to the whole profession of engineers.” The question of the compensation of engineers versus lawyers was especially keen at the time, because an injunction had been sought against the commissioners, who had limited bidding to those who could supply steel made by the “acid open-hearth process,” as specified by Buck. The court refused to issue the injunction, and Engineering News praised the decision, concluding, “An engineer may not be infallible in his decision of engineering questions; but we shall make no gain by setting a lawyer to review his decision.” An engineer like Buck was receptive to criticism, however, and the lines of the deck were much improved in a revised view of the bridge published later in the year. Though it retained the straight-cable profile on the land-based spans, because they were to be supported from below as girders and not suspended from the cables, the deck had achieved a continuity that Buck’s earlier sketch had lacked. Whether the Williamsburg Bridge would be seen as a graceful swan or as an ugly duckling beside the Brooklyn Bridge would be largely a matter of taste.

Sketch of an early design detail for a tower and the roadway of the Williamsburg Bridge (photo credit 4.13)

Since a suspension bridge was required by the legislation authorizing the crossing, a cantilever could not be considered, even though it might have been more economical. However, economic considerations rather than aesthetic ones did strongly influence the appearance of the Williamsburg Bridge, especially with regard to its towers and cables, among the most costly components of any suspension bridge. Furthermore, economic and technical design factors are often intertwined. The decision, for example, to have the cables come straight down from the towers to the anchorages, and not support the land spans, meant shorter and lighter cables could be used, thus reducing their size and thereby their cost. Had stone or masonry towers been employed, they would have had to be very wide and heavy, in order to accommodate all the rails and roadways that would have had to pass through them. Employing lighter steel towers made smaller foundations (very costly components of any bridge) possible, and much time and cost were saved. “Roughly speaking, masonry towers would require foundations twice as large, would cost five times as much, and would take three times as long to build,” according to a contemporary report. Moreover, using steel towers meant they could be built taller, thus allowing the cables to have a deeper curve; they did not have to be stretched so tight, and so could be smaller in diameter. Economic considerations also led to the choice of steel viaducts rather than masonry arches for the bridge approaches.

The construction of the Williamsburg Bridge was well under way when its administration was passed from a board of commissioners to the newly appointed commissioner of bridges, Gustav Lindenthal, on January 1, 1902, ending Buck’s role as chief engineer. Though Lindenthal must have had severe reservations about the design and appearance of the Williamsburg Bridge, he avoided talking about them in his brief official address at the dedication ceremonies, in which he announced that the bridge was ready for traffic, on December 19, 1903. He simply described the monstrosity he had inherited as “the heaviest suspension bridge in existence, and the largest bridge on this continent.” In comparing the Williamsburg to the Brooklyn Bridge, he noted that the newer structure was twice as strong—something New Yorkers would have appreciated, since the limitations on the strength of the Brooklyn Bridge had curtailed the commuter traffic across it for some time. Nevertheless, it was the older bridge that was the architectural success: “The imposing and stately stone towers of the Brooklyn bridge give that structure the appearance of great strength, but in the steel towers of the new bridge, and in all its other elements, a greater power of resistance is hidden.”

The Williamsburg Bridge, upon its dedication in December 1903 (photo credit 4.14)

Rather than dwell on comparisons, however, Lindenthal spoke of the future of bridges. His words were prescient:

So far as engineering science can foretell with confidence, this colossal structure, if protected against corrosion, its only deadly enemy, will stand hundreds of years in unimpaired strength.…

Our city will be pre-eminently the city of great bridges, representing emphatically for centuries to come the civilization of our age, the age of iron and steel. A time must come, not many generations distant, perhaps not more distant than the crusades in the past, when the building of such colossal structures will cease because the principal material of which they are molded, that is, iron and steel, will not be [any] longer obtainable in sufficient quantity and cheapness. When the iron age has gone, the great steel bridges of New York will be looked upon as even greater monuments than they are now.

Gustav Lindenthal, as he appeared when he was commissioner of bridges for New York City, 1902–03 (photo credit 4.15)

For all of Lindenthal’s grand projections into the future, the Williamsburg, along with many other New York bridges, would be in danger of collapsing long before the century was out. Forgetting his caveat about a bridge’s “only deadly enemy,” corrosion, New York and many other cities would during times of fiscal crisis neglect and defer maintenance of bridges like the Williamsburg to an alarming degree.

Even when the Williamsburg was young, there were problems with it. Within three years of its completion, headlines reported that, because it had “such a liking for the Borough,” the bridge was “slipping to Brooklyn.” Evidently, the bridge had been “out of place since it was built,” but it was only then becoming known that “efforts to correct it had failed.” According to The New York Times, “a piece of engineering computation of the utmost nicety” was taking into account every ounce of material in the structure to determine the needed adjustment, so that the heavy cars of the elevated railroad could be allowed to run over it. Studying, straightening, and strengthening the Williamsburg Bridge continued on and off for about a decade. Two additional supports were added under each of the (unsuspended) land spans, and additional steel was added to the deck so that it could carry the heavier subway cars that had been developed since the bridge was designed. In fact, something similar was going to happen to many of the bridges around the world, because of changing conditions and philosophy, as articulated in 1911 by one of the engineers involved with the Williamsburg Bridge strengthening project:

Mr. Buck designed the bridge on the theory that traffic should adapt itself to the bridge; we are now proceeding on the theory that such a bridge should adapt itself to traffic and that it should be as good as any other for traffic purposes, and not be a weak link. Mr. Buck designed the bridge for small locomotives drawing trailers. To-day, in a six-car train, there are generally four motors, all heavier than any of the old locomotives. The trolley cars also have increased in weight. The bridge is perfectly able to carry its traffic to-day, but as it now stands it would be inadequate for the future. Ten-car steel trains will probably be run through the subway loop, for one thing, and for such conditions we must provide.

Buck had, however, designed a sound if unattractive bridge for the conditions he knew and under the conditions he worked. When some corrosion was discovered on the wrapping of the cables, they were uncovered in 1921 and found to be well preserved, and the steelwork generally to be in “perfect condition.” At that time, Engineering News-Record, which had in 1917 been formed of a merger of Engineering News with the Engineering Record, noted that this condition of the cables “gave fair assurance that main parts of the great New York suspension bridges have an indefinite length of life.” Indeed, the journal was tempted to say, they had an “unlimited life,” if properly cared for:

Such bridges, in other words, are not subject to perceptible decay, and so far as corrosion is concerned they may remain free from measurable deterioration if intelligent inspection and maintenance are applied. As we look at the ancient stone bridges of Europe we reflect with wonder and admiration on their endurance through the ages; yet it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that our great steel bridges may survive as long.

Intelligent inspection and maintenance are more readily called for than provided, however, as has been discovered in more recent years. Times and conditions change. Even the great stone monuments of Europe have been found to be susceptible to increasingly acidic environments. Inspection can uncover deterioration, but arresting or reversing it is another matter. Yet, in the early years of this century, when vehicle emissions were not even dreamed to pose the threat to stone and steel that we know them to today, bridges continued to be designed for the conditions of the time. And there were many bridges to design.


If the Williamsburg Bridge was well under way when Lindenthal became commissioner of bridges in 1902, two other East River crossings were not. Both the Blackwell’s Island Bridge, farther north, and the Manhattan Bridge, to be constructed between the Brooklyn and the Williamsburg, were still on the drawing board. (Though the foundation for the Brooklyn tower of the Manhattan Bridge had actually been contracted for, this in no way meant that changes could not be made in the design of the towers themselves or the general superstructure.)

Shortly after a city ordinance authorizing a third bridge across the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan was signed by the mayor early in 1900, bonds amounting to $1 million were issued, engineering work was begun, and bids for foundations were invited by early March. Since the Manhattan Bridge, as it was called from the beginning, was to be located wholly within the city of New York, the process was relatively efficient. The design had been largely completed when Lindenthal took over as bridge commissioner.

Among Lindenthal’s early frustrations in the job were the delays accompanying the cable-making for the Williamsburg Bridge, which “dragged woefully” well into 1902. The cables were being spun by the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, and Lindenthal “was very much annoyed at the delays shown by the Roeblings in executing their contract.” When the contract expired months before the cables were completed, Lindenthal deducted $1,000 a day from the payment to the company, which in the end amounted to a penalty of about $175,000. The Roebling firm, which had been excluded by New York politics from supplying the wire for John and Washington Roebling’s own bridge, took the city to court, claiming that the bridge commissioner had not furnished them the space needed for their operations, and they were awarded the money that had been withheld. Whether it was the frustration accompanying the delay or the poor relations with Roebling’s Sons, Lindenthal turned away from wire-cable suspension bridges and redesigned the Manhattan Bridge with eyebar chains, a system he had employed for the Seventh Street Bridge in Pittsburgh.

The original plans for the Manhattan Bridge were made under the supervision of chief engineer R. S. Buck, who, though no relation to L. L. Buck, had worked as assistant to him in calculating stresses and as resident engineer on the Niagara arch-bridge project. Shortly after the new bridge commissioner assumed office, R. S. Buck resigned, and Lindenthal assumed the engineering work on the East River structure. Commissioner Lindenthal’s first semiannual report announced that changes in the plans for the Manhattan Bridge were prompted by the delays on the Williamsburg Bridge, but he also gave the positive reason of economy of construction and maintenance, an argument that was by no means universally accepted by bridge engineers. The new plans, published in Engineering News early in 1903, showed a radically different suspension bridge, with towers that were not rigidly fixed at their base, and with the stiffened eyebar cables that Lindenthal preferred. As with his still-unrealized North River Bridge, this meant that the stiffening system was incorporated into the cables rather than being part of the deck structure. The Manhattan design was said to be so stiff it could be thought of as an inverted arch.

Lindenthal’s design for the Manhattan Bridge, employing eyebar chains (photo credit 4.16)

Though Lindenthal argued that the design had architectural as well as engineering merit, the mayor submitted it to a board of five engineers that he had appointed: Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Raymond, the army engineer; bridge engineers George S. Morison, C. C. Schneider, and Henry W. Hodge, of whom more shall have to be said later; and Professor Mansfield Merriman, an 1871 graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale and head of the Civil Engineering Department at Lehigh University since 1881. All of the board members were members of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which added credence to the appointments. Theodore Cooper—whose Quebec cantilever approach span was just under construction, but who had little experience with suspension bridges—would replace Raymond before the board reported.

While the board studied Lindenthal’s plans, a debate raged in the pages of Engineering News over the relative merits of eyebar chains and wire cables for suspension bridges. Wilhelm Hildenbrand, who had drawn the earliest plans for the Brooklyn Bridge and who was now engineer of cable construction for the Roebling’s Sons Company, pointed out that eyebars were not a novelty, having long been used in Europe almost exclusively and even in America for “small suspension bridges.” Though the reasons given for the design change “might be accepted, unquestioned, by a private company from its chosen engineer, and in that case would probably remain unchallenged,” Hildenbrand asserted that the commissioner of bridges of the city of New York could not prevail so easily, for the switch from cables to eyebars would add “two to three millions of dollars” to the cost of the Manhattan Bridge. By Hildenbrand’s calculations, had the Williamsburg Bridge been built with eyebar chains rather than cables, its cost would have been increased by over $3 million. Although the editors of Engineering News might have been more supportive of Lindenthal in years past, they were not now, when he was being challenged by “one of the most experienced suspension bridge engineers in the country.” Hildenbrand had been associated with New York engineering projects since 1867, but Lindenthal had yet to have a single design of his own realized in the politically charged city. If he had hoped to use the power of his office to redesign a New York bridge to his own prejudices, he was not going to have an easy time of it, although at first it appeared that he might get his way.

Detail of an eyebar suspension system (photo credit 4.17)

When Lindenthal was about to submit his plans for the Manhattan Bridge to the city’s Art Commission, which offered opinions on the aesthetics of large structures, the board of engineers issued a preliminary report. According to the engineers, who believed that the chains had decided advantages with regard to erection and maintenance, “they are to be preferred to wire cables whenever the cost of the chains is not materially greater.” The final report, which had awaited the results of tests of material and information on the availability and cost of eyebars, was issued in June, with a unanimous recommendation for the adoption and execution of Lindenthal’s design, even though no firm cost comparisons were yet available.

Diagrams showing how suspension bridges may be thought of as inverted arches (photo credit 4.18)

Hildenbrand, however, found the final report “even more disappointing than the preliminary report.” It was “altogether so non-committal and spiritless that it is to be wondered whether the Mayor will consider it worth the money it has cost.” The report was indeed confusingly terse and vague, and Hildenbrand was correct in observing, “That the experts are all engineers of high professional standing does not alter the facts and figures, nor does it make the weak points in their report stronger! It merely emphasizes the weakness.” Engineering News and many other observers thought that a sensible way to resolve the issue would be to invite bids for both eyebar-chain and wire-cable designs and thus compare hard cost estimates, but the city appropriation mechanism did not allow such a commonsensical course, and so the debate continued.

Though the Municipal Art Commission approved Lindenthal’s design, having reservations only about the decorations on the towers, there remained strong differences of opinion as to the comparative aesthetics of chains versus cables. George W. Colles, a Canadian engineer, wrote to the editor of Engineering News that “a chain-bridge is a very ugly thing—excusable only on grounds of engineering expediency.” He thought that New York was “ugly enough already,” and that it was “bad enough to have skeleton-bridge-towers,” like those on the Williamsburg, “without the added eyesore of a chain-bridge.” Colles decried the report of the experts as an example of a widespread “engineering impressionism,” by which the opinions of experts were defended solely on the basis of their being declared experts. He observed that this “merely shifts the burden of the real decision from the engineer to the capitalist.” Specifically addressing the claim of Lindenthal and the experts regarding the accessibility of chains for inspection, Colles correctly pointed to the “innumerable crevices and cracks which invite capillary absorption and subsequent corrosion,” a problem that was to be the root cause of the collapse of the bridge over the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1967. That structure was nicknamed Silver Bridge because it was among the first to be painted with aluminum paint, but it was found not to be very easy to maintain or inspect the tight details where the eyebars were connected to one another, and where cracks could grow to dangerous proportions and lead to the bridge’s sudden collapse.

The debate over the Manhattan Bridge continued, with Lindenthal himself responding to letters attacking his Pittsburgh chain bridge as the “ugliest of the three” over the Allegheny and pointing out its early foundation problems. In an editorial, Engineering News announced that some of its readers had gotten the impression that the preponderance of letters in support of wire cables reflected the editorial stance of the journal, and it invited more letters from supporters of eyebars. Perhaps in response to such criticism, which may very well have been coming from Lindenthal himself, the journal began to supply him with proof copies of letters, so that he might respond in the same issue. The commissioner’s frustration began to show in his style, his longish letters seeming more and more frequently to end in sarcasm and condescension or worse. In response to a letter from Hildenbrand on the comparative strength of East River bridges, for example, the value of his opinions was estimated by Lindenthal to be “no greater than the value of the weather prophecies in a Farmer’s Almanac.” He dismissed another correspondent by saying that he had “yet much to learn in bridge engineering before essaying to discuss that intricate subject.” By the end of 1903, an election year, all parties involved seemed to be out of patience, and Engineering News editorialized that “the best way for the new administration to decide whether it shall build an eye-bar bridge or a wire cable bridge across the East River at the Manhattan Bridge site will be not to build any bridge at all.”

If Engineering News abandoned Lindenthal, The New York Times did not. The newly elected mayor appointed a new bridge commissioner, George E. Best, and he decided to throw out Lindenthal’s design and return to the previous one. The Times in turn accused Best and his advisers of “personal spite against his predecessor, Commissioner Lindenthal, and a fixed purpose not to do anything that Mr. Lindenthal proposed.” As late as 1906, the newspaper was still advocating a chain over a wire bridge and calling for competitive bids to settle the question. In the end, however, Lindenthal’s tower designs, modified at their base to be more rigidly connected to the foundations, were all that survived of his ideas. The first strands of wire were run across the East River in 1908, after Mayor George McClellan announced that the bridge would be completed in December 1909 and that he would walk across it before his term of office expired. In late 1908, the mayor himself pulled a lever sending the last of the wire strands across the East River; the Manhattan Bridge was formally opened on December 31, 1909, the last day of McClellan’s administration.

Views of the towers of the Manhattan Bridge, as redesigned in 1904 as a wire-cable structure (photo credit 4.19)

When the Quebec Bridge collapsed during its construction in 1907, large bridges everywhere came under scrutiny. Rumors about the soundness of the Williamsburg Bridge began to surface, and concerns were also raised about the design of the Manhattan Bridge. The engineer appointed “to watch the construction of the new bridge” and check the plans was Ralph Modjeski, described in a contemporary report as “the leading engineering authority on bridges” in America, if not the world—in large part because of his membership on the board of engineers for the reconstruction of the Quebec Bridge. Although he had begun his bridge-building career twenty years earlier with the design of a major double-deck railway-and-highway structure across the Mississippi at Rock Island, Modjeski was still often identified in the popular press as the son of the well-known actress Madame Modjeska, his name sometimes being misspelled with the feminine ending. In fact, the original spelling of their surname was much more complex than either had come to use in America.

Rudolphe Modrzejewski was born in Cracow, Poland, on January 27, 1861, the son of Gustav and Helena Modrzejewski, who, as Helena Modjeska, was to become known as “the première tragedienne of her time.” According to his mother’s memoirs, Rudolphe came to America with her for the first time in 1876, when they visited New York, Philadelphia, and the Centennial Exposition. As they crossed the Isthmus of Panama on the first transcontinental railroad, on their way to California, the young man declared that “someday he would build the Panama Canal.” Although she remembers him as “even then determined to become a civil engineer,” a career as a pianist was evidently also a possibility, for he had been well trained musically and was said to be a leading exponent of Chopin. Indeed, young Ralph, as he preferred to be called in America, was at one time a fellow student with Ignace Paderewski.

The engineer-to-be practiced piano a great deal while traveling with his mother; throughout his life, he was known to play the instrument almost every evening and for a couple of hours each Sunday. It may have been in his travels to America that Ralph Modjeski saw the needs and opportunities for artistry in a medium that used steel thicker than piano wire, but the young man decided to take up the study of civil engineering where it had first been taught, at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, in Paris.

Writing three decades later, Madame Modjeska did not mention any difficulty her son had in getting into the prestigious school. However, decades later still, he himself would recall the experience, on the occasion of his receiving the Washington Award. This award was established by the Western Society of Engineers “as an honor conferred upon a brother engineer by his fellow engineers on account of accomplishments which preeminently promote the happiness, comfort, and well-being of humanity.” The selection, made upon the recommendation of a commission representing the major national engineering societies and the Western Society of Engineers, was first bestowed in 1919 on Herbert Hoover, “for his pre-eminent services in behalf of the public welfare.” Among the other eight engineers honored before Modjeski were Arthur Newell Talbot, founding professor of theoretical and applied mechanics at the University of Illinois, and Michael I. Pupin, for his work on long-distance telephoning and radio broadcasting. Ralph Modjeski himself was recognized “for his contribution to transportation through superior skill and courage in bridge design and construction.” At the awards ceremony, he remembered how he had become an engineer and why, and he spoke of his perseverance toward his goal:

When I was four years old I got hold of a screwdriver. This gave me an idea. I immediately investigated what this screwdriver was for and practiced on a door lock of the drawing room of the house we lived in and took it all apart. I could not put it together again. And my father said, “You will be an engineer.”

I persisted in that until … I failed in the examination for entrance to the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées where there were 25 places and 100 candidates. Then for about six months I practiced music six and eight hours a day. After six months I began to think, and at the end of nine months had thought out my problem and joined the preparatory school and three months later I passed the examination into the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées.

In 1885, Modjeski graduated first in his class, and he returned to America to build bridges, beginning his career under George S. Morison, who has been described as the “father of bridge building in America.” In 1893, the young engineer opened his own office in Chicago, as a senior member of Modjeski & Nickerson, one of the several engineering firms with which he would associate his name throughout his long career. He soon found himself engaged in enlarging the Rock Island Bridge over the Mississippi River. After that, Modjeski would work on or direct, often as chief engineer, the design and construction of a wide variety of bridges, in a variety of locations, including, in chronological order: Thebes, Illinois; Bismarck, North Dakota; Portland, Oregon; Peoria, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; Quebec, Canada; Toledo, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; Keokuk, Iowa; Metropolis, Illinois; New London, Connecticut; Poughkeepsie, New York; Cincinnati, Ohio; Omaha, Nebraska; Wenatchee, Washington; Clark’s Ferry, Pennsylvania; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Tacony, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan; Melville, Louisiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Evansville, Indiana; Washington, D.C.; Cairo, Illinois; Davenport, Iowa; and New York, New York. On the occasion of his receiving the Washington Award, Modjeski was said to have “to his credit more large bridges than any other man.” But that alone was not why he would receive the Washington and other awards later in life. The reason, according to Ralph Budd, president of the Great Northern Railway, was simple:

It is that Ralph Modjeski is inherently an artist. He has not chosen oil, or dry point, or marble, or even music, in which he doubtless would have ex-celled, to express himself, but steel, and stone, and concrete. Using these as his chosen media, “by a pleasing simplicity of form and reliance upon the quiet dignity of the long spans whose members gracefully express function free from superfluities,” he has made of bridge building a recognized art without in the least minimizing its importance as a science.

Ralph Modjeski, perhaps in his late forties (photo credit 4.20)

Many engineers who would receive such encomiums later in life often traveled a long and dispiriting road before reaching the podium among “prolonged applause,” but few matched Modjeski’s heightened sense of theater. Between 1905 and 1915, on the Oregon Trunk Railway, for example, Modjeski served as chief engineer for a series of bridges, including one over the Columbia River and a daring arch that spanned 340 feet at a height of 350 feet over a most dramatic construction site on the Crooked River. Overlapping with this responsibility was his much more visible presence as a member of the Government Board of Engineers for the second Quebec Bridge, from 1908 to its completion in 1917. His posing with other engineers astride one of the bridge’s thirty-inch-diameter steel pins and standing inside one of the redesigned seven-by-ten-foot lower chord members, demonstrated his sense of showmanship.

Modjeski’s theatrical personality would come even more to the fore when he worked as chairman of the board of engineers and chief engineer for the Delaware River Bridge between Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, now known as the Ben Franklin Bridge, which with a main span of 1,750 feet would be the longest suspension bridge in the world when completed in 1926. Modjeski’s experience as an advance man for his mother and his gift for public relations would serve him well on that project, as it had in the earlier Quebec experience, for there survive photographs of him with various groups of engineers, directors, and city officials at seemingly each stage of construction. When the foot bridges for the Delaware River project were completed on August 8, 1924, chief engineer Modjeski would lead politicians from both states on the first official crossing from Philadelphia to Camden. It was to be a very warm day, and many in the party would shed their jackets during the steep climb to the top of the Philadelphia tower, but, as if to defy the sun itself, Modjeski would remove only his straw hat. After descending to the center of the main span, various members of the group, including Modjeski, would make speeches before a microphone that would be set up there by the Philadelphia radio station WLIT.

A sense of showmanship displayed by engineers on one of the thirty-inch-diameter pins for the Quebec Bridge (left to right: G. F. Porter, engineer of construction, and G. H. Duggan, chief engineer, St. Lawrence Bridge Company; C. N. Monsarrat, chairman and chief engineer, and Ralph Modjeski, member, Government Board of Engineers) (photo credit 4.21)

Public relations was not so effective for Modjeski or anyone else connected with the construction of the politically contested Manhattan Bridge, however. Aften ten months of study, Modjeski’s detailed technical report on the bridge was issued in September 1909. Though it suggested that the foundation of the Manhattan anchorage might have had an improved design, overall it gave the structure “a clean bill of health.” At 1,480 feet between towers, the Manhattan was shorter than the suspension bridges that flanked it, the Brooklyn and the Williamsburg, but it was distinguished for both its political and its technological significance.

The Manhattan Bridge was to have four trolley tracks and four elevated or subway tracks, but they were not yet installed, nor was all the pedestrian decking, when the bridge was dedicated on the final day of 1909, in part because a new city organization had taken rapid-transit arrangements out of the control of the bridge commissioner. When the Manhattan Bridge carried heavy rail traffic over the ensuing years, it would be found that, because of the arrangement of the rails, considerable twisting of the deck would take its toll on the structure. It would turn out that this was due in large part to the bridge’s having been designed by employing the analytical tools of the then new deflection theory devised by the Austrian Josef Melan to take into account the coupled action of the deck and suspension cables. Leon Moisseiff, an engineer with the Bridge Department, introduced the method of calculation into American bridge building through his work on the Manhattan Bridge. (Lindenthal actually raised some questions about the new calculation scheme, but his concerns were dismissed.) Moisseiff would go on to employ the method as engineer of design under Modjeski on the Delaware River Bridge, and virtually all other large American suspension bridges were to be designed in the same way—until the Tacoma Narrows Bridge failed the very year it was completed, in 1940. But this is getting ahead of the story.


When the Manhattan Bridge opened, a fourth crossing of the East River was also under construction, one that in years past had actively been referred to as the second East River crossing. It was to connect the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan in the vicinity of Blackwell’s Island, now called Roosevelt Island, which provided dry land for midriver piers. However, even though great suspension spans would not be required, the realization of a Blackwell’s Island Bridge was also a long and arduous process. A suspension bridge was actually proposed as early as 1838, and in 1867 a structure was authorized, but nothing much happened until 1872, when the “scheme was rescued from impending oblivion” by the formation of a bridge company with William Steinway, the piano manufacturer, as president. Financial hard times derailed the project for a while, and it was not resumed in earnest until the late 1870s, when Steinway gave up the presidency of the New York and Long Island Bridge Company to Dr. Thomas Rainey, a native of North Carolina who had become successful operating steamships between New York and South America, and whose title was believed to be self-proclaimed. As was often the case with such projects, the business, manufacturing, and real-estate interests would ultimately form partnerships with the engineering interests to bring the bridge to fruition.

An 1838 proposal for a bridge at Blackwell’s Island (photo credit 4.22)

Steinway and other Long Island property owners had a clear economic interest in supporting a bridge between New York and Long Island, but they obviously did not have the experience to oversee its design and construction. Though Rainey was willing to devote his time and energy to such an endeavor, he did not have engineering experience or judgment, and so early structural plans were not very satisfactory. The bridge was projected to have piers on the northern end of Blackwell’s Island and thus enter Manhattan at about 77th Street. The total length of the bridge was to be about two miles, and access where it crossed high above the New York avenues was to be “by enormous passenger elevators like those in use in first-class hotels.” Not having to construct long suspended spans would keep the cost of the bridge under $5 million, and the great number of tolls collected would give a handsome return on investment, which for the Long Island investors would be in addition to the increased value of their real estate. The legality of running railroad tracks across the bridge was challenged; by 1893, amid financial hard times, only one pier had been constructed, and the project once more lay dormant, ultimately to be abandoned.

An 1881 proposal for a “second bridge over the East River,” at Blackwell’s Island (photo credit 4.23)

In 1894, the company proposed a new cantilever bridge with major spans over the two river channels and over Blackwell’s Island itself. The new location was to be more southerly, so that Manhattan approaches would be between 62nd and 63rd streets, and chief engineer Charles M. Jacobs expected it could be ready for traffic in 1897. Though the bridge’s 846-foot channel spans would be modest by Firth of Forth standards, the proposed bridge would have the second-longest cantilever spans in the world, and twice as many tracks as the Forth Bridge as well as two driveways. A contract was awarded early in 1895, but later that year the Supreme Court ruled against allowing railroad traffic across the bridge, and so the project was again thwarted. The idea of a Blackwell’s Island bridge was revitalized in 1898, after the creation of a consolidated New York City, by its first mayor, Robert C. Van Wyck.

In his first report as bridge commissioner in 1902, Lindenthal announced that the plans for a Blackwell’s Island bridge had been changed to give a narrower roadway and to provide for access to Blackwell’s Island itself, on which the city Departments of Charities and of Corrections both maintained institutions, and hence the later name of Welfare Island. Lindenthal’s new plans, revealed a year later, called for two large cantilever spans, of 1,182 feet and 984 feet, which, unlike the Firth of Forth spans, would not incorporate suspended portions. Though this created some complications in design calculations, the outline of the bridge had a more continuous top curve, and was defined below by a flat roadway, thus giving the structure somewhat the appearance of a suspension bridge—the distinctly different genre with which it would often be confused. Lindenthal’s specifications also called for the use of nickel steel in the eyebars and pins in the upper chord, to assure ductile rather than brittle behavior; this would be the first bridge to use so much of that material.

Blackwell’s Island Bridge, 1903 design (photo credit 4.24)

Unlike the Manhattan Bridge, Lindenthal’s Blackwell’s Island structure was built essentially as it had been designed when he left office. A steel strike in 1905 did delay the beginning of construction, but the “largest cantilever bridge in the United States” was begun in earnest in 1906, with a projected cost of $18 million, 50 percent higher than originally estimated. Later that year, lightning struck a section under construction “and so weakened it that two or three heavy gusts of wind brought the whole piece smashing to the ground,” but that was nothing compared with what happened in Canada in 1907.

After the collapse of the contemporary cantilever under construction at Quebec, there was naturally some concern for the stability of the one over Blackwell’s Island. Work gangs at the New York construction site were pitted against each other in competition to close overhanging sections of the bridge before the March gales began. It was not only the forces of nature that were feared, however; on one occasion, dynamite was found where an explosion would have brought down the incomplete central span, and union opposition to the open-shop project was suspected. In spite of all this, in March 1908, the last link in the superstructure was completed, and what had “seemed to be defying the law of gravity” was then reported to look “perfectly safe.”

Regardless of how safe the bridge looked to reporters, Scientific American raised the concern that changes had been made to Lindenthal’s plans and so perhaps introduced weaknesses not unlike those that had brought down the Quebec Bridge. Two independent consultants, Professor William H. Burr of Columbia University, one of the experts who had been appointed to consider a suspension bridge across the Hudson, and the New York engineering firm of Boller & Hodge, were called upon “to examine and report upon the design and structure” of the bridge at Blackwell’s Island. Though they raised some caveats, involving the weight of steel in the bridge and the load it should be allowed to carry, the consultants found no reason to think that the bridge was in imminent danger of collapse. Burr did recommend full-scale tests of compression members, and Lindenthal concurred, saying that the bridge “must not be opened for public use until the strength of its compression members has been proved by actual test.” The Quebec failure had changed the focus entirely from concerns over eyebar tension members to built-up compression members, and engineers knew that there had never been conclusive tests of the theories they employed. Burr also urged removal of some of what he considered excess steel in the bridge before letting it carry elevated railroad tracks. In effect, he argued, the bridge was straining more to hold itself up than it was supposed to under the weight of regulated rapid-transit cars.

In the meantime, construction crews continued to work on the bridge, connecting it up with the approaches in August, and fearless pedestrians immediately began to enjoy the mile walk between Queens and Manhattan. When it came to the attention of a reporter that ducks, pigeons, and swallows roosted nightly on the structure, and in such large flocks that they could chase away threatening cats, newspaper headlines declared that the birds were vouching for the strength of the bridge. The authorities cited in support of this idea ranged from Rudyard Kipling, who had written about bridge builders, to ornithologists, who were reported to have said that “birds in large flocks will not settle on a weak structure.” While criticism continued in the technical press, the popular press was reassuring the public that “architects and structural engineers are among the few persons who will always do their work just as well as they can possibly do it, irrespective of whether they make any money out of the job or not.”

Sometimes the name of a bridge and its formal opening generate more interest than its safety. Real-estate interests in Queens objected to the name Blackwell’s Island Bridge because they considered it a misnomer, and one that was “unpleasantly suggestive of a penal institution and a poor-house,” which occupied the island. Amid some protest that there was a plot among Irish Americans to obliterate “from the map of the United States all names of places of English origin,” the name Queensboro Bridge was in the end accepted. With that settled, attention could focus on planning the week-long festivities that would open the bridge in June 1909. Planning began well in advance, but not everything went according to plan.

Early in the year, it was announced that the “Bridge Queen-to-Be” had disappeared. Miss Elinor Dolbert was a French-born eighteen-year-old clerk in the Bloomingdale Brothers department store, who had been discovered to be a “fine vocalist” after she sang at a concert given by the Bloomingdale Mutual Aid Society. She astonished the large audience, and “was encored so many times that she fainted from the stress.” Since the young singer became famous throughout the store, she was asked to sing for “the firm,” who “decided to have her voice tested.” When several voice teachers confirmed that she did indeed have a fine voice, lacking only in “voice culture,” the Bloomingdale company “resolved to defray the expense of the cultivation of Miss Dolbert’s voice.”

All the while, the Queensboro Celebration Committee, with which Samuel J. Bloomingdale himself may have been influential, was looking for someone to sing the song written expressly for the big day. After an audition, Miss Dolbert was selected to be “Queen of the Bridge,” but only from the Manhattan side; the rivalry across the river was presumably too great to expect agreement in matters of voice and beauty. An entertainment was scheduled by the Bloomingdale Mutual Aid Society to raise money for a wardrobe and pin money for Miss Dolbert, but it was called off when she disappeared. As far as was known, she “had no love affairs,” and it was speculated that the young lady, “to whom fortune was being kind,” had simply “run away from good fortune.” In the hope that someone might recognize her, a description was printed in the newspaper: “She is about 5 feet 6 inches in height, and has a mass of golden hair, and large black eyes. She wore a black cheviot tailor-made suit, the collar and cuffs of the jacket trimmed with black velvet, a jaunty black hat, with a single ostrich plume, and a bow of black velvet ribbons, a black lynx fur boa, tan gloves and tan shoes.” Although it is difficult to imagine her lost in a crowd, Miss Dolbert seems never to have been found; the bridge show, however, had to go on.

If Miss Dolbert could not sing on the bridge, perhaps Wilbur Wright could fly around it. Not to be outdone by the Hudson-Fulton memorial-exhibition planners, who announced a $10,000 prize for an airship flight between New York and Albany, the bridge-celebration committee announced similar prizes for airplane and dirigible-balloon contests in conjunction with their festival in Long Island City. While they were waiting to hear from Wright, the committee also let it be known that they were negotiating with Roy Knabenshue, who three years earlier had circled the Times Building in his airship, to scatter leaflets entitling the finders to participate in a drawing for 250 lots in Queens.

The “veracious press agent employed by the Queensboro Bridge Celebration Committee” also let the newspapers know that 235 people had applied for permission to jump off the bridge on the day of its opening. The applications had been analyzed, and they were reported to be classified as follows:

Professional high divers


Freaks, employing inventions to break their fall


Would-be suicides







The would-be suicides were identified as young women, who gave “unrequited love, unhappy matrimonial experiences, and a struggle for existence” as reasons they wanted to jump off the bridge. The unemployed were all men, hoping to land a job. One of them reasoned that if he survived he would get a good position, and if he did not survive he would not need work, and it could be “given to some other unfortunate.” In the final analysis, no applications were approved, and no bridge jumping was to be allowed at the celebration.

Although the formal opening ceremonies were to be held the week of June 12, the mayor, bridge commissioner, and bridge engineers drove across the structure in late March and opened it to public traffic. Questions of safety had been relegated to closing paragraphs in newspaper stories about the planned festivities, and the thirty-seven survivors of the Committee of Forty, prominent businessmen who had promoted the bridge, made their plans to cross the structure as a group. They decided to engage a fife-and-drum corps to lead their march, after which they would have dinner at Strack’s Casino, in Astoria, where they had met 133 times during their now successful campaign to have the bridge built.

A more clandestine first crossing took place one morning in May, when Dr. Rainey, “shorn of his wealth and enfeebled by age and ill-health,” left his home on Lexington Avenue and all alone walked across the bridge. His own bridge, which he had spent twenty-five years and almost a million dollars promoting, was never to be. According to the report in The New York Times, headed, “Sees His Dream Bridge,”

Dr. Rainey is nearly 85 years old, and made a pathetic figure as he shuffled along, his steps feeble and uncertain, his former towering frame shrunk and bent. He wore a pair of house slippers, a soft cap, and a sack-coat, and had no overcoat.…

“This is my bridge,” said the doctor as he wiped away the tears that trickled down his withered cheeks. “At least it is the child of my thought, of my long years of arduous toil and sacrifice. Just over there,” pointing to a ruined heap of stone along the river front, “are the old towers of my bridge, which I began to build many years ago. I spent all I owned on the project, and then New York, with all its great wealth and power, came in and took away my possessions, and now in my old age I am left in ill health and alone to eke out my remaining days.

“It is a grand bridge,” he said, “much greater than the one I had in mind. It will be of great service to thousands in the years to come, when Dr. Rainey and his bridge projects will long have been gathered into the archives of the past.”

A tablet was planned for the new bridge, to commemorate Rainey’s efforts and dream. Among those on the committee arranging for it were Charles H. Steinway and Samuel J. Bloomingdale. The official bridge-opening ceremonies took place in June, as planned. About a quarter of a million onlookers strained to hear speeches in the early afternoon and would gawk to see the “new bridge ablaze with red fire and electricity in the evening.” Before that, however, and just before the parade approached the reviewing stand, Dr. Rainey was introduced as “the father of the Queensboro Bridge idea” and received a rousing cheer.


Gustav Lindenthal had no such prominent acknowledgment at the Queensboro Bridge ceremonies, if he was there at all; his thoughts were again with railroads, not with pedestrians. Since 1904, he had been engaged as a consultant for a project to connect the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which included those of the Long Island Railroad, with the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, thus enabling continuous rail traffic to flow from Long Island and New England into Manhattan and from there westward through the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tunnels under the Hudson River, which had obviated the need for Lindenthal’s North River Bridge, at least for that line. The new project involved a three-mile-long steel viaduct that would cross the East River about three miles north of the Queensboro Bridge in a sinuous curve that passed from Long Island over a treacherous channel known as Hell Gate, over Ward’s Island, across Little Hell Gate, over Randall’s Island, and finally across the Bronx Kills into the northernmost borough of New York City. The centerpiece of Lindenthal’s plan was to be a steel arch on the order of one thousand feet between abutments, the largest arch bridge in the world, and it would carry four railroad tracks. By 1907, he had progressed far enough with the design that it could be submitted to the Art Commission.

As with all great projects, the chief engineer required assistance for its detailed design and supervision. Among those Lindenthal enlisted to help him were Othmar Ammann, a young Swiss-born engineer who had worked for the Pennsylvania Steel Company, which built the Queensboro Bridge, and who had participated in the investigation of the collapse of the Quebec Bridge. Ammann was to serve as principal assistant engineer on the Hell Gate project; his story will be told more fully in the next chapter. Another of Lindenthal’s assistants on the Hell Gate was to be New York-born David Steinman, who was very nearly exactly Ammann’s contemporary, and whose story also requires a chapter of its own. In addition to engineering help, Lindenthal early on sought the assistance of Henry F. Hornbostel, then a young consulting architect, who had studied at Columbia and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and who would go on to design the campuses of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, and Emory University, in Atlanta. Though Hornbostel had been retained by Commissioner Lindenthal to help with the Manhattan Bridge, he had been dismissed by the succeeding administration when he refused to submit new plans unless he received additional compensation for his services. Hornbostel’s main contribution to Lindenthal’s Hell Gate Bridge was to be the addition of “a pair of immense pylons” of granite topped by concrete that framed the arch and its entrances.

The concept of a railroad link with a bridge across Hell Gate as its single most significant structure was created in 1892 by Oliver W. Barnes, an engineer with extensive railroad experience and Pennsylvania Railroad connections, and Lindenthal, who then saw the plan as part of a greater scheme that included his North River Bridge. The New York Connecting Railroad Company was incorporated that same year to construct a steam railroad about ten miles in length with termini “in Westchester County, east of the Bronx River, and in the City of Brooklyn.” Among those involved in the incorporation with Barnes was Alfred P. Boller, an 1861 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who had most recently worked on various projects in and around New York. It was Boller who had worked out the first plans for a bridge at Hell Gate—a cantilever design—in 1900. At that time, the Pennsylvania Railroad was leaning toward a scheme that had Lindenthal’s North River Bridge bringing rail traffic from New Jersey into Manhattan, which would from there connect to the Long Island Railroad through the Steinway Tunnel, named after the president of the tunnel company for which Barnes served as chief engineer, and ultimately linking up with New England through the Hell Gate connection. Pennsylvania Railroad President Alexander J. Cassatt, brother of the painter Mary Cassatt, subscribed to the scheme, but with more affordable and exclusive tunnels under the Hudson River instead of a great common bridge over it. Vice-President Samuel Rae was to be made president of the New York Connecting Railroad, which by then the Pennsylvania had acquired. When Lindenthal’s term as bridge commissioner ended, Rae appointed him to direct the Hell Gate project as consulting engineer and bridge architect, a title he must have relished.

Under Lindenthal’s direction, three comparative designs for a bridge with an 850-foot main span were considered: a stiffened suspension bridge with eyebar chains, a smaller version of his Manhattan Bridge, which in turn was a smaller version of his North River Bridge; a three-span continuous truss of unremarkable profile; and a three-span cantilever, more graceful than Boller’s design and bearing some resemblance to Lindenthal’s plans for the Queensboro Bridge. The bridge architect would no doubt have preferred the suspension design, for the truss would have the appearance of “a utilitarian structure,” a fault also common to cantilevers, which provide “no opportunity for monumental towers or abutments at the ends, because the absence of a large horizontal thrust or pull does not justify a large mass of masonry at those points, as in the case of an arch or a suspension bridge.” Although the words are Ammann’s, in his definitive report on the Hell Gate Bridge, they can be assumed to have been approved of if not inspired by Lindenthal. An arch design would also have satisfied the requirements of having no piers in the water and of being erectable without falsework to obstruct the waterway, in the manner of the Eads Bridge, but the arch was not considered at first, because there were no natural abutments to take the thrust. The suspension bridge would not normally be economically competitive with the other designs for an 850-foot span; according to Ammann, however, “whatever differences in cost may be found by comparative designs are largely due to the individual judgment of the designer in the selection of the truss system, material, permissible unit stresses, foundations, and architectural features.”

Ammann’s list of factors to be weighed by a designer did not include the one that ultimately had the most effect on the bridge type chosen. Among the existing structures on Ward’s Island were state-hospital buildings, and in 1905 the line of the railroad had to be moved farther north to increase its distance from them. In order to fit the approaches to a suspension or cantilever design onto the island, a tight curve in the railroad would have been necessary, and this was undesirable in conjunction with the heavy grade that was needed to provide the proper clearance for ships to pass under the bridge. An arch bridge was considered, and it was found that one could be built with less steel than the alternative designs required; even with its more costly foundations, it was a competitive choice. In the final analysis, the favorable appearance of the arch led to its adoption.

Two arch designs for the Hell Gate Bridge (photo credit 4.25)

Lindenthal’s first arch designs were modeled after Eiffel’s Garabit Viaduct, a crescent-type arch over the Truyère River in France, as well as some German spandrel-arch bridges over the Rhine. The latter arch type was selected, in part because it was “more expressive of rigidity than the crescent arch, the ends of which appear to be unnaturally slim in comparison with the great height at the center.” David Billington, the premier structural critic of the later twentieth century, has interpreted this as indicative of Lindenthal’s predilection for “massiveness over lightness: the German over the French.” Before detailed design work began, however, the top chord of the arch was given “a slight reversal of curve toward the ends,” partly to provide some wind bracing, but also to “improve the silhouette of the arch.” This structural fillip would ultimately contribute much to the characteristic profile of the Hell Gate Bridge, as well as to the feature of the design that has been most questioned.

Whereas Ammann wrote that “the artistic outlines of the steel superstructure are the result of the proper interpretation of the economic and engineering requirements of the structure,” Billington sees the stone towers above their base as structurally unnecessary to take the loads from the steel, and thus he sees the towers as nonfunctional and “rather a massive frill.” It is not clear how much of a role, if any, the consulting architect Hornbostels opinion played in the choice of arch type and its final recurved shape, but he certainly influenced the design of the towers, which from the beginning were also a point of some discussion and have continued to be the focus of structural criticism of the bridge. When the original design was presented in 1907, the Art Commission, “although not objecting to the design as a whole, disapproved of the decorative features of the towers and their bases.” This must have disappointed Lindenthal, the bridge architect of record, for he unquestionably wanted to produce an attractive structure and bring American bridge building up to what he considered European standards of aesthetics. He was not alone in his concerns. The never-to-be-built Lindenthal-Hornbostel towers dominated the frontispiece of Henry G. Tyrrell’s 1912 “systematic treatise,” Artistic Bridge Design, and as the existence of numerous contemporary municipal art commissions attests, there was rising sensitivity about the appearance of large urban structures.

The towers of the Hell Gate Bridge clearly had to be modified before final approval was sought and construction begun, and one detail, where steel arch and stone tower came together, had to be addressed. As shown so clearly in the 1906 architectural rendering reproduced in Ammann’s report, the original tower design left a gap of about fifteen feet between the masonry and the steel, an arrangement that might have precluded Billington’s criticism of the final design three-quarters of a century later. As described in a recent account, Lindenthal was aware that this represented the “correct engineering solution,” clearly showing all the thrust transmitted through the lower chord to the abutment:

Lindenthal feared, however, that the public, supposing that the towers supported the bridge, might think he had forgotten something. To deal with this possible psychological hazard, he grafted stubs of girders to the ends of the upper chords and placed T-shaped forms of concrete within the side openings of the towers. At a distance, they appear to be connected, but in fact a space of about six inches separates them.

Whether he really feared the public’s perception or the art commission’s, the towers themselves were modified, but there appears to be no official record of approval of their final design. As he did in Pittsburgh in concealing the slender end posts of the Smithfield Street Bridge with ornate portals, so Lindenthal appears also to have employed an architectural treatment to conceal the potentially confusing structural detail of the recurved top chord of the Hell Gate arch. Perhaps he did not really want to or know how to end his masterpieces. There seems little doubt, however, that appearance was important to Lindenthal, who also envisaged extra-technical and extra-utilitarian functions for the Hell Gate Bridge. According to Ammann:

A 1906 design detail for the Hell Gate Bridge tower and arch (photo credit 4.26)

Mr. Lindenthal conceived the bridge as a monumental portal for the steamers which enter New York Harbor from Long Island Sound. He also realized that this bridge, forming a conspicuous object which can be seen from both shores of the river and from almost every elevated point of the city, and will be observed daily by thousands of passengers, should be an impressive structure. The arch, flanked by massive masonry towers, was most favorably adapted to that purpose.

Completed Hell Gate Bridge, showing the steelwork of the upper chord carried into the towers and the long curving viaduct over Ward’s Island (photo credit 4.27)

The visual appearance of his bridges was thus of considerable importance to Lindenthal, and now that he was in charge of a privately financed project rather than a municipal one, with its many constituencies, the bridge architect not only could but had an obligation to consider the important factor of aesthetics. As Ammann explained his mentor’s method, or perhaps echoed him:

A great work of art evolves from an idea in the mind of its creator. It is brought on paper or into a more contemplative form and then changed and remodeled. Not until the plans have passed through changes and corrections, and have been submitted to an almost endless series of finishing touches, does the great work attain its perfection.

A great bridge in a great city, although primarily utilitarian in its purpose, should nevertheless be a work of art to which Science lends its aid. An elaborate stress sheet, worked out on a purely economic and scientific basis, does not make a great bridge. It is only with a broad sense for beauty and harmony, coupled with wide experience in the scientific and technical field, that a monumental bridge can be created. Fortunately, the Hell Gate Bridge was evolved under such conditions, and therefore may well be said to be one of the finest creations of engineering art of great size which this century has produced.

Questions of aesthetics and symbolism aside, a great engineering project still needs a great engineering staff, and there were many more details than towers and recurved chords to be considered and calculated. How would the individual steel members, some to be twice as heavy as the largest previously used in construction, be made and joined? How would the weight of locomotives and railroad cars be borne by the various parts of the bridge, individually and acting in concert? To answer such questions required detailed thought and calculation, of such depth and magnitude that they were beyond the mental or physical capacity of one engineer. As chief engineer and bridge architect, Lindenthal directed his staff to explore various options and to consider and compare alternatives. Though he could indeed direct that this or that tower design be chosen, someone else would be expected to calculate the volume of masonry or concrete it would require, to estimate the time needed to construct it, and to prepare whatever detailed drawings were needed to make sure the abutments were located and aligned to meet and match the steelwork that someone else was thinking about in equally precise detail. Other engineers would later have the responsibility for overseeing and inspecting the construction to make sure that the plans were being followed so that things did meet as they were designed to. During the construction phase, Lindenthal was assisted by an engineering staff of ninety-five, and Ammann, as assistant chief engineer, “had general charge of the office, field, and inspection work.”

In early 1914, Engineering News reported that the Hell Gate Bridge was then actively under construction, “with minor architectural changes in the terminal towers,” but other details began to attract the attention of some ever-critical readers. In a letter to the editor, “an admirer of the central span” wondered why the drawings showed a steel-viaduct approach to the bridge, and why the Art Commission did not object to it. The reader knew “the deteriorating and nerve-racking noise which is likely to accrue from trains passing over such a structure.” He suggested that concrete arches would have been just as economical. Furthermore,

The arches could be built with fine architectural effect, and in such a way that screen walls could be carried up on both sides to, say, 15 ft. above base of rail, with the result that noise of traffic would be almost entirely eliminated. Such a structure would be almost as silent and picturesque as one of the beautiful old aqueducts still to be seen in the older countries.

Lindenthal responded almost by return mail, explaining the choice of steel over concrete viaduct spans. The weight of a large masonry viaduct could not be supported easily or economically by the ground conditions on Ward’s or Long Island. He pointed out that with development and the introduction of sewer lines, the ground would be drained, and the piers would settle. Steel girders could be adjusted under such circumstances, but masonry arches would develop unsightly and possibly threatening cracks. Whether this was part of the design logic or a subsequent rationalization, Lindenthal had taken all such criticism seriously and responded accordingly. With regard to noise, he pointed out that the rails would be embedded in broken-stone ballast fourteen inches deep, carried in troughs of reinforced concrete, thus deadening much of the sound.

He also took the opportunity to explain that the towers “were necessary parts of the structure, and not mere ornamental parts.” For the thrust of the arch to be properly resisted, the towers had to provide a certain weight to the foundation, and Lindenthal chose to accomplish this by building tall rather than squat towers, which “would have been unsightly.” His solution, in other words, was much like erecting the buttresses of a Gothic cathedral higher than appearances demand in order to add weight and maintain slenderness. Since the weight was needed in the towers for structural reasons, Lindenthal chose to provide it without sacrificing proportion. In the case of the viaducts, the additional costs would have been prohibitive.

In fact, there eventually was a change in the design of the viaduct from the original to the revised drawings, published seven years apart, in Engineering News. In 1907, the viaduct over Ward’s Island was shown to be steel girders resting on steel piers, but in 1914 sketches, though the steel girders remained, the piers were shown as concrete. The decidedly social rather than technical reason for the change was mentioned in passing by Lindenthal during the discussion appended to Ammann’s paper. According to Lindenthal, an “objection was made by the authorities of Ward’s and Randall’s Islands to the steel columns, because they feared that inmates of the municipal institutions on those islands would climb them and make their escape. It was insisted that the design adopted should prevent this.” Ward’s Island held the state mental hospital, of course, and Randall’s Island, over which the viaduct also passed, was the location of a correctional institution. Presumably, a technical answer was found to the prior objections to heavy concrete piers, or more money was simply spent on them.

By the end of the year, when the foundations were complete and the steel had begun to be erected, a small item headed “Hell Gate Arch Bridge Not a New Thing” appeared in Engineering News. In spite of its headline, the item signaled that all was once again well between the bridge builder and the journal. It proudly quoted this passage from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus: “Never perhaps since our first Bridge-Builders, Sin and Death, built that stupendous Arch from Hell-gate to the Earth, did any Pontifex, or Pontiff, undertake such a task.” Engineering News thereupon christened Gustav Lindenthal “pontifex” of the modern Hell Gate arch.

Construction progressed; the two trajectories of steel met over the unobstructed water in the fall of 1915, and the arch bridge and viaducts were completed a year later. The first passenger train to cross the bridge was the Federal Express, the previously established night train between Boston and Washington, D.C. The Federal Express route had for a long time included a fourteen-mile car-ferry transit through the crowded waters of the East River, which in winter was subject to delays caused by ice. When the car ferry was discontinued in 1912, the Express was operated over the Poughkeepsie Bridge until early 1916; at that point, regular service was discontinued. A weekly ferried Express was reinstituted briefly during the summer of 1916, so that travelers could bypass New York City during an infantile-paralysis epidemic. The completion of Hell Gate Bridge and the New York Connecting Railroad allowed the restoration of regular Federal Express service in 1917.


Though the Hell Gate Bridge would be mentioned in Lindenthal’s obituary as his “chief memorial,” even with its completion his career was far from over. Before the Hell Gate was finished, Lindenthal became consulting and chief engineer for a railroad bridge on the road between Sciotoville, Ohio, and Fullerton, Kentucky, across the Ohio River, about 120 miles above Cincinnati. The bridge was to carry heavy freight traffic, mostly coal trains, on a new branch of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The Sciotoville was the first large continuous truss bridge, which means that it consisted of truss elements rigidly connected across piers rather than of separate elements between them, and the longest and heaviest fully riveted one then erected in America. With two 775-foot river spans, it has been called “perhaps the boldest continuous bridge in existence” and “the ultimate expression of mass and power among American truss bridges.” J. E. Greiner, a Baltimore consulting engineer, in a written discussion of Lindenthal’s paper on it, called the completed bridge a “daring and handsome structure, decidedly ‘Lindenthalic’ in all its features,” and declared it to be another of the master’s structures evidencing, in Lindenthal’s own words, the “genius that originates as distinguished from routine which merely imitates.” Another discussion was submitted by Charles Evan Fowler, the New York consulting engineer who had published in 1914 plans for a cantilever bridge between San Francisco and Oakland that would have surpassed the Quebec in span. One structural critic called Fowler’s “the boldest bridge plan ever made” but did not think the tolls from wagon and automobile traffic using it would pay for the upkeep of the roadway. Nevertheless, Fowler seemed to be more interested in size than suitability, in giantism than genius, and his discussion of Lindenthal’s paper revealed, however subtly, that a massive cantilever across San Francisco Bay would bring the record for that kind of span below the Canadian border to the United States, the home of all other great spans:

Sciotoville Bridge (photo credit 4.28)

The Sciotoville Bridge is a striking example as to what may be accomplished by the use of continuous bridges. It is the longest of that type ever constructed and now gives to America the proud distinction of having the longest spans for every type of bridge construction, namely, the Sciotoville Continuous Bridge, the Hell Gate Arch, the Quebec Cantilever, the Williamsburg Suspension, the Metropolis [Illinois] Simple Truss Span, and the Willamette River Draw Bridge.

Lindenthal seems to have been drawn not so much to sheer size as to monumentality, however, and his definitive professional paper on the Sciotoville Bridge was in a sense a monument to the achievement of its engineers. His principal assistant engineer on the Sciotoville project was, as on the Hell Gate, Othmar Ammann, who might have been expected to write up and present a description of the project for the archival transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers had he not been called to military service in his native Switzerland. As in the Hell Gate project, Ammann was succeeded by David Steinman, but it was Lindenthal himself who wrote up the Sciotoville Bridge, which in his own words was a “detailed, although somewhat belated description.” However, unlike Ammann’s paper on the Hell Gate, which was read within months of the completion of the bridge, Lindenthal’s Sciotoville paper did not appear until five full years after that bridge was completed. Nevertheless, the paper was awarded the same Rowland Prize that he had won thirty-nine years earlier for his description of the Monongahela bridge. Lindenthal closed his paper on the design and construction of the Sciotoville Bridge with acknowledgments of his assistants “in this unusual work, bristling with new problems and difficulties.” First to be mentioned was Ammann, and second Steinman, but understanding why the seventy-two-year-old chief engineer prepared the paper, rather than assigning it to his chief assistant, who by then had returned from Switzerland, remains for a subsequent chapter. Whatever Ammann’s disposition, however, Lindenthal was busy with many projects, including writing endeavors, and it is understandable that his report on Sciotoville was not contemporary with the bridge. He seemed more inclined to write about future projects, like a North River Bridge, than completed ones, like Sciotoville, no matter how inspired or gigantic they might be.

A decade after the Sciotoville Bridge was completed, Lindenthal was asked to be responsible for the design and construction of three bridges across the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, following a political scandal there regarding the awarding of municipal bridge contracts. The bridges—the Burnside, Sellwood, and Ross Island—were completed in the mid-1920s in that city, the largest bridges on the West Coast until the great structures at San Francisco were built in the next decade.

Lindenthal’s group of Portland bridges, like his New York spans, stands today as testimony to what was often said of him, that “he never built two bridges alike.” The memoir of him in the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers expanded on this truth to speak of “his habit of looking on each bridge problem as new and unique, a problem whose proper solution could hardly be the same as that of any prior bridge problem.” Furthermore, “he took up each bridge project broadly, seeking first a conception of general form that would offer the best solution and going on to stresses and details only as the last step.” It takes nothing away from Lindenthal to say that this is a habit shared by all great bridge designers.

Not all bridges are of the scale of the great ones Lindenthal designed, however, and not all engineers always agree on what is the “best solution” for a given problem, as the Manhattan Bridge debate so clearly demonstrated. And nothing seems to provide so good an opportunity to discuss such differences of opinion as the publication of a major book and the reviews it may elicit. While the Hell Gate and Sciotoville bridges were still under construction, a two-volume illustrated treatise of well over two thousand pages was published by John Wiley & Sons and sold for the remarkable price of ten dollars. The treatise was titled simply Bridge Engineering, and it was written by “one of the masters of the art,” J. A. L. Waddell.

John Alexander Low Waddell, a contemporary of Lindenthal’s, was born in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada, in 1854. Waddell graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with the degree of C.E. in 1875 and worked in Canada as a draftsman and engineer on field work before serving as an assistant professor of rational and technical mechanics at Rensselaer. He then took up studies again, this time at McGill University, receiving both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in 1882, after which he went to Tokyo to become professor of civil engineering at the Imperial University of Japan. He returned to the United States four years later to join the Phoenix Bridge Company, and soon opened an office to serve as an agent for the company and as a consulting engineer in his own right in Kansas City, where he spent much of his early American bridge-building career. It would develop into a distinguished one.

While in Japan, Waddell published two books, with the pedestrian titles The Designing of Ordinary Iron Highway Bridges and A System of Iron Railroad Bridges for Japan. In 1898, he published a small “pocket-book,” which he titled in the tradition of Latin treatises, De Pontibus, and for which he was much better known. The 1916 Bridge Engineering was a much-expanded form of the pocket book, and in an editorial Engineering News explained the difficulty “of finding someone to prepare a critical review … who will be, at least, a peer of the author in reputation.” Thus the journal was proud to announce that it believed it had “rendered a notable service to the profession in securing the consent of Gustav Lindenthal, the Nestor of American bridge engineers, to review Mr. Waddell’s great work.” Engineering News also no doubt wanted to give its readers some explanation for Lindenthal’s lengthy review, which was “very much more than a book review.” It was, in fact, much more of a scathing challenge to the authority of Waddell’s treatise than the editors may have expected, and the editorial closed with an acknowledgment that, though Waddell’s book was “destined for many years to come to rank as an authority in its field,” it was also of great value to have “a critical study made of its recommendations, so that the engineer may know in what parts of the book there is a disagreement among doctors as to the soundness of the principles which are there stated.”

Lindenthal’s “illuminating review” is a model of the form, and he discussed not only the content but also the style of the work. He found the latter to lack uniformity, which he speculated was due to “the fact that parts of the book were prepared by different assistants, to whose helpful labor the author gives proper credit in the preface.” Perhaps Lindenthal, who has been described as being throughout his life “too active to find the leisure necessary for writing books,” did not know or made no allowance for the fact that Waddell kept his staff employed with work on the book during a period of increasing war and decreasing bridge building. Lindenthal also criticized the generally “breezy and often gossipy narrative form” that Waddell apparently preferred because he intended the book to be somewhat autobiographical. Among the mannerisms that Lindenthal singled out for criticism was “an affected, though innocuous, punctiliousness in attaching to names inconsequential titles, as Esquire, C.E., member of, etc., as if marking some for social or professional distinction while others, not less distinguished, go without it.” Perhaps Lindenthal was a bit oversensitive to this topic because of his own uncertain background, and it was easier for him to attack Waddell than to correct him and the record.

As could be expected in a book comprising eighty chapters, there were some inconsistencies of style and substance, but the sixty-page index was excellent. Thus Lindenthal could easily look up references to himself on seven pages, and what he found on some of those pages must have galled him. Waddell’s first mention of the Hell Gate did not associate it with Lindenthal, but in a discussion of it six hundred pages later its designer, “the noted bridge engineer, Gustav Lindenthal, Esq.,” is acknowledged as the source of data and a picture of the bridge, which is described as being “certainly of aesthetic appearance” and reflecting “great credit upon the artistic ability of its designer.” Elsewhere, the engineer is described as “Gustav Lindenthal, Esq., C.E.,” but the unearned degree must have been less galling than the unwelcome criticism.

In his chapter on cantilever bridges, Waddell began his treatment of Lindenthal’s Blackwell’s Island structure by describing how a refiguring of the stresses in the completed bridge found them to be “so great (due to both ambiguity of stress distribution and overrun of dead load) that some of the roadways had to be omitted.” After beginning with such sharp criticism, Waddell continued his discussion of the design with ridicule that is suggestive of the common modern characterization of chaos theory, in which a single flap of the wings of a butterfly in Australia is said to be able to affect the weather in Philadelphia:

A New York engineer connected with the bridge once remarked that the structure is so complicated that, if a man were to stand at the first panel point of the farthest span and were to spit into the river, his doing so would affect the stress in every main truss member of every span in the entire structure—and the statement is actually correct. The layout of this bridge is a constructive lie. The top chords of the long spans were made into a continuous curve to resemble the cables of a suspension bridge, the object being aesthetics; but the attempt thus to beautify the structure was a failure, and the damage done to the bridge by the omission of the suspended span is measured by millions of dollars.

Waddell was referring to the indeterminate nature of the structure from a calculational point of view. By omitting a true suspended span, Lindenthal had indeed made the stresses in the structure so interdependent with its deflections that a small movement or a change in the load at one point on the bridge did affect it everywhere else. As for the faux-suspension criticism, it may be that Lindenthal brought that on himself by so liking eyebar suspension bridges that he consciously or unconsciously mimicked the form in a continuous cantilever.

Perhaps the aspect of Bridge Engineering that most irritated Lindenthal was what must have seemed to be Waddell’s slighting of him. Whereas no engineer might have minded having his name omitted from criticism such as that leveled against the Blackwell’s Island Bridge, reference to another of one’s bridges without one’s name attached might have been a different matter. Furthermore, in a discussion of impact loads on bridges, a 1912 paper of Lindenthal’s on the subject was described to have “much valuable information; but the formula proposed is far too complicated, being based on many theoretical assumptions,” and some of its statements and deductions were criticized as being “not in accord with the latest experiments on impact.” Though Waddell allowed that Lindenthal was “one of the most prominent” bridge engineers, they nevertheless disagreed on the subject of continuous truss spans. The author of Bridge Engineering believed that the Sciotoville Bridge, in which Lindenthal “resurrected” the subdivided triangular truss form, worked only because foundation conditions were “exceedingly favorable” at the site. But perhaps the single most difficult part of Waddell’s book for Lindenthal to take was the treatment of the suspension bridge, his form of choice. In discussing proposals to bridge the North River, Waddell mentioned three and offered his opinion on their likelihood of being realized:

Messrs. Geo. S. Morison, Gustav Lindenthal, and Henry W. Hodge have made designs for that crossing; and it is not at all unlikely that the last-mentioned engineer and his financial associates in the not very distant future will succeed in consummating the enterprise. For the sake of the engineering profession as well as for other good reasons, it is to be hoped that they will be successful. The building of such a structure as the one they contemplate would be a fitting climax to an already brilliant professional career.

Hodge’s plan alone is illustrated, and it is described by Waddell in some detail compared with those of Morison and Lindenthal. Lindenthal’s is given especially short shrift, being in fact merely referred to as being “made in the late eighties” rather than described. Indeed, as we shall see, Waddell seems to have made the proper assessment at the time, and Hodge and his associates might very well have been the ones that first bridged the North River had Hodge, fifteen years Lindenthal’s junior, not become ill and died before bridge building was revitalized after the war.

Henry Hodge’s proposed Hudson River Bridge (photo credit 4.29)

Though Lindenthal may have had a personal ax to grind in writing his devastating review of Waddell’s treatise, the sweeping contents of the two large volumes did leave room for disagreement. Waddell had established his reputation on, among other things, the Halsted Street Lift-Bridge in Chicago, which, when completed in 1895, certainly solved the technical dilemma of spanning the Chicago River at street level while making provisions for water traffic to pass. However, the Halsted Street Bridge did so in an arguably ugly way. A swing bridge would have worked at the location, of course, but with a midspan pivot on an undesirable pier in the river channel or with a land-based pivot about which the span swung into such a position as to obstruct valuable riverside property that otherwise could be used for wharves or piers. Bascule or leaf drawbridges, like the contemporary Tower Bridge in London, were another possibility, but they presented different mechanical problems. Indeed, all bridge designs with movable spans presented major aesthetic problems, and they have been among the most criticized for their appearance. Though the tall structural towers of Waddell’s Halsted Street Bridge did allow the 130-foot span to be raised over 140 feet in one minute, they were an eyesore whether the span was up or down, and the bridge had an ungainly look. To those who drove the streets of Chicago or plied the waters of its river, however, the function may have excused the form, and it was to such clients, or, rather, their elected representatives, that the bridges had to be sold.

Catalogues of bridges previously designed and constructed, or heavily illustrated reports of major projects, were important to consulting engineers like Waddell and bridge-building companies alike, for it was through such catalogues that they often made their initial contact with prospective clients. Most catalogues showed a sense of design themselves and presented their bridges from the most attractive perspectives. Since consulting engineers often evolved their associations and partnerships as new and different design challenges, conditions, and opportunities arose, the same bridge may often have appeared in the catalogues of seemingly different firms, creating a confusion of attribution. J. A. L. Waddell, for example, after his return from Tokyo, practiced under his own name in Kansas City until 1899, when he began a series of partnerships: with Ira G. Hedrick, as Waddell & Hedrick (1899–1907); with John Lyle Harrington, as Waddell & Harrington (1907–17); with N. Everett Waddell, as Waddell & Son (1917–19); alone, as J. A. L. Waddell, after his son’s death, until 1927, during which period Waddell moved from Kansas City to New York; and with Shortridge Hardesty, formerly his principal assistant engineer, as Waddell & Hardesty (1927–45). Though Waddell’s name remained associated with the firm for some years after his death in 1938, it was dropped in 1945, when Clinton D. Hanover, Jr., joined Hardesty to form Hardesty & Hanover, which now identifies itself as one of the oldest consulting-engineering firms in the United States, tracing its origin back to Waddell. As late as the early 1990s, Hardesty & Hanover’s current brochure listed major and recent projects of the firm dating back to 1890, and included an illustrated entry for the Halsted Street Bridge. In contrast to the handsome layout and attractive photographs in Hardesty & Hanover’s catalogue, including some movable bridges that can be described as being pleasing to the eye, a Waddell & Son catalogue dating from about 1917 does not at all present their bridges in the most attractive context. That the difference in catalogues is not just a matter of different graphical standards is demonstrated by a catalogue contemporary with that of Waddell & Son. In contrast to the weedy and littered foregrounds in some of the Waddell pictures, a Strauss Bascule Bridge Company catalogue from about 1920 presents bridges, at least some of which are just as unsightly, in thoughtfully cropped photographs that show the structures in a much more favorable light.

Waddell’s lift bridge across the South Branch of the Chicago River at Halsted Street (photo credit 4.30)

Waddell seems to have paid considerably more attention to photographs of himself than to those of his bridges. The frontispiece of Bridge Engineering, for example, is a photographic portrait of the author. Waddell’s forelocks appear to have been deliberately curled, his long mustache combed and waxed, and his lapel pinned with two medals, one probably that designated him Knight Commander, Order of the Rising Sun, presented to him in Japan in 1888. The other medal is most likely the one designating him Knight First Class, Order of Société de Bienfaisance of Grand Duchess Olga of Russia, presented to him in 1909 for his services as principal engineer of the Trans-Alaskan-Siberian Railroad project. In the three-quarter-length portrait of a standing Waddell that appeared as the frontispiece of his Memoirs and Addresses of Two Decades, published in 1928, his head and facial hair appear unchanged, his dress is even more formal, and he sports three new medals. These probably were for the Order of Sacred Treasure, Japan (1921); Order of Chia Ho, China (1922); and Cavaliere of the Crown of Italy (1923). Waddell must have presented an imposing figure, and in his obituary the London journal Engineering conferred upon him the title “Pontifex Maximus,” which it noted that the English poet Robert Southey had bestowed on his friend Thomas Telford. Waddell, like Telford, the journal reasoned, had been in “possession of a constitution apparently indifferent to the rigours of field work in all weathers.”

Lindenthal, whose own career was then in its twilight, was to be swayed neither by a portrait nor by the myth of Waddell the prolific author, who in a biographical sketch that may very well have been autobiographical was said to write out “in longhand his accurate and well-finished papers and discussions in his office or during numerous long railroad trips back and forth across the continent.” No matter how dedicated to his writing Waddell might have been, Lindenthal expected it to stand up to engineering scrutiny. His basic technical criticism of the 1916 book was nicely summarized in the lengthy review:

J. A. L. Waddell, from the frontispiece of Memoirs and Addresses (photo credit 4.31)

The book … appears to be valuable and authoritative only in so far as it deals with the engineering of bridges of ordinary span and type, that have already become more or less standardized. When the author ventures outside of this field into the domain of long-span and indeterminate structures, his insufficiency of knowledge and experience are betrayed [on the specific pages cited], and his lack of grasp of the big questions in this field becomes evident. This may sound like harsh criticism, but it appears to be justified in view of some of the author’s pretentious but erroneous judgments on higher-class structures.

Lindenthal takes Waddell’s discussions of several topics as an opportunity to set the record straight, as on the characteristics of cantilever bridges, on the safety of suspension bridges, and on aesthetics. On Waddell’s “witticisms” about the Queensboro Bridge, for example, Lindenthal remarks that “there are few structures, even of those designed by the author, about which some amusing things could not be written, but such do not furnish instruction to engineers,” and he goes on to discuss the political system in which “engineers are as often abettors as victims.” With regard to aesthetics, Lindenthal wonders if Waddell’s “taste will always be shared by other designers.” When he elaborates, Lindenthal appears again to have something of his own experience on his mind:

The author’s repeated reference to aesthetic appearances based on nothing more than curves in the top or bottom chords will appear to others as rather naïve. This chapter on architecture is well meant as an earnest plea to bridge engineers to show themselves in their work as cultured men. The author, however, in undertaking to furnish instruction and guidance to seekers of the aesthetic in bridge construction, has set himself a task that is evidently beyond his scope. For any bridge structure requiring architectural consideration the bridge engineer will do well to consult a competent architect; and experience has shown that not every architect is competent here.


The question of bridge aesthetics and the role of the engineer versus the architect in bridge design was one that was to grow well beyond a difference in point of view between Waddell and Lindenthal, and some of Lindenthal’s views may inadvertently have threatened the position of engineers generally. In 1919, a Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission was created by the legislatures of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and among its first orders of business was the appointment of a board of engineers to study specific sites and types of bridges. In the meantime, the Pennsylvania State Art Commission wrote to the governor calling for an architect to be put in charge, stating that the commission members were “convinced that the question of ‘where’ and ‘what’ are of greater importance, and more difficult to answer, than ‘how’ to build it.” Indeed, to their mind, the “how” was “after all but a detail.” The insinuations and arrogance of the art commissioners would have been enough to incite the engineering community, but the final straw was contained in a statement that made patently false claims about the history of bridge building in America: “The great bridges of New York have all been planned by architects, though, of course, built by engineers. They are beautiful because they fulfill their purpose, and are fittingly designed, with due consideration to the ‘where’ rather than only the ‘how’ ” Perhaps Bridge Commissioner Lindenthal had retained architect Hornbostel, and perhaps engineer Lindenthal’s ego had driven him to demand the title of architect as well as engineer on the Hell Gate project, but it was a gross misstatement to say that architects had decided where and what bridges were built across the East River. Indeed, as the stories of the bridges reveal, they were conceived, located, relocated, and designed by the (sometimes conflicting) recommendations of engineers, and there were long and continuing disagreements as to whether any of the bridges was even beautiful or fulfilled its purpose.

Suspension- and cantilever-type bridge designs proposed to cross the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey (photo credit 4.32)

Various engineering groups responded with “resolutions of remonstrance,” demonstrating their own firm grasp of the history of the New York bridges. Philadelphia’s Society of Municipal Engineers pointed out that “engineers are as keenly aware as any class of citizens, of the need for taste and beauty in structures erected in public view,” and they pointed out a difference between the conditions under which engineers and architects sometimes work. In designing a bridge or some other structure, the engineer is often directed by the client to provide the most economical, no-frills structure. The architect, on the other hand, is “oftenest called in by clients who wish to pay the necessary price for taste and beauty,” and so does not work under the handicap of strict economy in design. The engineer-architect issue was a threatening one, but it became moot, at least in Philadelphia, when Ralph Modjeski was chosen as chief of the board of engineers charged with making recommendations as to site and type of bridge.

After the location of a suspension-bridge design was settled upon and approved, construction on the Delaware River Bridge was begun early in 1922. The final decision was probably made more expeditiously than it might have had there not been a strong desire to have the bridge ready for the Sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1926, and an experienced engineer was most likely to be able to do that. Among the critics of the design was Lindenthal, perhaps remembering Modjeski unkindly as the engineer who gave the stamp of approval to the Manhattan Bridge, whose final plans had, of course, been altered and modified from Lindenthal’s own changed design. Thus he wrote that “the engineer who thinks merely of stresses must combine with the architect, who deals with artistic forms.” In focusing on the towers, the “most prominent feature” of suspension bridges, he asserted that “from the aesthetic point of view, metal towers, no matter how finely designed, will never equal stone towers.” At this time, as we shall see, his own design for the North River Bridge was evolving toward stone from its original steel towers, whose curve had resembled the Eiffel Tower. That was the structure that he still considered “the finest example of an artistic metal tower,” even though “as an architectural creation it does not impress the beholder with that feeling of dignity and majesty which he experiences at the sight of any of the great spires in famous cathedrals.” The Williamsburg Bridge towers, for which “no architect was consulted,” were “bandy-legged,” and the Delaware River Bridge towers were “too much on the utilitarian principle of braced telegraph poles or derricks, holding up ropes.” However, Lindenthal also knew as an engineer that metal towers were “lighter and cheaper,” thus requiring not only less costly and time-consuming foundations but also less capital investment. In a situation where a bridge is desired to be ready for a sesquicentennial, for example, such considerations are naturally persuasive, though seldom sufficiently so to all. In this case, one of the most effective critics was an artist.

Perspective drawing of Delaware River Bridge (photo credit 4.33)

Joseph Pennell, who was born in Philadelphia in 1857, attended evening classes at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art and then the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on and off around 1880, his talents as an illustrator blossoming. He then worked mostly in Europe, traveling back to the United States to record American engineering projects, from which developed the “Wonder of Work” theme of his sketches of projects under construction, such as the Panama Canal and Hell Gate Bridge. World War I caused him to return to the United States more or less permanently, and in 1924 he sketched the Delaware River Bridge under construction. The title of his etching, The Ugliest Bridge in the World, was unkind to the incomplete structure, which was not yet a fully formed bridge. However, the relatively wide towers, necessarily so to accommodate the eight lanes of traffic, were rather squat-looking for their height. It is one of these towers, which Lindenthal found wanting in their design, that is the focus of Pennell’s drawing.

Like the story of great bridges generally, the history of the Delaware River Bridge was long and tortuous. Plans were proposed to cross the river between Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, as early as 1818. In 1843, a model suspension bridge was exhibited at the Franklin Institute Fair, and in 1851 a suspension bridge with four-thousand-foot spans was proposed by John C. Trautwine, Sr., but neither attracted much serious interest. New Jersey and Pennsylvania bridge commissions were in place in 1918, when the firm of Waddell & Son was retained to make a consulting-engineering study. The report concluded that a bridge would be preferable to a tunnel and presented a suspension design with helical incline approaches, no doubt prompted by the high cost of land for the conventional means. The same approach scheme had also been employed in a Waddell design for a bridge across the entrance to the harbor at Havana, Cuba, and had been used as an illustration in the chapter on aesthetics in Bridge Engineering. A consulting architect, Warren P. Laird, was subsequently engaged to advise on the Delaware River Bridge’s location, and the brouhaha over whether engineers or architects should take the lead in such projects resulted.

Comparison of steel-tower designs of several contemporary suspension bridges (photo credit 4.34)

A photograph of the Delaware River Bridge under construction, and Joseph Pennell’s etching of “The Ugliest Bridge in the World.” (photo credit 4.35)

A Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission, created by the two states in 1919, the following year appointed the board of engineers with Ralph Modjeski as chairman and with the distinguished Philadelphia engineers George S. Webster and Lawrence A. Ball as the other members. Suspension and cantilever designs were considered, the former winning out on economic grounds. Modjeski effectively became chief engineer of the project, and he selected Leon Moisseiff engineer of design and Clement E. Chase as principal assistant engineer. Paul P. Cret served as architect to the project, but under the engineer Modjeski, whose personality and predilection for the dramatic dominated throughout construction. Physical construction began with a ceremony early in 1922, but, “in lieu of the traditional digging of the first spadeful of earth, a plank was torn loose” from a pier that the bridge would replace.

Before the bridge was finished, a seemingly unresolvable difference of opinion arose between the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania as to whether or not tolls would be charged. The New Jersey commissioners voted to halt the awarding of contracts—including one to wrap the cables before they began to rust—until it was agreed that tolls would provide funds for interest on and amortization of the bonds that were issued for construction. Philadelphia residents, on the other side of the river and the issue, preferred a free bridge paid for by taxes. Engineering News-Recordreminded its readers that, “under the pressure of post-war costs and overdue public needs,” taxation had “largely ceased to be an attractive means of financing large public improvements.” After the Supreme Court granted Pennsylvania permission to sue New Jersey over the issue, the journal observed that, “if the outcome of Pennsylvania’s attempt to outwit the New Jersey taxpayer succeeds, future public toll-bridge proposals will not have an easy time of it.” In the end, it appears to have been public sentiment in Pennsylvania in favor of a toll that swayed that state’s legislators to retreat from their position. Construction resumed, and the bridge was officially opened to traffic on July 4, 1926. Engineering News-Record reported then that “it probably ranks as the largest public toll enterprise ever carried out,” but that distinction would not hold for long, although the bridge itself was expected by some to last indefinitely. At the twenty-fifty-anniversary ceremonies, for example, it was written: “There will be many more anniversaries, for no man can place a limit upon the time this bridge, magnificently designed, honestly constructed and scrupulously maintained, shall endure as the link between the states.” Such conditions of maintenance can continue practically, however, only as long as toll revenue or some other source of funds provides the resources.

Sketch of Charles Evan Fowler’s proposal for suspension bridges of 3,500-to-4,000-foot main span to cross the Hudson River at three locations (59th Street, 83rd Street, and 178th Street) for a total cost of about $100 million, essentially the same design he proposed for a bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Canada (photo credit 4.36)

By the mid-1920s, great suspension bridges were under construction or being considered in large cities across America, including at Detroit. The Ambassador Bridge, completed only three years after the Delaware River Bridge, would best its 1,750-foot main span by one hundred feet and thus hold the world’s record for a short while. But the record was to be almost doubled in New York in 1931, and increased by another 20 percent in San Francisco in 1937. Though Lindenthal may have conceived and submitted designs for some of these projects, it was the bridge across New York’s Hudson River that he really wanted to build, and for which he still held out hope. His latest design had steel towers enclosed in masonry, following the aesthetic he had recently espoused, and the 825-foot-tall, thirty-five-thousand-ton towers would be higher and more massive than the Woolworth Building, designed by the architect Cass Gilbert and opened in 1913. However, Lindenthal seems not to have completely lost his affection for the bare metal towers of his early North River Bridge design; it, and not its masonry-clad descendant, was illustrated in a long reflective article entitled “Bridge Engineering,” prepared by Lindenthal for the fiftieth-anniversary number of Engineering News-Record, in 1924.

Lindenthal’s 1921 design for a Hudson River bridge at 57th Street (photo credit 4.37)


Approaching his seventy-fifth birthday, Lindenthal was both pragmatic and philosophical. Regarding financial constraints, on which he had a considerable opinion, he wrote: “Engineers are sometimes under the authority of laymen with whom financial considerations may seem more important than safety. If the pressure for cheapness comes from them, then the engineer should decline responsibility for the work.” After looking back over the previous half-century of railroad-bridge building, he began to shift into prognostication: “Large bridges costing millions of dollars were comparatively few and will probably become less frequent in the next fifty years.” He did not want to leave the wrong impression, however, for he continued to point out that the “size of bridges never was limited by question of what we could fabricate, but rather by financial considerations.” Perhaps Lindenthal was beginning to resign himself to the fact that his greatest dream would never be realized, but, then again, he knew that it was not because of the limitations of engineers or engineering.

An illustration of Lindenthal’s proposed bridge, demonstrating how long and heavy its main span would be (photo credit 4.38)

A 1921 comparison of a tower of Lindenthal’s bridge with the Woolworth Building, then the tallest skyscraper in the world (photo credit 4.39)

Looking further into the future, Lindenthal thought it “probable that the zenith of large bridge construction” would be reached in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century, because of the “increasing cost of iron and coal” to make steel. He thought the “iron beds would become exhausted long before the coal mines,” and “the production and use of portland cement (which requires coal for calcination) will also cease,” and that stone bridges would “again be the only practicable lasting kind.” He continued, in a rambling historical mode:

Bridge construction and bridge architecture will be to posterity in a certain sense a surer index of the progress of our present day civilization than houses, temples or cathedrals appear to us of past ages. This will be so because the economizing of iron, when it becomes costly, will probably begin in bridge and structural construction before it begins in other kinds of construction. The large sources of energy in nature, coal, water power, wind, tides, heat of the sun, etc., can none of them be utilized without large masses of iron for the tools, machinery and power plants necessary for the conversion of these energies into power for the use of man—all of them more necessary than iron bridges, which may be then structures de luxe. Surely they would have appeared as such to the armored knights only one thousand years ago, when an iron armor was worth nearly half its weight in silver. Iron bridges, iron ships and railroads will then be curiosities. The colossal consumption of iron will have come to an end. In a span of time much shorter than that from Tut-ankh-amen to the present, steel bridges will probably have disappeared from the face of the earth through corrosion and neglect. Iron is a more perishable material, particularly in northern climates, than stone of which were built the Pyramids and the Greek temples and the wonderful Roman arch aqueducts—all in frostless, benign climates. These could be built again, but not iron bridges.

Lindenthal underestimated the world’s store of iron and did not foresee in 1924 the enormous amount of steel that the automobile would consume, nor did he seem to foresee the tremendous amount of pollution it and the steel mills in its service would create. Such developments would invalidate his climatic argument and threaten the Pyramids as much as iron bridges. But, in spite of his flight of iron fancy, the old man was still not willing to give up his dream completely; his last paragraph held out a glimmer of hope in civilization’s retreat from the iron age:

The creative genius of mankind, which now in this glorious age of iron is ascending to hyperbolic eminence in every branch of technical science, will leave few if any durable iron monuments to distant prosperity. Among them should surely be, if possible, substantial large iron bridges that could be made to last several thousand years, if properly cared for in countries with stable, high civilizations. But who can look that far into the future?

Lindenthal may have been able on paper to wrap his steel towers in masonry in the hopes of preserving them for thousands of years, but he would have had to make many other pragmatic modifications to his great bridge if he had hoped to see it begun in his lifetime.

After the Hell Gate and Sciotoville spans were complete, Lindenthal had returned in earnest to the related issues of the North River Bridge and the “port problem of New York.” In 1918, during an “exceptionally severe winter,” in which New York was cut off from coal and food supplies by a frozen Hudson River, he issued a privately printed pamphlet reiterating much of what he had written three decades earlier, but he was no longer advocating a railroad bridge only—he was now predicting that six million cars per year would also pass over such a bridge. With an uncharacteristic dropping of the definite article, he anticipated “the slowing up and congestion of vehicles at ends of bridge for the purpose of paying toll,” and suggested making the bridge free for highway traffic to avoid the problem. He had come to recognize the motor vehicle as something to be taken into account, but did not see it as a source of revenue. This was especially curious since he repeatedly pointed out that finances, not engineering, were the impediment to progress with his bridge plans. He felt the times were still not right financially, however, and “it would be folly even to think of starting construction and diverting capital to it until a year or two after the war—whenever that may be.” The great toll bridges, like the one across the Delaware at Philadelphia, were still a few years away.

The 1918 tract was signed “Dr. Engr. Gustav Lindenthal,” reflecting his possession of the honorary doctor-of-engineering degree conferred upon him in Dresden in 1911, but also lending credence to his lack of earlier degrees—why else would he not have appended them to his name before, or made an issue of the matter of degrees in his review of Waddell’s book? He also signed another pamphlet, published the following winter, “Dr. Eng. Gustav Lindenthal,” this time using another form of the abbreviation, suggesting that he was experimenting with the title he had only recently come to use. This study, addressed to the New York, New Jersey Port and Harbor Development Commission, was a comprehensive plan for railroad-terminal plans that included a double-deck bridge with the following capacity:

Lower Deck:

4 Railroad tracks for freight (all needed from the start).

4 Railroad tracks for passenger trains from 7 railroad systems, with together 24 tracks to the Union Station (all 4 tracks needed from the start).

2 Tracks for moving (or conveyor) platform from under 57th Street.

Roadway configuration for Lindenthal’s Hudson River Bridge, 1923 version (photo credit 4.40)

Upper Deck:

2 Tracks for rapid transit trains to 9th Avenue Elevated.

2 Trolley tracks for surface cars.

6 Lines of vehicular traffic.

2 Sidewalks.

Lindenthal summarized the history of attempts to bridge the North River, discussed tunnels versus bridges, and referred to his earlier pamphlet discussing the advantages of having private capital build the bridge. Finance and political economy, “the most backward and the least understood” of the “departments of knowledge,” were also the focus of a treatise written by Lindenthal and first published in 1922. As revised in 1933, A Sound Scientific Money System, as a Cure for Unemployment, was the engineer’s Depression-era attempt to apply scientific-engineering principles to “deduce and predict the safety and stability of a money system.” None of his efforts or writings was to bring sufficient investors to his bridge project, however.

As Lindenthal grew older, each birthday was noted by the press. On the occasion of his eightieth, in 1930, for example, he was reported to have planned to spend part of the day at the office of the North River Bridge Company, in Jersey City, and the rest of the day at his home in Metuchen, New Jersey. He later admitted to being a bit miffed that his associate on the bridge project, the consulting engineer Francis Lee Stuart, called him to come into Manhattan for an important business lunch at the Engineers Club. It proved to be a surprise birthday luncheon, perhaps marred only by his being asked if he was not cheered that the war was over and that the War Department was going to reconsider his proposed North River Bridge. “He waved the inquiry aside,” however, saying “he would rather not discuss the bridge on his birthday.”

On his eighty-first birthday, in the year when the George Washington Bridge was to be opened at 179th Street, The New York Times reported that the War Department had still not ruled on Lindenthal’s bridge 120 blocks to the south. Nevertheless, he was now confident that it would, as he spent the day hard at work in his office from eight-thirty in the morning till five in the evening. The application for a permit was eventually “pigeonholed for eight or nine years,” however, and approval was never to come. Honors, not bridges, came to Lindenthal in his old age. Late in 1932, for example, he was hailed at a dinner given by the Architecture League as the “grand old man of engineering.” In response to his introduction as one of the guests of honor, Lindenthal spoke of his career and “of his difficulties with politicians particularly in the building of the Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queens-borough bridges and of his feeling of satisfaction when unhampered by political interference he built the great Hell Gate arch.” He evidently never did learn how to or want to deal with politicians, and this, more than any other factor, kept him from realizing his dream of a North River Bridge.

An illustration showing how New York’s City Hall could fit across the roadway of Lindenthal’s bridge (photo credit 4.41)

Another view of Lindenthal’s never-realized Hudson River Bridge (photo credit 4.42)

For all the hailing and reminiscing, there must also have been a certain tension at the dinner, for two other engineers were honored along with Lindenthal. One was Ralph Modjeski, who had already built the Delaware River Bridge, and was currently chairman of the board of consulting engineers for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, then under construction. Though soon to be overshadowed by the longer central span of the Golden Gate Bridge, whose construction was just about to begin, the Bay Bridge was in fact a greater project in total length. Comprising back-to-back suspension spans, each with 2,310-foot main spans, a massive tunnel through Yerba Buena Island, and a fourteen-hundred-foot cantilever span across the East Bay, the overall bridge was to dwarf all others. The third honoree at the architects’ league dinner was Othmar Ammann, once Lindenthal’s assistant, but now being honored as the designer and builder of the George Washington Bridge, which, with a thirty-five-hundred-foot main span, was not only by far the longest suspension bridge then in existence, but also the first to cross the Hudson at New York, albeit much farther north than the bridge of Lindenthal’s dreams.

Gustav Lindenthal, as an old man (photo credit 4.43)

Among the dinner speakers was Cass Gilbert, who had served as consulting architect to the George Washington Bridge. His speech “emphasized the necessity of cooperation between the engineer and the architect.” Francis Lee Stuart, then a consulting engineer for the city, also spoke, citing “the long span bridge as the most outstanding advance in the science of engineering during the last century.” It will take another chapter to untangle all the past battles, victories, and defeats their remarks must have evoked in the minds of the engineers and architects present at the dinner.

Lindenthal did not go to his office on his eighty-fifth birthday. He spent it at his New Jersey home, which he had named The Lindens, recuperating after a long illness. He was never to regain his health, and he died two months later. Until his final illness, he had remained active as president and chief engineer of the North River Bridge Company, working on “his dream of forty years.” The funeral was held at the family home. Of the two younger engineers most closely associated with Lindenthal during the construction of the Hell Gate Bridge, only David Steinman was reported to be in attendance.

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