Common section



Engineers can dream alone, but they can seldom bring their dreams to fruition by solitary effort. The roots of large-project engineering, such as bridge building, lie in military operations, which necessarily involve generals and soldiers, chieftains and Indians. Though the chief engineer may be the one who holds the grand plan in his head, it may ever remain his dream alone unless he can command a staff of engineers to direct still others to commit the concept to paper, to carry out the voluminous calculations that flesh out the dream and put a price on it, and to make the numerous drawings of details that allow it all to come together in the field. As generals begin as soldiers, and chieftains as Indians, so engineers of record begin as anonymous draftsmen and calculators. The best remember their professional roots.

Othmar Hermann Ammann was born in 1879 in the Swiss city of Schaffhausen and grew up just across the Rhine River in the small town of Feuerthalen, in the canton of Zurich. The river takes a sharp bend there, just above the Rhine Falls, and bridges played an important role in the communication between the people living on the opposite banks. Othmar’s father, Emanuel Christian Ammann, the descendant of a long line of physicians, clergymen, lawyers, merchants, and government figures, was a well-to-do hat manufacturer, and his mother, born Emilie Rosa Labhardt, was the daughter of the noted landscape painter and lithographer Emanuel Labhardt. Thus it was not thought unusual that young Othmar often carried a sketching pad and pencil to the riverbank, where he drew images of a four-hundred-foot-long wooden bridge that had been built there in the previous century by the town carpenter, Hans Ulrich Grubenmann, and that was still remembered throughout the world as the largest of its kind. Two of Othmar’s brothers would grow up to be painters, but he seems to have known early on that he would be either an architect or an engineer.

Othmar continued to sketch throughout his teenage years, and he enrolled in the state college in Zurich intending to study architecture. However, after he found himself excelling in mathematics, becoming the top student in the subject, and being drawn more and more to scientific subjects, he entered the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to study engineering. At this prestigious school, known around the world by the initials ETH, which stand for Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Ammann studied under such influential and active engineers as Wilhelm Ritter, who had spent three months of 1893 in America, attending the World’s Fair in Chicago and visiting many bridge sites. He incorporated his experiences into his lectures, and a written record of bridge building as he found it in the United States was published in 1895 as Der Brückenbau in den Vereinigten Staaten Amerikas. The final span illustrated in Ritter’s survey was Lindenthal’s proposed Hudson River crossing, and there can be little doubt that Ammann in Switzerland was aware of this.

While still a student, Ammann had worked one summer at a bridge-fabricating plant; by the time he graduated with a civil-engineering degree in 1902, he knew what kind of structures he wanted to design and build. He began his career as a structural draftsman with the firm of Wartmann & Valette, in Brugg, Switzerland, where he gained some experience surveying for a mountain railway and designing a modest stone arch. After a year or so, he moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where he joined the firm of Buchheim & Heister as an assistant engineer working on reinforced-concrete designs. Apparently looking for a more satisfying experience, Ammann took the advice of another of his polytechnic professors, Karl Emil Hilgard, who had worked in America for three years as a bridge engineer for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and sailed for New York. In America, Ammann thought, he could gain a few years’ experience in an environment where some of the greatest bridges in the world were being built. Furthermore, according to Professor Hilgard, there was more opportunity for a young engineer in America, where “the engineer has greater freedom in applying individual ideas.” He showed his students pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge and of bridges over the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and told them that, in the United States, he had “seen youngsters in charge of work which, in Europe, only graybeards would be allowed to perform.” Whereas some of young Othmar’s classmates had accused Hilgard of “being more American than the Americans,” Ammann took him at his word.


A 1904 photograph shows a young Ammann looking dreamily out a window, his cheek resting on a closed hand and his elbow resting on a table full of books and plans. An engineer’s scale and slide rule are in the foreground, at the ready for the designing of great bridges—as was the young engineer, though only in his dreams at the time:

My first serious interest in the problem of bridging the Hudson was awakened shortly after my arrival in New York on a visit to the top of the Palisades Cliffs from where I obtained a splendid view of the majestic river. For the first time I could envisage the bold undertaking, the spanning of the broad waterway with a single leap of 3000 feet from shore to shore, nearly twice the longest span in existence. This visit came at that time as near to a dream to see the ambitious effort materialized. Nevertheless, for a young engineer it was a thrill to contemplate its possibility, and from that moment as my interest in great bridges grew I followed all developments with respect to the bridging of the Hudson River with keenest interest.

By this time, Ammann no doubt knew all about the proposals of Lindenthal and others to span the Hudson, and he realized that, for all the opportunity America presented to youth, the matter of credibility still had to be addressed, as well as confidence. As he would reflect and advise a quarter-century later, when he was actually building his dream:

Get all the experience you can.… Learn from those who mastered your trade or profession before you. I have known many ambitious young men to fret themselves and waste their energies early in life because they could not achieve at once great things, for which, as a matter of fact, they were not prepared.

It is true of other careers as it is of the engineer’s—the first thing a man must decide is whether or not he has the ability to follow the calling he has chosen. Once convinced of this, it is a matter of hard work and experience; if the experience you need isn’t thrown in your way, you must move heaven and earth to get it.…

Let me put it another way: Study the career of any man of real achievement, and you will almost certainly find that this is true: from the very start he was not only willing but eager to profit by the experience of others. How true it is that there is nothing absolutely new under the sun! However great a man’s achievement may be, it rests, in the final analysis, not upon radical departures from the experience of those who went before him, but upon the way in which he adapts their experience to his own purpose.

Ammann, in short, had a vision and a plan, and he assiduously followed the advice he would someday give to others. He knew in 1904, fresh off the boat from Switzerland, that he was not yet in fact ready to build great bridges, but he began immediately to plan to, and to move as much of heaven and earth to his advantage as he could. With letters of introduction from Professor Hilgard, who had advised him to keep his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut while he was gaining experience, Ammann promptly found a position as assistant in the office of Joseph Mayer, on lower Broadway, “the first door he knocked on.” Mayer was a consulting engineer in New York who had been chief engineer of the Union Bridge Company, Lindenthal’s rival for spanning the Hudson, and had produced the monstrous cantilever design for the 70th Street location. No doubt Mayer saw many advantages in hiring this well-trained and talented young immigrant, not least of which were his multilingual abilities, a substantial asset in polyglot New York. It is easy to imagine that Ammann also saw real advantages in associating himself with an engineer so close to large and important projects, albeit still dreams.

The relationship between Ammann and Mayer was brief, lasting only from the spring to late fall of 1904, during which time the young engineer “designed twenty-five or thirty railroad bridges.” Othmar wrote to his parents in early December that his “boss was simply a skinflint and thought he could save a few dollars, in that he could cut my salary in half during the time that he had no work.” The later image of a shy and retreating Ammann is belied by his report that he did not accept such treatment and extracted from a “morally obliged” Mayer a good recommendation that helped him get a new position with the Pennsylvania Steel Company, located in Steelton, just south of Harrisburg, near where the Pennsylvania Turnpike now crosses the Susquehanna River. Ammann wrote to his parents from Harrisburg, where he lived, that he was working for the second-largest bridge-construction firm in America.

He was enthusiastic about his new position, in which he was immediately assigned the design of a bridge almost five hundred feet long. He described the office, in which about one hundred engineers and technicians worked, as “very modern and practically organized” and located close to the bridge workshops, which he visited in his free time and in which he gained still more experience. Ammann reported to his parents that his salary was “about $70 per month” plus overtime, but he asked them, without giving a reason, not to share this information with anyone. He wrote that “the more I learn the more ambitious I become and the more I enjoy my work,” and he assured his mother that he was eating well and not drinking so much as the young people back home. To his father he explained that the only photographs he had taken in New York were technical; he promised to take some different ones to send home. In the summer of 1905, Ammann returned to Switzerland, where he married his school sweetheart, Lilly Selma Wehrli, the sister of the Wehrli Brothers, who were well-known photographers. Lilly and Othmar returned to Pennsylvania, and he continued to work in Steelton.

Othmar Ammann in 1904 (photo credit 5.1)

Among the projects in Ammann’s division at the Pennsylvania Steel Company was the fourth bridge across New York’s East River, at Blackwell’s Island, to be known as the Queensboro Bridge. This was, of course, to be the great cantilever connecting Manhattan with the borough of Queens, and Ammann worked on it under chief engineer Frederic C. Kunz, who was in charge of construction. Ammann no doubt saw this as a rare opportunity to learn about the practical aspects of bringing to completion a bridge project almost as massive as that needed to span the Hudson. Like much of the work of engineers in subordinate positions, Ammann’s under Kunz was largely anonymous. That does not mean it was insignificant, however; when Kunz’s book, Design of Steel Bridges, was published in 1915, he would acknowledge Ammann in the preface, along with two other engineers, “for their able assistance in the preparation” of the volume. Among the many plates in that book is one showing the elevations of notable cantilever bridges, and the Queensboro, on which Ammann worked, was clearly among the most notable. Drawn to scale between the Forth Bridge and the second Quebec Bridge, then under construction, the Queensboro was clearly a distinct and significant span, regardless of what some critics would say.

It was while the Queensboro Bridge was still under construction that the first Quebec Bridge collapsed, and Kunz, Ammann, and every other engineer in Steelton, just seventy-five miles from the Phoenix Bridge Company’s design office at Phoenixville, felt the shock. It was immediately clear that, as with all major structural failures, there would be an investigation. When C. C. Schneider, formerly with the American Bridge Company, was named to lead the investigation, Ammann, presumably through Kunz, offered his assistance. Ammann could clearly have seen this as another opportunity to be involved with one of the most significant current bridge problems, but there was also a clear advantage to his employer, the Pennsylvania Steel Company, in being as close to the investigation as possible, so that lessons learned might be applied to their own great cantilever project. Though the report that appeared under Schneider’s name owed much to Ammann, he was still an assistant, and thus did not receive the explicit formal recognition he may have deserved. He is said by hagiographers to have become “the actual boss of the study, and to this very day his report is considered as a model of thorough investigation,” but the truth of that may hinge on one’s definition of “boss.” Whatever the respective roles of Schneider, Kunz, and Ammann, after the Quebec Bridge report was published in 1908 and the Queensboro Bridge opened in 1909, they all three found themselves together in Philadelphia, in the newly constituted engineering firm of Schneider & Kunz. Ammann, who became principal assistant engineer with the firm, was clearly still a junior and not yet a named partner in engineering endeavors and enterprises. He was in a position to have assisted Kunz in designing a new Quebec Bridge in 1909, but Ammann must have been disappointed that Kunz’s span had none of the grace of the Queensboro Bridge and was not in the end selected to be built. After eight years with Kunz, Ammann sought a change, and his superiors recommended him to Gustav Lindenthal.

Whereas Kunz had been chief engineer of construction of the Queensboro, Lindenthal, of course, was chief engineer of its design. Ammann must have admired the technical ambition of Lindenthal, whose two-decades-old proposal for a Hudson River crossing was then still the grandest dream of all, the kind of dream that had actually lured Ammann to America. Thus, when he had the opportunity to take a position with Lindenthal’s firm, he accepted it eagerly. In a characteristically unemotional understatement of the event, he wrote in his diary in the third person on July 1, 1912, “OHA started position with G.L.,” and a little ways down the page added, “Mr. L. stated: I estimate an Engineer ⅓ by his character, ⅓ by his ability and ⅓ by his experience.” Lindenthal must have estimated Ammann high in all three thirds, for before the end of three months on the job Ammann could add to his diary, on September 24, “I am appointed Assistant Chief Engineer of East River Bridge Division, New York Connecting Railroad, by Mr. G. Lindenthal.” In his new position, Ammann was to be in general charge of the office, field, and inspection work for the $20-million project, whose centerpiece was the Hell Gate Bridge across the East River.

Ammann was Lindenthal’s chief assistant among the staff of ninety-five engineers, which included the special assistant engineer David Steinman, who would later become Ammann’s main rival. War in Europe overshadowed such nascent competitions, however. After only two years of work on the Hell Gate project, and just before erection of the arch proper was begun, Ammann left for Switzerland to help in the possible fight against Germany. Although still a Swiss citizen and reserve officer, the thirty-five-year-old lieutenant’s return to his homeland after a decade in America turned out to be less than the glorious military campaign he may have anticipated on his eastward sailing. He managed a discharge after only eighty-one days of active service, and that mostly in a supervisory capacity building fortifications on the St. Gotthard Mountains in the Swiss Alps. Barely four months after he had left Lindenthal’s office, Ammann reported back to resume work on the Hell Gate Bridge—and thereby to displace Steinman.

Over the next year, Ammann supervised the completion of the great arch; the last rivet was driven into the bridge in September 1916. By this time, he held the position of deputy chief engineer, and he was the logical choice to draft a report on the completed project. Although national meetings of the American Society of Civil Engineers were omitted in the years 1917 and 1918 because of the war, local meetings continued to be held in metropolitan areas like New York, and on November 21, 1917, Ammann presented a full and most authoritative account of the planning and construction of the Hell Gate Bridge. It was published in the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers for 1918 and awarded the Rowland Prize that year. Whereas Ammann played an anonymous role of uncertain extent in the actual authorship of Schneider’s report on the Quebec Bridge and Kunz’s book on the design of steel bridges, there can be little doubt as to who wrote the 150-page paper on the Hell Gate Bridge. Ammann does acknowledge his “obligation, for permission to present this paper and for valuable information, to Gustav Lindenthal,” but the paper carries only a single author’s name: O. H. Ammann. To Lindenthal’s credit, he did not pull rank to have his name displace Ammann’s or be added to it, nor did he squelch Ammann’s opportunity to get full credit at last for his ability to plan and execute engineering reports of uncommon clarity and style. This talent would in later years often be remarked about in popular profiles of the engineer, but it was not lost on the engineering audience either. Indeed, one member of the society, Henry Quimby of Philadelphia, closed his discussion of Ammann’s paper with some extraordinary remarks:

The paper is an unusually satisfying one, both in the fact that it appears while the public and the professional interest in the remarkable feat is still fresh, and in that it discusses so freely the reasons for the various features of the design. The oral presentation of the subject by the author was also exceptionally felicitous, summarizing and supplementing the paper rather than repeating it by reading word for word, as is too often done with preprinted papers.

Writing, not to mention speaking ability, is an often overlooked talent of successful engineers. There can be little doubt that John Roebling’s ability to put pen to paper made it immensely easier for him to gain political and financial support for his milestone Niagara and Brooklyn bridge projects. Eads and Cooper wrote voluminously, as did Lindenthal, though his apparent inability to keep his pen from drifting from the main objective of his words into diatribe must have taken away from the sound and otherwise convincing arguments that he advanced. Ammann, on the other hand, seems to have approached his engineering reports with all the circumspection and rationality that he did design projects, without having to sacrifice aesthetics or style in either. Later in life, he would speak often to reporters about his writing, confessing that reports were no easier to design than bridges, and that he usually had to take his manuscripts home “and work on them until two in the morning.” Among Margot Ammann’s earliest recollections of her father was of him “bent over his desk, writing a report.” He wrote “on a block of yellow lined paper” with a pen that had a thick nib, judging from the documents that survive. Her recollection also speaks to his discipline with regard to correctness and revision: “He frequently consulted the dictionary that was always by his elbow and [made] revisions with much slashing, writing in the margins and changing of sequence by cutting paragraphs with scissors and then pasting them elsewhere in the report.” A New Jersey neighbor who was often awake to attend to a sick mother throughout the night corroborated Ammann’s work habits: “Whenever I looked over to the Ammann house, at one o’clock, three o’clock, there was always a light burning in Mr. Ammann’s study and I knew he was working.”

Ammann would have plenty of opportunity to hone his writing skills, for he was to produce over one hundred full-length reports during his career, suggesting the large number of projects on which he worked. In the time between the completion of the Hell Gate project and the presentation of his paper on it, Ammann was principal assistant engineer to consulting and chief engineer Lindenthal for the steel superstructure, erected by the McClintic-Marshall Company of Pittsburgh, for the Sciotoville Bridge over the Ohio River. This bridge too had added considerably to Lindenthal’s reputation as among the greatest bridge builders of his age, of course, and he himself wrote the paper reporting on it. However, as opposed to the timeliness of Ammann’s report on the Hell Gate, Lindenthal’s paper came five years after the bridge was completed. Indeed, the paper’s opening sentence acknowledges that the “peculiar construction” of the bridge had “been the subject of frequent inquiries,” and offered the “detailed, although somewhat belated, description” as the “permanent record” of the project. In contrast to Ammann’s fluid and inclusive style, Lindenthal’s, in his forty-five-page paper, is jerky and contentious, if not curt at times, with statements of fact and opinion intermixed. In a section on the history of continuous truss bridges, for example, after describing Robert Stephenson’s classic Britannia Bridge, Lindenthal remarks that “too much credit cannot be given to that galaxy of early English bridge engineers,” which included Stephenson, and Lindenthal goes on to express his clear approval of their ways: “They did their own thinking; they did not wait for precedents, but created them.” Lindenthal clearly must have thought of himself, and his Hudson River Bridge, in the tradition of these engineers. He seems to have gained resolve from such a reading of history, much as Eads had found in Telford’s ideas a precedent for a great arch bridge at St. Louis.

As was customary, Lindenthal acknowledged those who had helped with the project. In contrast with an engineer like Waddell, whose paper on the Halsted Street Lift-Bridge recognized first the politicians who made the project possible, Lindenthal made no mention of the commissioners of the bridge, the Chesapeake & Ohio Northern Railway, other than matter-of-factly in the paper’s title, and then essentially only to locate precisely the artifact itself, rather than to flatter its owners. Only the engineers and constructors were acknowledged for their assistance “in this unusual work, bristling with new problems and difficulties.” Those singled out included David Steinman, for “computations of superstructure,” but Ammann was mentioned first and foremost as “Principal Assistant Engineer in general charge.”

Unlike the abrupt closing of Lindenthal’s paper, Ammann’s on the Hell Gate summarized in systematic list-like form “some broader engineering questions,” or lessons learned from the project. His remarks are clearly laudatory toward Lindenthal, but the reader cannot help thinking that assistants like Ammann gain in stature by their association with the chief engineer and his projects:

A great engineering work cannot be spontaneously created in its final, perfect form, but has to grow and develop gradually, in its entirety as well as in its constitutent parts. Although the layman can only judge such a work in the light of an accomplished fact, the engineer must ever be conscious that it is only through extensive and laborious preliminary studies, and untiring efforts to improve, that he can hope to achieve a perfect work.

In the execution of a great and complex engineering or scientific undertaking, collaboration of experts in various fields is essential, but a great structure of monumental character must be the product of an individual creative and directive mind.

A great structure cannot be the result of a set of rules and specifications, nor of elaborate mathematical computations. Such a work requires wide experience and sound judgment, and therefore, should be entrusted only to engineers of high professional attainments and reputation.

Lindenthal’s plan for a Hudson River crossing indeed fell into the category of “a great structure of monumental character,” but as the great engineer approached his seventieth year he had become less and less flexible about how the project might evolve with the needs of an evolving metropolitan area. The war had slowed bridge construction generally, and it was a time of inactivity for engineering firms like Gustav Lindenthal’s. This might have been an opportunity to do speculative work on the Hudson River plan, making it more economical and therefore more attractive to potential supporters, but Lindenthal apparently chose not to do that. After the Hell Gate and Sciotoville projects, there was little to do in the office even for Ammann, and Lindenthal suggested that he try to get work elsewhere until there was something for which to call him back. Nothing else was available, however, and Ammann was thinking about entering war service when Lindenthal offered him a position as manager of a clay mine jointly owned by Lindenthal himself and a New Jersey judge, later governor, George S. Silzer. Ammann subsequently admitted that “the position was not attractive,” but he “accepted it [so] as to be on hand in case Mr. Lindenthal needed my assistance.”

Othmar Ammann spent the next few years effectively exiled in the central-New Jersey county of Middlesex, managing the obscure mine of the Such Clay Pottery Company rather than building grand steel bridges. When he took over the operation of the mine, it was unprofitable, and so his compensation was in jeopardy. However, he turned the situation around, thereby demonstrating a sound managerial sense and business acumen. His performance could hardly have been lost on Lindenthal and Silzer; the latter especially would no doubt recall it years hence.

Standard biographical sketches of Ammann do not mention his time working at the New Jersey mine. Rather, all the years between 1912 and 1923 in his career are accounted for as being spent working for Lindenthal, as he technically was. In addition to work on the major Hell Gate and Sciotoville projects, studies for the 57th Street Bridge did in fact continue throughout that period, though in limited form. In 1920, when the war and the recession were over, questions of a Hudson River crossing again became paramount in New York and New Jersey, and Ammann was appointed assistant chief engineer of the North River Bridge Company. Lindenthal’s dream sprang from nineteenth-century assumptions about the importance of an over-water railroad link between the states, and his plans had grown to accommodate twenty vehicle lanes as well as twelve railway tracks. There were also to be terminal facilities and a moving platform for pedestrians. The estimated cost for the bridge alone, of over $200 million, was prohibitively high, and solid backing continued to be elusive. In 1921, the formation of the North River Bridge Corporation was announced, with over $250 million in capital stock, but the general feeling in banking circles at the time was that such a large capital undertaking would not be very viable. Soon, an organization known as the Hudson River Bridge and Terminal Association was incorporated, its purpose being “to obtain public support for the undertaking, projected by Gustav Lindenthal, an eminent bridge engineer, to build a great double-deck highway and railroad bridge from Manhattan to Weehawken.”


Among the complicating factors in the early 1920s in winning approval for bridging the Hudson was the alternative of vehicular tunnels, which was gaining support. Railroad tunnels had by then long operated successfully under the Hudson, and subway tunnels under the East River had become almost unremarkable feats. There was only one principal remaining doubt as to the efficacy of going under rather than over the river: it remained to be seen whether the exhaust gases of automobile and truck traffic could be effectively removed from a subaqueous tunnel a mile or two in length. In spite of this, as early as 1918 a meeting between the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission resulted in a joint commission organized to promote the crossing of the Hudson River, and the preference was for a tunnel.

The commission debated Hudson River crossings during the winter of 1918, a particularly severe one. New York Harbor was icebound, and the inability of delivery trucks to get across the river on ferries resulted in a “coal famine.” Since the joint commission had recently asked a consulting engineer to look at proposed tunnel plans and report critically on them, the time was propitious for an underwater crossing to gain support. The fact that the consulting engineer was George Washington Goethals ensured that the issue received much publicity.

George Goethals was born in Brooklyn in 1858, but his family moved to Manhattan when the quiet and somewhat shy, studious, and yet well-liked boy was eleven. His education in New York City public schools, the City College of New York, and West Point, from which he was to graduate in 1880, would later in life give him a sense of obligation to public works, at which he would excel. Six feet tall, with blue eyes and a ruddy complexion, young Goethals was an impressive figure, and his early inclination was to follow the profession of either law or medicine. However, mathematics attracted him in school, and he became increasingly interested in engineering, leaving City College before completing his degree to take advantage of a vacancy in the Cadet Corps that had opened up at West Point. He remained at the military academy for a year after graduation, teaching astronomy, but soon afterward was assigned to work on the Columbia River and later the Ohio River, to assist in making improvements for navigation. He returned to the military academy in the late 1880s to teach civil and military engineering, and then was assigned to work on improvements on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, including work on the Muscle Shoals Canal, near Chattanooga, and the Colbert Shoals Lock. He served at army headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a period, in the Spanish-American War, and on various river-and-harbor improvement projects in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. As if this broad experience were not enough, his service on the General Staff from 1903 to 1907 gave him considerable exposure in Washington, and by then he was a natural choice to take on leadership of the Panama Canal project. No doubt sensitive to the debate as to whether the canal should be a private or a military project, Lieutenant Colonel Goethals never wore his uniform in Panama. When the canal, which had been under discussion for centuries and under construction for decades, was finally opened in 1914, Goethals was a hero, if not a legend, for his ability to complete what so many before him had started. He was promoted to major general in 1915 and retired from the army in 1916, whereupon he moved to New York to work as a consulting engineer.

In that capacity, he was extremely influential in the growing debates over the nature of transportation in the New York area. The governor of New Jersey asked Goethals to lay out a new highway system for that state, and he was involved with questions of moving military goods in and through the New York and New Jersey area during World War I. Thus he was an almost unassailable authority on how to forestall a future coal famine, which in 1918 “was due almost entirely to the city’s inability because of the ice-choked river to transport thousands of tons of coal that were literally in sight on the other side of the river, and yet as unattainable as if they were still in the mines.”

Goethals estimated that the 1913 vehicular-tunnel proposal of the firm of Jacobs & Davies, with some of his own modifications, could be built in three years and could be paid for with tolls that were less than the ferries charged. Furthermore, if it was lined with concrete blocks instead of iron, the tunnel construction could proceed without interfering with the war effort. The joint commission, which had originally been charged with considering an interstate bridge at either 59th, 110th, or 179th Street, was thus now leaning toward a tunnel entering Manhattan at Canal Street, where the terrain was favorable. Goethals had convinced them, in the midst of the coal famine, that such a solution was the quickest and cheapest one and, by replacing the need for ferry slips, it would free up valuable waterfront space for commerce. Furthermore, since war conditions were making it imperative that vast amounts of materiel be moved through New York Harbor, the government might share the cost of a tunnel. Though this seems not to have happened, by early 1919 Goethals’s plan had been fleshed out to comprise a single tunnel with two levels, each to accommodate three lanes of traffic in a roadway twenty-four and a half feet wide. The cost of $12 million was to be shared equally by New York and New Jersey; toll revenue was expected to pay for the tunnel in twenty years while at the same time establishing a maintenance fund.

In June 1919, with the necessary state legislation finally passed, the joint commission appointed as chief engineer Clifford M. Holland, because, although “the youngest chief tunnel engineer in the United States and probably in all the world,” he had extensive experience in building subways and tunnels in New York. Holland was born in Somerset, Massachusetts, in 1883, and he graduated from Harvard in 1906 with both bachelor of arts and civil-engineering degrees. He went to New York and became an assistant engineer with the Rapid Transit Commission, which was then building the city’s subways. It would be said of Holland that “he spent more time underground, particularly in compressed air, than any other civil engineer on similar work.” In accepting responsibility for tunneling under the Hudson River, Holland insisted that he be given free rein in selecting his engineering staff, and his strong sense of conviction and determination would be essential to his prevailing when it came to the nature of the tunnel that would be designed. The report of his appointment made clear that he would indeed have broad responsibilities and discretion:

Two unrealized proposals for Hudson River vehicular tunnels, by the firm of Jacobs & Davies in 1910 (left) and by O’Rourke and Goethals in 1919(photo credit 5.2)

The duties of the chief engineer are to organize an office and field staff sufficient to gather data concerning physical conditions of site, to make the necessary surveys, to prepare estimates of cost and to decide upon the type, size and location of the proposed tunnel. After this work is completed the work of drawing plans and preparing specifications in detail so that contractors may bid will be taken up.

Goethals had prepared a conceptual plan and made a gross determination of feasibility and an estimate of cost, but it was now time to look carefully and critically at all aspects of such designs, consider alternatives, and work out details so as to ensure that the tunnel was buildable and workable. For his responsible charge of the novel undertaking, Holland was to be paid a salary of $10,000 per year. Each member of the board of consulting engineers was also to be paid the same sum, and they were required to meet biweekly or oftener until the type of tunnel was agreed upon. The board consisted of J. Vipond Davies, a partner in the firm of Jacobs & Davies, who before proposing a vehicular tunnel had built the twin tunnels for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the two pairs of the so-called McAdoo (later, Hudson) tubes that carried the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad; Henry W. Hodge, whose extensive experience with bridge design, including a proposed Hudson River crossing, had made him familiar with conditions on the river bottom; William H. Burr, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Columbia University, who had had wide experience in bridge and harbor engineering and had been appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to the international board created to settle the question of what kind of canal to build in Panama; and Colonel William J. Wilgus and Major John H. Bensel, representing military experience and interests.

As with all large engineering projects, the chief engineer was to be assisted by many others. Several key appointments were approved at a meeting of the joint commission on July 1, 1919: Jesse B. Snow was appointed principal assistant engineer, at $5,400 per annum; Milton H. Freeman, resident engineer, $4,200; Ole Singstad, designing engineer, $4,200; and Ronald M. Beck, assistant engineer, $3,000. These were only some of the engineering expenses to be associated with the project, of course; the total cost of engineering services would be on the order of 6 percent of the total project cost, which through the end of 1919 continued to be taken at Goethals’s estimate of $12 million. Thus, when Holland’s report was made public in early 1920, it was full of surprises. Not only was the cost of the project put at nearly twice what had been thought, but Goethals’s design was severely criticized and rejected by Holland. According to his report:

After a very careful investigation of this plan your engineer found that: First, the capacity of the tunnel is greatly overestimated, as the width of roadway is not sufficient for three lines of ordinary and usual traffic, but is sufficient only for two lines of traffic and a three-foot walk; second, the lining of concrete blocks is not of sufficient strength to withstand the external load, and is not suited to the Hudson River conditions; third, the difficulties of construction would be enormously increased and the methods supposed to overcome them are undeveloped and do not insure the safe prosecution of the work, so that its successful completion is a matter of conjecture; fourth, the estimated cost of construction is entirely too low; fifth, the time for construction, fixed at three years, is very much less than would be required.

The report was signed by only four consulting engineers, for Henry Hodge had died in the meantime, and they gave their unanimous support to Holland’s plan for twin cast-iron lined tubes each twenty-nine feet in diameter over Goethals’s proposal for a single forty-two-foot-diameter concrete lined tube. By backing the more conservative plan, they were keeping within the state of the art and demonstrated practice. Although a total of eleven plans were considered, Goethals’s had gotten the most publicity, and it was his that caught the most visible criticism, no doubt because it had theretofore appeared to be the design of choice.

Clifford Holland’s design for a Hudson River vehicular tunnel made up of twin tubes (photo credit 5.3)

Within days of the release of Holland’s report, Goethals wrote to the joint commission requesting data and analysis substantiating the conclusions against his design. Holland suggested that Goethals, like any citizen, could come to the office to examine what was a matter of public record, but the engineer’s staff could not afford to spend the three weeks it would take to assemble the material for him. In the meantime, Edward A. Byrne, chief engineer of the Department of Plant and Structure for New York City and a member of the consulting board serving without special compensation, let it be known that he did not support the report’s conclusion. New York had, of course, a long history of corruption and influence-peddling in the construction of public works, especially in the context of the political machine known as Tammany Hall, and it appears that the situation was once again rife with abuses. Byrne, sitting on a board as part of his job while his colleagues were drawing annual retainers of $10,000 for their participation, might have been especially vulnerable to bribes and kickbacks.

It turned out that Goethals’s tunnel plan would have employed a process patented by John F. O’Rourke, who had stood to gain a healthy royalty. O’Rourke came to America with his family two years after his birth in 1854 in Tipperary, Ireland, attended Cooper Union, had taught there for some time, had been construction engineer on the Poughkeepsie railroad bridge, had extensive experience with tunnel projects, and held numerous patents for construction methods and equipment. In 1920, hoping to salvage something of the Canal Street tunnel project, he proposed to release his patents in exchange for payments of 25 percent of the estimated $9 million savings that the use of concrete blocks would provide over cast-iron. In other words, O’Rourke would realize in excess of $2 million, which he might be willing to share with those who might help him get it.

With an arrogance that must have been fueled by fame, Goethals continued to promote his tunnel scheme, and the young Holland persisted in rebuffing it. He explained that calculations showed that the large-diameter tunnel would actually have so much buoyancy in the notorious Hudson silt, as the fluidlike material of the river bottom was called, that the tube would float. Furthermore, hardly any of Goethals’s assumptions or assertions withstood the close scrutiny of Holland and his engineering staff; no one had the experience to serve as a guide, because no tunnel of the kind Goethals proposed had ever been driven under any river. In early March, Holland summarized the situation to a meeting of the New Jersey commissioners as follows: “The proposal to build a tunnel of unprecedented diameter of untried materials abandons all that experience in tunnel building has taught in the gradual development to the present state of knowledge and enters upon a new field of uncertainty.” A week later, the joint commissioners passed a resolution effectively directing Holland to devote no more time to considering the Goethals-O’Rourke scheme and to proceed with work on the twin cast-iron tubes.

Public confusion and debate about the tunnel design continued for over a year, and disagreements arose between the New York and New Jersey commissions. After the board of consulting engineers finally rejected the Goethals-O’Rourke scheme, the New Jersey Commission dismissed the current board and ceased compensating them. Two new engineering-board members were appointed by the New Jersey Commission, but the New York Commission refused to recognize them. The New York chapter of the American Association of Engineers, which would evolve into a group that promoted registration for engineers and concerned itself with the status and employment of engineers, issued a report seeking “answers to questions whether the action of the New Jersey Commission did not reflect unfavorably on the members of the board, whether it did not tend to injure the whole engineering profession and was contrary to the public interests, and whether it would not seem undignified and unprofessional for other engineers to accept appointment to the places thus made vacant.” The issue of engineering professionalism and ethics was a growing one, and the report on the dismissal was an occasion to articulate it:

There can be no question that if anybody, private individual, corporation, or public commission, is dissatisfied with the services of any engineer in his or their employ, be he the most eminent consulting engineer or a student just out of college, he has the right to dismiss such engineer and seek other assistance. It is, however, a well established, even though an unwritten rule of professional ethics, that should an employer discharge an engineer, and especially an engineer in responsible charge of work or one employed as a consultant, without reasonable cause, that it is unethical for another engineer to take over the work or the position.

The board of consulting engineers which was appointed and which, in conjunction with the chief engineer and his staff, has brought the enterprise to the point where its successful completion can be practically visualized, is not only a body of eminent engineers but also a body of eminent, well known and public-spirited citizens, and such a board, in connection with an enterprise of this character, should not be, and as a matter of fact cannot be, discharged just as one might discharge an office boy, and especially is it true at such a critical period of the work. Whatever the technical legal status of the matter may be, public sentiment, where properly informed, will not permit it.

Such was the climate in which large public-works projects were conducted. As matters of professional engineering continued to be debated in trade journals like Engineering News-Record, so did the practical matter of awarding contracts to sink shafts for the tunnel continue with the commissions. New Jersey commissioners favored awarding the contract to the Shaft Construction Company, which was incorporated on the very day that the bids were received, and whose low bid was even below the engineers’ estimate. The commissioner of public safety in Bayonne, New Jersey, was reported to be glad that his brother, the principal in the Shaft Construction Company, was “successful enough to underbid one of the largest construction firms in New York.” However, the New York commissioners agreed with Holland, who reported that “in the opinion of your engineer … the fact that a new organization, inexperienced in this work, has submitted such a very low figure raises the question as to whether this company has a proper appreciation of the character and quality of the work to be carried out.” Since each commission was independent, and since there was no formal way to compel agreement between the two state bodies, the matter had to be resolved through public debate and efforts to influence public opinion. In the meantime, the joint commission did agree to send Holland to Europe to inspect vehicle tunnels in such cities as London, Glasgow, Paris, and Hamburg, in order to collect firsthand information for making final design decisions on the Hudson River tunnels, for which invitations to bid on final construction contracts had yet to be advertised.

The New York commissioners continued to oppose the Shaft bid, but that was not the only obstacle to beginning work on the New Jersey side. The land needed for the entrance-and-exit plaza was owned by the Erie Railroad, which was unwilling to make concessions regarding the perpetual retention of some of its tracks alongside a cold-storage plant in which T. Albeus Adams, one of the New Jersey commissioners, had an interest. When an agreement was finally reached, it involved combining the contract for driving the New Jersey access shaft with that for driving the tunnel tubes proper. The delays were estimated to have cost the two states about a half-million dollars, out of a total estimate that had in the meantime grown to almost $29 million. However, the investment was thought to be well worth it, for the tunnel would have a capacity of fifteen million vehicles per year—about twice the number that were crossing the Hudson on ferryboats in 1921.

Even as final plans were being made, there were still some serious doubts as to whether the toxic exhaust of automobiles and trucks could be effectively removed from a tunnel. This was such a critical question that the Bureau of Mines had constructed in Pittsburgh an experimental circular tunnel four hundred feet long through which automobiles could be driven to test a ventilation system. A group of New York and New Jersey commissioners and engineers went to Pittsburgh to ride around this tunnel in cars forty feet apart for almost an hour, having their pulse, blood pressure, and blood samples taken and analyzed for effects of carbon monoxide. After the automobile tests were successfully completed, a smoke bomb was set off in the tunnel to demonstrate how effectively the ventilation system could exhaust the dense and visible gases. The New Jersey commissioners, at least, were not satisfied with such perks of their position, however. With the light at the beginning of the tunnel finally turning green for construction, it was proposed that a twenty-foot granite shaft be erected in the center of the New Jersey plaza to commemorate the commissioners themselves. When presented with this proposal, the New York commissioners declined the honor, but not before one of them suggested that the name and face of the originator of the idea be done in brass rather than bronze.

With the prime contract awarded to the low bidder, the experienced tunnel-driving firm of Booth & Flinn, work could begin under the general superintendence of Michael L. Quinn. A ceremonial ground-breaking took place on March 31, 1922, at which, according to a newspaper report, “Mr. Holland took a pick from the hands of John Bazone, a laborer, and drove it into the earth. Mr. Quinn thrust a shovel under the loosened earth and threw it to one side.” Though the workmen wanted their tools back, neither Holland nor Quinn would give his up, for each was to be plated with silver and displayed in the respective ceremonial wielder’s office.

Ground-breaking in New Jersey did not take place until May 31, and then clandestinely, according to a newspaper account. Crossing the river from New York, Holland and several representatives of the Erie Railroad Company, including chief engineer R. C. Falconer, and of the contractor, Booth & Flinn—perhaps about a dozen in all—stole across ferry property toward the Erie Railroad yard, in order to avoid being seen on the streets. After convincing several policemen that the group was not up to anything improper, they reached the railroad yard, where “Mr. Falconer, armed with a pinch bar, removed a section of track, George H. Flinn drove a pick in the ground, Mr. Holland dug up a shovelful of dirt, and the breaking of ground was over.” Although it was a private affair, there seems to have been at least one reporter/photographer at the scene: a picture of the ceremonial event and another of a large group of attending engineers standing as if in a lineup appeared in the next week’s issue of Engineering News-Record. The ceremony was no doubt brief, and the general concern was less with capturing tools to silverplate than with getting on with the construction job. Holland had reasoned that once ground was broken, it would be more difficult to stop work. He had been increasingly concerned that the New Jersey commissioners would hold to their threat that work would not be permitted to begin until concessions were made regarding street improvements, not to mention the threat of a gala Fourth of July ground-breaking that not only would have delayed the start of work but might also have upped the stakes in the fight for concessions once plans for the gala were set.

Clandestine ground-breaking in New Jersey for the Canal Street Tunnel by (left to right): C. M. Holland, chief engineer, for whom the tunnel would be named posthumously; G. H. Flinn, of the contractor Booth & Flinn; and RC. Falconer, chief engineer of the Erie Railroad, in whose yard the ceremony was taking place(photo credit 5.4)


Even with the Canal Street tunnel under way, the relative merits of bridges and tunnels continued to be much discussed, but it was the low cost of a tunnel compared with grandiose bridge schemes like Lindenthal’s that began to tip the balance. Furthermore, it was argued, if several tunnels were built at various locations along the river, traffic between New York and New Jersey could be diffused. This addressed directly one of the continuing concerns over Lindenthal’s 57th Street bridge: the concentrated volume of traffic it would bring to already congested midtown streets. Private capital began to see the possibilities of the alternative, and the Interstate Vehicular Tunnel Company made known its plans for three new tubes under the Hudson, though one of the company’s incorporators, Darwin R. James, would not reveal the locations being considered, so as not to inflate real-estate prices. Even though the question of ventilation had yet to be proved on the full scale, James asserted that for the “purely commercial” project “the engineering problems had all been solved.”

In early March 1923, plans were announced for a tunnel to connect Manhattan in the vicinity of 125th Street to Bergen County across the river. The projected growth of vehicle traffic and subsequent development of New Jersey made the estimated cost of $75 million appear to be a sound investment. Before long, a Harlem and Bergen Tunnel organization was seeking incorporation for the purpose of “the construction of one or more tunnels for vehicular and pedestrian traffic between a point in Harlem, between West 120th and West 140th Streets, and a point in Bergen County, N.J.” At the time, another company was also seeking incorporation, in order to construct a tunnel near 42nd Street.

The possible proliferation of uncoordinated river crossings, combined with the problems of two independent commissions, was no doubt a factor in the growing talk about bringing all tunnels, including the one already begun, under the jurisdiction of the Port of New York Authority, which had been established in 1921 to develop and regulate movement about the port shared by the neighboring states. New York’s Governor Al Smith proposed early in 1923 that, with the authority to issue bonds, such a body could finance public works whose toll revenue not only would pay off the bonds but also would provide the funds necessary for ongoing maintenance and operation, without the need of expending tax revenues. In late May, Smith vetoed two tunnel bills before him and let it be known that he opposed private control of such facilities, thus helping to complete the groundwork for a new era in Hudson River crossings, whose need was growing.

In the meantime, Holland’s tunnel was progressing, but not without troubles for its engineer. Sandhogs, as the tunnel workers were known, went on strike for “more wages, fewer hours, and lower air pressure,” to reduce the risk of contracting the bends. Costs were also rising, in part because of increased prices of materials and labor, but also because of design changes such as those involving the approaches. Toward the end of 1923, when the tunnel was about 60 percent done, Holland had to answer criticism that the engineering budget was inflated, and had to overcome political interference even at the level of hiring a draftsman “who did not come from the Hudson County Democratic organization.” By early 1924, the final cost was estimated to be $42 million, with larger plazas and improved ventilation systems contributing to a more-than-tripling of the cost over the preliminary estimate. The efficacy of the ventilation system was an ever-present concern. The new twin Liberty Tunnels through Pittsburgh’s South Hills were opened prematurely in 1924, then had to be closed after only two hundred cars had passed through, because of dangerously high concentrations of carbon monoxide. Later that year, a trolley strike in Pittsburgh caused massive traffic jams in the tunnels, and the accumulated fumes caused scores of people to become ill in their cars. It would not happen under the Hudson, Holland assured New Yorkers and New Jerseyites, for his tunnel would have four times as many ventilation shafts, and traffic congestion would not be permitted to occur. In a long letter to the editor of The New York Times that read more like a scholarly article, Yandell Henderson, professor of applied physiology at Yale University, proposed obviating the fumes problem by fitting vehicles with vertical exhaust pipes that extended upward to a few inches above the tops of the cars and trucks.

Additional problems continued to arise. In early April, the tunnel sprang a leak and water rushed in, forcing thirty-five workers to flee for their lives. Shortly thereafter, there was another sandhog strike, with increasing numbers of men complaining of the bends. In September, there was growing concern for the mound that was being thrown up on the river bottom by the shield driving the tunnel through the silt. The three largest ocean liners of the day, the Berengaria, Leviathan, and Majestic, had to follow a revenue cutter through “the only spot in the Hudson River where the great liners could pass” without danger of grounding. Though the mound would be dredged away once construction was completed, it meanwhile presented a distinct danger to port traffic.

A milestone in the construction project was to occur in late October 1924, when the two tunnel shields boring the north tube were to cease working and the remaining thickness of silt was to be blasted out, thus completing the connection between New York and New Jersey. Though careful and continual surveying made it virtually impossible for the two tunnel halves to be out of alignment, it was reported that “some of the engineers engaged in the work lie awake nights just the same worrying about it.” Nevertheless, an elaborate ceremony was being planned; President Coolidge would press a button in his library in the White House connected via telegraph wires to the dynamite, thus setting off the blast at precisely nine o’clock on the evening of October 29. Newark radio station WOR was to broadcast the event live, its “impresario” being present “in the depths of the tunnel,” along with the governors, mayors, commissioners, and U.S. senators of the two states. As soon as the blast was set off, a band would play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The blast occurred nine hours early, and it was not President Coolidge but George Flinn, head of the construction company, who pressed the button. No mistake was made; acting chief engineer Milton H. Freeman deliberately directed preparations for blasting away the final eight feet of silt. After the tunnel was holed through, the two ends were found to be well aligned, to within three-quarters of an inch of one another. However, the engineers and workmen present in the tunnel at the time took the breakthrough as part of an ordinary day’s work, in fact making every effort to avoid any appearance of ceremony The sudden change of plans took place because, two days before the historic event, chief engineer Clifford Holland had died.

It had been said of Holland that he “started working on tunnels the morning after he received his degree” from Harvard. For eighteen years, he had worked under the rivers defining Manhattan Island, and the physically and emotionally stressful conditions appear to have taken their toll on his health. Three weeks before his death, he suffered a nervous breakdown, which prompted the joint tunnel commission to pass a resolution commending him for “his continuous devotion, night and day, during the past five years,” to the Hudson River project, and to grant him a month’s vacation with full pay. He had gone to Battle Creek, Michigan, for a rest, and that is where he died, of heart disease. According to the newspaper report describing the unceremonious completion of the north tube, Holland “had expected that his heart would fail him some day and so had kept ready for a quick ending. From the time he was first chosen to plan and construct the tunnel until he left on his vacation recently he had kept the plans in such shape that the work would go on after his death.” It did, of course, and the tunnel, which would open in 1927, remains to this day an essential link in the traffic network of the New York metropolitan area.

News of Holland’s death brought immediate calls to name what had till now been called the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel after its chief engineer. Within about two weeks, the tunnel joint commission did pass a resolution bestowing the name Holland Tunnel, and The New York Timeshailed the action. Their editorial admitted that engineers had some reason to complain that politicians took more care to associate their own names rather than engineers’ with public works, but that this was less true than it had been. There was in the mid-1920s, according to the Times, “a general and cordial appreciation of the services rendered by engineers.” If they did not get the proper publicity, it was “largely the fault of their modesty. As a rule they are the poorest of self-advertisers, and are, or profess to be, content with professional recognition of their achievements.” Whether this is true generally, Holland was certainly thought to have been “the last to exploit his own merits,” and so it was fitting that his greatest achievement be recognized by being named after him. However, the Times also feared that, “as he shared his name with the nation that ruled New York in its early days, the title of the tunnel will be understood by many, in the years to come, as referring to the nation rather than to the man.” A device for preventing this misunderstanding remains elusive, however, and even today few realize the true origin of the tunnel’s name, which is emblazoned in letters several feet tall atop the tollbooths that stretch across the New Jersey entrance plaza.

In 1924, construction on the Holland Tunnel had continued under Milton Freeman, who had almost twenty years of experience in tunnel work. However, after less than four months as chief engineer, he too died, of pneumonia, to which his resistance had been lowered by “long-continued overwork.” Engineering News-Record reflected on the significance of it all: “Throughout time the building of great works for the use and convenience of man has claimed its victims. Not only gold and labor but also human life is wrought into what the builder creates.” In a letter to the editor of the magazine, Robert Ridgway, chief engineer for the New York City Board of Transportation, remembered Freeman as being Holland’s “able lieutenant, working modestly and quietly, studying under the direction of his chief every one of the many details that made up the work.” During crisis conditions, Freeman would spend countless hours on the job, “without going to the street for food,” sleeping in his field office. Ridgway speculated that Freeman’s modesty may have been carried too far, for few but his associates knew of his devotion and commitment to the projects on which he worked. “Mr. Holland used to say of him that he was an engineer who made the reputation of other engineers.” Holland, like all the best chief engineers, would have known that anything named after him was a memorial to the many, like Freeman, upon whom he so depended.

The worries of the Holland Tunnel engineers may or may not have been aggravated by the “nice controversy” that rearose early in 1924, when both Governor Smith of New York and Governor Silzer of New Jersey proposed that the recently formed Port of New York Authority take over the tunnel. Among the primary purposes of the Port Authority was to simplify and rationalize the transfer of great volumes of goods between the rail freight yards in New Jersey and the factories, warehouses, and wharves in Manhattan. The tunnel, originally conceived of as “merely an underwater street,” was certainly intended in part to carry trucks between New Jersey and New York, but in the years since its construction began, the development of the motor truck and private automobile had so changed the complexion of traffic on the roads around New York Harbor that the tunnel was likely to be overcrowded with automobile and truck traffic as soon as it was opened. To do its job better, the argument went, the Port Authority should control such an interstate traffic artery.

There was good reason to believe that other factors also motivated the proposal. Since the Authority had only a modest annual appropriation for administration, it had no money for capital projects. The tunnel, however, with the projected amount of vehicle tolls to be collected, promised to be an enormous source of revenue. If the Port Authority had control of the tunnel and its tolls, it would have the capital basis and continuing revenue for issuing bonds to finance other projects relating to traffic between New York and New Jersey. The Authority had been talking of building as many as five vehicular tunnels, and thus there was good reason to believe that it was indeed looking for ways to finance them. Even if trucking interests dreaded the prospect of the precedent of perpetual tolls for the use of a tunnel that had been intended to become free after about twenty years, there was growing public support for using public money to build bridges and tunnels whose toll revenue would in time repay whatever bonds were issued. In the 1924 election, for example, every county in New Jersey voted, by an overall margin of almost four to one, in favor of an $8-million bond referendum to continue support for building the suspension bridge between Camden and Philadelphia and the tunnel under the Hudson, both of which they expected would eventually be paid for by tolls.

What was curiously missing from the Port Authority’s public plans was the construction of a bridge across the Hudson River. Since before World War I tunnels had been argued to be much less expensive than bridges, and they avoided the complications of providing high clearance for ships or the necessity of condemning large amounts of land to accommodate long approaches. However, with the final cost of the Holland Tunnel coming in at about four times the original estimate, and the growing vehicular as opposed to rail traffic in the New York metropolitan area, tunnels could no longer be argued to be the obvious economic choice. Relatively small capacity tunnels at different locations still had the advantage of diffusing traffic rather than concentrating it the way a single large bridge would, but which form of traffic communication should be picked in a particular instance began to involve arguments that amounted to deciding between six double tubes of one and a dozen lanes of the other. Such choices had long been debated.


In October 1908, an article in The New York Times had looked ahead to the bridges and tunnels that could be expected to lead into and out of Manhattan fifty years in the future. With the Queensboro and Manhattan bridges across the East River then under construction, the article predicted that “the next of the great viaducts will probably be the New York and New Jersey Bridge across the Hudson River.” The midtown-Manhattan site of the “originally planned” bridge was reported to have been replaced by “a site further northward,” with the vicinity of 181st Street mentioned as one possible location. In a bird’s-eye view of Manhattan and its links to the west and east, only four Hudson River crossings were sketched in: the two pairs of McAdoo tunnels, the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels that would lead to Pennsylvania Station, then yet to be designed, and a suspension bridge way up north, near 179th Street.

An interstate bridge commission had been formed as early as 1906 to determine whether and where a bridge for pedestrians, private vehicles, and trolleys could be built across the Hudson. Commissioners from both sides of the river had been looking at sites up and down the waterway, and the vicinity of 110th and 112th streets had also appeared to be a good choice technically. However, that site “would seriously injure the property of Columbia University, St. Luke’s Hospital, and the other eleemosynary institutions situated in that neighborhood,” representing a total investment of some $30 million, according to Columbia’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, who summed up by calling any decision to build a bridge there “little short of vandalism.” Whereas the New Jersey commissioners continued to remain favorable to a site near Columbia, the New York commissioners appear to have sympathized with President Butler’s concerns; they leaned toward a site at 179th Street, and that is essentially what was sketched in in the bird’s-eye view in The New York Times.

“Tunnels and Bridges of Manhattan Already Finished or in Process of Completion” in 1908, with an unnamed suspension bridge shown at about 179th Street (photo credit 5.5)

In the meantime, Boller & Hodge, consulting engineers to the New York and New Jersey Interstate Bridge Commission, had submitted their report on “the most feasible sites for bridges across the North River.” The engineers recommended that three bridges be built: one at 57th Street, one at 110th Street, and one at 179th Street. (In the same report, Boller & Hodge also, presciently, identified the most feasible sites for bridges between New Jersey and New York’s Staten Island: at Bayonne, at Elizabethport, and at Perth Amboy.) With regard to Lindenthal’s 57th Street Bridge, though Boller & Hodge acknowledged its $75-million cost to be an impediment, they saw its location, in line with the Queensboro Bridge on the other side of Manhattan Island, to be a strong point. The engineers estimated the 179th Street bridge to be the least expensive to build, and they rejected the possibilities of a tunnel above 34th Street because they believed that the high cliffs known as the Palisades on the Jersey side made the idea impractical.

Among those interested in a bridge across the Hudson was Robert A. C. Smith, “the steamship and tobacco man,” who had a summer residence in New Jersey. Smith thought the best view of the prospective bridge sites was from the deck of his steam yacht. Thus, on a sunny day in June, the governors of New York and New Jersey boarded the vessel as the guests of the commissioners, who had brought along their chief engineer, Henry Hodge: “In honor of Gov. [Charles Evans] Hughes, the Privateer carried at her foremast a square of deep blue bunting, with a white New York State shield in the middle of it. At her mizzenmast she carried another blue flag with a white New Jersey State shield in honor of Gov. [Franklin] Fort.” As soon as they were under way, Hodge got out maps and papers and began to talk about bridges, but Hughes apparently did not want to be “talked at.” Instead, the governor talked:

The problem we want to settle right here is what is going to justify the building of the bridge and the choice of its site. You say that Fifty-seventh Street is a desirable location. But no one wants to go to Fifty-seventh Street per se. What class of people are going to use such a bridge, and how are they going to get from its termination at Fifty-seventh Street and Tenth Avenue to places downtown where they really want to go to? Will enough people use the bridge to make it pay from the taxpayers’ viewpoint? If a ferry won’t pay, a bridge won’t pay.

I understand that so few people of late years have been going over the Forty-second Street and Weehawken Ferry, for example, that its service has been practically abandoned. I rather like the 179th Street bridge plan, on the other hand. It might not be so popular among New Jersey people. But it would connect New York City with the other New York State counties on the other side of the Hudson and help them to bring their farm produce into Manhattan.

According to the reporter, the Privateer was passing the 179th Street site at this time, and Hodge pointed out a castlelike structure on a wooded hill about a mile farther up the river. It had been built by an Italian immigrant named Paterno, who in twelve years had worked himself up from a day laborer to a wealthy building contractor, and who had hired Hodge to make plans for “first-class apartment houses all over the city.” Hughes first wanted to know how long it would take to build a bridge, however, and only after Hodge told him about five years did the governor look up at Paterno’s “white, hill-crowning ‘castle,’ with a thoughtful smile,” presumably thinking of how the hills of New York’s Orange and Rockland counties could one day be dotted with symbols of other success stories. The governor of New Jersey remained in favor of the 57th Street site.

Although these men of influence and power were talking on the deck of a steam yacht as if they were in a smoke-filled room, and although their interests were selfishly directed toward those of their respective states, the process was not without a redeeming social value. There was no single absolutely correct answer as to where a bridge should be located. Clearly, technical, financial, and economic issues—not to mention social, aesthetic, and metaphorical considerations—left plenty of permutations and combinations of assertion and opinion about what was the right thing to do.

Among the remaining open technical questions were the relative riverbed conditions at the competing sites. Information about the 57th Street site was in hand, but borings at the 179th Street site still had to be done in order to confirm that a bridge could be built there for the estimated cost of $10 million. In 1910, after boring had gone as deep as 180 feet, nothing but sand and mud was discovered where Hodge had hoped to found a bridge tower. Though the site was not described as abandoned, the office of Boller & Hodge announced that plans were being made to explore other possibilities. Within a week, however, George F. Kunz, chairman of the Geological Section of the New York Academy of Sciences and president of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, disclosed the engineering report to the press. According to Kunz, bedrock was too far below the surface of the Hudson River to allow the building of a practical bridge south of about West Point, and he believed that ten tunnels could be built for the cost of one bridge. The geologist Kunz was not shy about estimating the cost of tunnels, and the conservationist Kunz was not disappointed that a bridge would not despoil the natural beauty of the Hudson. The day following Kunz’s exposé, McDougall Hawkes, chairman of the New York section of the Interstate Bridge Commission, confirmed reports that, because of the depth of bedrock, it did not look as if a bridge could be built at a reasonable cost at any of the proposed sites.

Following these reports, Gustav Lindenthal wrote a letter to the editor emphasizing that it was indeed possible to build a long-span bridge without piers in the river, but it would cost on the order of $100 million when land and approaches were added to the basic price of the bridge. He believed that only a lack of capital, not of technical knowledge, had kept the project from proceeding, and he admitted that the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels then under construction “had ended for the present all prospect for a bridge across the North River,” because he continued to see the railroads as an essential technical and financial component of a viable bridge scheme. In the meantime, Lindenthal’s North River Bridge Company charter was running out, though after some opposition and debate in the Senate it would be extended for another decade.

Geological cross section at the site of proposed bridge at 179th Street (photo credit 5.6)

Lindenthal continued to push his bridge plan, arguing in a long letter to the editor of The New York Times in late 1912 that tunnels were not enough, but he was losing credibility, and some readers at least were losing patience with his diatribes. John F. Stevens, who was identified as a “civil engineer,” but whom everyone must have known to be the one who got the Panama Canal project back on track before Goethals took it over, immediately wrote a terse letter in response, calling schemes to bridge the Hudson “archaic” in a time when “the designing, construction, and operation of sub-aqueous tunnels have reached such a plane that in comparison a bridge is almost a joke.” Not all engineers were so opposed to bridges, however, and though Hodge agreed with the feasibility of a tunnel at Canal Street, he also argued for the desirability of a bridge at 57th. Plans prepared by Boller & Hodge showed a braced-chain suspension bridge, with a 2,880-foot center span, that was estimated to cost $30 million. It would have trolley but not railroad tracks, and its cost would be offset by the “increased valuation of property and the increased population.”

Though the bridge-tunnel debate was interrupted by World War I, the lower initial cost estimate of a tunnel, albeit one of limited traffic capacity, was in the end what led to the Holland Tunnel. However, Hodge had clearly become established, both technically and politically, as a prime candidate for the job of bridge builder when the time came, and he had shown himself to be more temperate and flexible than Lindenthal. Hodge would no doubt have been an obvious choice for the Port Authority to have looked to when that body became disenchanted with the tunnel solution in the early 1920s and reopened in earnest the question of bridging the Hudson. Henry Hodge would have been in his mid-fifties then, with just the right balance of experience and age to lead an ambitious bridge-building program like the one the Port Authority was to undertake. In 1917, Hodge resigned the position of public-service commissioner, to which he had recently been appointed by the governor of New York, to go to France and join General Pershing’s staff as director of military railroads and bridges. Before the domestic bridge-building business recovered from the hiatus caused by the war, however, Hodge became ill with an embolism, and died after a six-week illness late in 1919. The untimely death of “one of the foremost American engineers in bridge building” left the field open to others.

Lindenthal made one of his more reasoned and objective arguments for his bridge in a paper read before the annual meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers held in New York late in 1920. An abstract of his paper, published in Engineering News-Record, began with some hard, up-to-date data and continued with a fair and convincing argument:

The Hudson River is a barrier which must be crossed daily by 700,000 passengers, by 3,000 freight cars and by 8,000 to 10,000 vehicles. Of the passengers about one-half come through six submarine tunnels, four of the Hudson & Manhattan R.R. and two of the Pennsylvania R.R. All of the rest of the passengers, all vehicles and all railroad cars come over, as they did 80 years ago, on floating equipment along a river front of 12 miles. The congestion and the delays act as a deterrent to the spreading of population into New Jersey, where there is ample room within one hour’s travel from New York for at least 4,000,000 people to live in suburban comfort. The two vehicular tunnels just started will, when completed in three or four years, add only four lines of traffic for vehicles, a mere drop in the bucket. The two tubes with approaches will be 10,000 ft. long and cost $28,000,000.

Compare with this backward condition the crossing facilities over the East River, for a population of 2,500,000 on Long Island. There are here besides numerous ferries four large municipal bridges (ignoring the Hell Gate railroad bridge) with, together, thirty-six tracks for rail cars and sixteen lines for vehicles, besides sixteen subway tunnels—all together, 52 lines of traffic, along a river front of only 6 miles. Two additional bridges and sixteen additional subway tunnels across the East River are under contemplation.

It is easy to see that if the 2,000,000 people in New Jersey are to be accommodated in the same proportion we must have across the North River, in addition to the above-mentioned railroad and vehicular tunnels, at least fourteen railroad tracks and twelve lines for vehicles. If put into tunnels these twenty-six lines would require twenty additional submarine tubes.

Let us assume that all these twenty tunnels would be about the same length and have the substantial construction of the Pennsylvania tunnels, or as proposed for the vehicular tunnels just started. That would make the cost of the twenty tunnels about $240,000,000.

But the higher shores of the North River above 23d Street would require most of these tunnels, with approaches, to be much longer than 10,000 ft. Some of them would have to pass under the Palisades on the New Jersey side, like the Pennsylvania tunnels, making them, with approaches, 15,000 to 16,000 ft. long, so that the total cost of these twenty tunnels would be nearer $400,000,000.

Lindenthal was being the consummate engineer, showing with hard numbers that the main objection to his bridge—namely, its cost—should in fact be a greater objection for tunnels of the same aggregate traffic capacity. Furthermore, he pointed out, his bridge would have a moving passenger platform, an idea of long standing. With renewed vigor, Lindenthal pushed for his bridge “in the vicinity of Fifty-ninth Street,” which he estimated would cost only about $100 million, and it was to work on this new project that Othmar Ammann was called back from the clay mine. What Lindenthal did not allow for or calculate, however, was traffic trends and alternatives to a single bridge for combined rail and vehicular traffic.


As construction of the Holland Tunnel progressed, it continued to confirm the feasibility of vehicular tunnels, but it also revealed their true cost, even higher than Lindenthal’s estimate. Although the financial climate was still not right for his ambitious plan, Lindenthal continued to seek support for his bridge-and-terminal project, whose total cost was to be on the order of half a billion dollars. And he would talk to whoever would listen about the frustrations of having economics stand in the way of a great engineering achievement, on one occasion telling a Lions Club audience in West Hoboken that “it was possible to bridge the Atlantic Ocean, but impossible to finance such an undertaking.”

Perhaps Ammann saw a resolution to the financing impasse at the Hudson River in a less ambitious bridge, or perhaps he simply recognized the need for a bridge whose main traffic was vehicular. In any case, he began to work on such a plan independently of Lindenthal, who had not been able to retain him full-time. Ammann had his own stationery printed, identifying himself as “O. H. Ammann, Consulting Engineer,” with offices at 7 Dey Street, which was also the address of the North River Bridge Company. In early January 1923, he was using this stationery with the Dey Street address corrected to 470 Fourth Avenue, the location of a separate office that had been loaned to him. On January 9, 1923, he wrote on this letterhead a personal note to newly elected New Jersey Governor George Silzer, whom he knew, of course, from the clay-mine enterprise, that there had been a very successful meeting with the Board of Freeholders of Bergen County regarding a bridge at Fort Lee, across the river from Manhattan’s 179th Street. Ammann alluded to the governor’s policy that no money be spent on new vehicular tunnels until the one under construction had proved itself, and he passed on the suggestion of the freeholders that a bill be introduced in the legislature supporting a bridge at Fort Lee.

The story of Ammann’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the political machinations that were necessary to get a Hudson River crossing approved and financed has been told in considerable detail by the political scientist Jameson Doig, most recently in collaboration with the structural engineer David Billington. Ammann engaged in what can only be described as a deliberate campaign to promote his own plans for a bridge, a campaign not unlike the one Joseph B. Strauss was engaged in almost contemporaneously on the other side of the continent to promote his dream of a span across the Golden Gate. As late as 1923, Ammann appears to have been willing to work with Lindenthal, perhaps partly out of loyalty and partly out of pragmatism, for his septuagenarian mentor was still the pre-eminent bridge engineer in America, and any technical and financially reasonable plan supported by him would no doubt have been seen as technically credible by the politicians and financiers whose support was essential. In March, Ammann revealed his thinking to Lindenthal, whose quick response the younger engineer recorded in his diary:

March 22/1923

Submitted memo. to G.L., urging reduction of H.R.Br. program, dated Mar. 21.

G.L. rebuked me severely for my “timidity” & “shortsightedness” in not looking far enough ahead.

He stated that he was looking ahead for a 1000 years.

Ironically, it was Lindenthal who was being shortsighted; New York, like the rest of the country, was witnessing the beginning of the era of the truck and automobile, which would ensue at the expense of the railroads, and a vehicular and light-rail bridge was an appropriate solution to the problem of communication between New York and New Jersey. Ammann would break with Lindenthal over the issue, and he worked independently on his plans for a more modest proposal. He had also begun to establish his own identity as an independent engineer.

Unlike the prolific Lindenthal and in spite of the praise heaped upon the Hell Gate Bridge report, Ammann had to this time published few pieces of technical advocacy, his two reviews of David Steinman’s book on suspension bridges being the exception. Perhaps the attention Steinman’s book had received or the notice those reviews had gotten Ammann prompted him to write a “think piece” on the “Possibilities of the Modern Suspension Bridge for Moderate Spans,” which was published in Engineering News-Record in June 1923. He argued that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of bridge literature, according to which suspension bridges were suitable only for very long spans, recent years had seen the construction of a number of highway and light-railway suspension bridges with spans in the three-to-eight-hundred-foot range. He took a long historical view—albeit idiosyncratic, as his history was wont to be—of the suspension bridge, and discussed such questions as aesthetics, safety, stiffness, and economy. Whether designed to or not, the paper would give him credibility as a suspension-bridge designer somewhat beyond his years or his experience with the form.

The year 1923 was a busy one for Ammann, and he had had no time to communicate with his mother before the approaching holidays prompted him, in mid-December, to write and post a letter right away, so she might receive it in Switzerland by Christmas. In spite of his growing reputation, he explained that “the giant project” for which he had “been sacrificing time and money for the past three years” then lay “in ruins” because of Lindenthal, who remained unnamed:

In vain, I as well as others, have been fighting against the unlimited ambition of a genius that is obsessed with illusions of grandeur. He has the power in his hands and refuses to bring moderation into his gigantic plans. In stead, his illusions lead him to enlarge his plans more and more, until he has reached the unheard of sum of half a billion dollars—an impossibility even in America.

However, I have gained a rich experience and have decided to build anew on the ruins with fresh hope and courage—and, at that, on my own initiative and with my own plans, on a more moderate scale. It is a hard battle that I have already been fighting for six months now, but the possibility of success is constantly increasing, so that I do not allow myself to be frightened in spite of the great handicaps and my shrinking finances. I wait and hope that the New Year will finally bring my work to fruition.

Among the things Ammann had done during the year was to write to Governor Silzer, with a copy to Samuel Rae, who was not only president of the Pennsylvania Railroad but also associated with the North River Bridge Company. In his letter, after stating that he had “no desire to discredit Mr. Lindenthal,” Ammann gave his views on the “scope of plan and size” of the 57th Street Bridge:

It is over a year ago that I began to suggest to Mr. Lindenthal reduction of the stupendous scope of the plan and also of the size of the bridge. Not having succeeded to convince him and having noticed the discouraging effect of his policy upon the supporters of the project I wrote him a memorandum on May 21, 1923.…

As regards the size or capacity of the bridge proper it is generally recognized that even for a light bridge a width of 1/20 of the span gives ample lateral rigidity. That would mean 160 feet for the Hudson River Bridge as against the 235 feet now provided for. But in such a long span with a deadweight of more than 50 times the probable greatest wind pressure even a smaller width would give ample rigidity.

The width is therefore determined by traffic requirements alone. The plan now provides for 20 lanes of vehicles and 2–15 ft. promenades on the upper deck and for 12 tracks on the lower one. A roadway capacity of only 12 lanes of vehicles would provide for a possible traffic of 50 million vehicles per year, which is equal to twice the traffic now crossing the four East River Bridges and is much more than should at any time be concentrated at one point even with ample capacity of approaches.…

Such arguments regarding the interrelated issues of structural rigidity, traffic capacity, and cost vis-à-vis the width of roadway would have profound implications for the very near future of bridge building, but for the moment Ammann’s objectives were less general. He argued that it would probably be ten to twelve years before Lindenthal’s 57th Street Bridge could be completed, and that in the meantime traffic congestion was becoming “calamitous,” especially in the upper part of Manhattan. He also pointed out that “tunnel advocates” appeared to be gaining ground because Lindenthal’s proposal tipped the economic argument in their favor. Ammann felt the only way to keep further tunnel projects from being pushed forward “by popular demand” was to build a vehicular bridge at 179th Street. He had not told Lindenthal of this specific new proposal of his, as he made clear in the final paragraph of his letter to Silzer: “At the opportune moment I shall lay this proposition before Mr. Lindenthal and I trust that in case he agrees to take it up, it will also have your sanction and support. I shall not mention to him that I laid these matters before you.”

Later in the year, the Port Authority, which had rejected Lindenthal’s grand bridge plan, scheduled public hearings on building further tunnels beneath the Hudson. Governor Silzer was able to broaden the agenda to include the question of bridges as well. In the meantime, Ammann had come up with a proposal for a bridge at 179th Street that would cost only $30 million, just as Hodge had estimated a decade earlier for a remarkably similar bridge to be located farther down the river. The cost of Ammann’s bridge could be reduced even further, to $25 million, if only vehicle traffic were carried. This proposal was certainly competitive with a tunnel, and Ammann even supported the Port Authority as the natural agency to build such a structure. He also suggested that they might need an expert bridge engineer, and that he would be happy to assume this position. Whereas Ammann may have painted a dark picture when writing to his mother, within a few days Silzer had forwarded Ammann’s analysis of the problem to the Port Authority and issued a press release announcing what he had done. Lindenthal was to learn of these developments in the newspaper, and he penned his reaction to Silzer:

Othmar Ammann’s 1923 proposal for a bridge across the Hudson River at 179th Street (photo credit 5.7)

A bridge at Fort Lee of the kind described by [Ammann], cannot be built for $25,000,000. The estimate is far too low. It is the same old way to mislead the public either from design or from ignorance, just as the estimate of Gen. Goethals of $10,000,000 for the vehicular tunnel, which when fully completed will now cost $45,000,000. The public cannot judge of such vagaries in estimates of which engineers are constantly guilty.

Mr. A. had been my trusted assistant and friend for ten years, trained up in my office and acquainted with all my papers and methods. But I know his limitations. He never was necessary or indispensible [sic] to me. Many other assistant engineers are very able and glad to fill his position. But one does not like to make changes and train up new men as long as it is not necessary.

Now it appears that A. used his position of trust, the knowledge acquired in my service and the data and records in my office, to compete with me in plans for a bridge over the Hudson and to discredit my work on which I had employed him. He does not seem to see that his action is unethical and dishonorable.

In spite of Lindenthal’s protests, the practicality of Ammann’s plan attracted immediate interest. A sketch of his suspension bridge with a thirty-four-hundred-foot main span appeared in the first issue of Engineering News-Record for 1924, but there was no protracted discussion of what to many may have looked like just another engineer’s dream. However, in April 1925, that same magazine reported that, “almost unnoticed, the first step has been taken toward the ultimate construction of a bridge so far beyond any existing structure in its size as to rank virtually in a new order of magnitude.” The occasion for the story was that the legislatures of New York and New Jersey had “appropriated a total of several hundred thousand dollars for the preliminary studies.” After he submitted Ammann’s plan to the Port Authority, Silzer had suggested that the agency might want to engage “such a man as Mr. Ammann, who is thoroughly skilled in this kind of work,” but that was not to be for some time.

When the Port of New York Authority was formed in 1921, Benjamin F. Cresson, Jr., had been appointed its first chief engineer. Cresson was born in Philadelphia in 1873 and was educated at Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania. His early career was with the Lehigh Valley Railroad, but he soon joined Jacobs & Davies to work on plans for an East River railroad tunnel and on the first McAdoo tunnels under the Hudson. He had a well-established reputation in tunnel and harbor work when he was named chief engineer of the Port Authority. In that position, he would have had considerable influence on the nature of Hudson River crossings had he not died suddenly in early 1923 following an operation for appendicitis. The office of chief engineer was not filled until late September, by William W. Drinker, who had extensive harbor and terminal experience but was not a bridge engineer, which was what the Port Authority would soon need.


The 179th Street project was not the only bridge under consideration by the Port Authority. Since colonial days, travelers between New York and Philadelphia had passed through Bayonne, New Jersey, and Staten Island, using ferries to cross the Kill van Kull and the Arthur Kill, the bodies of water that separated Staten Island from the Jersey mainland, and whose designations derived from the Dutch word kil, meaning “channel” or “creek.” First oar-propelled scows, then horse boats (whose side wheels were powered by horses on a treadmill), then steam ferryboats served the purpose, but with the growth of population and the attendant vehicle traffic in the 1920s, there were growing calls for bridges. The Port Authority came under some criticism for worrying about automobile traffic instead of the harbor-goods traffic that was said to be its principal charge; by 1924, legislation had been passed enabling the Authority to plan bridges. It did so, between Bayonne, which was at the bottom of a New Jersey peninsula approaching the north shore of Staten Island, and the towns of Elizabeth and Perth Amboy, which are across the kill that forms the western boundary of Staten Island and contains the New York-New Jersey state line. These were the same sites identified by Boller & Hodge years earlier, but it took time for politics and need to catch up with the vision of that engineering firm.

Two bridges across Arthur Kill were authorized first, and, in conjunction with the design of these structures, Silzer had written in a letter of support in May that “the Port Authority ought to avail itself of the services of O. H. Ammann,” whom he understood to be available “just at the moment.” In fact, by early November 1924, Ammann had actually submitted to the Port Authority a bid for preparing plans for the Arthur Kill bridges and was “anxiously awaiting their decision.” While he was waiting, on November 7, chief engineer Drinker sent a letter to “four or five prominent bridge engineers experienced in the planning of large bridges.” After describing the conditions the bridges had to meet, Drinker wrote for the Port Authority: “We desire to secure the services of a bridge engineer and wish you to make a proposal for carrying on the work.” Ammann’s reputation seems not to have been sufficiently established for the young Port Authority, which was trying to establish its own reputation. Thus the task, which clearly involved more than bridge engineering, went to J. A. L. Waddell, whose fifty-year career was older than Ammann himself, and whose bearing and bemedaled appearance may have counted for as much in the politically charged circumstances as his expertise.

Since the Port Authority had to raise the construction cost of the bridges by bond issues backed by the earning power of the bridges themselves, “it was necessary that the bridges be planned by an engineer of recognized standing, to assure the confidence of prospective bond buyers, although only a small sum was available as compensation for this engineer.” This was the situation, at least, as interpreted by Engineering News-Record, which called the announcement of the choice of Waddell, and the revelation of how it was made, “an unpleasant shock … to established views of the relation between the engineer and his client.” Drinker’s letter was described as follows:

It calls for bids on price and time of delivery of expert engineering services—services involving a very high type of specialized engineering skill and trained judgment—in precisely the way that one would ask for price and time of delivery on a ton of coal or a thousand of brick. For the first time, thus, a responsible and well informed public authority has resorted to the bidding system of selecting a professional man to direct the expenditure of large sums of public money.…

We doubt whether the Port Authority would think of defending a lawsuit on which its existence depends, or in which $10,000,000 is at stake, through counsel retained as the result of competitive bidding.

Though the journal admitted that competitive bidding for the services of engineers had increasingly been taking place in small communities, whose local staff not only was not qualified to carry out the work but also could not judge the qualifications of available engineers, the writer felt there was no excuse in the case of the Port Authority, which had “able and widely informed engineers on its staff.” Yet the selection of Waddell remained, as did his designs for the two bridges, which were almost identical high-level cantilevers: the more southerly one, at Perth Amboy, was to have a main span of 750 feet and an overall length of over ten thousand feet; the main span of the bridge at Elizabeth was to be 672 feet. Even if undistinguished, especially in comparison with such cantilevers as the Firth of Forth, the Quebec, and the Queensboro, both bridges were major engineering projects, and Waddell could not do the work alone. Among those who also worked on the designs were William Burr and George Goethals. Ironically, however, Othmar Ammann is commonly misidentified as the designer of these bridges over the Arthur Kill, because of subsequent developments.

Ammann became associated with the Staten Island bridges when he was appointed bridge engineer for the Port Authority on July 1, 1925. Silzer had persisted in writing to officials of the Authority that Ammann had had a great deal to do with getting the 179th Street bridge project as far as it was, which in March 1925 meant that both states had passed legislation authorizing the Port Authority to build a bridge at the location. Shortly after that, and after an “encouraging interview” with Drinker, which took place at Silzer’s suggestion, Ammann was hired to add some bridge-building experience to the staff. Although by that time an outside contract had already been let for the Staten Island bridges, in his new position Ammann oversaw their design and construction. The two bridges were completed six months ahead of schedule, and opening ceremonies took place simultaneously, on the same day in June 1928. The southern bridge was named Outerbridge Crossing—not because of its remote location but after Staten Island resident Eugenius H. Outerbridge, the first chairman of the Port Authority, who was guest of honor at the opening ceremonies. The other structure was to be named the Arthur Kill Bridge, but when General Goethals, the first chief engineer of the Port Authority, died shortly before its dedication, it was named the Goethals Bridge, thus making it, like the tunnel named for his critic Holland, one of the few civil structures named for an engineer.

The other bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey, across the Kill van Kull, was truly to be Ammann’s design. There was to be a distinguished group of consulting engineers, including William Burr, Daniel E. Moran, Leon Moisseiff (as advisory engineer of design), and Joseph B. Strauss, who was at the time trying to generate support on the West Coast for his suspension bridge across the Golden Gate. For all the highly visible consultants, Ammann’s experience with the Hell Gate Bridge had actually prepared him well to design, with assistant E. W. Stearns and engineer of design Allston Dana, a steel arch that would be two-thirds longer than the Hell Gate and, at 1,675 feet, actually the longest in the world, surpassing by five feet the span of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, then under construction in Australia. (Ammann’s arch would in fact not be surpassed until 1977, and then only by twenty-five feet, when the New River Gorge Bridge, at Fayetteville, West Virginia, was completed.)

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, known affectionately to some as “the coat-hanger,” might have been a steel cantilever had not John Bradfield, chief engineer of the Public Works Department of New South Wales, visited America during its design. “Lindenthal’s departure from the usual stark steel arch so impressed” him at Hell Gate that Bradfield quite consciously modeled the Sydney Harbour Bridge after it, but with some deliberate distinctions. Whereas Lindenthal’s Hell Gate had an odd number of panels, so that a redundant diagonal member was necessary for symmetry and forms a steel X to mark the center of the arch, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was designed with an even number of panels, so that there is a more subtle visual transition between the two halves of the main structural element. As if to distinguish himself from his mentor’s masterpiece, Ammann chose to give the Kill van Kull arch also an even number of panels. The Sydney Harbour arch, for which David Steinman served as a consultant, was built with another sharp distinction from the Hell Gate, the termination of whose top chord had been criticized for being continued visually into the masonry pylons. The steel of the top chord of the Australian arch ends abruptly some distance from the stone, emphasizing the true structural action of the arch’s springing from the bottom chord.

The meeting of steel and stone in architect Cass Gilbert’s early architectural drawings of Ammann’s design for the Bayonne arch was actually somewhat ambiguous, but the question became moot when the steel framework at the ends of the arch was not encased in masonry as originally planned. Though the Kill van Kull bridge was dedicated as the Bayonne Bridge less than a month after the bridge across the Hudson at 179th Street, the details of the design and construction of the world’s longest steel arch would forever be overshadowed by the contemporaneous design and construction of the great suspension bridge at 179th Street.


After the necessary legislation for a Hudson River bridge had been passed, only one great nontechnical obstacle to the four-decade-long struggle remained. Bonds had to be sold, of course, and when it was announced in December 1926 that $20 million was underwritten by National City Bank, Engineering News-Record reported on “the high regard of the banking world for the essential integrity of that unique body,” the Port Authority, which alone was responsible for the security of the debt. Even as the journal was praising the fiscal reputation of the Authority, however, it commented on the body’s “metamorphosis” from a facilitator of freight handling in the port, which was its raison d’être, to an aggressive bridge builder. The trade journal concluded that “the Port Authority would do well not to delude itself into believing that building bridges was its job,” but that would indeed appear to be the major activity during the next five years or so for Ammann and his engineering staff.

Cantilever design originally accepted for the bridge over Sydney Harbour (photo credit 5.8)

Early in 1927, five papers dealing with the suspension bridge at 179th Street were read before a local meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Four were presented by Port Authority engineers: one by Ammann, who gave an overview of the project; one by Dana, who described some of the calculations involved in the structural design; and one each on surveying procedures and on traffic studies. A fifth paper, however, was presented by R. S. Buck, who “challenged the design as to a number of its major features, and called for a thorough reconsideration and restudy of the project.” Buck may at first have appeared to have been in the long tradition of naysayers who oppose projects that go beyond state-of-the-art experience—as Ammann’s certainly appeared to, even if that was being denied—but Buck’s criticism was more reasoned than grudging. He suggested that a sense of urgency to get the bonds sold and the contracts let may have led to overconfidence, and spoke to the value of looking at competitive designs. His criticism focused on some specific points, including the question of wire cables versus chains, which was still open at the time, recalling the controversy that accompanied the design of the Manhattan Bridge. His final point related to the design of the towers; these were proposed to be steel-framed for the first stage of construction, which was to include only a single deck for vehicles, then later, when a second deck carrying light rail traffic would be added, to be encased in concrete and faced with stone. In Buck’s opinion, such “pseudo masonry is out of place both esthetically and structurally.” Only the “lateness of the hour” curtailed discussion of such matters, but they were not to lie buried in the minutes of an engineering meeting. As with large projects generally, early plans would be modified and solidified as design and construction progressed.

Comparison with Hell Gate Bridge of pylon-design details of the Sydney Harbour arch as proposed and as built (photo credit 5.9)

Formal ground-breaking occurred in September 1927, simultaneous ceremonies taking place on each side of the river as speeches were delivered from the steamer De Witt Clinton anchored midstream. Silzer, no longer governor of New Jersey but now chairman of the Port Authority, waited patiently, while a telephone cable was repaired, for the ceremonies to begin. This cable, which had been cut by a passing ship, was to carry the speeches from the steamer’s saloon to WOR in Newark for broadcasting to those on the shore. After the forty-five-minute delay, the chairman began the proceedings and announced that “there are compensations for everything, and I made up my mind when this delay occurred that for every minute of it I would deduct a minute from my speech, and the result is that there is nothing left of the speech.” Silzer, the consummate politician, had made a deal with himself that could please everyone.

Shortly after the ground-breaking ceremonies, the issue of how to suspend the deck was settled: the Trenton, New Jersey, firm of John A. Roebling’s Sons submitted a wire-cable bid lower by about 10 percent than that for an eyebar design. Matters of price were not expected to be the only determining factors for securing engineers’ professional services, but that was certainly not the case when it came to choosing one form of construction over another. As for the towers that would support the cables, their final appearance was to undergo a much more prolonged discussion, and how important a role economic considerations played in that decision is still debated. In the meantime, the contract for the steel superstructure for the bridge, with a single deck, was let to the McClintic-Marshall Company.

The design of the bridge was described in an August 1927 issue of Engineering News-Record, with bare steel towers shown in the construction drawings and masonry-clad towers in a perspective drawing of a completed bridge. The discussion began with the declaration that “esthetic considerations played a large part in the determination of all the general features of this bridge,” and such considerations were “most commanding, perhaps, in relation to the towers.” The architect Cass Gilbert, whose Gothic-style Woolworth Building was still, in the late 1920s, the world’s tallest skyscraper, had been consulted by the Port Authority on the Hudson River Bridge “from the earliest stages,” and his treatment of the towers was expected to prevail. The steelwork had to be designed and erected first, however, and thus Leon Moisseiff, as advisory engineer of design, would have a great deal to say about what was to support the architectural façade of the towers.

The structural design of the towers as a composite of steel and concrete to be clad in stone came in for considerable criticism of the kind R. S. Buck had raised; an early modification was to increase the capacity of the steel framework so that it could support the ultimate weight of the bridge and its traffic without any help from the concrete. Even then, the nature of the steel design was not simple, in that it resulted in what is known as a “statically indeterminate structure.” As with the Queensboro cantilever, this, of course, meant that the distribution of forces among the various steel members was not just a function of applied loads and geometry, but depended upon the stiffness of the steel and how the structure was assembled and how it moved under the load. Because of possible uncertainties in construction and analysis, it was widely held that indeterminate structures were to be avoided, but Moisseiff supplemented intricate analysis with model tests and allowed for variations in the completed design.

Moisseiff’s interest in the bridge towers went beyond his elegant structural analysis, however, as he revealed in a book review that appeared in Engineering News-Record late in 1928. “Esthetics of bridges has come to be so live a topic that the publication of a work on the subject by an engineer of standing and culture is timely,” Moissieff began this review, of a new book by Friedrich Hartmann, professor at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, and approvingly reported on its author’s viewpoint:

He fully realizes the difficulty of expressing the achievements of modern engineering in the esthetic habits of the past. He therefore believes that architects, as a rule, are distant from the conception of steel bridges. Structures which fitted in the landscapes of medieval towns do not meet modern requirements. Dogmas and slogans on the relation of the useful to the beautiful have lost their value. “Neither is the necessary always beautiful nor the beautiful always necessary. The reverse may be true in both cases.” Engineers themselves should endeavor to develop the beauty of their structures.

Moisseiff explained that the modern “designer of bridges cannot always make use of stone and its substitute, concrete, to the continuous and solid texture of which man has been accustomed by ages. He is generally compelled by the demands of feasibility and economy to make use of the high resistance of steel.” Moisseiff reported how Hartmann, “with a malicious pleasure … quotes diametrically opposed opinions of architects on the appearance of the Forth bridge,” that great steel cantilever. Most important for Moisseiff, however, was that Hartmann had opinions about American bridges, both standing and under construction: “Naturally he is against masonry towers and prays for their omission in the Hudson River bridge.”

The basic idea for the towers appears to have come from Ammann himself, even before he became associated with the Port Authority. One of his first open discussions of the plans he had sent to Silzer occurred at a meeting of the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers in early 1924. After spending over half of his time making a case for a bridge based on developing traffic patterns, Ammann discussed various aspects of the proposed design. In the concluding section of the paper, he dealt with the towers, “another important part of a suspension bridge.” While the Brooklyn Bridge towers were “a magnificent example of the old massive masonry type, unquestionably the one most pleasing to the eye,” cost had become prohibitive for the great weight of stone needed just to support towers projected to be as high as forty-five-story buildings. Ammann continued by contrasting steel towers:

The opposite extreme is represented by the slender flexible steel towers. With proper architectural treatment, as in the case of the Manhattan Bridge, this type may be rendered very pleasing to the eye, but often its construction suggests crude utility. This type is, in most cases, the cheapest in first cost.

The “braced steel towers,” as represented in the Williamsburg bridge, have a more massive appearance and certain advantages in erection but, unless well proportioned, look clumsy. They may be covered by a decorative shell of masonry as proposed in Mr. Lindenthal’s design for the 57th Street bridge, but such shells involve a heavy additional expense.

Ammann’s innovative compromise for the 179th Street bridge was to resort to “the combination and utilization, to the full extent of their strength, of the two modern materials available for structural parts in compression, namely steel and concrete, the former completely embedded in the latter.” He was, in effect, proposing a sort of reinforced-concrete tower, something that would not be fully realized on such a scale until the Humber Bridge was built many decades later in England. In order to facilitate the construction of such a unique tower, Ammann proposed that the steel skeleton be designed to carry most of the load of the bridge itself, with the concrete and the steel sharing in carrying the added load of the traffic. Furthermore, the concrete would protect the steel from corrosion, thus reducing maintenance cost, and would provide a “more monumental appearance” than bare steel for a small additional cost. Finally, “the architecture of the towers has purposely been kept plain so as to be in harmony with the simple construction of the steel work. The monumental effect must be produced by harmony of mass and lines, and not by ornamentation.”

The sketches accompanying the paper are captioned “Copyright by O. H. Ammann,” but they may very well have represented the work of the architect R. A. Ruegg, whose “valuable assistance” the engineer acknowledged in closing his paper. The architectural argument may also have been Ruegg’s, for Ammann seemed to be having some difficulty in establishing his own structural aesthetic at the time, or at least seemed willing to be swayed more by the weight of opinion than the towers themselves would be by the weight of the bridge. Whereas his later bridge towers would resemble visually the open portal design in this paper, albeit more slender and in steel rather than in massive concrete or stone, the 179th Street bridge would not.

In the tradition of large engineering projects, even after it was completed the final design of Ammann’s Hudson River bridge remained to be described in considerable detail, in words and pictures. Such final reports were typically prepared for limited distribution, and thus were a relatively expensive undertaking. In the case of this great suspension bridge, the Port Authority chose not to print the report itself but, rather, appropriated funds for the estimated cost to the American Society of Civil Engineers; this organization issued a series of eight papers on the bridge as a volume of its Transactions for 1933, giving the Port Authority enough reprints to distribute as it saw fit. The society bragged about this publishing coup: “Not since December 1911, when Vol. 74 was mailed to the Membership, has TRANSACTIONS appeared on other than a very thin and transparent grade of Bible paper. In order to present the numerous photographs … to the best advantage, Vol. 97 is published on a good grade of English finish paper.” However, since this was happening at the nadir of the Depression, the society found itself in the curious position of also having to justify such extravagance “in a year of unusual financial stringency.” The explanation was that, “with the expenditure of relatively little more” than was given by the Port Authority, the society could “furnish all its members with a technical record of this milestone of engineering progress.” The society also thus associated itself with the project in a distinctive way, and hence gave an extraordinary imprimatur to the project and its engineers.

Four versions of Ammann’s proposed Hudson River bridge (left to right, top to bottom): the original 1923 proposal; a version with slender steel towers; a version with granite-faced towers and eyebar chains; and the bridge essentially as completed in 1931, with a single deck suspended from four wire cables and bare steel towers, but topped by observation platforms that were never added(photo credit 5.10)

The debate over whether the towers should or should not be encased in concrete and stone had continued throughout the construction of the bridge and remained an issue even in the final report. When his status changed from independent engineer to bridge engineer for the Port Authority, Ammann’s association with architects seems also to have altered, and it was not Ruegg’s but Cass Gilbert’s architectural sketches, dominated by even more massive stone-faced towers (and approach viaducts on the Manhattan side), that then appeared to be the dominant feature of the bridge. In early Port Authority plans, the Gilbert stonework even overwhelmed the heavy eyebar chains that were chosen by the artist over wire cables. In his final report on the bridge, however, which dealt with its general conception and the development of the design, Ammann could not ignore the story behind the towers, which at the time remained the bare steel that Moisseiff had designed and had subsequently redesigned to be able to support even the double-decked bridge without the aid of concrete:

There is no part of the design … which has called forth as much comment, favorable and unfavorable, on the part of engineers, architects, and laymen, as the towers. Indeed, as the writer has endeavored to show, the design of the suspended structure, the floor, and the cables, resolved itself largely in the application of natural and most simple structural forms which neither required nor permitted architectural treatment to satisfy aesthetics.

The design of the towers, however, is not so well defined. There are widely different meritorious forms and the effect of the towers on the appearance of the entire structure is perhaps more pronounced than that of any other part. They may enhance or destroy the natural beauty of a graceful suspended structure. There are existing examples which illustrate both effects.

It is futile to theorize about this question—it is largely a matter of aesthetic conception, which is intensely individual and changeable—nor can it be dealt with on general principles without regard to the local scenery or landscape. Moreover, the aesthetic treatment of a bridge, as that of any other engineering structure, is not always satisfactorily solved even by correct and honest application of engineering principles. The appearance of a structure so conceived may sometimes be materially enhanced by the addition or the architectural embellishment of certain structural parts, whether structurally required or not. The flanking abutments of an arch bridge, and the towers and the anchorages of a suspension bridge, offer opportunity for such enhancement.…

The writer, who has conceived and is primarily responsible for the type and general form of the design, considers the steel towers as they stand to represent as good a design as may be produced by a slender steel bent, and that they lend the entire structure a much more satisfactory appearance than he (and perhaps any one connected with the design), had anticipated. Nevertheless, he believes that the appearance of the towers would be materially enhanced by an encasement with an architectural treatment, such as that developed by the architect, Mr. Cass Gilbert.…

The writer is not impressed by the criticism, based solely on theoretical and utilitarian grounds, that the encasement would constitute a camouflage which would hide the true structure and its function.

Ammann may still have been unsatisfied with the bare towers, but not Moisseiff, who wrote an entire paper on the design of the towers for the special Transactions volume. Though he pointed out that “the fact that the towers were conceived to be ultimately encased in masory is important to the understanding of their design and their articulation,” he spent few words on the controversy, other than to express his opinion that the towers “would probably remain without enclosure.” The engineer was not to be alone in his view; the architect Le Corbusier would call the structure “the most beautiful bridge in the world,” and “blessed.” He would also write: “When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh.”


For all the debate over appearances, actual construction of the 179th Street Bridge had progressed very deliberately, and the bridge was finished six months earlier than had been thought possible. Yet final details of the towers remained uncertain even as the bridge was being dedicated, on October 24, 1931; the program for that event shows an observation platform that was never built. The program also contains a very brief popularized history of Hudson River crossings, and a description of the gigantic nature of the endeavor and enterprise. Not uncharacteristically, there is no mention of the role that engineers like Ammann played, either in the technical design or in the political and financial machinations that were so necessary in the preliminary stages. The short program did, however, include a justification for the name of the structure, which, also not uncharacteristically, had been a matter of some controversy.

Photograph of the George Washington Bridge as completed in 1931, showing the extreme slenderness of its single deck (photo credit 5.11)

The site of the bridge, the program explained, was of historic interest: during the American Revolution, George Washington had led patriots against the British at this location. Thus it was fitting to bestow George Washington’s name on the monumental structure. The name “George Washington Memorial Bridge” had actually been announced nine months earlier by the Port Authority, which had appointed a committee to select a name from the many suggestions that had been made. Though there was strong feeling that the simple title “Hudson River Bridge” was sufficient, the committee acceded to custom by agreeing that “something more historically significant was desirable.” There was quick opposition to the “ridiculous name” that had been “born in a vacuum, warmed by patriotism but chilled by an utter absence of common sense.” Since there was already a Washington Bridge over the Harlem River, barely a mile to the east, some argued that there could be confusion, but even the chairman of the Port Authority, John F. Galvin, admitted that people would continue to call the new bridge the “Hudson River Bridge,” no matter what its official name. There were, naturally, alternatives suggested, including “Palisades Bridge,” after the New Jersey cliffs that also served as the west abutment, and “Cleveland Bridge,” after the U.S. president, who had been born in New Jersey and been a governor of New York. Within barely a week, the Port Authority commissioners, who wanted the bridge “named to suit the public,” agreed to refer the matter back to the special committee that had recommended the name in the first place. It had become known that the George Washington Bicentennial Commission, which had been requesting public entities to take the occasion of the bicentennial of the birth of Washington to name “bridges, highways and other public monuments” after him, was a strong proponent of the name originally chosen. The public was now invited by the Port Authority to submit more names.

Hundreds of letters poured in with more suggestions. A man from New Jersey proposed “Verrazano Bridge,” after the Florentine navigator who was claimed by some to have been the first European to cross New York Bay, in 1524, but who was “considered an uncertain quantity by many historians.” “Columbus Bridge” and “Hendrik Hudson Bridge” had solid support, but the “volume of letters from school children and women’s clubs” kept the hope for honoring George Washington alive. In the end, the letters showed “a complete lack of unanimity of public opinion,” and the Port Authority decided on “George Washington Bridge,” only dropping the explicit mention that it was a memorial. Pleas for other names continued to be advanced in letters to editors, but to no avail. Though newspaper and magazine editorials expressed resignation to the official naming of the bridge, “what the millions who use it in the years to come will choose to call it is another matter.” Engineering News-Record believed the bridge would “get its workaday name from the people, while its christen [sic] name is likely to remain unknown outside parish records and mortgage papers.” How wrong these prognosticators were. The name “George Washington Bridge”—sometimes shortened in speech to “the George Washington,” “the GWB,” or, within the Port Authority offices, simply “the George”—is used to this day by New Yorkers, New Jerseyites, and travelers to and from all parts of New England.

The Washington Bridge in 1889, when recently completed and known as the Harlem River Bridge (photo credit 5.12)

At the dedication, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Jersey Governor Morgan F. Larson formally opened the bridge with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the center of its span, where grandstands had been erected for five thousand guests. It was a day to celebrate and show unity. Roosevelt and ex-Governor Al Smith arrived together, and they received loud applause. “But probably the greatest and most spontaneous greeting was that accorded to” Ammann and Lindenthal, “who came to the grandstand in the same automobile.” Unlike Lindenthal, who was described as “designer of the great Hell Gate Bridge and dean of American bridge builders,” Ammann needed no identification in the newspaper story covering the ceremonies. His eclipse of his mentor was complete; Lindenthal was not even listed among the consulting engineers, although in the final report on the project Ammann would identify Lindenthal specifically as one who had “rendered special advice on design questions.” Regardless of whether Ammann was setting the record straight or fulfilling a sentimental obligation to an aging colleague, the balance of influence and power had definitely shifted. Future bridge design in America would follow not Lindenthal’s but Ammann’s lead in pursuing longer, lighter, and more flexible bridges that were enormous but not Brobdingnagianly grotesque.

Among the many ceremonial touches that day was one that both recalled the past and foreshadowed the future:

Defying the age-old rule that marching troops break step when crossing a bridge, columns of soldiers, sailors, marines and Coast Guard came swinging down the roadway from the Manhattan plaza. Those in the center of the bridge felt the gigantic span vibrate as if shaken by earth tremors, but the crowds were only amused at the strange sensation.

It had been possible to build the George Washington Bridge at a cost that made it politically acceptable because Ammann had used all the technical ingenuity at his command to reduce the dead weight of the structure; but this also made the bridge perceptibly flexible. He discussed the development of the suspension bridge in his 1923 article in Engineering News-Record, in which he described the evolution of the stiffening truss, the dominant feature of the roadway profile of such recent suspended spans as Howard Baird’s Bear Mountain Bridge and Modjeski’s Delaware River Bridge, each of which briefly held the record for the longest suspended span in the world. In his review, Ammann explained how, a century earlier, Telford had designed his Menai Strait Suspension Bridge with a flatter curve to its chains, which in turn required a flexible deck to accommodate the deflections of the chain due to traffic loads and temperature changes. The deck of the Menai was blown down in the wind in the nineteenth century, but in his characteristically selective and slightly skewed view of bridge-building history, Ammann did not mention this extreme effect of a too-flexible deck. Instead, he described how the Niagara Gorge Suspension Bridge could carry railroad trains because its engineer, whom Ammann misidentified as Washington Roebling, successfully incorporated a stiffening truss. Still, whatever the lacunae in his historical view, Ammann understood fully the importance of having a bridge deck stiff enough to withstand traffic loads vertically and wind loads horizontally, and what was true for spans of moderate length he saw could be extended even further for those of unprecedented length. The stiffness of a bridge deck and cables complicated the calculation of the manner in which the load was distributed among the various components of the structure, however, and the less precisely an engineer knew this distribution, the more conservative he had to be in his design. Conservatism in bridge design translates into using more steel to compensate for uncertainties, which in turn translates into a heavier bridge that costs more to build.

The required strength of a bridge deck depends not only upon the weight of the deck itself but also upon the weight of the traffic it has to bear. The requirements for Lindenthal’s Hudson River proposals were all dominated by the extreme weight of heavy freight railroad trains, which was ultimately reflected in his prohibitive cost estimates. In the case of the 179th Street bridge, however, Ammann had begun from the premise that it would not carry any heavy railroad trains. As originally planned, the upper deck would be for cars and trucks only, and the lower deck would carry at most only light commuter rail traffic. When the project evolved into two stages, with the first stage having only motor vehicles carried on a single deck, Ammann had been able to make some drastic reductions in the weight of the deck itself, by reasoning about the nature of the traffic on the completed bridge.

Short-span bridges were typically designed by assuming that they might at some time be loaded with bumper-to-bumper truck traffic, which determined their strength requirements. As longer and longer spans came to be designed, however, it became clear that a solid line of trucks on a bridge deck was a very unlikely occurrence indeed; designing for that condition led to a very expensive structure that might have to support such a load very infrequently, if ever, and then for only a very short time. Since all structures were designed with some additional reserve strength anyway, in order to provide a prudent margin of safety, all bridges were in a sense overdesigned for the vast majority of the uses to which they were put. In his 1916 treatise on bridge engineering, Waddell gave currency to an idea that Modjeski had employed in the Manhattan Bridge—namely, that for the purposes of designing the bridge the unlikely extreme traffic condition be reduced by one-half. By the mid-1920s, such a practice had become somewhat standard in designing long-span bridges, such as the one then under construction over the Delaware River.

In working out plans for his own bridge in such a design climate, Ammann further reasoned that the mix of automobile and truck traffic at the northerly-Manhattan location would be such that he could make additional reductions in the assumed maximum load. One such reduction was possible because the bridge would have eight lanes, and it was unlikely that all lanes simultaneously would be equally loaded with truck traffic. In the final analysis, Ammann used only one-sixth of the maximum conceivable traffic load as a design load. Though this so-called live load may seem to lead to a drastic reduction in strength, the effect is greatly lessened by the fact that the dead weight of the bridge itself would dominate the total design load. In an insightful analysis, with Jameson Doig, of “Ammann’s first bridge,” David Billington estimates that, had the engineer used the standard reduction of one-half for the traffic load, more than $7 million worth of additional steel would have had to be added to the $23 million that did go into the bridge. Furthermore, according to Ammann, since “every dollar spent for steel in the flooring and stiffening trusses in a span of this length requires at least an equivalent expenditure for materials in the cables, towers, and anchorages to carry the floor steel, the total saving by the adoption of the flexible trusses is estimated to be almost $10,000,000.” This 25 percent savings of the entire cost of the bridge may have made the difference in the economic attractiveness of Ammann’s proposal to Silzer.

Ammann’s calculations were supported by the “deflection theory” that Moisseiff had applied to the design of the Manhattan and Delaware River bridges. A consequence of that theory was that as the dead weight of a span increased, the stiffness of the deck could decrease. Since the weight obviously increased with length, longer bridges could be more flexible. This counterintuitive result was due in part to the necessarily heavier cables or eyebars, which alone would provide considerable resistance to deflection, whether caused by traffic or by wind. Whereas in many other suspension bridges, Ammann pointed out, “the stiffening system is heavier than the cables or chains themselves,” in his bridge the weight of the stiffening system would amount to “only about one-eighth of that of the chains.”

When the structure was completed in 1931, the slenderness of the deck of the George Washington Bridge was one of its most striking features, but some critics found fault with other aspects of its design. The American Institute of Steel Construction’s award for that year’s “Most Beautiful Bridge,” for example, went not to Ammann’s 179th Street suspension bridge but to his Bayonne arch. According to an architect on the jury, “The setting of the Washington Bridge with the lofty Palisades on one side and the low Manhattan shore on the other did not call for symmetrical treatment and might be filled better by an asymmetrical structure.” But engineers by and large embraced fully Ammann’s Hudson River achievement, especially as embodied in the structural aesthetic of its most slender deck.

At a special dinner meeting of the American Institute of Consulting Engineers held less than two weeks after the opening of the George Washington Bridge, the structure was described as a “great monument to Mr. Ammann,” and to him had fallen the title “Pontifex Maximus” of New York. Amid the mutual admiration of engineers, the flexibility of light bridge decks came in for some light talk. After Ammann spoke about the long history of bridging the Hudson—and had his recollection of the date of the first tunnels corrected from the audience by their engineer, J. Vipond Davies himself—Ammann discussed the question of stiffening suspension bridges. Among his remarks was a reflection on the evolution of his ideas:

In my preliminary studies for this bridge, it took me a long time to wean away from the rigid system and to find out what would be the required rigidity, but I finally came to the conclusion that if the bridge were built for highway traffic alone the weight would be sufficient to provide ample rigidity without any stiffening whatsoever; in other words, it was feasible to go back to the early English type of suspension bridge, that is, to a practically unstiffened floor suspended vertically from the cables.

What neither Ammann nor anyone else at the time seemed to recall about the “early English type of suspension bridge” was that many of those light decks were destroyed in the wind. Rather, the mood at the dinner was gleeful, the participants reveling in stories of people who feared the light bridges. After Ammann spoke, it was the turn of guest Colonel E. Vivien Gabriel, of the British Royal Engineers, “a man of vast and wide experience in India.” Among his stories of designing and constructing suspension bridges in that country, he related how he sometimes “drove a flock of sheep or cattle over the bridges before we tried the cars, in order to convince” the local engineers. After listening to Gabriel’s “delightful stories,” Ammann ended the evening with some of his own “about the early bridges built by American engineers.” Presumably recorded verbatim, Ammann’s closing remarks suggest that he had less a sense of lightness in story than in bridges:

There was one of these flexible suspension bridges in New England, and an engineer who visited that place stood in the middle of the bridge while a team of oxen went over, and he relates that he became perfectly seasick.

In another instance, an American engineer had built a suspension bridge of one of those thin wires or ropes that the Colonel mentioned, and the Indians who lived in the vicinity were very doubtful about its strength. They were used to the substantial cantilever bridges built of solid wood, and they refused to go over it. Finally they held a council, and decided that before they would go over they would send their squaws over, and if the bridge stood up under them, they would go over, too.

These stories, told in a time before speeches were vetted for political correctness, must have gotten a laugh, not for their execution, but for their allusion to the George Washington Bridge, whose flexibility was of no concern to these worldly and sophisticated men of scientific engineering.

Of the forty-odd engineers present at the meeting, only Ammann himself would go on to build more daring bridges than the George Washington, but the success of that structure would also embolden engineers who were not in attendance. These included Leon Moisseiff and Joseph Strauss, who were engaged at the time in the design and construction of a bridge that would have a central span of forty-two hundred feet, a full 20 percent longer than the George Washington.


Talk of bridging the dramatic strait between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean known as the Golden Gate had begun in the nineteenth century, but the social and technical conditions of the early twentieth were needed to advance the project beyond talk. Bay Area movers and shakers were becoming increasingly annoyed by the ferry service between Marin County and San Francisco, and among them was the San Francisco Call Bulletin’s James Wilkins, whose engineering degree and daily ferry rides seem to have destined him to launch, in 1916, a new and relentless editorial campaign for a bridge. Another staunch proponent of a bridge was San Francisco’s city engineer, Michael O’Shaughnessy, who had been hired a few years after the 1906 earthquake to rebuild an infrastructure that was still in shambles. To secure a long-term water supply for the city, O’Shaughnessy wanted to build—almost 250 miles away, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—a dam across the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was regarded as a natural setting equal in beauty to nearby Yosemite Valley. Opposition to the project by the environmentalist John Muir and the Sierra Club took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the dam was christened, in 1923, it was named after engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy, in recognition of his dedication to the scheme. Completing the supply line to the city took another decade. Half a century later, environmentalists were trying to have the dam torn down and the Hetch Hetchy Valley restored to a natural state, but San Francisco’s residents have become as dependent upon the water it impounds as they have upon the Golden Gate Bridge.

Newspaper people and city engineers, no matter how determined, cannot merely will great water supplies or bridges into existence. To bridge the Golden Gate, a proposal that was sound both technically and fiscally was needed, and such a scheme would have to come from an engineer with the background, vision, and time to conceive and execute the first rough calculations on a dream. In the course of dealing with all kinds of infrastructure problems for the city, ranging from tunneling under hills to seeing that all was in order for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, O’Shaughnessy encountered many an engineer with whom to talk of things that might be. Among those with whom he raised the question of a bridge across the Golden Gate was Joseph Strauss, one of whose patented bascule bridges with a massive concrete counterweight was the first such one in San Francisco. In addition to being responsible for a nondescript if not downright ugly Fourth Street Bridge, Strauss designed the amusement ride known as the Aeroscope for the 1915 World’s Fair. The ride carried 118 fairgoers about two hundred feet in the air in the equivalent of a modest two-story house mounted on the end of a steel truss that was effectively a revolving bascule bridge. The view provided of the fair and the surrounding area must have been spectacular, for, as the ride progressed in a helical path over the fairgrounds, passengers could see “Alcatraz and the Angel Islands in the bay, and the Golden Gate and Pacific Ocean beyond.” Engineer Strauss no doubt looked out at that view and dreamed.

Fourth Street Bridge constructed in San Francisco in 1916 by the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company (photo credit 5.13)

Joseph Baermann Strauss was born in Cincinnati in 1870, the son of a noted portrait artist, Raphael Strauss. It was just three years since traffic had begun to move between that city and Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River, on the new suspension bridge designed and built by John Roebling. Though Joseph Strauss may not have grown up literally in its shadow the way engineer David Steinman would in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the dominant role such a bridge plays in the life of a city does not escape young men who want to realize certain kinds of great dreams and be remembered for them. As an engineering student at the University of Cincinnati, Strauss was well aware that his five-foot frame would not allow him to compete on the football field, and he was recalled as having become determined then “to build the biggest thing of its kind that a man could build.” Ambition was apparent in his becoming class president and class poet by the time he finished school in 1892; in his graduation thesis, he proposed the construction of an international railroad bridge across the Bering Strait. Raphael Strauss gave the new graduate “$100 and told him to go out into the world and make it on his own.”

Armed with this modest stake and his college degree, young Strauss moved to Trenton, the New Jersey town where the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company had been founded in 1849 to manufacture wire rope, and where the Roebling family had become prominent. Strauss took a job as a draftsman with the New Jersey Steel and Iron Company, a bridge-building firm that dated from 1866 and was owned by the philanthropist Peter Cooper’s New York-based Cooper, Hewitt & Company. After two years in Trenton, Strauss accepted an opportunity to return to the University of Cincinnati to teach for a year in the Department of Engineering, at the end of which time he married his college sweetheart, May Van. They moved to Chicago, where Strauss took a position as detailer with the Lassig Bridge and Iron Works. After gaining further experience as inspector, estimator, and designer with the Lassig firm, Strauss joined the Chicago Sanitary District, and advanced from designer to squad boss. In 1899, he became principal assistant engineer in charge in the office of Ralph Modjeski, which had designed many of the lift- and drawbridges over the Chicago River.

Among the problems confronting Modjeski, and other Chicago bridge firms, was the design of bridges with movable roadways. One relatively new type of drawbridge was the bascule bridge, which operated on a seesaw principle, but with the counterbalancing side greatly reduced in length by the use of massive counterweights. Though these bridges had the advantage of not taking up much space in crowded cities, they had the disadvantage of requiring a lot of expensive dead weight to function properly, and the added complexities associated with mechanical movements. In time, Strauss came up with a new scheme, which employed concrete for the counterweight. However, since this relatively inexpensive material was about two-thirds less dense than the cast iron that was being used in counterweights, Strauss’s early designs had ungainly proportions. Another of his ideas, to use a new kind of trunnion bearing as the “element of movement,” was reportedly also ridiculed by Strauss’s superiors at Modjeski, and so he left.

In 1902, Strauss thus struck out on his own as a consulting engineer, and in 1904 he established the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company. Over the next decade or so, a series of significant patents were granted for movable bridges of Strauss’s design, and his firm prospered somewhat, eventually becoming the Strauss Engineering Corporation, a consulting firm with offices in Chicago and San Francisco. Though the firm’s early specialty was movable bridges, not all of which were by any means unattractive, it also designed and built such unusual structures as the Aeroscope, portable searchlights employed during World War I, and reinforced-concrete railroad cars. Strauss would go on to serve as consulting engineer on such significant bridges as the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., whose center arch is in fact a double-leaf steel bascule bridge with concealed counterweights, as well as the Bayonne Bridge and the George Washington Bridge in New York.

O’Shaughnessy and Strauss began to talk seriously about the possibilities of bridging the Golden Gate in about 1919. The city engineer’s office provided location maps, surveys, and the like, while Strauss’s company worked on design. Soundings of the strait made by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in early 1920 were not encouraging. O’Shaughnessy shared the data not only with Strauss but also, unbeknownst to Strauss, with Frank McMath, who was with the Canadian Bridge and Iron Company in Detroit, and with Gustav Lindenthal. By mid-1921, Strauss had delivered a proposed bridge design to O’Shaughnessy who did not make it public for some time, perhaps because of its unconventional appearance. It was an ungraceful hybrid, half cantilever and half suspension bridge, but it did carry the very attractive price tag of about $17 million. O’Shaughnessy must certainly have thought that Strauss’s keen sense of economy counterbalanced at least in part the aesthetic shortcomings of the design—especially when the less cost-conscious Lindenthal eventually came in with a proposal requiring $60 million at a bare minimum, and other estimates had run in the $100-million range; McMath never did submit a plan. Thus Strauss’s design came to be used “to help stimulate public interest in building a bridge and to determine what financial and political support really existed for such a project.”

An attractive booklet titled Bridging “The Golden Gate,” prepared by Strauss and privately printed by O’Shaughnessey and Strauss in 1921, contains a concise and convincing argument that the project was technically and financially sound. The “new cantilever-suspension type of long span bridge” that was “conceived and patented” by Strauss combined the cantilever and suspension principles to reduce the length of cable required and at the same time increase the overall stiffness of the structure. The estimated cost of the bridge, laid out succinctly on a single page, was said to be “so reasonable” that it could be paid for either directly by San Francisco, Marin County, and others who would benefit from it, or operated as a toll bridge and thus would pay for itself, according to Strauss’s estimate of revenue.

Strauss began to talk about his proposal before small groups in Marin County and northern California. Though he was apparently a terrible speaker, his idea for a bridge that would bring clear advantages in real-estate development and commerce gained increasing support. By 1923, enough momentum had been generated so that legislation was drafted authorizing a Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, which would create the first local tax district of any significance for the specific purpose of building a bridge. Within months, the legislation was in place. In the meantime, an engineer was added to Strauss’s staff to work out the design of a bridge larger than any the office had ever tackled.

Joseph Strauss’s 1921 proposal for a bridge across the Golden Gate (photo credit 5.14)

This engineer, Charles Alton Ellis, was born in Parkman, Maine, in 1876. His formal education consisted of an A.B. in mathematics and Greek from Wesleyan University, and he learned engineering on the job at the American Bridge Company. He learned so well that in 1908 he became an instructor in civil engineering at the University of Michigan, and he was a professor of structural and bridge engineering at the University of Illinois when Strauss hired him, in 1922, to work on the Golden Gate Bridge. While Ellis did the essential design work, Strauss continued to promote his bridge scheme, which had encountered the familiar challenge of presenting an obstacle to navigation. Final War Department approval was to come slowly, and in the meantime Strauss engaged Professor George F. Swain of Harvard University and Leon Moisseiff to serve on a board of consultants. Both endorsed Strauss’s plans as workable, if not graceful, and at his request Moisseiff prepared plans for a comparable suspension bridge for the site. His design, with a four-thousand-foot center span, represented more than a doubling of the suspension-bridge length, itself a record, that was soon to be realized in the Moisseiff-designed Delaware River Bridge, and was to be an even greater leap in the state of the art than Ammann’s Hudson River Bridge, then proceeding within the secure financial base of the Port of New York Authority. Though cost estimates for both Strauss’s and Moisseiff’s versions of a Golden Gate Bridge remained attractive at under $20 million, some supporters were beginning to have second thoughts about providing financial guarantees to the project and going ahead without further studies. By the end of 1928, however, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was incorporated.

A page from a promotional booklet showing Joseph Strauss’s concise cost estimate for a Golden Gate Bridge (photo credit 5.15)

Estimated Cost, Proposed Golden Gate Bridge

With incorporation, the district could get down to business, which meant fixing on a design that would be approved by the War Department, going to the voters for their approval, issuing bonds to raise capital, and letting contracts for the actual construction. Although Strauss was indeed chief engineer of the district, his or any other design still required the approval of the politically appointed members of the district’s technical board. Among the engineers who were approached anew for designs in 1929 were Ammann, Lindenthal, and Modjeski. Needless to say, Strauss was not in their league when it came to long-span suspension bridges. Indeed, he had not designed or built a single one. Furthermore, questions that had arisen about foundation conditions made it increasingly doubtful that the heavier cantilever design, even if modified, could be supported. In order to bolster his credibility for the job, Strauss had engaged Ammann and Moisseiff as consulting engineers to him as chief engineer. They were already engaged in the building of the George Washington Bridge, of course, which not only put them in the forefront of bridge building but also made their full availability for a West Coast project somewhat questionable. Ammann had accepted Strauss’s offer reluctantly, in part because he was unsure about the organizational structure that had him working for the chief engineer rather than for the district board, and he did not want to appear to be competing with consulting engineers in private practice. No doubt he avoided quitting the project outright because he must have realized that Strauss was not only determined but also politically effective enough to get the world’s largest bridge built, and he did not want to be left out of participating in it. In the final arrangement that was worked out, Ammann and Moisseiff continued to be associated with Strauss, as members of a board of engineers appointed by the Bridge and Highway District, and he was to be associated with them as consulting engineer on the Bayonne and George Washington bridges. The Golden Gate board was chaired by Strauss, who was in fact also chief engineer of the project. O’Shaughnessy, who was so instrumental in getting the bridge idea off the ground in the first place, was disappointed, to say the least, at being left out entirely; he would eventually join the forces completely opposed to the bridge.

The newly printed letterhead of the Office of the Chief Engineer listed Strauss in that position, with Charles Ellis next in line as designing engineer. Three consulting engineers were also listed: Ammann, Moisseiff, and, as the local representative, Charles Derleth, Jr., dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. Derleth had been chief engineer of the Carquinez Strait Bridge at Vallejo, California, designed by David Steinman and William Burr, and had also been a critic of Strauss’s early design. Dominating the letterhead, however, was not the names of the engineers but the seal of the district, showing a combination cantilever-suspension bridge that strongly resembled the chief engineer’s original design. Yet Strauss’s ambition was greater than his pride: he came to acknowledge that a suspension bridge of the kind suggested by Moisseiff not only would be lighter and less expensive to build, but also could be completed in less time. Because of the Depression, cost estimates for construction had fallen even since Strauss’s original estimate, and he had made his bid for the job more attractive to the Bridge and Highway District by agreeing to terms that represented “the lowest ever written for a bridge job of such magnitude.” His firm’s fee was to be 4 percent, which compared rather unfavorably with the 7 percent recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Though this meant that Strauss would have to run a bare-bones engineering-design office for the project, he was apparently willing to compromise in many ways to get a chance to pursue his dream bridge. (Strauss had set his fee with the understanding that the bridge plans would be prepared sequentially as construction progressed. When the district directors ordered the plans prepared all at once, in order to go for lump-sum bids, Strauss sued for an additional 1 percent fee and won.)

Charles Ellis was put in charge of the detailed design at the Strauss Engineering Corporation, with Moisseiff checking all the calculations. Early plans called for the Marin pier to be two hundred feet out in the water, but a decision was made to put it adjacent to the shore, thus reducing costs while at the same time increasing the length of the main span of the bridge to forty-two hundred feet. The south pier and anchorage were to be the focus of controversy, however. Berkeley Professor Andrew C. Lawson had been retained as consulting geologist, and he had serious doubts that rock conditions near the San Francisco shore could support a tower of the size required. This sparked prolonged debates about how sound the rock really was and how the bridge would survive movement of the tower and anchorage during an earthquake. (The span was to be built parallel to the San Andreas Fault, only six miles away.) It was Ellis who assured critics on the latter point. The major design challenge Ellis faced, however, was that of the towers themselves. The decision was that they should be of steel and that their design was of prime importance not only structurally but also aesthetically. Heavy diagonal bracing was to be confined to below the roadway, with the upper portions of the towers braced only with horizontal members. Strauss suggested that the skyscraper towers have “the stepped-off type of architecture” that was so prominent a feature of the contemporary Chrysler and Empire State buildings, and this was followed. The first consulting architect retained by Strauss was John Eberson, an Austrian-born electrical contractor who had taught himself architecture and become a prominent theatrical-set designer. He produced a design that had archlike openings above the roadway and at the tower top, thus concealing with architectural embellishments two of the four strong horizontal structural members that Ellis and Moisseiff knew were needed to provide the proper stiffness.

As the design of the bridge proceeded, it was learned that the San Francisco approach roads had been realigned by federal highway authorities, requiring a new arrangement for the toll plaza and thus further architectural work. Since the New Yorker Eberson had proved to be too expensive for Strauss’s budget, and since Strauss knew that a locally prominent architect might be more helpful in gaining political and financial support for the bridge, he hired Irving F. Morrow as the new consulting architect. Born in Oakland, California, in 1884, Morrow studied architecture at Berkeley and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Though he had no prior experience in bridge work, he was a daily commuter by ferry between his office in San Francisco and his home in Berkeley, and thus had observed the ever-changing conditions of light, shadow, and color in the Golden Gate. It would be Morrow’s Art Deco design treatment of the towers, incorporating such façade details as the vertically faceted aluminum fascia panels to cover the heavy steel structural horizontals, that would give the bridge much of its dramatic effect in the changing light. He would also play a key role in helping to decide on such details as bridge railings and paint colors that would make the Golden Gate Bridge one of the most distinctive in the world.

Before the bridge could be decorated, however, it had to be financed and built, and chief engineer Strauss presented his structural and architectural report to the Bridge and Highway District Board on August 27, 1930, just two weeks after a construction permit was signed by the secretary of war. A referendum was announced, and on November 4 the voters approved a $35-million bond issue by more than three to one. The successful outcome was due in no small part to the fact that the construction of the George Washington Bridge had gone so smoothly, technically and financially, its opening now only a year away. Even before that occurred, however, Engineering News-Record would remark that “the Golden Gate Bridge is a fact today because the Fort Lee bridge was built yesterday. It was the latter project that attuned the public mind to the possibility of financing such huge enterprises.” The sale of the Golden Gate bonds would go no more smoothly than the continuing design, but construction would begin within three years.

The greatest tensions in the bridge’s design proved to be not in the cables or anchorages but in the interpersonal relationship between Strauss and Ellis. With the bond issue passed, there was great optimism and pride in the project, and there were audiences wanting to hear all about it. Among these was the first West Coast conference of the National Academy of Sciences, to be held on the Berkeley campus. The university’s president, Robert G. Sproul, proposed to Dean Derleth that the scientists be told about the significant engineering problems that were being overcome in designing the local bridge, and Derleth arranged for Ellis to make the presentation. Though he acknowledged that Strauss was the boss of the project, when it came to the design of the bridge itself, Ellis stated, “Mr. Strauss gave me some pencils and a pad of paper and told me to go to work.” Derleth himself, at a luncheon hosted by skeptics about the design where Strauss expected him to silence the critics, appealed to the authority not of Strauss but of Ellis, “who stands high as a structural bridge engineer.” The dean went on to describe how Ellis was in charge of the first design and how Moisseiff’s theory was used to lighten the trusses employed. Finally, Derleth assured the audience that neither Ellis nor Moisseiff had made any errors in their lengthy and complex mathematical calculations, “even if Mr. Strauss and Mr. Ammann and I do not know anything about the subject.” Thus revealed to be just another manager, Strauss was not happy.

Strauss had indeed put Ellis in charge of the design, and the staff of Strauss Engineering was to assist him, especially with calculations for the tower. But since Ellis had found at least one of Strauss’s staff unprepared to work on “a problem of this nature,” and others were busy on a potentially very profitable bascule-bridge job, he took on much of the work himself, having it checked by Moisseiff and his own staff. As the bridge seemed to be associated more and more with Ellis, Strauss tried to rein him in by pushing for milestones and deadlines. Ellis defended his reluctance to promise when things would be completed or to delegate calculations by describing the structure as one requiring extrordinary research and theoretical work. Yet times were tough; Strauss’s corporation apparently felt financial pressures, and he was little interested in paying for work he thought to be a frivolous academic exercise. In late 1931, Strauss wrote to Ellis that he should turn the work over to his assistant, Charles Clarahan, Jr., and take a vacation. This left one person in the office working on the bridge; before his vacation was over, Ellis received a letter from Strauss effectively laying him off and instructing him to turn over the job to Clarahan. According to Strauss, “the structure was nothing unusual and did not require all the time, study and expense” that Ellis had been devoting to it.

It was the Depression, of course; Ellis remained out of work until he joined the faculty of Purdue University in 1934. In the meantime, he continued to work on the tower design, writing to the consulting engineers about his concerns. Eventually, Ellis “vexed” even Moisseiff, who wrote to Derleth that he and his staff found nothing wrong with the methods used by the Strauss Engineering Corporation. The tower design had been verified by means of a stainless-steel model at Princeton University, and at a program there to describe the tower design and testing, Moisseiff described how the stiff frame design, “without diagonals, was adopted for the sake of appearance and how this complicated the analytical design.” Though he also commented on the “ingenious method of analysis” worked out by Ellis, he credited Frederick Lienhard of his own office with the computations that checked with the model tests.

While Ellis would certainly appear to have been badly treated by Strauss, he also seems not to have been able to maintain a sound perspective on the matter at the time. Strauss eventually replaced him with Clifford E. Paine, a onetime student of Ellis’s at the University of Michigan and an associate of Strauss who once quit his employ “in protest over his boss’s interference with his work.” He was hired back with assurances that he would be left alone. Paine’s strong personality and central position on the Golden Gate project were subsequently demonstrated again in the fact that Strauss Engineering Corporation became Strauss & Paine, Inc., in 1935, about halfway through the Golden Gate construction. In a brochure available from the Bridge and Highway District, Paine is identified as “principal engineer during the design and construction” of the bridge. When it was completed and a plaque was to be prepared, Paine wanted to be identified as “Assistant Chief Engineer,” but Strauss preferred that the credit read “Assistant to the Chief Engineer.” Today, the plaque, on the southeastern face of the eastern leg of the San Francisco tower, identifies Paine as “Principal Assistant Engineer.” Others receiving credit are Russell G. Cone, as “Resident Engineer”; Charles Clarahan, Jr., and Dwight N. Wetherell as “Assistant Engineers,” and the consulting engineers Ammann, Derleth, and Moisseiff. There is no recognition whatsoever of Charles Ellis here, or in the listing of the engineering staff in Strauss’s final report to the board of directors.

The Golden Gate Bridge opened on May 27, 1937, with an event known as Pedestrian Day. By 6 a.m., about eighteen thousand people had assembled on both sides of the bridge to be the first to walk over it. Over the course of the day, an estimated two hundred thousand strolled across the miraculous span. In 1987, as a means of commemorating the Golden Gate’s fiftieth anniversary, another Pedestrian Day was announced, but so many people showed up before the opening ceremonies that they pushed onto the bridge and pre-empted the usual political speeches. It was estimated that about a quarter-million people were crowded onto the Golden Gate at one time, thus testing it as it had never been before. The bridge, which has come to be known among engineers for its flexibility in the wind, for having been stiffened since construction, and for having been found structurally unsuitable to carry an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system into Marin County, had the graceful arc of its center span flattened out under all the people in 1987, and there was some concern for its safety.

The Golden Gate Bridge, in its dramatic setting (photo credit 5.16)

It is unlikely that the centennial of the bridge will be celebrated with another uncontrolled Pedestrian Day, unless substantial structural retrofitting work is done in the meantime. This may indeed occur, for after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, extensive plans were prepared to make the bridge capable of surviving a quake registering as high as 8.3 on the Richter scale, to meet standards set by the state of California. The Bridge and Highway District’s $128-million project was first delayed by an environmental study required by the Federal Highway Administration, and then by disagreements over liability between the district and the engineering firm of Steinman, Boynton, Gronquist & Birdsall. This successor firm to David Steinman’s practice felt it was being asked to provide more security against financial loss than the district itself had felt prudent, and so refused to sign a contract for the retrofitting job. The irony of this development is only evident in the context of events subsequent to the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, when Steinman and Ammann disagreed over the causes and cures of movements of their own suspension bridges in the wind. But that was still in the uncertain future when the Golden Gate Bridge was opened on Pedestrian Day, 1937.

On that day, forty-five years after he had proposed a bridge connecting the continents of Asia and North America over the Bering Strait, the class poet Strauss commemorated the opening of the golden bridge that he had built across the Golden Gate with a new poem, which began:

At last the mighty task is done;

Resplendent in the western sun, …

Though the poem did not involve Strauss directly, except as author, neither did it celebrate the assistant and other engineers who had labored over and checked calculations for the foundations, towers, and cables. The bridge itself is the hero of Strauss’s poem; it deals mythically with the setting and the structure, which is anthropomorphized in titanic proportions. The bridge was destined to be, “for Fate had meant it so,” and only in the fourth stanza did the poet begin to hint at the human toll such an engineering project could take:

Launched ’midst a thousand hopes and fears,

Damned by a thousand hostile sneers,

   Yet ne’er its course was stayed;

But ask of those who met the foe,

Who stood alone when faith was low,

   Ask them the price they paid.

                          • • •

An Honored cause and nobly fought,

And that which they so bravely wrought,

   Now glorifies their deed;

No selfish urge shall stain its life,

Nor envy, greed, intrigue, nor strife,

   Nor false, ignoble creed.

Strauss’s vision of the battle for the bridge appears to have been of one among the human emotions that dominate the political and financial design, rather than among the mathematical and material forces that must be reconciled to make the structure work. On the other hand, Ellis seems to have fought the fight entirely on the technical level, and he certainly must be considered one who paid a price. He may never have read Strauss’s poem, and it might not have mattered to him if he had. It is known that Ellis, who lived until 1949, never visited the bridge; that may be a fair indication that his satisfaction lay in the designing rather than the building—or that he was nursing a mighty grudge.

Later in his own career, David Steinman would take up writing poetry, adding to his list of accomplishments and awards, and he too would versify on his own poems in steel. However, for every Strauss and Steinman, who seemed to wear their accomplishments as Waddell wore his medals, there have always been and no doubt always will be uncounted and unheralded engineers like Ellis designing and building bridges equally worthy of poetry. Many such engineers were glad to have jobs in a worsening economic climate; few were as contentious and uncompromising as Ellis with their chief engineers.


The sense among bridge engineers generally in the 1930s was one of supreme confidence in their theoretical capabilities, which Ammann himself articulated in an article in Civil Engineering in 1933: “When Telford planned the Menai Bridge [in the 1820s] he developed the major forces largely on models. Bridge failures of that day resulting from inadequate design might be excused on the ground of insufficient knowledge; today the designer has no such alibi.” Ironically, Telford’s bridges might themselves have served as models of the kinds of failure that could still befall bridges, and the designer, whether modern or not, indeed had no alibi for being unaware of such things. But designers in the 1930s certainly seem to have been oblivious to the power of the wind, as developments soon would show.

In 1930, Ammann rose from bridge engineer to chief engineer of the Port Authority, and as such he oversaw the planning and construction of the Lincoln Tunnel, which entered Manhattan at 39th Street and thus provided, when it opened in 1937, the long-dreamed-of midtown crossing of the Hudson. That same year, Ammann assumed simultaneously the position of director of engineering of the Port Authority. With the growing use of automobiles, other New York City transportation needs had been developing between the boroughs, but those intracity projects were under the control of the master planner Robert Moses, who was chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. This autonomous and yet highly political entity was named after its first large project, which was to connect the three boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx with a system of bridges and viaducts known collectively as the Triborough Bridge, whose centerpiece was a suspension bridge across the Hell Gate just south of and parallel to Lindenthal’s famous railroad arch. With his success at the Port Authority well established, Ammann was asked by Moses to bring his (and Allston Dana’s) experience to the troubled Triborough Bridge project, whose Tammany engineers prized granite towers over traffic lanes. Since considerable design work had already been done, the bridge and its squat towers could not be completely reshaped to look like an Ammann structure. Nevertheless, the bridge, completed in 1936, remains a major achievement in facilitating traffic movement within the city.

From 1934 to 1939, while continuing in his position with the Port Authority, Ammann served also as chief engineer of the Triborough Bridge Authority. One of the projects that Moses promoted toward the end of this period was a bridge between Brooklyn and the part of lower Manhattan known as the Battery, with a central anchorage near Governors Island. The proposed design consisted of two suspension bridges in tandem, not unlike the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, then recently completed on the West Coast; Moses’s bridge was so convincingly drawn on an aerial photograph of New York Bay that one would swear that the bridge was a reality. A tunnel at the location had been proposed at least a decade earlier, and the New York City Tunnel Authority had been created to construct it. Moses was not interested in giving up any opportunity to control another great project, however, and while the Tunnel Authority was looking for financing during the Depression, the bridge alternative was proposed. Considerable opposition arose to an above-water crossing, not only by the War Department but also from citizens who did not want to see the spectacular and world-famous view of the lower-Manhattan skyline hedged by the enormous elevated approach roads that would have had to accompany a bridge.

The tunnel project, under the direction of chief engineer Ole Singstad, had been estimated to cost about $65 million, but Moses, who had earlier made a deal with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that a federal loan covering part of the cost would be supplemented by funds from the revenue-rich Triborough Bridge Authority to help construct the tunnel and connecting highways, put the cost at $85 million. This inflated figure gave Moses an excuse to renege on his agreement with the mayor, arguing that the bridge could be built for about half the cost of a tunnel. However, Moses’s figure for the bridge did not square with the cost of other spans then under construction, and Ammann, the designer of the structure, was asked for his opinion on the matter. The engineer was apparently caught off guard, and, torn between his engineering integrity and his loyalty to Moses, who had given him opportunities to continue to design and build great spans, Ammann hemmed and hawed enough to lead representatives of a citizens’ group to ferret out the true costs of each complete project; this comparison favored the tunnel.

A controversial bridge designed in the mid-1930s, and strongly advocated by Robert Moses fifteen years later, convincingly drawn onto a photograph of its dramatic proposed location between Brooklyn and the Battery, in lower Manhattan (photo credit 5.17)

The Brooklyn-Battery bridge thus became a footnote to Ammann’s portfolio of designs and dreams, usually not even mentioned by biographers. Though the general slowdown in large projects toward the end of the 1930s must certainly have played a role, the uncomfortable incident relating to lower Manhattan must also have influenced, if not triggered, his departure from civil service, and he went into private practice the year the bridge-tunnel controversy came to a head, 1939. However, before he left the employ of Moses, Ammann did, as chief engineer of the Triborough Bridge Authority, oversee the design from scratch and the realization of a major suspension bridge between the Whitestone section of Queens and the Bronx. Planning for that bridge had begun in 1935, and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge was to be completed in time to serve the traffic influx expected for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Since the site for the bridge did not constrain the lengths of the main or side spans as the Palisades location did those of the George Washington Bridge, Ammann had free rein to design a structure whose proportions were chosen principally for economic and aesthetic reasons. The latter was extremely important in the case of the Bronx-Whitestone, for its entire profile, including anchorages and approach spans, was to be in clear view, “so that the structure as a whole [would] be visible to an extent that [was] true in no other case.” No conflict between architectural and structural considerations was necessary here; in a report published in Civil Engineering to coincide with the completion of the bridge in April 1939, Ammann wrote of how modern engineers like himself could view such matters when unencumbered by the constraints of the past:

It is now well established that long-span suspension bridges for modern highway traffic may have a relatively flexible stiffening system, and that the degree of flexibility has a material effect upon the economy of the design. In this respect the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge marks another radical departure from past theories and practice. Its stiffening girders have greater flexibility in relation to span length than any other suspension bridge built in recent years, except the George Washington Bridge in its present state with only a single unstiffened highway deck. The latter bridge, however, with a present roadway capacity equivalent to that of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, has a suspended dead weight per linear foot 2½ times greater, a center span 56 per cent longer, and side spans somewhat shorter, all of which factors contribute to the greater rigidity of the unstiffened cables.

It was the aim of the writer, on esthetic as well as structural and economic grounds, to restrict the height of the floor structure to a minimum, to avoid trusses, and to keep the top at such an elevation above the floor as not to obstruct the view of the landscape from passing vehicles. A depth of 11 ft for the stiffening girders was found to be sufficient and to fit best into the floor structure. This is only 1/210 the length of the center span and only 1/70 of the side span.

Ammann here laid down the prevalent philosophy of suspension-bridge building in the later 1930s. The solid plate girders defining the deck profile and the “design of the towers as rigid frames without any diagonal cross bracing” contributed to “the graceful appearance and structural simplicity of this type of bridge,” according to Ammann. Even the anchorages and approach viaducts were “reduced to a minimum as to materials required for strength and stability,” and were “devoid of extraneous architectural embellishments.” Furthermore, all these factors “in no small degree contributed to the unprecedented speed in the construction of the bridge.” Ammann’s apparent about-face with regard to “architectural embellishments” was more a turning from the traditional view that masonry provided the texture of choice for monumental works to the modernist view, pre-eminently expressed by Le Corbusier, which saw beauty in steel. The outline of the towers of the Bronx-Whitestone were in fact not unlike those of the early sketches for the George Washington, when Ammann had worked with the architect Ruegg. After the unrealized Cass Gilbert treatments of that bridge, Ammann must have been happy to be collaborating on the Bronx-Whitestone with yet another architect, Aymar Embury II.

Embury had already established himself as an architect to the elite, having designed a classic dormitory at Princeton University and a good number of estates on Long Island, when Robert Moses persuaded him to work on parks in New York. In a remarkable series of articles in Civil Engineering in early 1938, Embury seemed to be single-handedly trying to heal the rifts that had developed between architects and engineers. He acknowledged help from the likes of Ammann, Steinman, Waddell, and, “in particular,” Allston Dana, who was engineer of design on the Bronx-Whitestone as he had been on the George Washington. Indeed, Embury wrote that he “had the good fortune to work in close association with” Dana. Embury went on to say that he and Dana “had a fairly free hand, although, of course, the designs were always subject to Mr. Ammann’s criticism and never out of his control. We were, in a sense, his instruments, and were guided by his desires as to the lines along which we should proceed.”

The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge as completed in 1939, with an anchorage in the foreground (photo credit 5.18)

Embury came to Ammann’s aid late, however, and it was only on the design of the Bronx-Whitestone anchorages that he worked with Dana de novo. They “wanted the anchorages to look like an anchorage and like nothing else,” Embury reported, in keeping with Ammann’s desire that “the whole bridge should be kept smooth, sharp, and clean.” The design for the anchorages was “made without reference to any precedent,” and the final result was one of simplicity and appropriateness for the foundation conditions. In his paper on the aesthetics of bridge anchorages, Embury also showed alternative designs for the anchorages of the Triborough Bridge and proposed designs for the anchorages of the George Washington Bridge. Then, five years after the opening of that great bridge, the completion of the architectural treatment of its New York anchorage was still on hold “until traffic conditions should necessitate construction of the lower deck.” In the meantime, Cass Gilbert had died, and his design was being criticized as “an anachronism in a modern steel bridge.”

But Embury did not have only positive things to say about engineers in his articles, for he spoke of “design by drawing instruments,” and wondered “how often do engineers, because their triangles are 45, 30, and 60 deg, use one of these slopes for diagonal members?” Architects also came in for criticism for following “the easiest way,” and Embury called for more of a meeting of the minds: “Engineers should be good architects, and architects good engineers!” He very graciously closed the second in his series of articles with a note on his collaboration, in which “a reversal of function” surprised those involved in the project: “As a rule it has been the architect who has suggested and the engineer who has acted as the artistic critic.” Yet modern steel suspension bridges still presented immensely difficult problems in both structural and architectural design, not least of which was the problem of massive steel superstructures in close proximity to massive masonry anchorages. And solutions to such problems were often ineffable. In the end, Embury admitted that, although engineer and architect had in their anchorage design “a shape that pleases us both, we do not know why.”

Among the many pithy phrases in architect Aymar Embury’s conciliatory works, he wrote that “it is always easier to remember than to invent.” It was here that he and the engineers did part ways, though inadvertently. As much as Ammann and his contemporaries referred to early-nineteenth-century suspension bridges, like Telford’s Menai, as aesthetic models, they did not find it easy (or think it relevant) to remember how the light decks were tossed about in the wind. This professional amnesia was endemic by the mid-1930s, and the effects of it began to manifest themselves in a big way. As construction neared completion on the Bronx-Whitestone and preparations were being made for attaching the floor, the deck began to swing when the wind blew at certain angles, and it moved back and forth lengthwise between the towers. Though this “pendulum action” was unexpected, it does not seem to have excessively alarmed Ammann and his associates, who simply installed short guy cables at the bridge’s midspan and braking devices at the towers. There was “marked improvement” in the behavior of the bridge, but the first cables had to be replaced by heavier ones. These slight modifications to control the motion of the new structure were apparently taken in stride, and the Bronx-Whitestone opened on April 30, 1939, in time for the World’s Fair.

Contemporary suspension bridges had been designed to the same structural aesthetic as the George Washington and Bronx-Whitestone, and some of those other bridges were also beginning to exhibit excessive motion. Even the Golden Gate Bridge, which at forty-two hundred feet had of course surpassed the George Washington as the longest suspended span in the world, was more flexible than anticipated. In heavy winds, the Golden Gate moved sideways by as much as fourteen feet, but engineers calculated that this movement stressed the bridge less than did the expected variation of temperature. Though the deck of the Golden Gate was stiffened by a conventional deep truss, it was extremely slender relative to its great length, and this resulted in great flexibility. Two much shorter suspension bridges, designed by David Steinman and stiffened like the Bronx-Whitestone with plate girders, also exhibited considerable motion in their decks. The eight-hundred-foot Thousand Islands International Bridge, opened in 1938 over the St. Lawrence River between New York and Ontario, and the 1,080-foot Deer Isle Bridge, opened in 1939 over Penobscot Bay in Maine, behaved similarly to the Bronx-Whitestone and were likewise fitted with restraining devices, albeit of a different nature. Although considerably stiffened since their initial opening, these bridges remained flexible. In 1978, for example, hundreds of people, including Joan Mondale, the wife of the then vice-president, were stranded on Deer Isle for several hours when the deck of the two-lane bridge began “swelling.” A local resident characterized the bridge as normally having “a certain amount of play in it,” but on that day the sway in the light breeze was far greater than during the seventy-mile-per-hour winds of the previous winter.

The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge after stiffening trusses were added in the mid-1940s (photo credit 5.19)

Such vagaries of behavior of their bridges in the wind led to considerable rethinking about calculations and testing of models by engineers in the late 1930s and into 1940, but most must have thought as Ammann did: “We have had to deal with very small movements, and would have felt no concern about them had they not tended to produce discomfort in some persons under unfavorable conditions.” The movements were in most cases “very small” relative to the size of the structure (on the order of one foot in a thousand, for example) and were akin to the swaying of a skyscraper today. Although such motions are not thought to be life-threatening to the structure or its inhabitants, they can be psychologically distracting and can have adverse economic implications if people do not want to occupy a swaying skyscraper or cross a swinging bridge. In 1940, however, few seemed to be excessively worried about such things.

Among the official consulting engineers on the George Washington Bridge project were two who, with Ammann, were responsible for the very flexible bridges that followed from the aesthetic imperative. These were, of course, Joseph Strauss and Leon Moisseiff. Just as Strauss was a consultant for the George Washington Bridge, so Ammann fulfilled a similar role for the Golden Gate. Such interlocking relationships, common among the engineering elite, explain to a considerable degree how the state of the art can advance almost in lockstep, so that many different structures, in this case suspension bridges, can share the same aesthetic characteristics—and the same behavioral flaws.

It was Moisseiff’s development of the deflection theory that enabled all the slender and flexible bridges to be designed in the first place. Leon Solomon Moisseiff was born in Latvia in 1872, when it was part of the Russian empire. He attended the Baltic Polytechnic Institute in Riga for two years, but his student political activities reportedly led his family to emigrate to the United States in 1891. They settled in New York City, where Leon worked as a draftsman before enrolling in Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1895 with a degree in civil engineering. He worked as a draftsman for the New York Rapid Transit Railroad Commission, as a design engineer with the Dutton Pneumatic Lock and Engineering Company (doing work on drydocks, gates, and lock improvements proposed for the Erie Canal), and as a draftsman with the Bronx Department of Street Improvements, before joining the New York Department of Bridges in 1898 as chief draftsman and assistant designer. It was in this position that he worked on the Williamsburg, Queensboro, and Manhattan bridges and met Gustav Lindenthal. In 1910, Moisseiff became engineer of design for the Bridge Department, and in 1915 he struck out on his own as a consulting engineer. In 1920, he was appointed chief designer of the Delaware River Bridge, which remained his office’s major project until the record span was completed in 1926. Thereafter, through 1940, he consulted on virtually every major suspension-bridge project in the United States, including many an engineer’s dream that did not materialize. Even if biographical sketches and memoirs have to be taken with a grain of salt, since they often rely so heavily on the word of friends and relatives, sometimes they do contain a grain of truth: “Although he did not always receive formal credit, Moisseiff was the principal designer of the George Washington, Bronx-Whitestone, Tacoma Narrows, and Mackinac bridges.”

Leon Moisseiff (photo credit 5.20)


The twenty-eight-hundred-foot main span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge made it the third-longest suspension bridge when it was completed in 1940. In keeping with the engineering aesthetic and economic thinking of the times, the bridge deck was stiffened with plate girders. However, although the Tacoma Narrows’ main span was five hundred feet longer than that of the Bronx-Whitestone, only eight-foot-deep girders were used to stiffen the roadway, because it was much narrower than that of the New York span. The combination of a longer span with shallower depth and narrower width made the Tacoma Narrows Bridge more flexible than any other. Nevertheless, the two-lane crossing of the Narrows, about thirty miles south of downtown Seattle, provided a reasonable highway alternative to taking ferries between Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula, across Puget Sound. As soon as the Tacoma Narrows opened in July, drivers noticed how flexible it was, the wave motion of its roadway bringing cars that were ahead of a driver on the bridge alternately into and out of view as the pavement rose and fell. Rather than scaring toll-paying customers away, however, the bridge became affectionately known as Galloping Gertie and attracted even more traffic as an unintended amusement ride. Although some of the riders were reported to have become seasick, traffic over the bridge in its first two weeks of operation was twice what engineers had expected.

A bridge across the Narrows had been proposed as early as 1933 by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Company, which had obtained a franchise and was then seeking capital. However, the growing sentiment for publicly owned bridges and utilities led to a competing application by Pierce County, on the peninsula. In 1937, no doubt fueled by the success of bridges like the George Washington and the almost complete Golden Gate, the State Legislature created the Washington Toll Bridge Authority, which took over the Pierce County initiative and its application for a construction grant from the federal Public Works Administration. As was typical, various conceptual designs had been considered, including a cantilever bridge and a multiple-span suspension bridge such as had been recently completed across San Francisco Bay. By mid-1938, the State Highway Department had made a preliminary design for a suspension bridge with a single main span of twenty-six hundred feet, and two side spans of thirteen hundred feet each, all resting on a stiffening truss twenty-two feet deep. The structure was to carry a twenty-six-foot-wide roadway and two four-foot sidewalks. The total width of the bridge, including the stiffening truss, was to be only thirty-nine feet—a remarkably narrow deck relative to the length of the bridge.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, when it was opened in July 1940 (photo credit 5.21)

As consulting engineer, Moisseiff was asked to study the Highway Department’s design, and he submitted his initial report in July 1938. His first criticism addressed the unequal tower heights. Though these had been chosen to accommodate the unequal elevations of the two ends of the bridge, they meant that the entire roadway of the preliminary design had an upward incline toward the higher, Tacoma shore, and the consulting engineer criticized it in no uncertain terms:

Unless there are very valid reasons which compel the making of the towers of unequal heights the towers should be of identical design and fabrication. Economic fabrication and good appearance demand it. The symmetry of the structure should be adhered to.

Moisseiff’s solution was to “raise the west end of the bridge by 19.5 ft.” With regard to the twenty-two-foot stiffening truss of the Highway Department design, the consultant found that it could not “effectively stiffen the bridge except at great cost.” He proposed eight-feet-deep plate girders, which would not only “result in a neat and pleasing appearance” but also “be about one cent per lb. less than for a truss.” And he reported that his studies showed it “best to attain rigidity by shortening the side spans and by a reduction of sag ratio” in the cables. This was “not only a better solution but also the cheapest,” he concluded. In a second part of his report, Moisseiff recommended further that the spacing of the suspenders supporting the roadway from the main cables be increased from thirty to fifty feet, not only to achieve a more pleasing appearance but to effect a further savings of about $35,000 out of the total estimated cost of $6 million. Ironically, he also argued for keeping the “height of the towers to a minimum due to the relatively great effect of transverse wind pressure.”

In September 1938, an application to secure a federal loan for the bridge project was submitted by the Washington Toll Bridge Authority to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which funded numerous projects of the Public Works Administration. As was standard procedure, the application was referred to the Legal, Finance, and Engineering divisions of the Administration, but it was a review for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that raised the strongest concerns about the soundness of the project. Theodore L. Condron, advisory engineer to the bond purchaser, was a septuagenarian consulting engineer best known for designing the steel structure for the seventy-two-bell carillon in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel of the University of Chicago. In his report on the application Condron identified the board of consulting engineers as consisting of Charles E. Andrew, bridge engineer of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and chairman of the board; Luther E. Gregory, a retired navy rear admiral and resident of Olympia, Washington; and R. B. McMinn, a bridge engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Roads in Portland, Oregon. The consulting engineer Moisseiff, and his associate Frederick Lienhard, were identified as “New York engineers” associated with the design of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges.

The report of the board of consulting engineers on the Moisseiff-modified plans had found them to be “in satisfactory shape for receipt of bids,” even though the board did not examine the project in detail. Time did not permit a checking of stresses in the cables or stiffening system, for example, but the board had “full confidence in Mr. Moisseiff,” considering him “to be among the highest authorities in suspension bridge design.” With this endorsement, Condron may have thought that the approval of the project before him would have been a routine matter; the more he looked at the plans, however, the more doubts he seemed to have. In particular, Condron had serious reservations because of the extremely narrow width of the proposed bridge relative to its main-span length. When he compared this ratio with that of recently completed suspension bridges, the Tacoma Narrows was definitely more slender than any of them, and thus Condron could not see it as just a routine application of bridge-building experience. Even the Golden Gate Bridge, then the longest suspension span in the world, was not nearly so slender as the Tacoma Narrows design, as Condron’s tabulation showed:

Advisory engineer Condron may well have known of the surprising flexibility of the Golden Gate Bridge, and he had heard that “certain tests had been made on models of suspension bridge spans” at the University of California. When Condron could find no published reports on those tests, he went to Berkeley to confer with Professor R. E. Davis about concerns over the deflection of the very slender Tacoma design, whose construction loan was awaiting approval. Condron reported that Davis “felt reasonably confident that the lateral deflections of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge as designed and determined by Mr. Moisseiff would be in no way objectionable to users of the bridge.” As if to document as best he could the authority of Moisseiff and the deflection theory, Condron quoted from a 1933 report on the accuracy of calculation that the theory permitted: “Moisseiff and Lienhard have presented a method which is closely accurate for determining lateral deflections of truss and cable stresses in the truss due to lateral forces.” Whereas Condron had gone to Berkeley with questions about vertical as well as lateral deflections, he appears to have been reassured only about the latter, however, and he seems to have gone to lengths in his report to make that point clear. The problems with the bridge would not, of course, be with the lateral deflections.

Condron continued to have doubts about the design, and even a letter from Moisseiff to him could not put them to rest. When Moisseiff wrote that, considering the slenderness of the bridge, its stiffness was “rather satisfactory,” Condron pointed out that “there seems to be some question even in his mind as to whether the obtained stiffness is other than rather satisfactory.” In the end, however, the consulting engineer to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation acceded to authority and expertise:

In view of Mr. Moisseiff’s recognized ability and reputation, and the many expressions of approval and comment of his methods of analyses of stresses and deflections in the designs of long span suspension bridges, particularly as expressed by the engineers who participated in the discussion of the paper presented before the American Society of Civil Engineers by Messrs. Moisseiff and Lienhard entitled “Expansion [sic] Bridges under the Action of Lateral Force,” I feel we may rely upon his own determination of stresses and deflections.

The Freudian slipping of “expansion” for “suspension” into the title of the paper by Moisseiff and Lienhard may have indicated Condron’s fundamental unwillingness to concede that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was stiff enough. Nevertheless, the weight of evidence presented by experts in the discussion of the key theoretical paper was too much for the lone advisory engineer to refute. In that discussion, the University of California models were repeatedly referred to, and Dean Charles Derleth found that their confirmation of the theory was “gratifying.” He pointed out that the paper of Moisseiff and Lienhard “had its inception in the early debates on the Golden Gate design,” with the authors “seeking a convincing argument to justify shallow stiffening trusses and slender wind-bracing for a 4000-ft. span.” Though “engineers of considerable accomplishment” had argued that deck widths approaching two hundred feet might be necessary, Moisseiff and Lienhard’s method of analysis had justified a ninety-foot roadway and was considered sufficient to “silence all arguments for unnecessary floor widths.” Derleth also reached beyond mathematical analysis, to a “poetic rather than a mechanical figure of speech,” to emphasize how important the cables were relative to the deck of very long suspension bridges, saying he liked to “describe the theory of Messrs. Moisseiff and Lienhard as assigning to the floor system the nature of a kite in the wind, with the cable and suspenders acting as the restraining strings and tail.” Few but the likes of Condron seem to have worried more about the kite than the strings of the “different species in a genus of suspension bridges” that had been evolving toward the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in the wake of Moisseiff and Lienhard’s theory.

For all the expertise that was assembled against him and to which he felt obligated to defer, however, Condron could not bring himself to unqualified approval in the conclusion to his report:

With regard to the super-structure, I do not pretend to be qualified to analyze and check the design of the long span suspension bridge, but I have studied this design in connection with the designs of other bridges, which have been successfully erected, and are in successful operation. I also have great confidence in the ability and integrity of the Consulting Engineers under whose direction the computations and design drawings for the super-structure have been made. Moreover, these engineers have earned a very enviable reputation as experts in this field, as evidenced by the commendation from other suspension bridge experts which they have received in technical publications.

I therefore, [sic] feel that with the exception of the unusual narrowness of this bridge with reference to its span length, the super-structure design is technically sound. It is probably technically sound notwithstanding its narrowness, but there are several reasons why it would be of material advantage if the bridge could be widened at a reasonable increase in the cost, and therefore, I recommend that serious consideration be given to the possible increase in the width of this structure, before the contract is let or work begun.

To Condron, the extreme narrowness of the deck of the Tacoma Narrows design forced him to conclude that “it would be advisable to widen the super-structure to 52 ft.,” which would give the bridge a width-to-span ratio of 1:53.8—still very narrow, but a less radical departure from experience. Had Condron’s recommendation been followed, it is very possible that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge would have been stiffened enough that, even had it exhibited some degree of flexibility in the wind, that might have been within tolerable limits and thus subsequently correctable, as it was to be in other contemporary bridges. Even if the course of suspension-bridge development had gone that way, however, this is not to say that some subsequent slender-bridge design would not have been proposed and approved without the reservations of so conscientious and perceptive an advisory engineer as Theodore Condron.

Condron could not have made his case more rationally or emphatically, unless perhaps he had appealed to the experience earlier that year of Russell Cone, resident engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, who had observed not only horizontal but also vertical deflections of that span. According to Cone, during a windstorm on February 9, 1938, “the Bridge was undulating vertically in a wavelike motion of considerable magnitude.” He went back to his office to get his camera and record the motion that “appeared to be a running wave similar to that made by cracking a whip,” but when he returned that motion had stopped, and soon the wind died down. Neither Condron nor the board of consulting engineers, however, seems to have been aware of or excessively concerned about the behavior of the Golden Gate Bridge at the time the Tacoma Narrows was being designed. In any event, Condron’s warning about the width of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was not heeded, and the report of the consulting engineers prevailed:

It might seem to those who are not experienced in suspension bridge design that the proposed 2800-foot span with a distance between stiffening trusses [girders] of 39’ and a corresponding width of [sic] span ratio of 72, being without precedent, is somewhat excessive. In our opinion this feature of the design should give no concern.

The board emphasized its conclusion by asserting that it believed the span could even be “materially increased if it were necessary, keeping the same width without any detrimental effect.” With such an endorsement, the Toll Bridge Authority received a loan for about $3 million and a grant of a like amount from Pierce County. Construction bids were received by October 1938, and the bridge was completed less than two years later.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge executing its fatal oscillations in November 1940 (photo credit 5.22)

Even before the bridge was completed, however, engineers were surprised by its large movements; these were being studied on a model at the University of Washington, by Professor F. B. Farquharson, when a new twist developed in November. Until that time, the bridge deck had moved up and down in waves, and various checking cables and devices had been applied to it, as they had to Ammann’s Bronx-Whitestone and David Steinman’s Deer Isle bridges. However, on November 7, 1940, the clamps holding one of the checking cables at center span slipped, and the bridge began to move in a new way, twisting about its centerline in a wind of about forty miles per hour. The motion became so severe that the bridge was closed to traffic, and Farquharson went to see what was happening.

Camera equipment from a nearby shop was taken to the bridge, and so its twisting through a total of nearly ninety degrees was caught on the most famous film footage in structural-engineering history. A reporter’s car was the only vehicle on the bridge, abandoned when it could not be controlled, and only Farquharson, the reporter, and his dog felt the full heaving of the steel-and-concrete deck. An attempt to get the dog out of the car was also abandoned in the increasingly violent motion, and the reporter and Farquharson were captured on film crawling, staggering, and climbing back toward the bridge tower and terra firma. Farquharson, apparently knowing more about structural vibrations than the reporter, walked along the centreline of the bridge, which as a nodal line was almost motionless, while the reporter fought along the heaving curbline. Not long after they reached safety, the bridge deck twisted itself apart and fell into the water. The motion had been so violent that the massive steel towers were permanently bent out of shape and had to be dismantled before a replacement bridge could be built—with very deep trusswork providing not a terribly slender profile but a very stiff deck.

The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge revealed a classic case of hubris, for the success of bridges like the George Washington and its close antecedents and descendants had given the coterie of major suspension-bridge engineers almost unlimited confidence and license in their designs, even as these were beginning to sway and wave in the wind. Because the new breed of engineers believed they were calculating, with the deflection theory, stresses and strains more accurately than nineteenth-century engineers like Telford and Roebling, their classic works were conveniently taken as aesthetic rather than structural models. The new field of aerodynamics, which was being applied to the development of the airplane in the 1930s, was seen to be largely irrelevant to designing and analyzing generally static structures like bridges.

There was, however, at least one civil engineer in the mid-1930s who “felt an obligation to make available to the civil engineering profession” the results of tests and theoretical studies being carried out by aeronautical engineers at that time. W. Watters Pagon knew, for example, that the principle of the wind tunnel was valid, because a powered structure flying through the quiescent air is equivalent to wind blowing over a stationary body, and in 1934 and 1935 he had published a series of eight articles on aerodynamics in Engineering News-Record, in which he discussed wind forces and their action on structures. The first article, entitled “What Aerodynamics Can Teach the Civil Engineer,” opened with a recitation of how much was unknown about how structures behaved in the wind, including why a building had twisted in the recent Miami hurricane, but the whole series seems largely to have been ignored by the bridge builders. Only after the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge were Pagon’s articles described as “must reading.” Such a turnabout was prompted in no small measure by a letter that appeared in Engineering News-Recordshortly after the bridge collapse. The letter, from Theodore von Kármán, director of the Daniel Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, presented a very concise and convincing mathematical analogy between the twisting of an airplane wing and that of a bridge deck in the wind.

Although half a century later von Kármán would be identified on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp as an aerospace scientist, no doubt in part for his efforts to advance rocketry from “an eccentric study into a reputable discipline,” his training and background were in engineering. Von Kármán was born in Hungary in 1881, and received a mechanical-engineering degree from the Budapest Royal Technical University in 1902. After a year of military service, he returned to Budapest to teach for a while, but left before long to take a position as a mechanical engineer with a machinery manufacturer. Two years later, he went to Berlin to study mechanics at the University of Göttingen, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1908. He became prominent in Europe in the newly established field of aeronautics, and in the late 1920s divided his time between the University of Aachen, in Germany, and Caltech, in Pasadena. In 1930, he accepted the position of head of the Guggenheim Laboratory and moved permanently to the United States, where he came to lead the country’s first jet-propulsion and rocket-motor program. Von Kármán was in the process of establishing a model supersonic wind tunnel at Caltech when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed.

Von Kármán was one of three engineers appointed by the Federal Works Agency to investigate the failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. He was joined by Glenn B. Woodruff, the consulting engineer from San Francisco who had been the engineer of design for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and, not surprisingly, Ammann, who had, of course, dominated suspension-bridge design and had investigated the failure of the Quebec cantilever bridge at the beginning of his career. The committee’s report, issued less than five months after the collapse, concluded that “the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was well designed and built to resist safely all static forces, including wind, usually considered in the design of similar structures.” In other words, the constant sideways push of the wind had been taken into account in the standard way for engineers of the time, according to what is known as the state of the art, and there was no blame to be placed on them. They were simply taken by surprise by the structure’s “excessive oscillations,” made possible by the “extraordinary degree of flexibility.” Ignorance, and not incompetence, was to blame: “It was not realized that the aerodynamic forces which had proven disastrous in the past to much lighter and shorter flexible suspension bridges would affect a structure of such magnitude as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.”

That the report read as it did should perhaps not have been surprising, given the composition of the board of engineers, but their relationship and conclusions must have evolved over the months they worked together. Von Kármán was somewhat of a maverick, a confirmed bachelor who seemed as likely to be found posing with a buxom blonde or a world leader as with a wind tunnel, if his bombastic autobiography published a quarter-century later is a fair representation of the man. In the book, written “with” a freelance writer in the manner of a celebrity, von Kármán related how he followed the news reports of the Tacoma Narrows collapse, only to be startled by a news item the following day reporting that the governor of Washington had announced that “the bridge was built correctly and that a new one would be built according to the same basic design.” That evening, the engineer “took home from Cal Tech a small rubber model of the bridge” that one of his mechanics had made for him and demonstrated in his living room with an electric fan and the model an “instability which grew greater when the oscillation coincided with the rhythm of the air movement from the fan.” As he had suspected, “the villain was the Kármán vortices,” or the whirlpools of air, named after the investigator himself, that were shed in the wake behind the moving model and thus buffeted it. Von Kármán wrote to the governor, to Farquharson, and to Engineering News-Record about his discoveries and concerns, an initiative that could not have hindered his being placed on the investigatory board.

In von Kármán’s recollection of board meetings during the investigation, he mentioned that he was surprised at the “long standing of the prejudices of the bridge engineers,” as embodied in their consideration of static as opposed to dynamic forces and their difficulty in seeing how “a science applied to a small unstable thing like an airplane wing could also be applied to a huge, solid, nonflying structure like a bridge.” This all led to “some definite undercurrents of rivalry”; Ammann was portrayed as especially reluctant to accept such suggestions as wind-tunnel testing of bridge designs.

In the final analysis, von Kármán may have thought it best to let the bridge engineers worry about bridges, for which they were paid. He admitted that they had won him over on one “difference in thinking” between them and him. Though he was prepared to serve for his standard government consulting fee of fifty dollars a day, the other engineers “bargained for a sizeable percentage of the value of the bridge, which after all was insured for six million dollars.” This indicated to him that aeronautical engineers acted in consulting positions as if they were only “elevated laborers,” and he “learned a good deal in a nonengineering way from this experience” at the bargaining table from the less flamboyant if not outwardly shy bridge engineers.

Ammann’s thoughts during the investigation could not have been very far from his George Washington and Bronx-Whitestone bridges, to whose design Moisseiff had contributed so much. Woodruff, who had also been associated with Moisseiff in conjunction with the design of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, must not have been predisposed to believe that the engineering of the Tacoma Narrows was faulty. In fact, five years earlier, as part of an issue of Civil Engineering focusing on that project, Woodruff had written a short article, “From the Viewpoint of the Bridge Designer,” in which he spelled out the advantages bridge designers then had over their predecessors. However, in spite of the “more complete theory, an immense amount of experimental data, and more reliable materials, as well as the accumulated experience of past years,” he warned that there was the danger that bridge design would come to be considered routine.

At the same time, Woodruff wrote, as if anticipating von Kármán’s amazement and frustrations at the meetings that would occur in December 1940 in Seattle, bridge building was becoming so highly specialized that there was the “danger of losing contact with the other branches of engineering and with allied sciences.” This all would seem to have predisposed Woodruff to be more of a finger-pointer when it came to blaming engineers, but he did not do so. Rather, he closed his article with a quote from another engineer: “The most perfect system of rules to insure success must be interpreted upon the broad grounds of professional intelligence and common sense.” That these were the words of none other than Theodore Cooper, whose own intelligence and common sense were seriously called into question in the wake of the collapse of his Quebec Bridge in 1907, suggests that Woodruff was not one to hold engineers culpable for not foreseeing problems of an extraordinary kind.

Though Ammann and Woodruff believed that intelligence and common sense required the designer to “analyze all the assumptions made, estimate the possible errors in them, and also make a careful study of the properties of materials to be employed,” they also appear to have believed that doing this to the best of the designer’s ability satisfied his obligation and freed him of any guilt. Doing all one knew to do was, after all, the best that could be expected of an engineer of bridges or of rockets. It is very likely that, before the final report was drafted by Ammann, the rocket scientist von Kármán came to see this point of view of the bridge engineers.

If the engineer Moisseiff, along with the profession of engineering, was clearly exonerated by his colleagues, the precise physical causes of the motion of the bridge and the final disaster were left somewhat ambiguous and vague by the failure report. Vertical oscillations of the bridge were “probably induced by the turbulent character of wind action,” but there was “no convincing evidence” that such vertical motions were unstable or even dangerous to the bridge. It was “reasonably certain” that a cable band that had been installed to check some of the deck motion had slipped, and this “probably initiated the torsional oscillations,” which brought the span down. Among the more general conclusions of the report were, not surprisingly, that “further experiments and analytical studies are desirable to investigate the action of aerodynamic forces on suspension bridges.” The report also concluded, however, that, “pending the results of further investigations, there is no doubt that sufficient knowledge and experience exists to permit the safe design of a suspension bridge of any practicable span,” without reference to how wide such a span might be. Such a conclusion might have been subject to ridicule in less turbulent times.

The onset of World War II would no doubt have interrupted bridge building much the way World War I did even if the Tacoma Narrows collapse had not occurred. In any case, there was less urgency to following up on the report than there might have been. Many unanswered questions about the aerodynamic behavior of bridges remained, however, and it fell largely to Professor Farquharson, in the Structural Research Laboratory of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Washington, to continue throughout the 1940s to work on and pull together the results of laboratory and mathematical studies on the stability of suspension bridges in the wind conducted principally at his institution and at Caltech. Farquharson’s work was sponsored mainly by the Washington Toll Bridge Authority, which needed to replace the bridge that had collapsed, in cooperation with the Public Roads Administration of the Federal Works Agency. The Authority’s consulting board included Woodruff and von Kármán, who was identified as “aerodynamicist” and who would on occasion identify himself as “representing the wind.” Ammann, as a consulting engineer to the Port of New York Authority, represented that body on the Advisory Board on the Investigation of Suspension Bridges.

Whereas Ammann’s selective use of history had been symptomatic of the myopia that characterized suspension-bridge building in the 1930s, Farquharson’s report opened with a broad, inclusive historical survey of the dynamic behavior of suspension bridges. Farquharson began this survey by noting that the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge “came as such a shock to the engineering profession that it is surprising to most to learn that failure under the action of wind was not without precedent in the history of suspension bridges.” He then proceeded to describe trends and recount the main events of that history, which he summarized in a table that listed “bridges severely damaged or destroyed by wind” between 1818 and 1889, plus the 1940 Tacoma Narrows disaster. After that last collapse, “much old information long forgotten was once again made available to the profession.”

Among the first to bring such information to the fore was J. Kip Finch, professor of civil engineering at Columbia, whose article “Wind Failures of Suspension Bridges, or, Evolution and Decay of the Stiffening Truss,” appeared in Engineering News-Recordabout four months after the collapse. His article concluded with a section headed “The lesson is plain,” and the lesson was: “History, in short, has been repeating itself, although this fact has, apparently, not been known even to engineers who have made a specialty of this type of construction.” After this indictment of ahistorical engineers, Finch concluded optimistically, but perhaps without complete conviction, “This time the problem of preventing undulations in suspension bridges will undoubtedly be solved.” Two weeks later, in a letter to Engineering News-Record, no doubt prompted by letters to it, Finch took pains to assure readers that he had not meant to infer that “the modern bridge engineer … was remiss in not anticipating” what had happened. He argued that it was “unbelievable” that the eight-thousand-ton center span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge could be lifted by the wind as easily as the 460-ton deck of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, which had been destroyed in 1854, or that the thirteen-thousand-ton deck of the Bronx-Whitestone or the fifty-six-thousand-ton deck of the George Washington could be compared to the lighter fabrics of old.

Finch’s own interpretation of history was proved to be a bit questionable when he added that no engineer, so far as he knew, had “recognized in the twistings of some of these earlier failures, a characteristic aerodynamic phenomenon.” Though John Roebling might not have used such terms, he had written as early as 1841 of the problems of bridges in the wind. Indeed, before that, the Scottish engineer J. Scott Russell had written, in the wake of the 1836 collapse of the Brighton Chain Pier (which was in fact a multispan suspension bridge out to sea), about how the wind can set structures like bridge decks into oscillation as surely as a bow does a violin string. An engineer’s knowledge and use of history was a touchy point after the Tacoma Narrows collapse, however, and Finch concluded that “it is asking too much of the human mind to suggest that the engineer should have anticipated the Tacoma failure.” He then articulated what many other engineers were saying and would continue to say about the issue that had been thrust upon them:

It is also a mistake to assume that failures should never occur. The engineer cannot wait until he knows “all” about a device before he builds it. In general theory follows practice—the theory of heat followed the first use of the steam engine, truss analysis came after the truss, etc.—and there has, as yet, been no substitute developed for experiment—even in science. A history of bridge building which contained no records of failures would be a history almost devoid of progress. Man must ever struggle to bring into being the children of his imagination, for through such creation progress is possible. It is thus inevitable that, in daring to do bigger and better things, there will always be some failures. Failures, in fact, are a sure sign of progress. While a failure is always materially wasteful, it is always a stimulant to increased knowledge. We may rest assured that the engineer will not make the same mistake twice.

Argue as Finch and others might, engineers had indeed made the same mistake twice, but Finch’s reasoning, questionable though it was, would serve to console engineers who could not bear to be wrong. They could get on with picking up the pieces, turning them around in their hands and their minds, and going on to the next project with more experience and judgment. As for Moisseiff, who had to deal with the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows more directly, engineers by and large must have thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Moisseiff continued to work on engineering projects, including plans for the reconstruction of the Brooklyn Bridge and “assisting in the solution of the problem forced upon the profession by the Tacoma Bridge failure,” but his heart may not have been in them—or may have been in them too much.

Moisseiff died of a heart attack less than three years after the disaster, and neither his obituary in Engineering News-Record nor the unusual number of letters to the editor paying tribute to his memory gave much more than passing mention to the Tacoma Narrows incident. Only a letter from Ammann, who had not merely relied on Moisseiff but also derived a measure of his own reputation for success from the work of the late engineer, even dared address the matter. “The one great disappointment in Mr. Moisseiff’s career,” Ammann wrote, “was the failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the design of which he had originated and guided.” Yet, Ammann continued, “it would be improper for his fellow professionals to put the blame for that failure entirely upon Mr. Moisseiff’s shoulders,” for “he followed a trend in long span suspension bridge design which appeared justified” at the time. Ammann may well have been speaking of himself. He returned to this theme in the memoir of Moisseiff, which, written with his associate Frederick Lienhard, appeared in the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1946. Moisseiff was called “one of the best informed of engineers,” and his activities at the end of his career were described as those of “a consultant to consulting and executive engineers.” Ammann himself was a consummate example of these latter two categories—no engineer could have accomplished single-handedly what he did in his career.


Ammann left the Triborough Bridge Authority in 1939 to go into private practice. In that capacity, he worked on a variety of bridge and other projects, including studies for a suspension bridge across the York River in Virginia and one across the Delaware River at Wilmington, in addition to participating in the Tacoma Narrows investigation. In 1946, when he was already past what in those days was generally considered retirement age, Ammann entered into partnership with Charles S. Whitney, who as an engineering student at Cornell had worked under Ammann during vacation periods, and who had gone on to establish himself in Milwaukee as a specialist in reinforced-concrete structures. Together, they formed the firm of Ammann & Whitney. Since few bridges were being built at the time, the engineering firm worked on projects involving large airfield hangars, long-span buildings, and highways.

After the war, bridge-planning activity picked up in New York and elsewhere. In 1955, a joint report of the Port of New York Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority was prompted by “the unprecedented increase in the ownership and use of automobiles, trucks and buses since the end of World War II,” which had “forced accelerated nationwide planning and construction of our arterial highway system.” The main results of the joint study were to recommend for construction: (1) a lower deck on the George Washington Bridge; (2) a suspension bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island across the water known as the Narrows; and (3) a suspension bridge between Throgs Neck in the Bronx and Little Bay in Queens, across the water variously known as the East River and Long Island Sound. The consulting engineer for these projects, as well as for studies for another Hudson River Bridge, at 125th Street, which was not recommended at the time, was the firm of Ammann & Whitney. Thus Ammann, the partner whose expertise was suspension bridges, was once again to be involved in the kind of work he dreamed about.

The second deck of the George Washington was, of course, part of Ammann’s original design, and he not only would live to see it realized but would direct work on it himself. The New York Narrows bridge was a project that had been developed in the offices of the Port Authority two decades earlier. In his autobiography, the engineer Clarence Whiting Dunham recalled being asked by Ammann in the summer of 1936 to drop his work on the Lincoln Tunnel, then under construction, “to help him with a special project,” which “was to be kept secret.” This involved “an intensive preliminary study of a suspension bridge across the Narrows.” Working directly and intensively for six weeks with Ammann, Dunham made drawings of the elevation of the bridge and sections showing its proposed construction, along with approaches relative to existing streets. According to Dunham, though city officials liked the plan, federal authorities rejected it because the destruction of the bridge during wartime might block access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The plans were then shelved, only to be dusted off when, in the post-World War II years, air power had diminished the importance of the navy yard. The final bridge design and location were to be remarkably close to those proposed in 1936, but in the meantime another New York project would also occupy Ammann.

The Throgs Neck Bridge was constructed within sight of the Bronx-Whitestone, which in the wake of the Tacoma Narrows collapse had been slated for the addition of a stiffening truss. Materials shortages during the war delayed that modification work until 1946, at which time Ammann described the retrofitting in an article in Civil Engineering. “While the truss members will undoubtedly detract somewhat from the extreme simplicity of the original design, with its plain shallow girders, they will not be sufficiently conspicuous to mar the graceful appearance,” he wrote, perhaps with not a little disingenuousness. In part for ease of construction, this truss was to be added to the top of the deck, which it was now admitted had “inadequate vertical stiffness,” but the resulting superstructure obstructs a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline from the bridge’s roadway. In the process of stiffening, the traffic capacity of the bridge was also increased, by eliminating the pedestrian walks on either side of the roadway, thus reducing the possibility that people would feel how flexible the bridge did in fact remain.

The lines of the eighteen-hundred-foot main span of the Throgs Neck Bridge, to the east, were not to be so sleek as those of the original Bronx-Whitestone. Instead of plate girders, more conventional open trusswork was used to stiffen the wide deck, and the towers were to be rather squat-looking. But this bridge project did not bring Ammann renewed public attention in the early 1960s; that was to come with the opening of the lower deck of the George Washington Bridge.

Ammann’s original concept for the George Washington was, of course, that it would eventually have light rapid-transit railroad tracks on a lower deck, but travel habits and traffic patterns had changed considerably since the bridge, with its single vehicular deck, was opened in 1931. By the mid-1950s, motor-vehicle registration in the region had more than doubled, to three and a half million, and annual crossings of the Hudson River through the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and over the George Washington Bridge had about quintupled. Almost thirty-five million vehicles were using the bridge alone on an annual basis. Thus, when the second deck of the George Washington Bridge opened in August 1962 for the exclusive use of motor vehicles, it was hailed as a “masterpiece of traffic relief.”

The ceremonies marking the opening of the lower deck were attended by politicians from both sides of the river, and the formalities were highlighted by the unveiling of a bust of Ammann by Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Richard Hughes of New Jersey. But Ammann, who was remembered by his daughter to be at that time a “small man,” only five feet six inches tall, and a “sandy-haired, slightly frail octogenarian—then 83—who stood as majestically as the giant structures that he had fathered,” was not conspicuously present at the ceremonies. According to the newspaper account, Ammann was not standing with the politicians, and “it took a few minutes to locate the designer who was sitting back in the crowd, to get on with the unveiling.”

Othmar Ammann at the dedication of his bust at the George Washington Bridge, shaking hands with Governors Richard Hughes of New Jersey and Nelson Rockefeller of New York, with the completed lower deck of the bridge visible in the enlarged photograph in the background (photo credit 5.23)

The bust of Ammann is now on display in the bus terminal at the foot of the bridge on the Manhattan side, but it is scarcely noticed by the travelers and commuters who pass it each day, and it is never seen from the cars of those who drive back and forth across the bridge. The inscription on the bust reads simply, “O. H. Ammann/Designer/George Washington Bridge.” It is ironic that there is no mention on the pedestal of Ammann’s being an engineer, but perhaps that was his choice. According to his son, Werner Ammann, an engineer himself and then a member of Ammann & Whitney, the shy old man agreed to the public honor only because it would “reflect favorably on the entire engineering profession.” For Ammann to be identified as the engineer of the George Washington Bridge may have seemed arrogant; for him to be designated its designer, conceiver, and dreamer was just stating the obvious.

When the New York Times editorialized on “Mr. Ammann’s Work of Art,” it acknowledged his insistence that “no one man designed the bridge,” yet went on to admit the public reality: “We shall think of Mr. Ammann, however, every time we look at the George Washington Bridge. He was the dreamer, he was the artist, he was the solid and reliable planner who made this beautiful structure possible and durable.” Yet, as a letter to the editor several days later pointed out, nowhere in the editorial was Ammann identified as what he really was, “one of America’s outstanding engineers.”

Othmar Ammann was said to insist that “anyone who would take exclusive credit for bridge design” was “an egotist.” It would certainly be even more egotistical to declare oneself the engineer of such a structure, especially to the deliberate exclusion of assistant and design engineers who had done much of the work. Joseph Strauss, without question the driving force behind the Golden Gate Bridge, had done just that to his assistant Charles Ellis, of course, and the statue of chief engineer Strauss that was installed at the bridge plaza must have irked many a subordinate. Though first authorized by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District late in 1939, a public expenditure for a bronze statue was successfully challenged by the Taxpayers Defense League, and, like many such a monument, this one was dedicated, in 1941, only after funds were provided by Strauss’s widow.

The Strauss statue was originally located conspicuously at the toll plaza, atop an ostentatious pedestal, obstructing the view of the bridge itself, according to some. It was subsequently relocated to a less ornate base and less prominent setting, in a small plaza between the bridge’s gift shop and parking lot. In New York, the perhaps overly modest pedestal and bust of Ammann, and its imprecise inscription, soon became so obscure in its location in an urban bus terminal, and forgotten by public and profession alike, that the issue of ego seems long ago to have become moot.


The final great bridge design that Ammann was to be credited with was the one he had had Clarence Dunham work on secretly in the summer of 1936. A bridge crossing the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island was proposed as early as 1910 by the New York engineer Charles Worthington. His design consisted of a twenty-five-hundred-foot arch made up of hollow voussoirs of nickel steel that would be erected by a novel method devised by Worthington so that no falsework would obstruct the entrance to the harbor during construction. The proposed arch was to be 260 feet above high water, subject to the approval of the War Department, and the $15-million bridge was expected not only to provide a monumental gateway to New York from Staten Island but also to open up the island to “mercantile development.”

The arch plan was shelved, and so were many later suspension designs, but by the time Ammann’s bust was unveiled at the George Washington Bridge, his Narrows bridge had long been under construction. Work had begun in earnest in the mid-1950s, and Milton Brumer, its chief engineer, recalled that 125 engineers in the Ammann & Whitney design office were assigned exclusively to the project, and there were another seventy-five field engineers, not to mention the thousands of construction workers: “Every one of them has a good reason to say ‘I played a part in building that bridge.’ There’s honor in a project like that, and it should be shared.” Brumer did indeed play a part in the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, as he had in many other of Ammann’s designs.

Milton Brumer, born in Philadelphia, was a 1923 graduate of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute and a classmate of Werner Ammann. Beginning as a junior engineer with New York’s Interborough Rapid Transit Company, Brumer subsequently held various engineering positions, including assistant engineer for the Port of New York Authority on such projects as the Outerbridge Crossing, Goethals Bridge, George Washington Bridge, Bayonne Bridge, and the Lincoln Tunnel. He joined Ammann’s firm in 1944 and became a partner in Ammann & Whitney in 1949. Having served as chief engineer for the Throgs Neck Bridge, he no doubt paid more day-to-day attention to that project than did Ammann. Of all the engineers at Ammann & Whitney, Brumer was most closely associated with Ammann on bridge and highway projects, “and it was on Milton Brumer that O. H. Ammann placed great reliance for the final execution” of the Narrows bridge project. Charles Whitney died before it was completed, and Brumer then became executive head of Ammann & Whitney, which had grown to have eight partners and a staff of about five hundred.

Though Ammann may not have been constantly bent over a drawing board, bridges were never out of his sight or very far from his mind. At Ammann & Whitney daily, he could be found in “his simply styled office surrounded by renderings or photographs of some of his bridges.” A drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge was the only exception, “his way of paying tribute” to John Roebling as pioneer suspension-bridge builder. Ammann, who lived in New Jersey, also kept an apartment in Manhattan, on the thirty-second floor of the Carlyle, a hotel located at Madison Avenue and East 77th Street. From this position at the more or less geographical center of the island, he had a view of all the New York bridges that had defined his career and reputation. Confined to his apartment with a cold on the day before his eighty-fifth birthday, on March 26, 1964, he was able, with the aid of a telescope, to look at the 680-foot-tall Brooklyn tower of the bridge across the Narrows, twelve miles away and still under construction. From the bedroom window was visible his favorite bridge, and the one he considered his “greatest achievement,” the George Washington. From another window, he could see the Hell Gate, Triborough, Bronx-Whitestone, and Throgs Neck bridges. Finally, his living-room window afforded a partial view of the Bayonne and the Verrazano-Narrows bridges.

Ammann’s bridge views, described in the newspaper article occasioned by his birthday, are reminiscent of those from the Brooklyn flat where a bedridden Washington Roebling watched the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge of which his late father had dreamed. John Roebling, of course, had had the total misfortune of having his foot crushed by a ferryboat while he was laying out the alignment of his bridge and of contracting tetanus. Other bridge engineers had had the bad luck to see the crowning achievements of their careers collapse, as did Cooper and Moisseiff, near Quebec and Seattle, respectively. The reporter recounted that Ammann had worked on the investigations of each of those colossal bridge failures and that Ammann’s bridges had “known no tragedy through his own engineering miscalculations.” Ammann conceded that he was “lucky.”

Luck or no, Ammann was hailed as “the most respected engineer of his time.” A further opportunity to lionize him would be provided at the opening ceremonies of the bridge across the Narrows, in November 1964. First, however, the bridge had to undergo the initiation rite of having its chosen name challenged. The name Verrazano-Narrows Bridge had been decided upon early enough for a commemorative stamp to be issued by the U.S. Post Office. The design of the five-cent stamp was unveiled “at a thinly disguised Democratic campaign rally on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall,” four weeks before it would be issued, which was to be on the day of the bridge opening. The crowd heard President Lyndon Johnson “praised by virtually every speaker,” including one who spoke of his personal recognition of the “tremendous role which has been played in our national life by Americans of Italian heritage,” and there was also the first public performance of “the Verrazano Bridge song,” which began, “In 1524, he opened up the door; that Verrazano man, whose name is on the span.” Italy also issued a stamp commemorating the opening of the bridge, but with the spelling “Verrazzano.” There was opposition to the name up to the very end, with ridicule for the honor thus paid to “a brave vagrant who is believed to have poked the nose of his ship through the Narrows.”

The name Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would nonetheless remain, although the hyphen symbolizing the tension it had generated would often later be dropped or forgotten. But there would be plenty of comparisons with the Golden Gate, whose forty-two-hundred-foot main span was now surpassed by the 4,260-foot New York bridge. Other “statistical details” of the San Francisco landmark were also bettered by the Verrazano-Narrows, which in the wake of the Tacoma Narrows collapse included the newer span’s support of a 75-percent-greater load. The aesthetic of light and slender had been replaced with one of strong and solid, and the ever-popular numbers whose publication accompanied the completion of great structures stressed that the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was so large that the tops of its towers were more than an inch farther apart than the bottoms, merely because of the curvature of the earth. Another oft-repeated statistic was that the main span, which on average was 230 feet above the water, would be twelve feet lower in summer than in winter, when the lower temperatures caused the steel to contract.

One chronicler of bridges has written that “the success of an engineering project may often be measured by the absence of any dramatic history,” but what may appear to be undramatic from one perspective can be very traumatic from another. To build a bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island across the Narrows that ferryboat services, including one begun by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1810, had plied for centuries required an enormous amount of land for approaches. Robert Moses called the bridge “the most important link in the great highway system stretching from Boston to Washington, or, if you please, Maine to Florida.” However, to close this link, especially on the Brooklyn side, meant disrupting long-established neighborhoods, and this was at least as difficult to accomplish as any engineering aspect of the problem.

Since the main span of the Verrazano-Narrows was only sixty feet greater than that of the Golden Gate, the engineering choices were certainly nowhere near so dramatic as those made thirty years earlier in designing the George Washington, which, of course, had roughly doubled the then longest span. In his “preface” to a book about the building of the Verrazano-Narrows, Ammann referred to the “engineering phase in the construction” of such a great bridge as “essentially the application of scientific and technological progress in many fields.” Though he was not saying that engineering was merely applied science, he was stating that, in this case at least, rational experience was a sure guide. One bit of experience that Ammann insisted on applying to the Verrazano-Narrows was the construction of both upper and lower decks at the same time, even though there was no expectation of an immediate traffic demand for the lower deck, a decision no doubt made to eliminate any possibility that the bridge would not be stiff enough in the wind. Another supposedly impersonal engineering and economic decision was to design the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge without a pedestrian walkway, but one can speculate as to whether this may have been dictated by a social or psychological concern that pedestrians, more easily than drivers and passengers in vehicles, would sense the flexibility of the record span—or merely to eliminate the bother of people on the bridge. Whatever the case, this limitation is now overcome at least once a year, when the beginning leg of the annual New York City marathon is run across the span.

The opening ceremonies for the bridge were held on November 21, 1964. Music was provided by the Department of Sanitation band, and Robert Moses rode in the first of fifty-two black limousines that brought official guests. In an editorial on the occasion, The New York Times spoke of the completion of the bridge as crowning “the careers of two men to whom New York already owes a colossal obligation,” Ammann and Moses, and recalled the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman’s “resolve to conquer the staggering obstacles” to the bridge’s construction, which had “resulted in a masterpiece he rightly ranks second only to the works of Shakespeare in the durability of its beauty.” The bridge that the engineer was said to have designed to “last forever” was not just a critical link in a traffic artery, however, and “the realization that all this grace is merely an instrument for the insensate rush of endless ribbons of cars, trucks and buses is too depressingly mundane to contemplate in this moment of magnificent birth.” The Times had to resort to the poet Hart Crane’s lines about the Brooklyn Bridge to close its paean:

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, shortly after it was opened in 1964, with Brooklyn and Manhattan in the background (photo credit 5.24)

Through the hound cable strands, the arching path

Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,—

Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate

The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.…

The newspaper’s reporter, Gay Talese, had more of an ear and eye for the immediate than the editorial writer, however. Talese had written a book about the design and construction of the Verrazano-Narrows, and now he reported how the motorcade proceeded to the Brooklyn approach to the bridge, where five pairs of gold scissors awaited, respectively, Moses, Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Robert Wagner, and the borough presidents of Brooklyn and Staten Island. The ribbon-cutting was delayed somewhat while politicians fought through the crowd of “generals, admirals, politicians, women in mink coats, business leaders, pretty girls.” Talese also noted Ammann’s arrival, not in the first but in the eighteenth limousine: “A quiet and modest man, he was barely recognized by the politicians and other dignitaries at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He stood in the crowd without saying a word, although occasionally, as inconspicuously as he could, he sneaked a look at the bridge looming in the distance, sharply outlined in the cloudless sky.”

The motorcade resumed to carry the dignitaries to the other side of the bridge, where Moses was to be the master of ceremonies. When it came time to introduce the engineer, Moses said, “I now ask that one of the significant great men of our time—modest, unassuming and too often overlooked on such grandiose occasions—stand and be recognized.” The engineer removed his hat and stood, and Moses continued: “It may be that in the midst of so many celebrities, you don’t even know who he is. My friends, I ask that you now look upon the greatest living bridge engineer, perhaps the greatest of all time.” Unfortunately, Moses never mentioned Ammann’s name, and the engineer resumed his seat, “again lost in the second row of the grandstand.”

Later that evening, when Ammann was home with his family, the phone rang and his wife answered. She turned to Ammann and announced, “It’s Ed Sullivan. He wants you to appear on his TV program tonight.” Ammann is reported to have said, “Tell him, ‘No, thank you.’ ” After his wife hung up, the engineer asked, “Who is Ed Sullivan?” Whether Ammann actually knew who he was or not, the story serves to carry one step further the image of this engineer as quietly devoted to his job, oblivious to everything else in the world. But one could also interpret the story as one shy engineer’s private retaliation for his anonymity at the ceremony dedicating the bridge that owed so much to him.

Among the onlookers at the dedication ceremonies for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was a college freshman named Donald Trump, who was attending the event with his father. Sixteen years later, after the younger Trump had established himself as a real-estate developer in his own right and been credited with “reshaping the skyline of Manhattan,” he recalled to a reporter having had “a sudden realization, an epiphany,” at the ceremony that “always remained with him, shaping the way he made his fortune in real estate in New York City.” Though his recollection of the day, which Talese at the time described as cloudless, may have undergone a certain embellishment, Trump did remember correctly some of its more salient points:

The rain was coming down for hours while all these jerks were being introduced and praised. But all I’m thinking about is that all these politicians who opposed the bridge are being applauded. Yet, in a corner, just standing there in the rain, is this man, this 85-year-old engineer who came from Sweden [sic] and designed this bridge, who poured his heart into it, and nobody even mentioned his name.

Trump’s epiphany, “then and there,” was “that if you let people treat you how they want, you’ll be made a fool.” The realization that he “would never forget” was that he “didn’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.” Regardless of what he forgot or did not, Trump’s recollection of the way Moses omitted Ammann’s name at the Verrazano-Narrows ceremony is a poignant reminder of the fate of the engineer. The record shows Moses’s speeches not to be terribly well crafted, and so it seems likely that his verbal slight of Ammann was unintended. When Moses said candidly that, among celebrities, the engineer was not likely to be known, he was only speaking the truth.

It has often been said that engineers get their satisfaction not from personal recognition but from the recognition of their works. Whether this is the collectively shared rationalization of often moody personalities who tend to be more comfortable engaged in problem solving than engaged by crowds, many an engineer appears to have subscribed to it. And Ammann seems to have been no exception. He accepted honors but seems to have sought out none other than, or at least none so deliberately as, the honor of being the engineer among engineers to lead the building of great bridges. In this he was not shy, and for this he would be remembered.

Othmar Ammann died in 1965, after a long and active life ranging from lonely work to shared glory. When Robert Moses spoke of him at the dedication of Othmar Ammann College at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1968, the engineer was recalled as a “dreamer in steel” who was more than an individual, a paragon among engineers. “The Ammanns represent not merely mathematics, materials and stresses and strains, but character which can’t be mined, fabricated and molded, but has to be there from the beginning. You have it or you don’t, and Othmar Ammann had it.” Though not every one of the engineer’s contemporaries may have agreed, Moses’s praise was, in broad terms, very well deserved indeed. Ammann had dreams of great bridges, and he had the exceptional inclination and talent to realize those dreams in his distinctive style.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!