The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

New York's Youngest Bridge

Like the blood vessels that carry precious elements of life to disparate parts of the body, the bridges that crisscross New York City are a vital part of its past, present and future. Providing conduit for hundreds of thousands of people every day, each of the city's bridges has its own charm, its own appeal and its own story to tell.  In those stories is also the history of New York. Here we will look at the newest addition to that landscape, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.


     When it opened on November 21, 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge boasted the world's longest suspension span, displacing San Franciso's Golden Gate Bridge. The Verrazano-Narrows retained that crown until 1981 when it was in turn eclipsed by the Humber Bridge in the UK.  Still the longest suspension bridge in the US, the Verrazano-Narrows has fallen to seventh on the list of the world's longest bridges, but in New York its majesty and importance remain intact.  Designed by the same Swiss engineer who designed more than half of New York City bridges, Othmar Herrmann Ammann, the bridge was named after Giovanni da Verrazano, who, in 1524 and under the French flag, was the first European explorer to sail into New York Harbor.  The ends of the bridge are rich in history as well since Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Ft. Wadsworth on Staten Island both guarded New York Harbor at the Narrows for over a century.      


Until the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows the only way to get from Staten Island to the rest of New York City was via ferry which -- on a good day -- meant a half hour trip to Manhattan or a 10-minute trip to Brooklyn.  On bad days there could be no telling for sure how long either trip would take.  From the late 1880's there was talk about building a bridge to join Brooklyn and Staten Island.  In 1898, when the five boroughs were unified to form the New York City we know today, interest in building the bridge was reignited but military fears over the vulnerability of such a bridge and the havoc that might follow its destruction put the idea again on the back burner.  In subsequent years proposals surfaced from time to time for a variety of bridge or tunnel solutions and an ill-fated tunnel project was actually begun in 1920 under then Mayor John F. Hylan.   

     By 1941 the proposals were becoming more focused and concrete.  That year the New York City Planning Department included a link between Staten Island -- ideally a tunnel but including reference to a bridge -- as part of its master plan of express highways.  World War II interrupted any further movement toward construction but in 1946 Robert Moses, as Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, reappraised that same proposal and presented a plan expanding on the bridge concept which he said would cost less, take less time to build, and have a greater capacity for traffic than a tunnel.   After receiving the US Army's agreement to sell some of its land compromising  historic Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, (which would become the sites for the feet of the bridge),  a joint study was formed to complete the planning work for the new bridge.  The building of this bridge would be the last great public works project overseen by Robert Moses.


 Nearly 12,000 men worked on the bridge during its construction and as many as 1,000 men could be found on the site in a single day during peaks in the schedule.  Many of the workers were members of the local ironworkers  unions  -- Brooklyn Union 361 and Manhattan Union 40 -- with previous bridge building experience, and the rest were "boomers," itinerant union workers and site supervisors who regularly traveled from work site to work site. 

     The Bridge took five years to construct -- from 1959-1964 -- but only the upper deck was opened to traffic then.  Five years later, in 1969, the lower deck was opened to travellers as well.   Joseph Farrell (shown at right) worked on the bridge as an apprentice engineer and spent many days poised on the edge  of danger, walking across steel girders averaging 2-feet wide in most places but as narrow as six inches in others.  "The way the wind blows over this water it could blow you right off the steel.  That was to me and still is the most treacherous part of this business.  When  the wind grabs you on the open iron, it can be very dangerous," he recalled during a New York Public Radio interviewThanks to  modern safety concerns, as well as inventions and equipment that could complement those concerns, only three men died during the construction of the bridge.  Sadly and ironically, despite their dedicated and courageous service, despite the risks and sacrifices that were part of their experience of building the bridge, NONE of the workers were invited to the bridge's opening ceremonies.


 During the the years it was being constructed and in the years following its opening both Brooklyn and Staten Island felt the impact of the bridge on their local communities.

     The effects on Staten Island were somewhat more gradual than those felt in Brooklyn.  Today, Staten Island remains the most suburban, least populated borough of the city but in the middle 1900's it had almost a rural character in many parts as the last of the dairy and poultry farms that once dominated the central and southern parts of the island were still operating.   The bridge forever changed that as the borough began to see a rise in residential and business  populations.  Because accessbility was so much improved, the population of Staten Island doubled quickly in the years following the opening of the bridge.  One immediate effect felt on Staten Island was that on November 22, 1964 -- one day after the bridge opened --  the Bay Ridge/St. George Staten Island Ferry, which had been transporting passengers across the narrows for nearly a century, made its final trip and then shut down service permanently.

     In Brooklyn, on the other hand, neighborhoods were destroyed or changed forever.  In order to provide access to the bridge from the Brooklyn side (now called the Gowanus Expressway) hundreds of homes in the Bay Ridge section, along Fort Hamilton Parkway, every street between 65th and 92nd Streets, and a stretch along 7th Avenue were torn down and the street torn up to construct the new roadway.  Residents in the path of the destruction were strongly opposed to construction of the roadway through their neighborhood but master bridge builder Robert Moses eventually got what he wanted and in the end some 7,000 residents were displaced from their homes. 


     An estimated 5,000 people came from near and far to be part of Opening Day for the bridge.  Only cars -- no busses, trucks or pedestrians --  were allowed to cross the bridge that day and the toll was only $.50.    Fireboats moved through the narrows spraying plumes of water high into the sky.  Bands played to the crowds of people gathered on both sides making a party of the event.

     Today, the bridge is a familiar, beautiful  and majestic element of the New York City landscape.  But it's famous all over the world as well as the picturesque starting point for the New York City Marathon and, perhaps to a certain generation only, as the "playground" where Tony Manero and his buddies used to climb and tease in the movie "Saturday Night Fever."


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Length of Main Span:   4,260 feet

Length of Bridge including Approaches:  13,700 feet

Width of Bridge:   103 feet

Number of Decks:  2

Number of Lanes of Traffic:  12 (6 on each deck)

Height of Towers above Average High Water:  693 feet

OF NOTE: Because the steel cables contract or expand depending on seasonal temperature fluctuations, both decks of the roadway are 12 feet lower in the summer than in the winter.

Deepest Foundation below Average High Water:   170 feet

Construction Started:  August 13, 1959

Upper Deck Opened: November 21, 1964

Lower Deck Opened: June 28, 1969

Because of its location so close to the Atlantic Ocean, the bridge is the most vulnerable to weather of all NY's bridges and has been closed on occasion due to inclement weather.

Total Construction Cost:  $320,100,000

Average Number of Vehicles Crossing per Day:  194,000

Current Cash Toll Charges for cars: $9.00 (collected westbound only)

Vertical Clearance: Upper Level - 15 feet; Lower Level - 14.4 feet

Clearance Below: 228 feet at average high water.

The Queen Mary 2 actually changed her smokestack height so that she could pass under the bridge that is the "gateway to NY Harbor".  Now, with the reduction in height, the smokestack clears the bridge by a mere 9.75 feet. 

The Bridge in The Movies

Saturday Night Fever - 1977: Tony Manero (John Travolta) and his friends climb the bridge to show-off, Tony impresses his love interest, Stephanie Mangano, with his knowledge of the bridge's history and statistics, and tragically, Tony's friend Bobby C. falls off the bridge as Tony tries to talk him down.

Requiem for a Dream - 2000: Harry (Jared Leto) and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) drive across the bridge on their way from Brooklyn to Florida.

Meet the Fockers - 2004: The Byrne's RV crosses the bridge on their way from Long Island to Florida.