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Happy 80th Birthday To the Great Gray Bridge

The history of the George Washington Bridge in light of its upcoming 80th birthday and the bridge's impact in Fort Lee and popular culture.

One of the happy stories of our respective childhoods is neither from the Brothers Grimm nor a mother called goose. This tale from childhood is from a book written about someone from our neighborhood, so to speak. Well not exactly someone, but rather a presence we all grew up in the shadows of here in Fort Lee- the Great Gray Bridge, a.k.a. "the GW," "the GWB," "the George," or officially, the George Washington Bridge.  

On Oct. 24 it will celebrate its 80th birthday. I fear with the recent publicity about toll increases and the Port Authority that our Great Gray Bridge is much maligned, and we need to revisit both the history of the span and its place in our local and national popular culture. 

Construction of this marvel of engineering began in October 1927 during the "Roaring Twenties," a time in America when money and good times flowed like prohibition liquor out of a hip flask. This was a project of the Port of New York Authority, as it was known at the time. Othmar Ammann was the chief engineer with Cass Gilbert as architect.

The bridge, during its construction, was known as the Hudson River Bridge and that name was a popular favorite among citizens. The Port Authority decided to name it after George Washington, and public outcry was loud as many felt there were many bridges named after Washington already. But the Port Authority decided to stick to its guns, and thus it was and is the GWB.

It should be noted that most of the photos displayed in this article came to us via then Fort Lee Mayor Jack Alter, who was able to get us these images from the Port Authority archive at the World Trade Center in the early 1990s. These photos are but a few of the dozens we have in the Fort Lee Museum archive of the construction of the bridge.  

The Port Authority stored the original photos in their archive in the World Trade Center, and the photos  were lost in the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Thanks to Mayor Alter we have some of the original images, and we made copies of the photos digitally and presented them to the Port Authority on the occassion of the 75th aniversary of the bridge in 2006.

The aesthetics of the bridge changed from its original plans due to, among other things, the Great Depression. Originally, the towers were to be encased in concrete and granite. The combination of the economic downturn due to the Great Depression and the beauty of the bare steel towers resulted in a unique look that makes this 80-year-old wonder still look youthful in the 21st century.

Then New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a host of New York and New Jersey officials cut the ribbon to open the GWB on Oct. 24, 1931. Since that time, millions of cars have crossed the span, and the bridge itself has crossed our minds through its place in American culture around the world via film, photography, art and literature. See this clip from the 1948 film, Force of Evil, which showcases the GWB like no other film before or since.

The aptly named George Washington Bridge rises out of the Palisades on both sides of the Hudson River just as its namesake, General George Washington, did from the summer of 1776 through the Nov. 20 retreat from Fort Lee, where Washington and his troops escaped capture by British forces who crossed the river. 

Changes have occurred in Fort Lee in the ensuing years, and the  GWB has adapted to the times, adding a lower level in 1962 to accommodate more traffic.  Though we grouse and complain at time--perhaps justly so--about the traffic and the tolls and the impact of having the busiest bridge in the world as a resident of Fort Lee, just stop and look at those majestic bridge towers at dawn or at sunset, or after a storm – they shine and rise to the heavens as a testament not only to the man they were named after, but to the 20th century workers who constructed this wonder. The French architect and writer, Le Corbusier, said it best I think:

The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. 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. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apron; the second tower is very far away; innumerable vertical cables, gleaming against the sky, are suspended from the magisterial curve, which swings down and then up. The rose-colored towers of New York appear, a vision whose harshness is mitigated by distance.

Such prose flowed from the writer’s pen when he was viewing the bridge. For most of us, our primer on the bridge came from the classic 1942 children’s story, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, by Hildegarde Swift.  Generations of children  from around the world fell in love with our bridge from this tale of the displaced little red lighthouse below.

Though times are tough today, and articles about tolls abound, let us remember the wonder we held as children for the little red lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge on the 80th birthday of our neighbor, the George Washington Bridge.

Robyn Nadel October 03, 2011 at 06:00 PM
Beautifully told Tom - anything (cents and dollars) it takes to keep the old Hudson River Bridge aesthetically sound, as majestically seen as it should be and as stable as possible, is worth it. Happy 80th birthday to the George Washing Bridge. :)
Tom Meyers October 03, 2011 at 06:13 PM
Thanks Robyn!

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