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Goethals Bridge: History & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Goethals Bridge is a rare symbol of connection and cooperation between New York and New Jersey, so why are they tearing it down? In this lesson, we'll explore the history of this structure and see why it's being replaced.

The Goethals Bridge

There are numerous ways to announce your presence to the world. You could throw a party. You could go on talk show. Or, you could build something really big.

In 1921, New York and New Jersey decided to put aside their differences and work together to create an organization in charge of regional transportation around their shared port. They called it the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This was a big deal for the states, and they needed a way to introduce the power and authority of the PANYNJ to the world. Parties aren't very cost-efficient, and talk shows weren't around yet, so they went with building something. That something was the Goethals Bridge.

The Goethals Bridge
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Bridge History and Design

The Goethals Bridge stretches over 7,000 feet between Staten Island, New York and Elizabeth, New Jersey. It crosses a section of the port region known as Arthur Kill (coming from the Middle Dutch word for creek, and a reminder of the region's colonial past). The bridge is named for Major General George Washington Goethals, who had supervised construction on the Panama Canal before becoming a consulting engineer for the young PANYNJ.

To build their bridge, the PANYNJ hired veteran bridge builder John Alexander Low Waddell, who was simultaneously designing the port authority's second bridge in the area, the Outerbridge Crossing. Both bridges were under construction at the same time, and unsurprisingly, share a similar look.

Cantilever Bridge

So, what kind of structure did Waddell used to cross the Arthur Kill? The Goethals Bridge is a cantilever bridge, where one section serves to anchor another section that extends beyond a pier or support. This is an ancient system of bridge design, but for most of history was only useful in building small, basic structures. Advancements in structural steel technology and construction techniques in the late 19th century, however, expanded the possibilities of the design.

Waddell's bridge distributed weight through the use of a steel truss, something that wasn't possible before the late 19th century. Not only did this let Waddell design a bridge that would be strong enough to make the crossing, it also helped him make the bridge tall, especially in the middle. Why? The 140 feet of clearance below the center of the bridge is enough to let deep-sea ships pass underneath and reach the port. Overall, the Goethals Bridge was an impressive achievement of modern engineering.

Construction and Life

Construction for the Goethals Bridge started in 1925 and was completed in 1928. The Outerbridge Crossing opened the same day, and the PANYNJ had its statement to the world. These two impressive, modern structures immediately replaced the ferries that previously let people cross the strait and became symbols of the modern transportation authority. General Goethals, unfortunately, died just three months before the opening ceremony. The bridge was dedicated to his memory.

The Goethals Bridge
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The Goethals Bridge was frequently used, and by the 1960s was badly in need of restoration. The main deck was replaced and other improvements were made, but there were still concerns. For one, the lanes are only 10-feet wide, short of the modern highway standard of 12 feet. There are no shoulders on the roadway for emergency vehicles, nor are there pedestrian or bicycle lanes. In the late 1990s, the PANYNJ started planning to expand the bridge and bring it up to modern standards, but a new report found that the bridge was in worse shape than they realized. It would be cheaper to build a new bridge than fix the old one.

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