Manhattan Bridge: Construction, History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Manhattan Bridge is one of New York's great bridges, but it's not the one we talk about the most. In this lesson, we'll see why that is an examine other aspects of this structure's construction, design, and place in engineering history.

The Manhattan Bridge

Attention all middle children out there: we get it. It's tough being the middle child, in the shadow of older siblings and passed by for the younger ones. Your lives have been tough, and we're sorry. Luckily for you, you aren't alone.

In fact, in the heart of New York City is a mighty monument to your struggles. It's called the Manhattan Bridge. The last structure of the city's first major period of bridge building, the Manhattan Bridge has spent its life in the shadow of its impressive older East River siblings, the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges.

At the same time, it's too old to belong with the younger, 1930s-era bridges like the Triborough and Bronx-Whitestone. The Manhattan is the middle child of New York bridges, and like most middle children, it's waited years for someone to recognize its achievements. So rejoice, middle children of the world: today is your day.

The Manhattan Bridge

History and Construction

In the late 19th century, New York's population growth seemed endless. The Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges were built to connect the boroughs, but they quickly became overcrowded. Another bridge over the lower East River was needed.

Plans were drawn up to create another suspension bridge, making the new bridge of the same type as the older ones. Suspension bridges were all the rage at the time. Relying on materials and techniques that were never possible before, these structures were pure symbols of modernity and industrial ingenuity.

The Manhattan Bridge (background) and Brooklyn Bridge (foreground)

Construction on the Manhattan Bridge began in 1901, under the leadership of NYC Department of Bridges Commissioner Gustav Lindenthal and his chief engineer, R. S. Buck. After only three years, however, squabbles between local politicians resulted in the two men being removed from the project. The bridge was handed over to other officials. Their chief engineer was Leon Moisseiff.

Moisseiff immediately started introducing the newest and most radical concepts in modern bridge construction to the project. Notably, he was among the first to apply the new concept of deflection theory to suspension bridges. The theory, which claimed that wind was the only factor to truly impact lateral bridge movement, proposed new building techniques to compensate for this singular stress, while eliminating unnecessary supports.

The theory was designed for concrete arch bridges. It was Moisseiff who figured out how to apply the concept to suspension bridges.

As a result, the Manhattan Bridge actually holds a very important place in bridge history. With the application of deflection theory, it was lighter, cheaper, and quicker to build that its predecessors, but just as strong. For this reason, it's often recognized as the first truly modern suspension bridge in the world. See? Middle children achieve things, too.

The Manhattan Bridge featured many innovative uses of materials and building techniques, especially regarding steel-frame construction

Opening and Continued Development

Despite the fact that many elements of the bridge were not fully complete, the structure was opened to public use in 1909 to relieve traffic congestion. At an impressive 6,855 feet-long, it originally had a walking deck and a trolley deck, which had tracks but weren't yet connected to the rest of the city. It wouldn't be until 1915 that streetcar companies completed the tracks and placed running trolleys onto them.

Several aspects of development on the bridge continued for several years after it formally opened. In 1910, architectural firms were hired to add aesthetic elements, connecting the bridge to the national City Beautiful movement sweeping over urban centers like New York, in an attempt to bring more monumental and architectural aesthetics into the industrialized and often dirty cities.

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