Newport Bridge: History & Construction

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Newport Bridge wasn't easy to build, but that just makes it all the more impressive. In this lesson, we'll explore the design and construction of this structure, and see where it fits in American bridge history.

The Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge

When the federal government announced that each of the 50 states would have a chance to design their own quarter, it got people pretty excited. What symbols best represented that state and its people? How should they choose? In 2001, it was Rhode Island's turn. They opened up the selection process to the people, receiving 500 entries and submitting the three best ideas to a popular vote. With a 57% majority, the winning design featured a sailboat on Rhode Island's famous Narragansett Bay. How do we know it's Narragansett Bay? Because one of the state's most prominent landmarks, the Claiborne Pell Bridge, hovers in the background. Known commonly as the Newport Bridge, it was the first structure of its kind to be immortalized on a state quarter.

The Newport Bridge, as seen in the Rhode Island state quarter

History and Design

The Narragansett Bay is great for sailing, but not everyone wants to take out the ol' sailboat for their daily commute. Since the 17th century, people had been crossing the bay by ferry, which took a while, or commuting all the way around. By the 20th century, this meant driving through the traffic-congested streets of Providence, the state capital. So, commissions were established in the 1940s to determine whether a bridge could be built over the bay. No fewer than 32 engineering studies were conducted, trying to determine the best location and style of crossing.

Ideas ranged from tunnels to cantilevers, but the commissions finally decided upon building a suspension bridge, in which a trussed deck would be suspended from anchored cables. Now, where should they put it? The big obstacle was the Newport Naval Station. A first location was selected in 1950, which the Navy approved but residents did not. Eventually, a new site was selected, connecting the towns of Jamestown and Newport. Unfortunately, difficulties in financing pushed the project back even further, until voters approved the right of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to raise money by selling bonds. Construction finally began in 1966.


Construction started with the driving of 838 steel piles, and was immediately beset by challenges. At 162 feet below the water's surface, the divers were faced with the deepest pile construction in bridge history to that date. They could only finish about one pile per day, until a diving tank was brought in that actually let them live underwater for abut a week at a time.

While the foundations were being laid, the piers were built off-site. Prefabricated construction was still fairly new to bridgework, so this was an intriguing innovation for the time. Of course, setting the completed pier in place would still be a challenge. The water, as mentioned, was deep, but the bridge also had to be tall enough to meet clearance requirements set by the nearby naval base. As a result, the largest pier was ten stories tall. A special floating crane called the Avondale Senior had to be brought in from New Orleans to handle the job.

The challenges were far from over. Two storms hit the bay right after the piers were set, and the structures had to be reset. Finally, after 90,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured under water, all 54 piers were completed and work on the impressive towers and cables could begin.

The piers were much harder to build than they appear

First, the 400-foot tall towers were erected. In keeping with other bridges of the time period along America's Atlantic Coast, the towers are the aesthetic focal point. The simple, geometric juxtaposition of rectangles and pointed arches are hallmarks of the structure to this day. The steel components needed to finish the bridge were also prefabricated, which again was pretty innovative for the time. Rather than spinning the steel wires at the site, they could simply be strung from anchor to tower. A brand new type of plastic coating was also used over the steel cables to protect them from the elements.

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