Although the Bayonne Bridge only carries two lanes of traffic in each direction, chief engineer O.H. Ammann's design can accommodate two or three additional lanes without any alterations to the primary structure. When initial designs were being developed for a crossing of the Kill Van Kull between Staten Island and New Jersey in the late 1920s, transportation planners thought that the four vehicular lanes would not be able to accommodate growing traffic volumes 25 years after the bridge opened. While designs for a cantilever bridge and suspension bridge were also evaluated for the crossing, an arch bridge was ultimately selected because of an additional requirement made by the commissioners of the Port Authority that the bridge also needed to be able to accommodate two light rail tracks for rapid transit in the future.
The Bayonne Bridge opened three years after the Goethals Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing, making it the third connection for vehicles between Staten Island and the mainland. It provided the first direct highway connection between Staten Island and Manhattan (via the Holland Tunnel), reducing the travel time by 18 minutes for vehicles traveling from Manhattan and taking the ferry that formerly connected Bergen Point, New Jersey with Port Richmond on Staten Island. The bridge was designed to cross the Kill Van Kull at a 58 degree angle to the shoreline, necessitating a longer crossing distance compared to a right angle crossing, but was chosen to line up with the local street networks on both sides of the waterway.
The Bayonne Bridge represented an advance in the magnitude of arch bridges to be built to date. Requirements in theory, including calculations of secondary stresses, helped to make the construction of such large structures possible. This also enabled such stress calculations and theory to be checked by extensometers on the actual surface. Increased knowledge of theories used in connection with the design of structures of this size was gained through stress measurements by extensometers on the actual structure and compression test of various materials, including manganese steel made on the largest columns ever. These tests gave way to checking the validity of the Bryan formula (3.5Et2)/b2 = stress at which buckling will occur, which was used to determine compressive strength of wide web plates.
Two other firsts were introduced in the construction of the Bayonne Bridge. Firstly, manganese steel was introduced for use in the main arch ribs and the rivets. Secondly, the use of falsework for the construction of an arch span approaching this magnitude had never been used. Manganese steel was chosen for use in building the Bayonne Bridge due to its high strength, comparable to nickel steel and at a cheaper price. It was used for the main arch ribs and the 1¼ inch (3 cm) rivets. Although manganese steel rivets were harder to drive in the field, their use permitted a 50 percent increase in working unit stresses, thus a savings in the number of field rivets required.
The method of using falsework for erection was chosen over the cantilever method for economic reasons. The use of cantilevers would have necessitated the construction of heavy anchorages, towers over the abutments, and ties from the anchorages to various points on the trusses. Using falsework proved to be a better method since the river's solid rock bottom provided a secure foundation and the feasibility of making the falsework out of material which would later be used in the bridge. To prevent permanent blockage of the Kill Van Kull—one of the busiest shipping channels in the world—temporary hydraulic jacks were used to support sections of the bridge's arch, which is a tapered hyperbolic curve formed by 40 trusses that were prefabricated off-site and lifted into place.
The plans of consulting architect Cass Gilbert called for the abutments at each end of the arch to be encased with ornamental stonework, just like the towers of the George Washington Bridge were originally to be faced with granite and concrete. Exposed steelwork was chosen in lieu of the ornamental stonework on both of these bridges as a cost-cutting measure taken during the Great Depression.
In addition to providing an important highway link, the Bayonne Bridge was constructed with a mid-span clearance of 150 feet (46 m) to provide unobstructed navigation through the Kill Van Kull for the tallest ships of the U.S. Navy at the time. This passageway from the Atlantic Ocean into Newark Bay and the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers beyond, still is the main shipping channel to the inland ports of Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey. To reach the suspended roadway deck under the central arch, more than 5,000 feet (1,524 m) of approach viaducts on concrete piers were constructed in Port Richmond and Bayonne.
The Bayonne Bridge was officially designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark at ceremonies attended by officials of the ASCE and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey on November 15, 1985, the 54th anniversary of the bridge's opening. ASCE Director Bernard P. Monahan, representing the Society, presented Anthony Barger, Port Authority Acting Director of Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals, and Mayor Dennis Collins of Bayonne with a plaque commemorating the national recognition of the Bayonne Bridge. The unveiling was held at the Staten Island Plaza of the bridge.
At the ceremony, Mr. Barber said, "The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is honored that the Bayonne Bridge is being cited as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by ASCE. This bridge has for 54 years contributed to the development of Staten Island, New York, and Bayonne, New Jersey, and we look forward to many more years of service to the area." ASCE Director Monahan said, "This bridge was designed by Othmar Ammann, Honorary Member of ASCE and then Chief Engineer of the Port Authority. The ASCE is proud to have its plaque awarded to an engineering feat of this magnitude and beauty."
When the bridge was dedicated on November 14, 1931, just three weeks after the opening of the George Washington Bridge, a special pair of engraved golden scissors was used by Morgan Larson (the governor of New Jersey), Morris Tremaine (New York State Comptroller), and David M. Dow (Secretary for Australia to the United States) to cut the ribbons at each toll plaza. The same pair of scissors was sent to Australia and used by Hubert Primrose (Mayor of North Sydney) to cut the ribbon on the north end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, after which the blades were separated and one was returned to the Port of New York Authority. At the dedication ceremony, Secretary Dow also presented the Port Authority with a silver replica of the last spike used to join the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. While the Bayonne Bridge was a few feet longer, the bridge under construction in Sydney was much larger and contained 37,000 tons (37,600 t) of steel as compared to the 6,000 tons (16,250 t) used in the Bayonne Bridge. The Sydney Harbor Bridge was designated by ASCE as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1988.
The Bayonne Bridge officially opened to the public the following morning on November 15th, carrying a total of 17,019 cars and 6,933 pedestrians. The bridge cost $13 million dollars to construct and was completed several months ahead of schedule and $3 million under budget. A year after its opening, the Bayonne Bridge was awarded the prize of "the most beautiful bridge of steel erected last year" by the American Institute for Steel Construction. The Bayonne Bridge won the Class A category for structures costing more than $1 million to build, as picked by a jury of architects and engineers. The aesthetic beauty of the bridge's slender structural form enabled it to win this award of merit, ranking ahead of the other major bridges completed in 1931, which included the George Washington Bridge and the Anthony Wayne Bridge in Toledo, Ohio.
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