On March 9, 1892, New York State Governor Roswell Flower signed a bill incorporating the East River Bridge Company, giving it the right to construct two bridges across the East River between Williamsburg and Manhattan. The president of the East River Bridge Company was Frederick Uhlman, who intended to connect the bridge with elevated railroads so passengers would not have to transfer to a ferry to travel into Manhattan. A bill authorizing the construction of the bridge was signed into law on May 27, 1895.
Although a number of engineers were involved with various concepts and designs for the bridge, the design is attributed to Leffert Lefferts Buck, one of the leading bridge engineers of the time. On August 2, 1895, Buck was selected by the East River Bridge Commission to be the chief engineer for the new bridge. At the time, Buck was 55 years old, having fought in the American Civil War before earning a civil engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. O.F. Nichols was appointed principal assistant to the chief engineer on February 5, 1896. The final plans for the bridge were submitted in May 1897.
The Williamsburg Bridge was the first bridge to use steel instead of masonry towers. Buck recommended the use of steel towers because they would reduce the size of the foundations, could be reinforced if needed at a later date, would be quicker to build, and would cost less than masonry towers. Each tower is 333 feet (101 m) high and contains 3,048 tons (2,765 t) of steel placed on a solid bedrock foundation. The use of steel towers became a standard for future suspension bridges.
Among existing suspension bridges, the design of the Williamsburg Bridge is unique in that no weight is carried by the main cables between the towers and anchorages (similar to Roebling's Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, which stood from 1855 to 1897). The bridge deck was supported by truss work in these locations to reduce the overall cost (shortening the distances between anchorages and allowing lighter cables to be used) and to eliminate the bridge deck from being suspended at both of its ends.
The Williamsburg Bridge was the heaviest loaded bridge after it opened, with four streetcar tracks, two elevated railway tracks (later used by subway trains), two-lane roadways on each side (cantilevered outside the trusses), and footpaths and bicycle paths (above the trolley tracks). It was the last major suspension bridge to have its stiffening trusses designed by the elastic method first proposed by Rankine. The stiffening trusses are 40 feet (12 m) deep, designed to support the rail traffic on the deck. The overall width of the bridge is 118 feet (36 m), over 30 feet (9 m) wider than the Brooklyn Bridge, with double the load carrying capacity.
Construction of the bridge began on October 28, 1896 with the foundation for the Manhattan tower. Cable spinning began on November 27, 1901 and was completed on June 27, 1902. As the construction was nearing completion, a fire broke out in a worker's shack on top of the bridge's Manhattan tower on the afternoon of November 10, 1902, causing damage to some of the wires in the main cables at the saddles. Although testing indicated that the wires nearly retained all of their strength and were still stronger than required, approximately 500 wires were replaced and spliced together with the portions that were undamaged.
When Gustav Lindenthal was appointed as New York City's bridge commissioner in 1902, he had reservations about the design and appearance of the bridge, but it was too far along in construction to make major changes. Leffert Buck's title was changed to consulting engineer and Lindenthal commissioned architect Henry Hornbostel to add some aesthetic improvements.
The Williamsburg Bridge was formally opened on the afternoon of December 19, 1903 to horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians (trains did not begin crossing the bridge until 1908). Although the footpaths were not completed until April 24, 1904, the bridge was opened at the request of Mayor Seth Low before he left office. The bridge's opening was celebrated by parades in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a parade of 200 ships down the East River, and a fireworks display. The bridge cost $24 million, nearly $1 million less than the Brooklyn Bridge, and was built in seven years, compared to the thirteen years required by its predecessor.
Less then ten years after the bridge opened, engineers noticed that the bridge would sag under the weight of heavy traffic. The bridge was subsequently modified to accommodate heavier 10-car, all-steel trains and motor vehicles. The trolley tracks on the north side of the bridge were replaced with roadways for automobiles in 1935, followed by the conversion of the trolley tracks on the south side of the bridge in 1947.
On April 12, 1988, the bridge was closed to motor vehicles and subways for safety concerns after an inspection revealed that some of the steel beams in the roadbed structure were severely corroded, the result of the corrosive salt water environment combined with years of deferred maintenance during the city's fiscal crisis. Detailed inspections followed and the bridge was gradually opened to cars, subways, and trucks within a few months after it was found that the problems could be repaired. Meanwhile, other studies were being made to determine if the bridge should be rehabilitated or replaced altogether. It was ultimately decided to keep the bridge and a 15-year reconstruction project began in 1991.
The Williamsburg Bridge was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by ASCE in 2009. A bronze plaque is located on the Manhattan approach near the start of the pedestrian/bicycle path and the intersection of Clinton Street and Delancey Street.
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