In the latter half or the nineteenth century New York City' modern urban economic activity, centered on trade and manufacturing, was rapidly expanding and in need of additional space. To those in power, it was apparent that bridges must be built across the East River to Long Island.
The first of the four great bridges of this era united Manhattan with Brooklyn. Then, in 1902, Mayor Seth Low recruited noted bridge engineer Gustav Lindenthal to serve as the first Commissioner of the Department of Bridges. His mandate was to design a bridge that would link Manhattan and Queens and include a connection between the Harlem River rail line at East 59th Street with theLong Island Railroad. Lindenthal proposed a cantilever design. This style is economical to build and allows for the construction of very long spans with wide clearances beneath.
In 1903, working with Leffert L. Buck and Henry Hornbostel, designers of the Williamsburg Bridge, Lindenthal unveiled the final design of two long spans of uneven length, each anchored on opposite sides of the East River with a short connecting span extending over Blackwell'sIsland (now Roosevelt Island).
Lindenthal and Hornbostel shared the view that the design for any structure should be a fusion of art and engineering. Thus, spans were designed to curve gracefully over the deck and small architectural details were attached throughout the structure. Four 350 foot towers topped with decorative spires, two on Roosevelt and one each in Manhattan and Queens, supported the deck of the bridge. The chords of the cantilevers are connected by series of steel eye-bars. At the Manhattan approach, two elegant 18 feet bronze torchieres flanked the entrance.
Construction began but problematic events haunted the project: When George McClellan was elected mayor in 1904, he removed Lindenthal as Commissioner; prominent business leaders battled over the Beau Arts design of the bridge; labor disputes slowed the work; a section of the bridge blew down in a wind storm; a similar type of bridge under construction in Quebec collapsed, and the Pennsylvania Steel Company illegally added tons of extra steel to increase its profit. It wasn't until the additional steel beams were removed and outside engineers finally certified its safety that the bridge was completed.
In 1908, the bridge sections were linked and a year later on March 30, the bridge unofficially opened having cost $20,000,000 and 50 worker lives. In June of 1909, the official bridge opening took place. It was a spectacular, week-long, celebration filled with parades, fireworks, theatrical performances, circuses, a marathon and other athletic contests.
Over the years, the bridge's decks were altered or reconfigured to meet the evolving traffic requirements of the region. Originally the upper deck held two rail tracks and a like number of vehicular and pedestrian lanes. The lower deck had two trolley and four vehicle lanes. All the original elevated train rail tracks were removed by 1942 and the trolley service ceased by 1958. Additional lanes were added for vehicles but still remaining, on the north side of the lower deck, is a pedestrian walk which offers grand views of the City