The Whitestone Bridge – An Engineering Masterpiece

  • From an idea conceived in 1905 the bridge was approved in 1937 and finished in 1939, taking 23 months to build at a cost of $19.7m.
  • Lessons learned from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in 1940 probably avoided a similar disaster.
  • The introduction of lightweight fibreglass fairing changed the dynamics of the bridge and cut 6000 tonnes from its weight.

The Whitestone Bridge (also referred to as the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge) is a suspension bridge in New York City which connects the borough of Queens, Long Island to the Bronx on the United States mainland. It is now an integral part of the landscape and the value of his engineering masterpiece can literally be measured in enhanced economic activity in the region.Whitestone Bridge

The idea of a bridge between the Bronx and Queens

Despite the fact the Whitestone Bridge is now a vital part of the area the idea was originally floated back in 1905 yet the bridge itself did not open until 29 April 1939. There were a number of reasons for the delay but the most resistance came from the local community who were scared they would lose the “rural feel” of the area. However, in reality the Whitestone Bridge was not without controversy and the fact it was built in just 23 months demonstrates the amazing speed of construction.

Art deco engineering at its best

The bridge was designed by Othmar Ammann and was certainly groundbreaking in its day. The structure itself is 3770 feet (1150 m) in length, supported by two 377 feet (115 m) towers with an amazing central span of 2300 feet (700 m). Each of the towers is extremely distinctive with no stiffening truss system or diagonal cross bracing instead using I-beam girders. While the bridge may blend into the modern day environment we can only imagine how groundbreaking it must have been back in the 1930s.

It was also interesting to see that Robert Moses, the master planner of New York City at the time, had this to say about the bridge when he cut the ribbon:-

“The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge is architecturally the finest suspension bridge of them all, without comparison in cleanliness and simplicity of design, in lightness and absence of pretentious ornamentation. Here, if anywhere, we have pure, functional architecture.”

When you bear in mind how difficult the modern day relationship between design engineers and planning officers can be, this is some seal of approval!

Opening of the bridge

The Whitestone Bridge opened on 29 April 1939 in a flurry of ceremony led by the Mayor of New York City. Originally the bridge offered four lanes of traffic as well as pedestrian walks but the pedestrian walkways were removed in 1943 to insert two further traffic lanes. This seemed to go against the original planning permission which had also included plans for rail access but this idea was later removed. However, while the opening of the bridge led to much backslapping, applause and appreciation, what lay ahead surprised many.

Design flaws and changes

The original Whitestone Bridge cost $19.7 million to construct and in reality it was worth every cent for the economy in the region. Unfortunately, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940 led to some serious rethinking about the then distinctive look of the bridge. It soon became obvious that the I-beam girder design needed to be revised as this was central to the disastrous collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. In 1940 it was decided that a total of eight stay cables would be added to the support towers to give greater stability in high winds. Without this particular addition to the original design it would likely have been just a matter of time before the Whitestone Bridge experienced a similar fate to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

As we touched on above, as the bridge continued to attract more and more traffic it became obvious that the pedestrian walkways would need to go. These were replaced in 1943 by two traffic lanes with additional steel trusses installed to stiffen the bridge and reduce the chances of wind oscillation. In 2003 the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided to revert back to the original classic design replacing the stiffening trusses with lightweight fibreglass fairing used to refine the aerodynamic profile. The fibreglass fairing effectively sliced through the wind thereby offering greater stability for the bridge and losing 6000 tonnes of material in the process!

It is also worth noting that back in 1959 the Whitestone Bridge was reclassified from a Parkway to an Expressway thereby allowing it to join the interstate system.

whitestone bridge traffic

Today the Whitestone Bridge services more than 40 million vehicles per annum. (Image © Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York)

The Whitestone Bridge today

Back in the 1960s the bridge was carrying around 30 million vehicles per year which prompted the building of the Throgs Next Bridge to reduce congestion. However, by the 1970s the benefits of the new bridge reduced and today Whitestone Bridge services more than 40 million vehicles per annum. Over the years there have been various repairs and adjustments to the bridge and anyone travelling in the area will know if even one of the traffic lanes is closed!

The idea for the bridge was originally conceived back in 1905, approved in 1937 and opened in 1939. The Whitestone Bridge is a perfect example of a well-oiled project even if some elements had to be changed further down the line. While hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on repair and reconstruction over the years the value to the region cannot be quantified.

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