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FreightWaves Classics: Connecting Staten Island to the rest of New York City

The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. (Photo: New York City Parks)

Four of the five boroughs of New York City are islands or are connected to an island.  There are Manhattan Island and Staten Island of course, but Queens and Brooklyn are both located on Long Island. The Bronx is the only borough that is connected to New York State’s mainland.


Whether you drive a truck, car or motorcycle, you will use bridges and/or tunnels to navigate New York City, which is home to over 2,000 bridges and tunnels! A number of governmental agencies manage this network, including the New York City Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New York State Department of Transportation and Amtrak.

A rendering of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. (Image: ASCE Library)
A rendering of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. (Image: ASCE Library)

Many of the city’s key bridges and tunnels broke or set records when they opened. Examples include the Holland Tunnel, which was the world’s first mechanically ventilated underwater vehicular tunnel when it opened in 1927. At the time they opened, several of New York’s bridges set records for the world’s longest suspension bridges. These include the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), Williamsburg Bridge (1903), George Washington Bridge (1931) and Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge (1964).

New York’s bridges are of many lengths and types. They transport cars, trucks and buses, bicycles, pedestrians and subways. The world’s busiest bridge (in vehicular traffic) is the George Washington Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River between New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey. It, the Verrazzano-Narrows and Brooklyn Bridge are also hailed for their architecture; others for their functional importance, such as the Williamsburg Bridge. It has eight lanes for motor vehicles, two subway tracks, a bike lane and pedestrian walkways.

The first bridge in New York City was constructed in 1693. Named the King’s Bridge, it was built in 1693 over Spuyten Duyvil Creek between Manhattan and the Bronx. Built of stone abutments and with a timber deck, it lasted 224 years before being demolished in 1917. High Bridge is New York City’s oldest bridge that is still standing. It was built in 1848 to carry water to the city as part of the Croton Aqueduct system. High Bridge transports water from Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River. 

Drawings of key U.S. bridges, with the proposed "Narrows Bridge" at top. (Image: Brooklyn Public Library)
Drawings of key U.S. bridges, with the proposed “Narrows Bridge” at top. (Image: Brooklyn Public Library)

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge was one of the world’s most impressive bridges when it opened in 1883 (and still is). In a six-year span (1903-09), the Brooklyn Bridge was joined by three other bridges that spanned the East River – the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Queensborough Bridge (now known as the Ed Koch Bridge). While those bridges provided access to Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens, the area where New York’s waterways meet the Atlantic Ocean remained without a bridge, leaving Staten Island isolated. That took more than 50 years to change; but when the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964, it connected the Bay Ridge neighborhood of southern Brooklyn to Staten Island just south of Fort Wadsworth.

The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. (Photo: New York State Senate)
The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. (Photo: New York State Senate)

August 13, 1959

It was on this day 62 years ago that the groundbreaking ceremony was held for the bridge that would finally provide a vehicular connection between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island. It crosses a tidal strait in New York Harbor known as The Narrows. The bridge is named for The Narrows and Giovanni de Verrazzano, an Italian explorer who was the first European to sail into New York Harbor (in 1524).

The ceremony was attended by about 1,000 people and took place at Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth; it lasted about an hour. Fort Wadsworth would be the western terminus of the bridge. 

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1959. (Photo: viewingnyc)
The groundbreaking ceremony for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1959. (Photo: viewingnyc)

Among the dignitaries at the event were: New Jersey Governor Robert B. Meyner; New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.; Albert V. Maniscalco, borough president of Staten Island; Robert Moses, chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority; and S. Sloan Colt, chairman of the Port of New York Authority. 

At that time, there were no major environmental or property disputes regarding the bridge. However, there were disputes over what to name the bridge! Some wanted the structure to be named simply the Narrows Bridge. Others wanted the bridge to be named for Staten Island. However, the most heated part of the controversy was that there was only one ‘Z’ in the spelling of Verrazzano in the ceremony program and other official documents – even though the explorer for whom the bridge was named had two Zs in his last name. The mistake was traced to a typo in the original construction contract for the bridge. However, it was not rectified until 2018, when former Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law…

The speakers on August 13, 1959 steered clear of the naming controversies; instead they focused on the benefits that the bridge would make possible when it linked Staten Island with the other boroughs. Maniscalco said, “Now we are on our way to surmounting the barrier of isolation, isolated from the rest of the city. This bridge will be as mighty a factor in shaping Staten Island’s history as was nature herself.”

Autos cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on its opening day in 1964. (Photo: WNYC)
Autos cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on its opening day in 1964. (Photo: WNYC)

It took slightly more than five years for the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to be built. It opened to traffic during a dedication ceremony in the fall of 1964. Mayor Wagner cut the ribbon at the ceremony, and also read a telegram from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wrote the bridge was “a structure of breathtaking beauty and superb engineering.”

When it opened, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, running over two miles from one end to the other. While newer bridges around the world have surpassed it (it’s now 13th in length), it still has the longest main span in the Americas (4,260 feet). 

Today, some 57 years later, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is a major link in the Interstate Highway System in the eastern U.S.; a key part of Interstate 278. The bridge is double-decked, with seven traffic lanes on its upper level (three in each direction and one reversible HOV lane) The lower level of the bridge carries six lanes of traffic (three in each direction). 

Perhaps more importantly for Staten Island, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connects the island with the other boroughs of New York City and has helped increase development in the borough since it opened.

A stamp issued to commemorate the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. (Image: USPS)
A stamp issued to commemorate the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Note the stamp has only one ‘Z’ in Verrazzano. (Image: USPS)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.