FreightWaves Classics is sponsored by Sutton Transport, an LTL leader in the Midwest for more than 40 years. Sutton Transport proudly services Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. Request a quote here.
Approximately 25,000 people attended the grand opening of the Mid-Hudson Bridge in southeastern New York on August 25, 1930, 92 years ago today.
The bridge, which is almost 3,000 feet in length, carries traffic over the Hudson River between the city of Poughkeepsie and the hamlet of Highland. When it was built it was the world’s sixth-longest suspension bridge.
State legislators J. Griswold Webb and John M. Hackett proposed the Mid-Hudson Bridge during the New York State Legislature’s 1923 session. At that time there was no fixed Hudson River crossing south of Albany that was open to automobile traffic, although two other vehicular crossings, the Bear Mountain Bridge and the Holland Tunnel, were under construction.
Citizens in the Poughkeepsie area and the Hudson Valley Bridge Association lobbied members of the legislature for a bridge. The association was composed of a broad cross-section of local leaders, ranging from businessmen to civic groups and area clergy.
The legislature passed the bill to create the bridge; Governor Alfred E. Smith signed the legislation in 1923, which appropriated $200,000 (about $3.5 million today) for “surveys, specifications and other preliminary work.”
The bridge’s design was awarded to the firm of Modjeski and Moran. Ralph Modjeski was “one of the most celebrated bridge designers in America in the 20th century.” He was familiar with the area because in 1907 he was in charge of a project that strengthened the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, which was a massive truss span that represented the best in design when it opened in 1888.
Modjeski used a gothic design for the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which represented state-of-the-art thinking in long-span suspension bridge design. Then and ever since the bridge has been praised. In his 1974 book “Bridges,” Daniel Plowden described the Mid-Hudson Bridge as “superbly beautiful…the span is one of the very finest American suspension bridges.”
Modjeski was also the engineer on the Mid-Hudson Bridge project; the bridge was constructed by the American Bridge Company of New York City.
Building the bridge
Initial test borings were made in May 1925, and the bridge’s cornerstone was placed on October 9, 1925. The bridge’s river piers were “built upon 200,000 pound caissons” (which are large watertight chambers that are open at the bottom; water is kept out by air pressure and construction work can be carried out under water). Concrete caissons have an upside-down U shape; the caissons for the Mid-Hudson Bridge were set into the Hudson’s riverbed with the open end facing straight down. Each caisson was equal in bulk to a 12-story building and weighed 66,000 tons. The earth below the caissons was dug out as weight was put on top of the caissons. They were pushed into the riverbed until they struck solid rock. The caissons were then sealed at the bottom so that workers could climb into them and complete the pier construction.
In this painstaking process, workers got into the pressurized cavity of the caisson and slowly removed the earth with pickaxes and shovels. The dirt and the men would leave the caisson through an airlock that ran from the top of the caisson to the work chamber.
However, a severe tilt developed in the east caisson on July 27, 1927; construction was stalled for a year. The caisson was then at a depth of 84 feet, and the structure was slowly shifted (18 inches per day). By using pulleys and dredging, the workers were able to shift the caisson upright, but the process took two years.
Construction of the bridge’s superstructure by the American Bridge Company began in April 1929. Once the caissons were firmly set, the 315-foot-tall steel towers, which were spaced 1,500 feet apart (the distance of the main suspension span), were erected. The exposed surfaces of the two Gothic towers were then encased in granite. After completing the towers, work began on spinning the two 16½-inch-diameter main cables (each of which was composed of 6,080 wires) and suspending cables. Once the cables were in place the truss-stiffened bridge deck was built. The superstructure was completed in 16 months.
Once completed the Mid-Hudson bridge connected Highland, in Ulster County on the western bank of the Hudson, and Poughkeepsie, in Dutchess County on the eastern bank of the river. The celebration of the bridge’s opening day was officiated by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, former Governor and Mrs. Smith and Poughkeepsie Mayor Lovelace.
The celebration included a parade, an official dedication ceremony in Poughkeepsie’s Union Square, a clambake, music, a dance and fireworks. The bridge’s formal dedication ceremonies began on the Poughkeepsie side. Smith, now a former governor, addressed those in attendance. Roosevelt, the incumbent governor (and future president), also spoke to the crowd. Following their addresses, Smith’s wife Catherine cut the ribbon on that side of the bridge.
The dignitaries then crossed to the Highland side of the bridge, where Smith and Roosevelt repeated their remarks for the crowd there. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor cut the ribbon on that side of the river.
The bridge was then opened to pedestrians for an hour before automobiles were allowed to start crossing it. On that first day, it was estimated that 12,000 automobiles and 30,000 pedestrians took advantage of the toll-free opportunity to cross the Mid-Hudson Bridge.
When the bridge opened to traffic, it had one lane in each direction, as well as a walkway for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The bridge’s original toll was 80 cents for automobiles, and 10 cents for pedestrians and cyclists.
In 1933, the newly formed New York State Bridge Authority, or NYSBA, acquired the bridge from the New York State Department of Public Works.
Upgrades and improvements to the bridge
The number of motorists on the United States’ roads and highways increased significantly after World War II. Therefore, the Mid-Hudson Bridge and its approaches have been modified several times. The first project took place in 1949; the eastern approach in Poughkeepsie was widened from two to three lanes and a third tollbooth was added to aid the flow of motorists through the toll plaza.
In 1960, the City of Poughkeepsie was assisted by NYSBA when it bought land for what became the Arterial Highway. The purpose of the roadway, which opened in September 1966, was to help traffic between the bridge and Poughkeepsie flow more smoothly.
In 1965 the state legislature authorized a loan of $1.5 million to NYSBA to build a new highway approach and toll plaza on the western side of the bridge. The new toll plaza opened in December 1967 and it was equipped with electro-mechanical toll collecting equipment.
The Mid-Hudson Bridge carries U.S. Route 44 and New York State Route 55 over the Hudson River. During the summer of 1983, the two-lane roadway on the bridge was widened to three lanes. At most times, one lane is open to traffic in each direction, while the center lane is closed. During rush hours, the dominant flow of traffic uses the center lane.
Beginning in 1987, the accumulated wear and tear on the bridge’s roadway caused the NYSBA to approve an extensive, two-year-long deck replacement project. Most of the work on the bridge was done at night; one lane of traffic was kept open and moved in alternating directions to keep interruption of traffic to a minimum.
To help facilitate under-bridge work and inspections, four “travelers” (large mobile platforms) were installed beneath the bridge’s decking girders. The platforms run between the anchorages, towers and mid-span, and when they are in use move at approximately two miles per hour for maintenance, repairs and inspections of the superstructure.
At midnight on March 31, 1999, the Mid-Hudson Bridge converted to the E-ZPass toll collection system. The system helped eliminate morning rush hour delays, which were between 12 and 18 minutes.
Later that year (on October 24, 1999), the Mid-Hudson Bridge Scenic Walkway was dedicated. A sidewalk ramp at the bridge’s eastern approach allows pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled access to the bridge from a local street in Poughkeepsie, which eliminated crossing a vehicle ramp from Route 9.
In 2000, a painting and steel repair project was begun. It involved lead paint abatement, maintenance scraping, painting and metalwork repairs below the bridge’s roadway. In addition, other projects, including anchorage dehumidification, repairs to the approach roadways and substructure repairs, were also completed in 2000.
During the summer of 2001, necklace lighting was installed on the bridge. Baker Engineering designed the system, which uses energy-efficient LED fixtures. More than 16.7 million colors and color-changing effects can be created. Custom light shows are created on a computer running special software.
During the 2009 Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial year, Joseph Bertolozzi composed a public sound-art installation, Bridge Music. It uses sounds recorded on the Mid-Hudson Bridge to create a suite of music. Those using the bridge’s pedestrian path can stop at listening stations from April through October.
Also in 2009, the nearby Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge was reopened. However, it is now the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge, and was renamed the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The two bridges comprise the “Walkway Loop Trail,” which allows pedestrians to walk along two beautiful, historic bridges.
The Mid-Hudson Bridge was honored in 1983 by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a New York State Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. As outlined above, projects have been undertaken to ensure the integrity of the bridge for decades to come.
In 1994, the New York State Legislature passed a resolution renaming the bridge the “Franklin D. Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge” in honor of the former Governor and President. The bridge was completed during his term and he also had a major role in the creation of the NYSBA.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the New York State Bridge Authority, Historic Bridges of the Hudson Valley, historicbridges.org, Modjeski and Masters, and others for information and photos that helped make this article possible.