Bridges of New York: Spanning the Hell Gate

New York City is a city of landmark bridges. One hundred years ago this month, Hell Gate Bridge joined the New York skyline as the longest steel arch bridge in the world. The engineering feat attracted the attention of news photographers, as high over the treacherous strait known as Hell Gate in the East River, New Yorkers observed the progress of two large cranes creeping toward each other until they finally connected the arch. The cranes are lifting the final steel pieces in the photo below. Noted bridge designer Gustav Lindenthal’s engineering of Hell Gate was so accurate that adjustments of only 5/16 of an inch were required when the two spans finally met and the arch became self-supporting.

Completing Hell Gate Bridge. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1915. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.20015

Completing Hell Gate Bridge. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1915. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.20015

Hell Gate Bridge is a railroad bridge, and a peek through the arch of one of the masonry towers shows track being laid along the approach to the bridge:

Hell Gate Bridge. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1915. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.23946

Hell Gate Bridge. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1915. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.23946

In the photo below, Chief Engineer Lindenthal (center, no hat) and his team, including at his right, his assistant Othmar Ammann, pose with the nearly finished bridge. Ammann would go on to an illustrious career designing bridges as well, and the efforts of these two men resulted in ten of the best known bridges connecting New York to the rest of the world. Many of these bridges set records when built, pushing the boundaries of engineering and advancing bridge design around the world.

Hell Gate Bridge, Oct. 11, 1916. Photo copyrighted by B. Hellmich, 1916 Nov. 6. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b24235

Hell Gate Bridge, Oct. 11, 1916. Photo copyrighted by B. Hellmich, 1916 Nov. 6. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b24235

The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) contains documentation of thousands of engineering accomplishments, including many bridges. The two HAER photos below feature two examples of master bridge-builder Ammann’s later work in New York. The Bayonne Bridge took the title of longest steel arch bridge from Hell Gate when it was built in 1931. And in the second photo, you can see both the Hell Gate Bridge and its nearest neighbor, Ammann’s Triborough Bridge (now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge).

General view looking southwest. - Bayonne Bridge, Spanning Kill Van Kull between Bayonne & Staten Island, Bayonne, Hudson County, NJ. Photo by Jet Lowe for HAER, Spring 1985. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.nj1025/photos.112876p

General view looking southwest. – Bayonne Bridge, Spanning Kill Van Kull between Bayonne & Staten Island, Bayonne, Hudson County, NJ. Photo by Jet Lowe for HAER, Spring 1985. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.nj1025/photos.112876p

TRIBOROUGH SUSPENSION BRIDGE, QUEENS APPROACH. - Triborough Bridge, Passing through Queens, Manhattan & the Bronx, Queens (subdivision), Queens County, NY. Photo by Jet Lowe for HAER, October 1991. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny1799/photos.351352p

TRIBOROUGH SUSPENSION BRIDGE, QUEENS APPROACH. – Triborough Bridge, Passing through Queens, Manhattan & the Bronx, Queens (subdivision), Queens County, NY. Photo by Jet Lowe for HAER, October 1991. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny1799/photos.351352p

QUEENSBORO BRIDGE CROSSING THE EAST RIVER FROM BROOKLYN TO MANHATTAN OVER BLACKWELL (ROOSEVELT) ISLAND - Queensboro Bridge, Spanning East river & Blackwell's Island, New York County, NY. Photo by Jet Lowe for HAER, 1970 or 1978. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny0326/photos.348967p

QUEENSBORO BRIDGE CROSSING THE EAST RIVER FROM BROOKLYN TO MANHATTAN OVER BLACKWELL (ROOSEVELT) ISLAND – Queensboro Bridge, Spanning East river & Blackwell’s Island, New York County, NY. Photo by Jet Lowe for HAER, 1970 or 1978. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny0326/photos.348967p

The photo documentation of the Hell Gate Bridge spans two strengths of Prints and Photographs Division collections: photojournalism and architecture, design and engineering records. But the bridge inspired graphic artists, as well. Stay tuned for what turned up on the Hell Gate bridge in my search of our fine prints and drawings collections!

Learn More:

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge as the John F. Kennedy Bridge.

5 Comments

  1. Zal Lazkovich
    March 3, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Fascinating story and even more fascinating are the photos.
    Thank you!!!

  2. Bill Breen
    March 3, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Great story; one small correction. TheTriboro is now the RFK, not the JFK.

  3. Tim Gillespie
    March 9, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    Senator Moynihan found funding to repair and paint the Hellgate bridge (Tuscan Red) in the early 1990’s after Amtrak indicated that it did not have the resources to do so.

  4. Dave
    March 15, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    I hate these Stupid name changes. It will Always be TRIBOROUGH BRIDGE!

  5. https://getasmurf.com
    March 17, 2017 at 7:57 am

    Hi, It’s really awesome, What are the photos, Looking very good with the construction work of these bridges, I appreciate this.

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