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… And New York …

March 2023
1min read

The photographer William Henry Jackson set up his camera in 1890 a continent away from the magnificent Western landscapes that had made him famous. He picked a spot just above 182nd Street on the west shore of New York City’s Harlem River and produced the view above. We are looking south toward two unusually significant bridges. The distant one is the earlier: High Bridge was built in 1848 by the indefatigable engineer John Jervis to carry the two big cast-iron pipes that would bring water to Manhattan from Croton.

With its fifteen masonry spans, Jervis’s twelve-hundred-foot bridge looks as noble as any of its Roman predecessors. It stood intact for seventy years, but in 1920 the War Department declared it a threat to navigation and called for its destruction. This sparked fierce public protest, and the issue was finally settled two years later when a 322-foot single span replaced five of the original arches. The uneasy marriage of two unrelated structures at least preserved some of the old stonework, and High Bridge survives today as the earliest bridge connecting Manhattan to the mainland.

Washington Bridge, in the foreground, opened just a year before Jackson took his picture, which shows one of the bridge’s two 510-foot river spans. The ambitious structure met with a blasé reception, and Scientific American complained that “a few years ago a single span of this length, save in a suspension bridge, would have been considered wonderful. At the present day we are inclined to the opposite extreme, and accept all engineering achievements with too little appreciation of their merits.”

Scientific American would have been impressed even more by the interloper: the Alexander Hamilton Bridge flung a fifteen-hundred-foot span across the river in 1964. It carries the Cross Bronx Expressway to Manhattan and is, according to Norval White and Elliot Willensky’s superb AIA Guide to New York City , “serviceable, but dull to look at.” Perhaps, but standing as it does with its stone and steel colleagues, it makes a brave show, one that offers up at a glance a century and a half of engineering history.

In 1920 the War Department started calling for the destruction of the handsome old bridge.

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