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When New York City Correction employees refer at work to "The Bridge" without identifying it further, they mean the Rikers span that opened in 1966 and was named 12 years later in memory of the island's supervising warden, Francis R. Buono.

The help of the Municipal Archives, whose digital image of the bridge under construction over Blackwell's Island appears top right, and the Municipal Reference and Research Center (library), from whose vertical files came the other images, is gratefully acknowledged. Likewise, the informational help of the Queens Borough President's Office and the city Department of Transportation is much appreciated.

Thomas McCarthy,
NYC DOC Director,
Editorial/Communication Services

But long before that, another span held sway in DOC's lexicon as "The Bridge" -- the Queensboro.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of R. S. Buck's submission of the design that, with modifications, eventually transformed into steel and masonry and, in turn, transformed a county of rural towns and villages into a thoroughly urbanized borough of Greater New York City.

At its beginning the structure was called Blackwell's Bridge because its mid-river supporting piers rise up from that island where for so many decades the city's major correctional and public health institutions were situated.

Later the sliver of East River land was renamed Welfare Island; still later, Roosevelt Island.

Bridge Elevators for Blackwell's Inmates and Patients

Besides linking Manhattan and Queens, the bridge provided pedestrian and vehicular access to and from Blackwell's Island. The supporting piers on the island originally included stairways and elevators. Later, an even larger elevator structure was erected. Transports, some with patients and their medical attendants or with inmates and their keepers, would be lowered from the bridge roadway, or raised to it. This was especially useful when river conditions interfered with normal steamboat or ferry service.

An period illustration entitled "The Blackwell's Island or Queensboro Bridge" depicts a steamer and sailing ship passing beneath the structure. Source: Municipal Reference Library vertical file.

In its current incarnation, the island no longer has any jails and only one Health and Hospitals Corp. institution, Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital, where Correction keeps a small unit for terminally-ill inmates.

Prior to the bridge being built, people traveling between Queens and Manhattan used ferries to cross the East River. For example, a Manhattan-bound commuter from Queens boarded a ferry at Borden Avenue and disembarked at 34th Street, or boarded at Astoria Boulevard and disembarked at 92nd Street.

When John Roebling in 1856 discussed with New York business leaders building a bridge across the East River, his preferred site was Blackwell's: "No other part of the East River offers a locality so favorable to bridging."

Instead of having to construct a challengingly long suspension bridge over a wide continuous expanse of water, the builders could more easily manage erecting and connecting, in effect, two shorter non-suspension bridges, using Blackwell's as the common ground for both. Bridges routed through Blackwell's Island had been recurring subjects of interest to newspapers, politicians and businessmen at least as far back as the 1830s. The idea had particular attraction to Long Island Railroad executives and others who envisioned such a span as the key to the development of Long Island. But attempts to bring the Queens bridge concept to reality encountered so many financial and political problems that Roebling eventually suggested a Brooklyn linkage as an alternative.

Blackwell Bridge Backer: Piano-maker Steinway

While a span linking New York and Kings Counties presented a more difficult engineering challenge (one that Roebling magnificently mastered), it offered greater incentives for deal makers to move the project forward. Thus, while both camps of bridge backers received their state charters the same day -- April 16, 1867 -- the Brooklyn plan steadily advanced while the Queens idea seemed to suffer one disappointment after another. One such setback occurred 10 years after the New York and Long Island Bridge Co. received its charter: the most influential backer William Steinway, famed piano manufacturer, resigned as chairman. That happened the same year the city formally received first submission of the Blackwell's bridge-building plan.

By the time the contract to start work on the NY-LI structure was awarded, March 25, 1881, construction on the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly complete. Not long after work began on the Queens pier for Blackwell's Bridge, funds ran out. Construction did not resume until 1895 but then soon shut down again. Court cases and the passing of Long Island Railroad president Austin Corbin, a major backer, were factors adding further delays.

An even earlier period illustration shows how engineer Walter J. Morris envisioned "The New York And Long Island Bridge over the East River at Blackwell's Island" as a suspension span. Source: Municipal Reference Library vertical file.

The 1898 emergence of New York City as a five-borough municipality spurred its taking over the Blackwell's Bridge project. Buck's 1899 design called for a span 120 feet wide to allow for two carriageways, two pedestrian paths, four trolley tracks and two railroad lines. The Corps of Engineers took two years before approving the design. Work on the six masonry piers was started in June, 1901.

In 1902, reform fusion Mayor Seth Low appointed Gustav Lindenthal as bridge commissioner. In turn, he hired leading architect Henry Hornbostel to collaborate with him on modifying the Buck design. They cut the width to 80 feet and added a second deck, a move that eventually made the Blackwell's Island/Queensboro Bridge the city's first double-decker span. Their design provided for a "through-type" cantilever structure extending more than 7,000 feet from 60th Street in Manhattan to Crescent Street in Long Island City, with a clear height of 135 feet.

The contract for design and construction of the superstructure based on their revisions was awarded to the Pennsylvania Steel Co. in November 1903. The configuration for the roadway consisted of four elevated tracks on the upper deck between the trusses. Two footwalks were to be set on brackets on the outside of the trusses. The lower deck had four trolley tracks and a roadway three dozen feet wide, considered roomy enough to permit four three-horse teams to pass abreast.

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Shuttle Trolley Fare Across the Bridge: 3 Cents

A Quebec bridge collapse in 1908 prompted a precautionary review of the Queensboro Bridge under construction. The bridge department reduced the roadway paving loads, cut two elevated tracks and made other modifications. The $18 million construction project was completed in March 1909, and the bridge officially opened that June 18.

A larger version of the Dept. of Records and Information Services photo (top right) showing the bridge construction -- taken Aug. 8, 1907, from the Queens shore looking towards Blackwell's Island -- can been accessed on the NYC web site. Use your browser's go-to-previous page icon to return here. Double-click for larger photo. For more details about the bridge's history, go to the NYC Transportation Dept. site.

A Queensboro Bridge Railway began shuttle trolley service across the span in September, charging a fare of three cents one way and five cents round trip.

Bridge modifications have continued throughout its nearly 100 years. Here are a few examples among many:

In 1916, some trolley tracks were removed, and the entire width of the main lower deck roadway was made available for vehicular traffic. In 1929 the upper level sidewalk was replaced with a two-lane roadway. The elevated train service ceased in 1942. Trolley service was completely discontinued in 1957.

Another feature of the Blackwell's Bridge that has faded into history was its unusual elevator service. Besides its huge 10-story shaft, the elevator building complex had included a small emergency ward and a dispatching office.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: We gratefully acknowledge NYC DOC's permission to post here material used in creating the original version of the NYC DOC web page posted on NYC LINK.
-- Thomas McCarthy, NYCHS webmaster