The world’s most heavily traveled bridge, the George Washington is crossed by 108 million vehicles annually.

Two years after Henry Ford introduced the first mass-produced car in 1908, 485,000 cars were registered in America, a number that skyrocketed by 1929 to 26.7 million. Nowhere was vehicular congestion greater than in the booming metropolis of Manhattan. Visionary engineers imagined a Hudson River crossing for nearly a century before the George Washington Bridge was finally realized.

Designed by Othmar Ammann, the bridge was completed in four years, under budget and ahead of schedule. At its 1931 dedication, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York, described it as “almost superhuman in perfection.” Ammann conceived its bold span, twice as long as any built previously, in a way that fundamentally changed how suspension spans were designed.

The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world…. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city.. Here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh.



Ammann’s bridge, like his campaign to obtain the commission, was meticulously planned. To build it, he had to navigate dense political and professional machinations. Unlike his mentor, master bridge builder Gustav Lindenthal (see here), he realized that cars, not trains, were the future. He proposed the bridge to the agency formed in 1921 to manage the region’s transportation network, which came to be called the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Known locally as the George, the GWB, or simply the GW, the bridge succeeded technically, aesthetically, financially, and geographically. It proved Ammann’s “deflection” theory: properly configured, the dead load of the suspended deck and cables would be sufficient to resist heavy winds. His theory revolutionized long-span design by eliminating the need for heavy and costly stiffening trusses, resulting in an elegant span that was both strong and economical. Its location was also a stroke of genius. It crosses the Hudson between West 178th Street in New York and Fort Lee in New Jersey, where the river is narrowest, simplifying construction, and the ground is elevated, eliminating the need for long approaches.

Ammann also planned for the bridge’s future growth: In 1946 the original six traffic lanes were increased to eight, using an area left for that purpose. Fourteen lanes became available in 1962, when a lower level, also calculated into the original design, was added. In fact, the structure is so strong that engineers believe it could carry a third deck. Four giant cables, 3 feet (0.9 meters) in diameter, each contain a bundle of 26,424 wires. The cables loop back and forth across the river sixty-one times, wrapping around a strand shoe in the anchorage before looping back to the opposite shore. It is also beautiful, sweeping across the river in one graceful curve. As Ammann put it, “It is a crime to build an ugly bridge.”

Othmar Hermann Ammann (1879-1965), the gifted Swiss-born designer of the longest suspension spans ever built, emigrated to New York in 1904. He served as the Port Authority’s chief engineer from 1930 to 1937 and as director of engineering from 1937 to 1939, before opening his own firm. His six major bridges in the metropolitan region are the GWB, Bayonne (1931), Triborough (1936; later renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge), Bronx Whitestone (1939),

Throgs Neck (1961), and Verrazano-Narrows (1964). RIGHT: A view from the top of the GWB’s New Jersey tower.

Within six years, the title of world’s longest suspended span would be claimed by the Golden Gate (see here), to be superseded in 1957 by the Mackinac (see here), and handed back to Ammann in 1964 with the completion of his last great bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows, which remains North America’s longest suspension bridge. Long vistas of the George Washington Bridge can be seen from the West Side Highway, revealing the elemental power of the structure, indisputably the masterwork of a master.

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