2008-04-23 / Book Review

The 'Queensboro Bridge' Tells Span's Story


The Queensboro Bridge
The Greater Astoria Historical Society and the
Roosevelt Island Historical Society
ISBN: 073855488X
128 pages
Published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its Images of
America Series

Without the Queensboro Bridge, the borough we know today would not exist. Before the bridge opened in 1909, although Newtown creek was fully industrialized and the Steinway piano factory complex of factories and a largely self-contained village of worker housing, churches and appurtenant facilities occupied 400 Astoria acres, Queens was mostly woods and farmland, with small clusters of villages and small towns scattered about this bucolic landscape. Within 10 years of the bridge's completion, the population of Queens had nearly doubled, from 275,000 to half a million people. Almost a century after the bridge opened, some 2 million people from all corners of the world now call Queens home. It is entirely reasonable to assume that if the bridge were not here, neither would a sizable portion of the borough's inhabitants. The bridge exists because of Queens and Queens exists because of the bridge- a symbiotic relationship.

The Queensboro Bridge, among the latest additions to Arcadia Publishing's Images of America Series, jointly authored by the Greater Astoria and Roosevelt Island Historical Societies, explores this relationship in 128 pages, six chapters and a plethora of photographs from public and private collections. The stories and images of how the bridge came to be built, the process of its construction, the celebrations that heralded its opening and its impact on Queens and the entire New york City region are meticulously detailed.

"To understand the appeal of the structure is to know the forces which caused its creation," the Introduction states. Chapter 1. Dr. Rainey's Dream, begins with the same sentence and goes on to detail the civic groups that lobbied for construction of a bridge linking Queens and Manhattan, even before the consolidation of New York City in 1898. Dr. Thomas C. Rainey who for 40 years lobbied for the construction of the bridge and ultimately saw it built, is introduced in a caption of a photograph, not in the introductory text of the chapter which bears his name, an interesting way of getting the reader involved with the subject matter. Each of the chapters that follow: Building the Bridge, celebration, Transportation, The Queensboro Bridge and Queens Borough and The First century, employ the same technique. The reader must do more than read the text under the chapter heading and leaf through the pictures. This is an intriguing way to ensure the reader's continued interest, but demonstrates a problem common to all the books in the Images of America series, and, indeed, many other Arcadia Publications productions- these books could really use an index. Nevertheless, the cast of characters who made the Queensboro Bridge come into being are all presented here: Rainey, Gustav Lindenthal and Henry Hornbostel, as well as the politicians who encouraged them or else, such as the case of Lindenthal and Mayor George McClellan, took them off the project altogether. (McClellan, however, deserves credit for giving the bridge its name, changing it from Blackwell's Island Bridge, which the structure was originally called.)

Fifty workmen died in the course of constructing the eye-beam and pin structure, which cost $20 million in 190. On Mar. 30, 1909, however, the bridge officially opened to the public. Once warmer weather set in, a week-long celebration was held in June of that same year, and the book shows many pictures of the souvenirs that heralded the event.

The chapter titled Transportation notes the number and kind of vehicles that crossed the bridge. From the day it opened, the bridge has served as a bellwether of transportation modes. In 1909, horsedrawn vehicles made up most of the bridge traffic; in only a few short years horses were replace by gasoline-powered conveyances. Electric trolleys seemed likely to serve as the main mode of passenger transportation across the bridge in both directions forever, but in a matter of decades were replaced by buses and subways. Still, "the more things change, the more they stay the same"- however people and goods are transported across the bridge, traffic continues to increase. The bridge also reflects changing times: only one pedestrian walkway spans the bridge today where once there were four, and once a storehouse building permitted cars, trucks and ambulances to take a vehicle elevator from the bridge to the hospitals and other institutions on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island; few traces of it exist today.

Again, the reader must peruse this book diligently to extrapolate information. While a valuable reference work, The Queensboro Bridge also could use a little more attribution. The sentence including "to paraphrase Andy Rooney, 'who spanned the river with a poem'," sounds like no quote by Andy Rooney we ever heard of. This is especially unfortunate, because the passage concludes the last caption in the book, one under an evocative shot of the bridge at dawn with the rising sun burning off the fog shrouding its latticework of girders, "Why don't people realize how romantic that corny bridge is?" muses fictional detective Sidney "Silky" Pincus in Leo Rosten's eponymous novel, an encomium we think is closer to the truth.

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