2016-05-18 / Front Page

Gustav Lindenthal: Bridge Builder To The Twenty-First Century

By F. E. Scanlon

No matter what the weather, no matter what's on, no matter what's up, this Saturday you
have a date with Gustav Lindenthal, the Immigrant Dream Merchant of the Nineteenth Century who really did imagine and build the Bridge of the Twentieth Century and beyond: 

Celebrate the soaring visionary who eclipsed long odds and honor his one hundred and
sixteenth Birthday [May 21, 1850].

Self-made by all accounts, this eldest son of a large family, from the province of Moravia
(then Austria-Hungary), Lindenthal was put to work at the age of 14 or so as a mason and
carpenter.  By 1874 he had emigrated to America and set about to build the American Dream
for all.
 
There may well be Seven Wonders of the World, but New York's eight bridges - that
cross the East River - surely rank right up there with the best of them.  One you may
have crossed over and still over-looked.  It has the words - "'East River Arch Bridge" -
appearing on a bronze plaque at the base of its east tower.  Forever it will be called
the Hell Gate Bridge.  A corruption of the Dutch word - hellegat (or hell channel) -
used by Dutch sailors to describe the hazardous waterway, convulsing with powerful
tides and treacherous waters thereunder, it spans the Astoria section of Queens and
Ward's Island.  Currently all passenger trains between New York and New England
traverse the Hell Gate (a/k/a the New York Connecting Railroad Bridge), a key link
in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's most heavily travelled route.

Within three days after its debut in 1917, the then-longest, heaviest and strongest
steel-arch bridge in the world, it was put to use in the transport of soldiers and freight
along the seaboard, as the United States - on April 6 - declared war on the Central Powers.

Self-taught in mathematics, engineering theory, metallurgy, hydraulics, estimating,
management, etc., Lindenthal served as the Commissioner of the New York City Department
of Bridges form 1902 through 1904.  As Commissioner, he prepared plans for the Manhattan
Bridge, completed the Williamsburg Bridge, and directed re-construction of the Brooklyn
Bridge, which will celebrate its 133rd birthday on May 24th.  Lindenthal dreamed big dreams, and built great bridges as exemplified by the Hell Gate Bridge, the final segment of the York Extension and Improvement Project.

But what about cost, maintenance and repair of such essential - but often over-looked -
components of daily life?  While there does not appear to be available any verifiable figures
for overall costs associated with the Hell Gate Bridge construction, one thing is certain. 
Today more shippers prefer rail over trucks and this is a trend that does not appear to be
slowing down, in part because railroads are seriously interested in doing more freight
business.  Clearly much of that tonnage will be hauled over bridge tracks.

Senior New York Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, a former childhood resident of Astoria,
paid meaningful homage to the Bridge he characterized as "a great engineering miracle",
by conducting hearings in the late 1980's and early 90's in support of "...investing in the
American plant.  That national roof is leaking".  An overall $55 million Fedreal allocation,
via the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficient Act of 1991, earmarked a portion of
those funds for much-needed attention being paid, finally, for a big-time painting, upgrade
and repair of the Hellgate Viaduct.

While undoubtedly all transportation is underwritten in many and sundry ways,
Government can provide the infra-structure, the mantle to buttress and preserve such
enduring contributions which enhance a well-oiled transportation network.  By enacting  the
Efficiency Act For the Twenty-First Century, Congress signalled a committment to heed the
Biblical admonition: '...save what remains'.

There will be so much forseeable competition for governmental line item allocations, especially capital for tunnels, it is foolhardy to make vulnerable - to political and fiscal vagaries - the maintenance and preservation of such precious and equally essential transportation bulwarks.
  
A joint venture of public and private sectors - in bridge sustenance, economic support and
more - is what will vindicate the 21st Century.  Otherwise, the 'bridge to the 22nd Century' will be illusory and the vital vision of successive immigrants will no longer be a view from the bridge. 

Remember:  this coming Saturday see you in Astoria, get out of your car, rollerblade, skate, or stroll over to the Hell Gate, gaze in celebration, imagine - for a second - Queens without it, and you'll know where you stand.

Queens and The Hellgate Bridge - made for one another. 

Happy Birthday, Gustav, and Happy Birthday, The Hellgate Bridge.


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