Happy Birthday Bayonne Bridge!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

This past week marked the 80th birthday of the Bayonne Bridge, prompting me to muse about my lifelong love affair with bridges—some in particular.

I love bridges. I’m not entirely sure why. Partly it’s the look of them: They seem almost alive, taking off in a leap of concrete, stone, or steel,  somehow infinitely optimistic and everlastingly hopeful. Partly it’s their function: Bringing things together, connecting people and places that were previously divided. And of course, bridges often cross moving water—another of my favorite things.

But though I love them all, some bridges in particular hold a special place in my heart.

Many years ago I worked north of New York City (in Connecticut and later in White Plains). The hours were grueling—some days I’d leave my apartment at 5 AM and not return until 11 PM. Sometimes I drove, but I preferred to take the Metro-North train. I relished the peacefulness of the scenery rolling by.

As we crossed the Harlem River, I’d catch sight of one bridge in particular, a study in contrasts: graceful, soaring, yet solid, composed of two steel arches with slightly different curvatures, so they were closer together at the top of the arch and wider apart at the bases, anchored in solid stone towers.

Hell Hate Bridge with vista of Manhattan

The rising sun would touch this bridge and (so I thought) paint it a lovely shade of rosy pink.  The memory of that beauty was often the nicest part of my day.

Now I see it every day

But for years, I didn’t know what the bridge was called, or even where, exactly, it was. All I knew was that the sight of it reliably brightened my mornings.

One day I happened to mention the bridge to my father, a retired naval officer who had once been stationed in New York City, but now lived hundreds of miles away.

He recognized it immediately from my description: “That’s Hell Gate Bridge,” he said. An odd name for a structure of such harmonious beauty! I hadn’t heard of Hell Gate before, and my dad explained it was where the Harlem River joined the East River. Hell Gate was a treacherous body of water characterized by converging currents and occasional whirlpools that had been the doom of hundreds of ships over the past several centuries.

“As a young ensign, I was on a ship that went through Hell Gate,” my father said. “But I don’t recall that the bridge was pink.” That would have been in the late 1940s; I can’t recall for certain what kind of ship he told me it was, but my memory insists it was a destroyer.

After my father told me its name, I studied it often from the train windows. And one day, when I’d left for work later than usual, I discovered it wasn’t the rising sun that made the bridge pink—it really was pink. It’s an unconventional choice for a hardworking industrial structure, and strictly speaking, it wasn’t pink at first. Wikipedia calls it “Hell Gate Red”, and my father was correct—Hell Gate Bridge was painted that color only in 1996. But the tint has since faded to a soft dusky rose, almost a pastel.

One of the great joys in my later life was kayaking under the Hell Gate Bridge for the first time—but that’s another story.

Paddling under the Hell Gate Bridge

Back to the Bayonne Bridge…

A few years back, I was kayaking in a different direction entirely, far to the south of Manhattan, by the northern tip of Staten Island. As we paddled through the Kill Van Kull (which separates Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey), a stunning sight appeared:  a bridge that, much to my surprise, was almost the twin of my beloved Hell Gate. It was the sleek and lovely Bayonne Bridge.

Paddling toward the Bayonne Bridge

Graceful curve and straight section

The two bridges are so close in design they could almost be sisters—and in fact, they pretty much are.

For as I discovered this week, Tuesday, November 15th marked the 80th birthday of the Bayonne Bridge. As part of the (modest) publicity around this event, I learned that:

  • The Hell Gate and Bayonne Bridges reflect the vision of the same man, Czech-Austrian civil engineer Gustav Lindenthal. (Lindenthal designed the Hell Gate, and his Swiss co-worker and protege Othmar Ammann designed Bayonne.)
  • Their beauty is no accident. According to Wikipedia, “Lindenthal’s work was greatly affected by his pursuit for perfection and his love of art. His structures not only serve the purpose they were designed for, but are aesthetically pleasing to the public eye.” Indeed!
  • There’s a third sister (or perhaps cousin): The world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although designed by a different firm, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was inspired by Hell Gate and Bayonne.

I also learned that the Hell Gate Bridge was so perfectly engineered that when the main span was lifted into place, the adjustment required was a mere half-inch!

The Bayonne Bridge is now firmly ensconced in my pantheon of beloved bridges. Any time I paddle south these days, I try to make time to admire her.

Bayonne Bridge from “Five Bridges” at sunset

There’s a point in the harbor just south of Governors Island that I like to call “Five Bridges”, because when the visibility is good, you can see five bridges: the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges receding up the East River; the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the south, and the Bayonne Bridge to the west. They’re all beautiful, and all iconic—but the fairest of them all is always the Bayonne Bridge.

For sentimental reasons, Hell Gate will always remain queen of my heart—but the Bayonne Bridge is a very close second.

Happy Birthday, Bayonne Bridge!

(Some beautiful photos of, and from, the Bayonne Bridge by Tugster are here and here. A pdf of a book with historic photos is here.)

23 responses to “Happy Birthday Bayonne Bridge!

  1. Pingback: Shooters Island: Then and Now « tugster: a waterblog

  2. Interesting piece and nice photos, as well! Do you have any photos that really show the “pinkness” of the bridge? The link to the Sydney Bridge is so cool! And I love the input from your Dad, as well.

    I also have a fascination with bridges. They’re all so different in design. I used to have a fear, as well. When I was a kid, I always closed my eyes when we drove over bridges because I was afraid they would break, and we would fall. Then my Dad explained how he designed bridges (as a civil engineer)–in fact, some that we drove on! Knowing my Dad designed them removed my fear, and probably enhanced my fascination.

    • Robin, I don’t have any “pink” photos of the Hell Gate Bridge that I took myself—most of my photos seem to be against the light, so that the bridge shows up dark—but here’s a nice “red” one from Wikipedia:

      Hell Gate Bridge, photo by Dave Frieder

      and a Google image search reveals an entire range of colors from red to maroon to pink… The color depends on the light, but also apparently on how long it has been since the bridge was painted last—it seems that the red color fades fast and the bridge has to be repainted often…

      Speaking of bridges, my father likewise was a civil engineer who specialized in the design of large steel frame structures and participated in the design of several bridges in (the former) Czechoslovakia, including this bridge:

      Žďákovský most, photo by Jiří Berger

    • OK, here’s a “pink” Hell Gate Bridge photo, taken just yesterday:

      Pink Hell Gate Bridge

      It’s mostly pink now, but with some patches of distinctly darker red, presumably “Hell Gate Red”, the intended color. Time for another repainting…

    • For the whole complicated story of the various red, lavender, or pink colors that the Hell Gate Bridge seems to assume in photographs of different vintages, see here.

  3. Great reading. I probably have seen the Bayonne bridge but as I do not have the same fascination with these metallic monsters I have probably filtered it out ;) I will look for it next time I am in the neighborhood.

  4. Johna Till Johnson

    :-) But it’s never the end, is it??? You still need to round the Battery (and battle those evil East River ferries). And then then there’s the slog against the current (and sometimes wind) up the Hudson….

  5. I forgot that! Someone should construct an aqueduct from the East river to Manhattan’s west side so we could avoid the pesky Battery…. Now THAT is a bridge I would like

  6. beautiful photos and tribute! thank you!

  7. Johna Till Johnson

    Hi bowsprite,
    Thanks! It’s always great to hear from a kindred spirit! I should have mentioned how much I like the photo of the Bayonne Bridge in your post here

  8. Ooh, this is such a lovely post. I adore bridges too, very romantic! I hope you both had a wonderful Thanksgiving, Johna and Vladimir. xxx

  9. Johna Till Johnson

    Hi ailsapm,

    We did, thank you! And you too?

    I am so glad you liked the post….

  10. Thanks Johna, a dear friend took my foreign self under her wing and brought me along to her family Thanksgiving. xxx

  11. Haha, nice one, Vladimir :)

  12. Pingback: Long Island Kayak Circumnavigation: Day 10—Homeward Bound! | Wind Against Current

  13. How amazing. So Sydney Harbour Bridge is actually a copy!

  14. Oh oui, quelle beauté d’envol dans cette arche ! Vraiment magnifique structure, comme un appel d’infini ! Dans l’extrême beauté de cette photo l’on peut voir tout ce qu’apporte la sensibilité d’un regard.

  15. Pingback: New Bridge Over the Hudson | Wind Against Current

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