Historic Structures

Macombs Dam Bridge, New York City New York

Date added: October 9, 2020 Categories: New York Bridges

The Macombs Dam Bridge (originally the Central Bridge) and the 155th Street Viaduct, constructed in 1890-95 to the designs of eminent Structural Engineer Alfred Pancoast Boiler, for the New York City Departments of Public Parks and Public Works, was a considerable municipal undertaking, as well as a significant feat of engineering. The Macombs Dam Bridge is the third oldest major bridge in New York City (after the Brooklyn and George Washington Bridges) and is also the City's oldest, intact metal truss, swing-type bridge, a bridge type most often employed in New York City along the Harlem River between the 1880's and 1910. The bridge's steel central Swing Span was considered at the time to be the world's heaviest movable mass. Boiler successfully overcame the various difficult challenges involved in the construction of the bridge and Viaduct, particularly in the placing of the foundations, while producing an aesthetically noteworthy design. The Passaic Rolling Mill Company of Paterson, New Jersey, and the Union Bridge Company of Athens, Pennsylvania, Contractors for the critically-acclaimed bridge, were leading steel and iron bridge manufacturers. The long steel 155th Street Viaduct provides a gradual descent toward the bridge from the heights of Harlem to the west, while the long Jerome Avenue approach viaduct of the bridge, consisting primarily of steel deck truss spans carried by masonry piers, with a subsidiary Camel back Truss Span, was built over what was then marshland in the Bronx. The appearance of the bridge and Viaduct is enhanced by the central Swing Span truss outline, the steel latticework, the steel and iron ornamental details (including the Eighth Avenue stairs, sections of original railing and several lamp posts) and the masonry piers, abutments and shelterhouses. Following in a succession of bridges at this site since 1815, the Macombs Dam Bridge and the 155th Street Viaduct continue to provide a historically important connection between upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

In 1813 Robert Macomb petitioned the New York State Legislature for permission to construct a dam across the Harlem River in the vicinity of present-day 155th Street in order to form a mill pond for the use of the business he had obtained from his father. He was granted this right in 1814 with several requirements, including the provision that he operate a lock to allow vessels to pass along the river. A dam was completed in 1815, which also functioned as a toll bridge. Macombs milling business later failed, and the dam/bridge, consisting of stone piers connected by wooden spans, was sold. By 1838, a dispute arose over this private usurpation of the river and the courts found that Macombs Dam was a public nuisance. The Legislature in 1858 directed New York City and Westchester County to remove the dam and build a new toll-free bridge. The Central Bridge (familiarly known as Macombs Dam Bridge) was constructed in 1860-61 by Builders John Ross and D. L. Harris under the direction of Engineer E. H. Tracey; initially authorized at $10,000, it cost over $90,000. Built of wood, it had a 210-foot central draw span, with a square tower and iron rods supporting the ends, as well as two Howe truss approach spans carried on trestles. This bridge was reconstructed several times: around 1877, the square tower was replaced by A-frames; in 1883, iron trusses by the Central Bridge Works of Buffalo, New York, replaced the approach spans; and in 1890, the wooden draw span was rebuilt.

As early as 1826, proposals had been made to dredge a navigable channel, incorporating part of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, to connect the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. This project did not come to fruition; however, until the late nineteenth century; work was begun on the Harlem Ship Canal in 1888, and the Canal was opened, uncompleted, to traffic in May 1895. In the meantime, the U. S. River and Harbor Act of 1890 required that the low bridges along the Harlem River be replaced by ones with a clearance of 24 feet above spring tide, to be located at right angles to the bulkhead lines of a regularized channel; it was determined that revolving Swing Spans would best accommodate both masted and mastless vessels. In 1890, planning commenced on a replacement for the Central Bridge. At this same time, construction also began on a long Viaduct at 155th Street in Manhattan, which would eventually connect with the bridge.

By the 1880's, property owners and City officials had expressed concern about the slow rate of development of certain sections of northern Manhattan, as well as the inadequacy of bridges linking northern Manhattan with the western Bronx, recently annexed to the City; development of the area adjacent to Macombs Dam, in particular, was considered to be impeded by a significant difference in height between the ridge (later called Coogan's Bluff) to the west and the river level and by limited transportation connections to the rest of the City. This area was; however, becoming increasingly popular as a destination for day excursions out of downtown, Especially for bicyclists, drivers of trotting horses and patrons of Manhattan Field and the adjacent Polo Grounds (which opened in the early 1880's) north of the bridge. King's Handbook observed in 1892 that:
Seventh Avenue, south qf the river, and Jerome Avenue, its continuation north of the river, have for a generation constituted the favorite drive for New-Yorkers outside of Central Park. North of the river the avenue extends to the Jerome-Park racing-Track, and thence on to Yonkers; and it is lined with many well-known road-houses.
For these reasons, there was pressure to improve the system of roads in the vicinity of the Central Bridge.

Around 1886, a decision was reached to construct a substantial Viaduct along 155th Street to connect the ridge at St. Nicholas Place with the Central Bridge (at one time there had been a wooden footbridge between the ridge and the elevated railway station at Eighth Avenue). The Legislature authorized the Commissioner of Public Works to proceed with the construction of an "elevated iron roadway, viaduct or bridge" which would provide a gradual means of descent from St. Nicholas Place to Seventh Avenue and the bridge. Alfred P. Boiler, an eminent Structural Engineer, was hired as a Consulting Engineer to the New York City Department of Public Works for the design and supervision of the construction of the Viaduct; jurisdiction over the Viaduct was placed within the Department, under the Chief Engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, George W. Birdsall. Martin Gay, Engineer-ln-Charge of the Harlem and Manhattan Bridges, acted in the capacity of Resident (Assistant) Engineer. Boiler's plans were officially adopted In May 1890; the cost of the Viaduct was then estimated to be $514,000, half of which was to be paid by the City, while half was to be assessed to those property owners who would benefit from the improvement. In July 1890, Herbert Steward of Trenton, New Jersey, was retained as the Contractor. The Union Bridge Company of Athens, Pennsylvania, supplied the structural steel and iron for the Viaduct, and the Hecla Iron Works of Brooklyn, New York, was Subcontractor for the ornamental iron railings and stairways.

By the end of 1891, work had been completed on the masonry west abutment of the Viaduct, as well as the foundations (concrete piers on piles) for nearly all of the steel columns, the depth of which varied according to the ground conditions; the foundations of the three columns nearest to the anticipated location of the pier of the proposed new bridge (near the intersection of Macombs Dam Road) could not be safely placed until the bridge foundations were laid. The Viaduct was nearly completed from St. Nicholas Place to Eighth Avenue by the end of the following year, while work on the eastern portion continued to be delayed, due to the intricacies of coordinating the construction of the Viaduct and bridge; a further complication arose from the Viaduct and bridge meeting at an angle. In addition, a debate ensued about the adequacy of the proposed approach to the bridge and Viaduct from the south at Seventh Avenue and Macombs Dam Road (now Macombs Place); a tall outcropping of rock at this location, also considered unsightly, rendered the approach hazardous. The solution was to remove the rock, redesign the approach and create a triangular landscaped plaza at the juncture of the viaduct and bridge, which, in the view of the New York City Department of Public Works, was to be "one of the most remarkable and attractive spots within the boundaries of the city". The Viaduct was finally completed and officially opened on October 10, 1893, at a total cost of $739,000.

Alfred P. Boiler, Consulting Engineer to the New York City Department of Public Works for the 155th Street Viaduct, was also hired in June of 1880 as a Consulting Engineer to the New York City Department of Public Parks for the design and supervision of the construction of the proposed new Central (Macombs Dam) Bridge. In December of 1890, Boiler submitted preliminary plans for a steel bridge, and detailed plans were ready 1n July of 1891, at which time, the placement of the bridge was determined; the U. S. Secretary of War subsequently approved this placement. In November, Boiler submitted his first plans for the Jerome Avenue approach to the bridge on the Bronx side, which was to be a long deck truss Viaduct, necessary because of the marshland conditions there north of Cromwell Creek. The contract for the construction of the bridge and the Jerome Avenue approach; was awarded in March 1892 to the Passaic Rolling Mill Company of Paterson New Jersey, and work was begun in May. Herbert Steward {later Steward & MeDermott), General Contractor for the 155 Street Viaduct, acted as Subcontractor for the masonry work. Upon Boiler's recommendation, an arrangement was made whereby the Engineers of the New York City Department of Public Works (including Assistant Engineer Martin Gay), then involved with the 155th Street Viaduct, would extend their jurisdiction over the bridge as well, thus dividing their time and expenses between the two projects. According to Martin Gay in 1892 "to accommodate travel while the new bridge was building, the old draw was picked upon on scows and moved to One Hundred and fifty-sixth Street, where a pier had been prepared for it and approaches built".

The construction of foundations for the bridge proved more difficult than expected, due to the variation in ground conditions (foundations varied in depth from 24 to 100 feet below mean water level). The foundations of the masonry pivot and western piers of the Swing Span were established by pneumatic steel caissons, while the eastern pier was built with a cofferdam. The masonry piers of the Bronx approach were to be set on contract piling, but because of the "great depth of soft bottom at that point", two of the pier foundations between the river and the New York & Hudson River Railroad tracks were built using pneumatic caissons, while the other piers on pilings required "concreting"; this unforeseen work necessitated an amendment to the Passaic Rolling Mill Company's contract in 1893. Apparently, in connection with these changes, the number of proposed Bronx approach lattice deck truss spans was reduced; the spans as built were longer and deeper (and thus closer to the ground), and a subsidiary Camelback Truss Span was designed to go over the railroad tracks in order to provide clearance. The need for an additional Bronx approach to the bridge was also determined at the intersection of Sedgwick and Ogden Avenues, which would connect into the Jerome Avenue approach from the north (at the east end of the Camelback Span); Boiler prepared plans for such an approach in January of 1893, the Legislature authorized this addition, and the contract was also awarded to the Passaic Rolling Mill Company at the beginning of the following year.

The bridge was constructed with the use of falsework. After the floor level was built, two lines of rails were set on the edges of the bridge in order to carry a traveling scaffold from which material was hoisted into place. In July of 1894, Valentine Cook & Son received the contract for the ornamental cast and wrought-iron railings and lamp posts for the bridge and its approaches, according to Boiler's specifications. The new Central Bridge (still familiarly know as the Macombs Dam Bridge) was finally declared completed and opened on May 1, 1885, at a total construction cost of about $1,366,500 (the total including land acquisition was $1,774,000). Work apparently continued for some time on the approaches and their adjacent park spaces.

The name of the Central Bridge was changed officially in 1902 to the Macombs Dam Bridge by the New York City Board of Aldermen to reflect the more common usage. In 1904, the Union Railway Company laid two sets of tracks over the Viaduct and bridge for trolley service (at the east end of the Camel back Span, the tracks veered northward); horsetraffic lessened on the bridge with the arrival of trolleys and automobiles, and was diverted to the Harlem River Speedway, which had opened in 1898 for recreational driving of horses (the Speedway, the south end of which adjoined the west end of the 155th Street Viaduct, was later converted to Harlem River Drive). Also around 1904, the bridge was electrified: the steam engine which originally turned the central Swing Span and operated the hydraulic ram that lifted the ends was replaced by an electric 24-horsepower motor, and the gas lighting was also replaced by electric. From the turn of the century into the 1910's, the marshland on the Bronx side was filled in for the creation of Macombs Dam Park. The south side of the Jerome Avenue Approach received two new ramp connections at East 161st Street in 1920 (near Yankee Stadium, then under construction) which also entailed the dismantling of the south face of the masonary abutment and stairway and their re-installation on the north side (at the west side of 161st Street). A new Seventh Avenue Approach from the south, which merged into Macombs Place (formerly Macombs Dam Road), was constructed in 1929-30 and resulted in a reconfigured triangular park. In connection with this work, all to the designs of Architect Andrew J. Thomas, parts of the two westernmost spans of the Macombs Place Approach to the bridge, originally built at a straight angle, were rebuilt and reconfigured in a flared polygonal outline (including the rebuilding of the two lattice trusses along the south face and some columns); the Macombs Place masonry abutment was extended southward at an angle (to support the reconfigured road deck), reusing the masonry taken from the (then) dismantling of an original stairway at this location. (In 1960, this abutment extension was removed, and a new abutment extension as built, this time in a straight line with the original; the original stairway masonry was apparently once more recycled. The westernmost approach span and lattice truss was also again partially rebuilt.) In 1949-51, the New York State Department of Public Works, as part of its construction of what became the Major Deegan Expressway, altered the Bronx approaches to the bridge; this work included the removal of the entire Ogden-Sedgwick Avenues Approach, the removal of two sets of masonry piers and three steel deck truss spans of the Jerome Avenue Approach Viaduct over the new highway (these were replaced by new steel deck spans set on concrete "bents" faced with granite), and the installation of four new highway exit and entrance ramps. The trolley tracks were also removed at this time. Rehabilitations of the road decks of the bridge and Viaduct around 1960 to 1964 resulted in the replacement of the original fascias and loss of most of the original railings and lamp posts.

In 1935, the Macombs Dam Bridge was immortalized in the painting "Macomb's Dam Bridge" by eminent American Artist, Edward Hopper.