by Shannon Butler

It’s 8:30 AM, and you are trying to merge into the bottleneck that makes up the eastbound side of the Mid-Hudson Bridge. From the toll booths of four lanes, you manage to make your way into one of the two lanes that are open for the morning rush hour into Poughkeepsie. But along the way, you may find yourself saying things like, “Where did you learn to drive?” or “Get out of the way, grandpa!” or “It’s the pedal on the right!” You get the picture. When we are stuck in traffic in the middle of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Bridge, do we ever take the time to consider its history? The bridge is 90 years old, after all, and its construction is a work of considerable ingenuity.

Even as automobiles became popular in the early 1900s, there were no bridge crossings over the Hudson between Manhattan and Albany, though there had always been a desire for such a project. In 1888, the Poughkeepsie Railroad bridge was finally completed, but it quickly became clear that this would not be used by the public, only for train crossings. As early as 1913, there were efforts led by politicians as well as clergy, like the Reverend Monsignor Joseph F. Sheahan of St. Peter’s Church, to get the owners of the railroad bridge to add a pedestrian walkway. These plans never came to fruition (well, not during the Monsignor’s lifetime, anyway). By 1922, the Hudson Bridge Association held meetings with the hopes of getting most of the area’s citizens to agree that an entirely new bridge had to be created for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

On June 2, 1923, legislation was signed allowing for the construction of a bridge spanning from Highland to Poughkeepsie. The amount was set not to exceed $5 million, with an additional $200,000 for surveying and other various projects. By 1924, engineers created a detailed report with two piers in the river and three spans measuring 3,000 feet in length. The plans were the work of civil engineer Ralph Modjeski, who had already designed a dozen bridges by the time he took on the Mid-Hudson project. Construction did not begin until 1925, as there was some concern from steamboat captains as to the placement of the piers near the Poughkeepsie docks. The placement of the cornerstone took place on October 9th.

Scott Brothers Construction Company of Rome, N.Y. won the bid for the construction of the bridge with their offer of $484,570. Col. Frederick Stuart Greene from the Office of Public Works became the project’s superintendent. The hope was that the bridge would be completed by 1928. All seemed to be going well until early on July 27, 1927, when workers learned that the eastern caisson was slipping into the mud of the riverbed and slanting downward. Eventually, engineers were brought in and “the structure was slowly shifted upright with pulleys and dredging over the course of two years, at the rate of 18 inches per day.” This, of course, added to the final sum of the project, which ultimately cost just under $6 million to complete.

On August 25, 1930, former Governor Al Smith and Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt both attended the bridge opening ceremony (see invitation on the right). Mrs. Smith cut the ribbon on the east side while Mrs. Roosevelt cut the ribbon on the west. For the first several hours of the opening, there were parties with fireworks, and the public could cross the bridge for free. By midnight, however, the collection of tolls began. The toll amount varied depending on the mode of transportation. Automobiles under a 100-inch wheelbase were .80 cents. Pedestrians were .15 cents, but if you rode your horse into town, that would cost you .30 cents. The bridge reported making $2,000 within its first day of collection. Since then, many improvements and upgrades have been made to the bridge. In 1965, for example, the western highway to the bridge was altered so that drivers no longer turned so abruptly to the right upon crossing into Ulster County. The rock cliffs had to be cut through in order to allow for the new traffic pattern. The main deck of the bridge was replaced in the late 1980s, and various painting and lighting installation projects have been completed since then.

In 1994, the name of the bridge was formally changed to “The Franklin D. Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge” to pay tribute to the former Governor of New York, and local resident. So, the next time you find yourself endeavoring to make your way across this modern marvel (and perhaps regretting those extra minutes wasted fiddling around at home), think about its history as well as the time and energy it took to create it. And as always, drive carefully!

History of the Mid-Hudson Bridge by William R. Corwine – LH 625C
State of NY Department of Public Works Mid-Hudson Bridge Report, 1924 – LH 625Gre
Poughkeepsie Eagle News – 27 Aug 1930, 28 Jul 1927

01 – Sinking of the caisson for tower construction – 1929 – M2LD19
02 – View of the construction of the towers – 29 Sep 1928 – M4LD19
03 – A view of road work – Apr 1930 – M9LD19
04 – Completion of the cables – Mar 1930 – M8LD19
05 – Invitation for the opening of the bridge – 25 Aug 1930
06 – Image of the completed bridge – M13LD19