tappan zee bridge
For many years, residents of Rockland and Westchester counties argued the pros and cons of a Hudson River crossing between Nyack and Tarrytown. During this time, local and global events – including World War II, the Korean War, the spreading impact of the automobile on American life and advances in engineering technology, would help shape the debate about a bridge across the Hudson River at one of its widest points. In Bridge Stories, we present excerpts from moments in history in which advocates and protesters, local residents and bridge workers, talk about the impact the Tappan Zee Bridge and the New York State Thruway – both good and bad – had on their lives and their communities. You can go back in time and hear or read the actual oral histories under the Recollections section.
A Hudson River crossing at the Tappan Zee had gained supporters as far back as the late 19th century, but the issue only became immediate — and incendiary — after the U.S. Congress approved funding for a bridge between Nyack and Tarrytown in 1935. Arguments between opponents and proponents shot back and forth until technical obstacles tabled the debate, much to the opponents’ delight. However, the battle flared up again after World War II as the need for a crossing in between the increasingly congested George Washington Bridge to the south, which opened in 1931, and the Bear Mountain Bridge to the north — a bridge-less distance of 44 miles — became more urgent. Recent advances in engineering technology would make possible what had been infeasible a decade earlier.
Bridge Clash I:
In the 1930s, opposition to a bridge between Nyack and Tarrytown was well-organized, observes Roger Panetta, an historian who studies American suburbs. He notes there were opinion polls in towns and local newspapers trying to build support both for and against the bridge. There were debates and grassroots organizations, and the argument, he suggests, was not really about the bridge itself but about modernization of the area, pitting people who wanted to keep things the way they were against those who saw the bridge as an opportunity to create a better way of life.
Bridge Clash II:
After World War II, large infrastructure projects that created jobs and stimulated the economy gained favor as ways to avoid another Depression. For New York State, the signature project was the New York State Thruway, whose 426-mile long mainline made it the longest toll-road in the nation, including a bridge that would link Rockland and Westchester counties. Panetta notes that when the idea for a Hudson River crossing reappeared in the 1950s, the opposition was much weaker than it had been in the 1930s.
At a time when the print media were the main source of news, the dramatic battles over the Tappan Zee Bridge made excellent fodder for newspaper headlines and stories, with determined resisters chasing surveyors away from the Hudson’s Rockland shore and politicians later arguing that the location of the crossing was ideal because it was beyond the range of any atomic bombs that might fall on New York City.
More than 125 houses in South Nyack were demolished or moved to make way for the Tappan Zee Bridge, impacting a larger number of residents in Rockland County as compared to Westchester County. New York State exercised its legal right of eminent domain to take possession of these properties. The State was required by law to provide compensation and it frequently improved its bid if the resident refused the first offer. Some homeowners were able to buy their property back from the State at a nominal cost and physically move their homes to new locations. Otherwise, businesses, farms, open land and recreational areas all disappeared to make way for the bridge and the New York State Thruway that used it to cross the Hudson.
Rockland was a park-like place of quaint villages and family farms before the coming of the Tappan Zee Bridge. One woman remembers a cow who lived in a field across from her house. Another said “we never locked our doors.”
access to the world
Gossip about a bridge circulated in Hudson Valley communities for quite a while before rumors turned to fact. Then things happened quickly. “The State gave me 90 days to leave my house,” recalls one resident. “My father bought property in Grand View [adjacent to South Nyack] and moved the whole house there on a barge,” recalls another. This link will take you to first-hand accounts of how residents raced to pack up their belongings and get out of the way before construction began.
Construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge began on March 12, 1952, and the bridge opened to the public on December 15, 1955. In the 45 months of construction, it was estimated that 10,000 different people worked on the bridge, with up to 1,000 employed on the bridge project at a time. One of the first companies to begin work was Construction Aggregates, Inc., of Chicago and New York City, which put in the footings for the bridge as well as the clusters of timber piles used as icebreakers.
By the time the bridge opened, reports suggested that beyond the number of workers employed on the project’s construction, the Tappan Zee Bridge would directly cause the creation of perhaps 50 or more permanent jobs. Toll collection would account for 35 jobs, and the rest would be a permanent paint crew for the steel portions of the bridge. This did not account for any jobs related to monitoring the bridge, although newspaper accounts mention that the caissons required constant monitoring and regular inspection to assure that the pumps that kept them dry (and therefore buoyant) were in working order.
The Tappan Zee Boom
Once the bridge opened, its impact on both sides of the Hudson was immediate and profound. “Rockland County exploded because of its relatively cheaper housing,” recalls a Tarrytown resident. “From the first day, the bridge brought diversity, and that was a good thing.” Here are some reminiscences from both sides of the Hudson of both immediate and long-term impacts of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
“Bridges are more than marvels of engineering,” says Roger Panetta, a sociologist who studies and writes about suburban America. “They’re also social, commercial, political and economic connectors, and that is of equal consequence to the remarkable technology and engineering of the bridges themselves.” Many who loved the “Old Rockland” believed that the bridge transformed a park-like county into a suburban sprawl. At the same time, though, Panetta observes, the bridge and its connections made it possible for many families to buy an affordable home. In the 1950s, he says, “that meant achieving the American dream, and we have to be careful not to undervalue that.”
At a time when the print media were the main source of news, the dramatic battles over the Tappan Zee Bridge made excellent fodder for newspaper headlines and stories.
ROOSEVELT SIGNS TARRYTOWN-NYACK BRIDGE MEASURE
State Engineers To Start Borings
For Construction of 3-1/4 Mile Span
September 6, 1935 – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill in early September of 1935 that provided government approval for a causeway, bridge or tunnel connecting Tarrytown and Nyack. In its front-page story, The Irvington Gazette announced that engineers were expected to begin borings in the river to prepare for eventual construction.
HADER VOICES OBJECTIONS TO BRIDGE PLANS
Clarkstown Group Is Told Reasons
for Opposition to Span Entering
County at Grand View.
September 10, 1936 – About a year later, the opposition began to make its voice heard. Elmer S. Hader, Chairman of the Zoning Commission of Grand View, NY (a possible site for the crossing’s western terminus) and a leader of the movement against the proposed bridge, wrote a letter to the New York Times offering numerous objections and concluding “This very ugly type of bridge would destroy the beauty of the Tappan Zee.” At the same time, he took his case to affected communities. Local newspapers, like The Journal-News in Rockland County provided him with a platform – on the same day as they ran another front-page story reporting that the New York State Department of Public Works had opened bids for test borings for the proposed bridge.
BRIDGE SURVEYORS ‘BOUNCED’ IN GRAND VIEW
Had Cut Down Tree, Zoning Head Claims
September 11, 1936 – The protest picked up a considerable amount of steam (and press coverage) when a team of bridge surveyors took their equipment onto Elmer Hader’s property in Grand View. While they were there, they cut down shrubbery, put axe marks on some trees and actually cut one own, whereupon Hader enlisted the assistance of the police chief and ran the surveyors out of town. The Journal-News plastered this event on its front page under a large headline, noting that resentment on the part of Grand View residents was high over the bridge being “forced down their throats.”
bridge war grows in hudson valley
Fight Started by Grand View Women
Against Surveyors Wins Quick Support
Grand View, N.Y., September 13, 1936 – Protest against the construction of the proposed Nyack-Tarrytown bridge here at a point where the Hudson River is three and a quarter miles wide, which was started yesterday when indignant women of the village routed a group of surveyors who had invaded the community to survey the western anchorage of the bridge, gained considerable impetus throughout the entire Hudson Valley today. Throughout the day, village residents who voiced their protest last night at a mass meeting where they authorized the police officials to double the present police force of 12 men and to “arrest any surveyor who enters the village,” received numerous telephone calls and telegrams from equally irate citizens from Albany to New York pledging support in “your splendid fight.”
SPAN BORINGS CAUSE GRIEF
One Down 200 Feet in River Before
Striking Hardpan, Engineer Says
October 29, 1936 – A front-page report in The Journal-News in late October suggested under a terse headline that the bridge project might be in deep water.
COMMISSION DROPS HUDSON BRIDGE PROJECT
Commission Decides, 2 to 1,
To End Authority,
Urge Abandonment of Plan,
According to Report.
December 18, 1936 – The conflict was destined to end quickly. Opponents led once again by the indomitable Elmer S. Hader had proposed inviting New York State Governor Herbert Lehman and a group of officials to a meeting on a ferryboat in the middle of the Hudson where they could “see for themselves the folly of selecting a site at a point three and a quarter miles wide.” But it was science more than statecraft that stopped the bridge project: the technology of the day was simply unable to place pilings in the deep bedrock of the riverbed at an affordable cost.
bridge clash: 1951
In the 1950s, opposition to a Hudson River crossing was considerably weaker than it had been in the 1930s. One opponent argued that the location of the bridge was a basic error and, echoing Elmer Hader’s comment from 1936 that the bridge was “ugly,” called it a structure of “freak design.”
N. Y. Thruway Spokesman Gives Reasons For Proposed Bridge Site
The claim that the bridge was a planning blunder prompted a full-throated response from the chairman of the New York Thruway Authority, who offered eight major reasons to show that the bridge site was based on sound thinking.
Defense Apathy Seen In Queries on Bomb; Some Are Confused
January 25, 1951 – With the Korean War in full swing in 1951, military issues received a lot of attention – at least from local newspapers. For instance, New York’s Governor Thomas E. Dewey defended the location of the Tappan Zee Bridge on the grounds that it was outside the target area for an atom bomb aimed at New York. Elmer S. Hader once again appeared in the news when he supported two former Army officers who took issue with the Governor’s atom bomb argument and claimed that in its proposed location, the bridge was an “open invitation to disaster in case of war.” Meanwhile, the Rockland County Times reported that people “in all walks of life” were fatalistic about an atomic bomb attack to the point of apathy and confused by advice they were getting from Civil Defense authorities.
Army Permit for Thruway Span Granted
May 4, 1951 – Despite the criticism, the project moved forward, winning a crucial victory when it obtained a construction permit from the Department of the Army.
New York Times – December 16, 1955
THRUWAY OPENED WITH DEDICATION OF LAST TOLL LINK
Harriman Talks at Ceremony Marking
Completion of Bridge at Tappan Zee
DAYLONG FETE IS HELD
New 28-Mile Stretch Toured By Caravan
16 Pickets Oppose Jersey Spur
Sixteen friendly pickets joined Governor Harriman yesterday in dedicating the $60,000,000 Thruway bridge linking Rockland and Westchester Counties. The ceremony was at South Nyack, at the Western end of the 15,764-foot span that twists across the Tappan Zee at Tarrytown. It was the highlight of daylong exercises that started at Suffern and ended twenty-eight miles away at Yonkers. The opening of that stretch signaled the completion of the entire toll length of the New York – Buffalo Thruway.
before the bridge
before the bridge:
“South Nyack was a different place [before the bridge]. It was a place where families sat out on the front porch and kids went out and played in the middle of the street and a car might have come by once every half hour, if that.”
before the bridge:
“It was a small country town prior to the Tappan Zee Bridge, very countrified. There was a field across from the house I lived in. I remember a cow being there. It was all farmland.”
before the bridge:
“For a kid like me, who loved the outdoors, it was kind of sad to see the woods you played in or hiked in, you'd see the surveyor flags, that was the first hint something was going on…That was the first indication something was going to happen, and pretty soon, the trees were cut and the bulldozers were in…”
before the bridge:
“In fourth grade, I remember the teacher saying there will never be a bridge here in Tarrytown because this is the widest part of the river. Time marches on and now I’m 19 years old and I’m commuting to work in New York City…”
before the bridge:
“My first recollection: I overheard my parents and aunt discussing this bridge coming. I was probably six or seven years old. And they said something about it coming right over my house. I remember distinctly going to bed and having a nightmare about a bridge sitting on top of my house.”
before the bridge:
“We were high school seniors when they had the ribbon cutting and a good number of us cut school to watch it. When we got back, did we get in trouble! They took away our senior picnic. But we started a new tradition: senior cut day.”
a hasty retreat
a hasty retreat:
“It happened very fast. I think in 1951 we didn't know about it. They kept it a kind of secret; they kept saying, No they weren't going to do it. They denied it for a long time. They didn't come around until 1953 and they didn't give you much time.”
a hasty retreat:
“Naturally in Nyack, Upper Nyack and West Nyack, which were quaint villages at the time, not at all urbanized, there was a lot of talk. There were many people who were quite excited about it economics-wise but there were also old-timers who did not like it and thought it would spoil the country village atmosphere.”
a hasty retreat:
“I don’t believe anybody in South Nyack thought it was beneficial or saw a need for it or wasn’t fearful of it and of what was going to happen to their homes, their town, their land. The Bridge wiped out half of South Nyack.”
a hasty retreat:
“My house was a hundred years old; it wasn't in too good a condition, and we let them tear it down. …Some people moved their houses all the way from South Nyack almost to Upper Nyack. I would say that the percentage of houses that were moved was fairly low.”
a hasty retreat:
“The [demolition crews] said, "Anything you want in the house - take it with you", so I took the toilet out, and some other stuff, and I took them to Pearl River, because I had put money into this old house when we first got married - 1948; I wasn't going to leave it. And I was handy in those days, I could do all that stuff.”
“When the Bridge finally opened, Rockland County exploded because of its relatively cheaper housing.”
“One of my mother's sisters lived in Nyack. And she was up high when they turned the lights on for the bridge. I remember watching it and saying, "Wow, that's pretty dramatic."
“All along the shoreline around Tarrytown you could see all the ships that had been decommissioned from World War II docked along the shoreline and they were used as grain silos because the U.S. had a surplus and there was no place to put it. So there were all those ships lined up and it was quite a sight. Then one day they weren’t there. Maybe all the grain was used up. I never really found out where they went.”
“I was a Vietnam veteran. I wish I could tell you what it was like in the jungles and the rice paddies thinking about having the opportunity just one more time to see that bridge before we went into battle. One of my greatest gifts, although I was wounded, was the chance to come back and see that bridge.”
“When I retired in 1991, I had put in 25 years of commuting across the bridge from Rockland to Westchester. I computed the amount of time I had spent on the bridge, and in 25 years I estimated the amount of time I had spent in traffic on the bridge, morning and night, at three full months of my life.”
Copyright © Historical Society of Rockland County. This material is based on work assisted by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.