Tappan Zee Bridge history, up close and personal

Tappan Zee Constructors, LLC (TZC) President Darrell Waters /© Janie Rosman 2014
Tappan Zee Constructors, LLC (TZC) President Darrell Waters /© Janie Rosman 2014

Most people thought it; a few people mentioned it. Then Historical Society of Rockland County Board President Larry Singer said it.

“We ARE going on a three-hour tour,” Singer announced. Good-natured laughter ensued as we boarded the River Rose. 

Luckily for us, it became a five-hour tour that was informative, friendly and fun. And sold out! Within one week of opening respective ticket sales for the Historical Society’s river tour, both boats were filled, HSRC Executive Director Susan Deeks said.

HSRC Historian Marianne B. Leese shared the history of the area and the bridge, starting with Ferdinand R. Horn, Jr., called the Father of the Tappan Zee Bridge. A Pearl River resident, he was elected to the State Assembly in 1930 and thrice proposed a crossing over or under the river from Westchester to Rockland Counties

A sailor and visionary, his plans failed to pass, and he lost the next election. Horn was a realtor credited with developing the Multiple Listing System in Rockland County.

There was a ferry service between the two counties, a non-pressured ride that took its time, and stopped running at night and in bad weather. Folks wanted to cross the river; competition from the Bear Mountain (north) and George Washington Bridge (south) ceased the ferry in 1941. A service from Alpine, New Jersey, to Yonkers continued for vehicles until the Tappan Zee Bridge was completed in 1955.

River Rose coming into the marina/© Janie Rosman 2014
River Rose coming into the marina/© Janie Rosman 2014

Construction began March 1952; on December 15, 1955, it connected I-87 northbound from New York City to Albany, and later connected to I-287 (Cross Westchester Expressway).

Legislation signed by Governor W. Averell Harriman on February 28, 1956, officially named it the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was rededicated, and got a longer name, when Governor Malcolm Wilson was added in 1994 — the 20th anniversary of his leaving the governor’s office — yet his name is rarely used.

Leese shared a story about its opening day.

Your intrepid reporter
Your intrepid reporter

Harriman, Nyack resident and actress Helen Hayes MacArthur, Thruway Authority Chairman Bertram D. Tallamy, and other dignitaries were at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, when suddenly, 12-year-old Paul Anderson was seen walking across the bridge. Apparently, the governor was delighted by the lad and his adventure, and drove him across the new bridge in his black Cadillac.

And then we saw it ahead. People moved to the Rockland side of the boat to see TZC Community Outreach Manager Carla Julian, Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas Madison, and TZC President Darrell Waters board our stern-wheeler.

“It took us a little bit to get out here, to give you an idea of how unpredictable work can be on the river,” Madison began. A few people nodded. He discussed the existing bridge, how the project developed, and its historical background.

“The existing TZB that we’re about to cross under is a cantilever-style bridge – crosses at one of the widest points of the river, and is the longest bridge in the state (at) 16,000 feet or 3.2 miles,” he said. Construction began in March 1952, across the country at that time.

“This bridge and thruway system became part of the Eisenhower interstate system,” he said, explaining that during the post-Korean War era, thousands of bridges were built like this built quickly and cheaply; materials were scarce.

The bridge opened a 27-mile stretch of Thruway from Suffern to Yonkers, only 18 months after the first cars drove on the thruway upstate. “Legend and lore (say) only four days later, a major traffic accident happened that created the first backup: four cars traveling bumped into each other” traveling from Rockland to Westchester at dusk.

“That’s nothing like today’s traffic jam,” Madison said. Groaning under the weight of 140,000 vehicles each day, the bridge carries 10 times more daily traffic than it once did, and 40 percent more than it was designed to handle.

And with double the accident rate on the Tappan Zee Bridge than on the entire Thruway system, it’s due for replacement. Not to say it’s not safe: about $750,000 has been spent on deck replacement.

Governor Andrew Cuomo moved the project forward, passing design-build legislation in late 2011, and the project began in January 2013.

“I first heard of the project three years ago, and we just finished the design in June,” Waters said, with finishing touches remaining. “It’s hard for me to talk about the bridge without looking at it,” he smiled, and discussed the technical points, construction progress, and what will happen in the next few weeks.

“We’re good, on time and on budget, and (these are) tough, challenging jobs,” he said. Stay tuned for news about the I Lift NY, and other project happenings.

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