The Queensboro Bridge is 110 years old on March 30th. As bridges go, it is neither particularly innovative nor all that attractive, but like that more famous bridge four and a half miles down the East River, it did a lot to define the borough from which it takes its name. Queens had only been a part of New York City for a decade before the Queensboro opened; apart from an industrialized waterfront, the borough was rural and sparsely populated.
Despite not being a standout beauty, the Queensboro Bridge inspired many artists over its century-plus. F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions the bridge by name in The Great Gatsby: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty of the world.” Charlotte the spider, of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, asks Wilbur the pig, “Did you ever hear of the Queensboro Bridge?” Wilbur shook his head. “Is it a web?” “Sort of,” replied Charlotte. “But do you know how long it took men to build it? Eight whole years. My goodness, I would have starved to death waiting that long. I can make a web in a single evening.”
New York’s one and only Billy Joel filmed the music video for “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” on the Queensboro in 1985, and Simon and Garfunkel sang “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” in 1966. And in 1979’s Manhattan, Woody Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis created one of the cinema’s most enduring vistas from a bench in Sutton Place Park at East 58th Street, the widescreen Queensboro looming large in black and white.
In real life, runners cross the Queensboro during the New York City Marathon. It is not the only bridge they’ll cross in 26.2 miles, but approached just before do-or-die Mile 16 and crossed in silence without the encouraging roar of the spectators, it may be the toughest.
Before the bridge, Queens was mostly agricultural land, cut off from Manhattan by the East River. In 1870, Long Island City incorporated and in 1898, Queens became a borough of New York City and it became clear that ferries to and from Manhattan just weren’t going to cut it.
In 1902, bridge engineer Gustav Lindenthal became the first Commissioner of the Department of Bridges. Lindenthal determined a cantilevered truss bridge was the best option to span the 7,449 feet between the boroughs, crossing over what was then known as Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island. Lindenthal engaged Brooklyn-born architect Henry Hornbostel to help design a gigantic bridge with two levels: an upper with two sets of railroad tracks and two pedestrian walkways and a lower with two sets of trolley tracks and four lanes for automobiles.
Over the years, the bridge has seen a slew of revisions, including passenger and car elevators down to Roosevelt Island, and in 2010, it was contentiously renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, after New York City’s 105th mayor. The bridge now carries some 170,000 vehicles, 5,400 cyclists, and more than 2,000 pedestrians every day between Manhattan and Queens. It’s far from the most beautiful bridge but it has history and meaning and gave connected Queens to the heart of Manhattan and it is still groovy.