On this day in 1931, eight months ahead of schedule, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River. The 4,760-foot–long suspension bridge, the longest in the world at the time, connected Fort Lee, New Jersey with Washington Heights in New York City. “This will be a highly successful enterprise,” FDR told the assembled crowd at the ceremony. “The great prosperity of the Holland Tunnel and the financial success of other bridges recently opened in this region have proven that not even the hardest times can lessen the tremendous volume of trade and traffic in the greatest of port districts.”
Workers built the six-lane George Washington Bridge in sections. They carried the pieces to the construction site by rail, then hauled them into the river by boat, then hoisted them into place by crane. Though the bridge was gigantic, engineer Othmar Amman had found a way to make it look light and airy: in place of vertical trusses, he used horizontal plate girders in the roadway to keep the bridge steady. Amman used such strong steel that these plate girders could be relatively thin and as a result, the bridge deck was only 12 feet deep. From a distance, it looked as flimsy as a magic carpet. Meanwhile, thanks to Amman’s sophisticated suspension system, that magic carpet seemed to be floating: The bridge hung from cables made of steel wires–107,000 miles and 28,100 tons of steel wires, to be exact–that were much more delicate-looking than anything anyone had ever seen.
The bridge opened to traffic on October 25, 1931. One year later, it had carried 5 million cars from New York to New Jersey and back again. In 1946, engineers added two lanes to the bridge. In 1958, city officials decided to increase its capacity by 75 percent by adding a six-lane lower level. This deck (the New York Times called it “a masterpiece of traffic engineering,” while other, more waggish observers referred to it as the “Martha Washington”) opened in August 1962.
Today, the George Washington Bridge is one of the world’s busiest bridges. In 2008, it carried some 105,894,000 vehicles.