State Bridge Authority Launches Centennial Celebration of Iconic Bear Mountain Bridge
By JOHN JORDAN – June 22, 2023
BEAR MOUNTAIN, NY—As Hudson River bridge crossings go, the cost of construction of the Bear Mountain Bridge was a real bargain.
Back when it opened in 1924, spanning one of the narrowest sections of the Hudson River, the project took 20 months to complete at an initial cost of $2.9 million. In today’s dollars, that’s about $51 million for the 2,255-foot parallel wire cable suspension bridge that connects four counties over an equal number of generations in the lower Hudson Valley.
It was an ambitious but perilous project, built on steep cliffs overlooking the Hudson River. And in that era of nation building, which was booming five decades prior to the creation of safety watchdogs like OSHA (1971), New York State Bridge Authority Board of Commissioners Chair Joan McDonald noted at a recent ceremony. Construction on the project that had no worker fatalities began in the spring of 1923.
No centennial celebration is ever complete without the sealing and burying of a time capsule. The items stored for posterity for the actual centennial on Nov. 24, 2024, include letters from Gov. Kathy Hochul and Lt. Governor Antonio Delgado, artifacts related to the Harriman family, written memories of the bridge, and various mementos from the Bridge Authority and the Hudson Valley region. Also included are letters to the future—written by fourth grade students at Hillcrest Elementary School in Peekskill.
The time capsule was sealed by NYSBA’s longest-serving employee, John Brooks. A resident of Ulster County, Mr. Brooks first worked as a toll collector at the Mid-Hudson Bridge starting in September 1966. Since retiring from full-time service in 1997, Mr. Brooks has stayed on as a part-time employee at NYSBA headquarters in Highland, NY, dedicating more than 56 years of service to the authority.
The time capsule will be mounted in the bridge’s west anchorage and will be reopened 100 years from now in April 2123. The space is located in the basement of the bridge’s historic administration building that is home to the Richy Vacek Bear Mountain Bridge Museum. The space, named in memory of a retired bridge foreman, is home to a small museum and classroom area that is open to schools and other groups by appointment.
Ms. McDonald of the NYSBA said, “Ever since the Bridge Authority took ownership of the bridge in 1940, the NYSBA Board of Commissioners has worked to ensure the Bear Mountain Bridge remains a safe, reliable, and affordable river crossing for the residents and visitors of the Hudson Valley. As we dedicate this time capsule, we recommit ourselves to this mission to ensure that travelers 100 years from now can continue to experience this beloved span and the beautiful region it calls home.”
New York State Bridge Authority Executive Director Dr. Minosca Alcantara said, “A century after it was first constructed, the Bear Mountain Bridge continues to stand proudly over the Hudson River thanks to the Bridge Authority’s preventive maintenance program. At the end of the day, this centennial is a celebration of the hardworking men and women who have built, maintained, and protected this bridge so that it can enter a new century of service to the Hudson Valley.”
Mr. Day of Rockland said, “This is, hands-down, the most beautiful bridge you will ever traverse. The views are just stunning. We have a lot of great bridges that overlook the Hudson River, but this one is beyond belief.”
Mr. Latimer of Westchester labeled the bridge “an engineering marvel.” An historian by nature, Mr. Latimer remarked that while the Tappan Zee Bridge required replacement after more than 50 years of service, the Bear Mountain Bridge will be celebrating its 100 years of service next year and remains a reliable and safe bridge despite its advanced age.
Kathryn Burke, director of Historic Bridges of the Hudson Valley, noted that the celebration coincides with the signing of the contract between the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company and the Terry & Tench Construction Co. to construct the span.
“Here stands the iconic symbol of the New York State Bridge Authority’s long-practiced mantra: ‘maintenance deferred is maintenance denied.’ The Bear Mountain Bridge is in the very best condition possible thanks to the dedicated practice of on-going maintenance by the superlative and experienced staff of this independent regional authority. Onward to the next 100 years and bravo to NYSBA for memorializing this historic feat with a time capsule.”
The History of the Bear Mountain Span
In February 1922, the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company, a privately financed entity, was created through a bill passed by the New York State Legislature, allowing for a vehicular bridge to be built across the Hudson at Bear Mountain. Under the bill’s terms, the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company was given three years to construct the bridge and its highway approaches on state-owned land. The Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company would then operate the bridge for a 35-year period, after which, New York State would assume responsibility for the bridge. The state however, did have the option to take over the bridge at an earlier time for a price specified by law.
On Nov. 26, 1924, Mary Harriman, mother of Mr. E. Roland Harriman, President of the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company, helped preside over the formal opening day ceremonies with the bridge being officially opened to traffic the next day—on Thanksgiving Day.
The New York State Bridge Authority purchased the Bear Mountain Bridge from the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Co. on Sept. 26, 1940 for $2,275,000. One of NYSBA’s first achievements was to lower the basic passenger car rate from $.80 to $.50 each way. On Jan. 1, 1942, the toll was lowered further to $.35 and then to $.25 each way on July 15, 1945. Tolls today are collected only in the eastbound direction and are the same rate as the other spans operated by the Bridge Authority.
Since the Bridge Authority assumed stewardship of the Bear Mountain Bridge, annual traffic has grown from just under 483,000 vehicle crossings at the end of WWII to more than 7 million a year today.
In 2018, an act of the State Legislature bestowed the ceremonial designation Purple Heart Veterans Memorial Bear Mountain Bridge. A special commemoration was held on Nov. 12, 2018 to unveil signs with the new designation. The ceremonial name not only pays tribute to soldiers who were killed or wounded in defense of the United States, but also recognizes the Hudson Valley’s connection to the creation of the Purple Heart and the Hudson Valley’s continued connection to the military and its history.
Bear Mountain Bridge Anniversary Website
The Bridge Authority has launched a new website dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the bridge: www.bmb100.com. Visitors there can access information about centennial-related events, share memories, and view archival materials. Most notably, film footage of the construction of the bridge taken in October 1924 is being featured on the website, thanks to the preservation efforts of the Moving Image Research Collection at the University of South Carolina.
Documentary Film Under Development
In addition, a documentary film, expected to be about one hour in duration, is also under development. The film project is a collaborative effort between the Bridge Authority, the nonprofit Historic Bridges of the Hudson Valley and local videographer Scott Snell of SDS Imagery.