The first span across the Hudson between Albany and New York City, the Bear Mountain Bridge opened in November 1924, making it a stately 99 years old this month. Next year, the New York State Bridge Authority will be marking its centennial, but the celebration already began in April, when Governor Kathy Hochul hosted a time capsule dedication in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of construction in 2123.
What makes this bridge special? An engineering marvel, it was the first suspension bridge with a concrete deck, and it had the longest suspended span in the world when it was built. (The world’s longest suspension bridge is now the 1915 Çanakkale Bridge in Turkey.) It’s been said that the construction techniques helped ignite a boom in bridge building across the United States.
As always, New York politics played a role in its development. The bridge was erected by the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company, a private firm that had connections: The company’s president was E. Roland Harriman, son of Gilded Age tycoon E. H. Harriman. The family was active in preserving Bear Mountain State Park, among other public lands, and wanted easier access for the growing number of people who owned cars. Construction, which began in spring 1923, finished within 20 months without a single loss of life—which is no small feat.
It was dedicated on November 26, 1924, and opened to automobile traffic the next day. (Fun fact: That was also the day of the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in NYC.) Crossing wasn’t cheap: Fees were 80 cents for car and driver, plus 10 cents per additional passenger. (There were also tolls for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, horse and riders, livestock, and larger vehicles.) The tolls were collected in both directions, resulting in a roundtrip fare of at least $1.60, which is about $28 today after inflation. (It’s currently $1.65 for E-ZPass drivers. Thank goodness.)
In September 1940, the New York State Bridge Authority (NYSBA) acquired the bridge. NYSBA gave it the designation of “Purple Heart Veterans Memorial” Bear Mountain Bridge in 2018, in honor of Purple Heart recipients and in recognition of the area’s military history. More than seven million vehicles cross the bridge a year and countless hikers use it to cross the river on the Appalachian Trail.
To build excitement for the centennial, NYSBA created a website (bmb100.com) with event information, shared memories, archival materials, and film of the construction of the bridge from October 1924. NYSBA is also developing a documentary film, in collaboration with the nonprofit Historic Bridges of the Hudson Valley and local videographer Scott Snell of SDS Imagery.
David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years.