The Chamber of Commerce of New York

Building the City > The North River Bridge

Buttressed by a public-service tradition, the members of the Chamber of Commerce often took the long view when others were forced to scrap from day to day, or quarter to quarter. If a project was important enough, the Chamber could afford to spend a few extra millions to get it built properly – especially when those millions belonged to someone else.

Such was the case with the proposed Hudson River Bridge.

By the late-nineteenth century, Manhattan’s wharves and marginal ways had degenerated into “a canal of filth … disgusting to every sense.” The piers were hopelessly obsolete: “A few piles are driven in the mud, timbers are laid over them, and planks are spiked over these … They are too narrow even for the circulation of a junk-cart.” But these rotted, spilling-over docks had to accommodate the vast majority of the City’s sustaining supplies. Most of the railroads that carried products from the continent had their terminals in New Jersey; goods were then ferried across the Hudson River to the piers and warehouses of the West Side.

A span over the Hudson could alleviate the pell-mell of the wharves, and so, in the 1890s, Congress incorporated the New-York and New-Jersey Bridge Company, granting it ten years to construct a crossing somewhere between 59th and 69th streets. The massive project would carry up to a dozen railroad lines, simultaneously easing the problem of lighterage and improving the quayside districts. But, in the Chamber’s view, the Bridge Company was irresponsible and over-hurried. Pressed by its mandated deadline and harried by the constant threat of insolvency, it was willing to destroy the Hudson for the sake of short-term financial gain.


Though worried about the waterfront, the Chamber of Commerce, in this case, was more concerned about the river itself. The Bridge Company’s charter mandated a central span of no less than 2,000 feet. Yet, the Hudson, at this point, was far wider than that. The company’s plans required a masonry pier situated in the midst of the stream, almost a thousand feet from the Jersey shore. Its construction – the Chamber believed – would be a disaster for the City. “The Chamber of Commerce will bitterly oppose any scheme to place a bridge pier or any other obstruction in the bed of the harbor,” said Gustav H. Schwab, who headed the Chamber’s special committee on the Hudson River Bridge. “We consider that the infliction of such an obstruction would be an outrage on commerce and on the people of the country.”

At stake was not so much the integrity of the waterway as the future prosperity of the City. Mid-river piers would hinder upstream commerce. Although large ships did not presently dock above the proposed site for the bridge, Schwab’s and the Chamber’s long-view perspective indicated that the time would come when, “the whole shore line, within the City limits of New-York, on the Hudson River, will be ultimately taken up in pier accommodations, as well as the opposite shore on the New-Jersey side.” After all, Schwab argued, “thirty years ago the harbor shipping of New York, on the Hudson River, did not extend beyond Tenth Street.”



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