The Difference Makers: John Alexander Low Waddell

By Gregory Quinn, Special to the Port Authority

Part 2

In this series, we take a deeper look at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Difference Makers, the men and women who have been instrumental to the formation and continual success of our agency. In our second installment, we are focusing on John Alexander Low Waddell, a critical figure in the earliest days of the Port Authority’s existence.

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The two cantilever bridges of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that cross the Arthur Kill—the thin, meandering river of water separating the western border of State Island and the eastern border of New Jersey, have much in common.

They are of similar age; the Goethals Bridge, to the north, spans 672 feet, while the Outerbridge Crossing, to the south, spans 750. They opened on the same day almost 90 years ago: June 29, 1928. And perhaps most importantly, both bridges were designed by John Alexander Low Waddell, or J.A.L. Waddell, one of the most prolific, widely respected civil engineers in American history. Over the course of his life, J.A.L. Waddell built thousands of structures, many of which still stand today as historic landmarks.

By the time J.A.L. Waddell, an 1875 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, returned to New York at the age of 66, he was one of the most renowned bridge designers in the world.

His career began in Canada, the country of his birth, where he worked with the Canadian government’s Marine Department of the Dominion and the Canadian Pacific Railway.  His productivity and quick-wittedness was on display in an array of unique posts:  He worked in West Virginia for a mine company; in Japan as a foreign advisor and he was a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University.  He was an author of two books; and he worked as a bridge designer in Chicago, where the first of his many lift bridges would see completion in 1893.

In the early 20th century, Waddell was a principal designer of the famous ASB Bridge in Kansas City, Missouri. A lift bridge that at one point carried trains, passenger cars and pedestrians, the ASB Bridge is one of only two of its kind on the planet.

Waddell came back to New York in 1920, shortly after the ASB Bridge was completed. He had prior connections to the Empire State.  It was around this time that the nascent Port Authority of New York was looking to accommodate the much higher volume of interstate automobile travel in the aftermath of World War I. The Port Authority undertook a large-scale development project that included plans to connect New Jersey to New York through Staten Island by crossing the relatively thin span of the Arthur Kill.

The timing could not have been more fortuitous. Making a triumphant return to New York was the world’s foremost bridge design expert at the same time the Port Authority was looking to construct its first two bridges. J.A.L. Waddell would design both the Goethals and the Outerbridge, giving the Port Authority its first two bridges (and first bi-state development project) and New York and New Jersey residents unprecedented access and ease of travel.

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