The Old Goethals: Taking a Drive Down Memory Lane

By Neal Buccino, Media Relations Staff, and Port Authority Project Consultant Nicole Hunter

Tonight, traffic will come to a stop on the 89-year-old Goethals Bridge connecting Staten Island and Elizabeth. The 7,100-foot bridge is giving way to a new Goethals directly adjacent to it, and the old structure awaits demolition.

While it’s the end of one era and the start of another for the region’s network of bridges, the old Goethals leaves a rich legacy. Here’s a list of the nine things every Goethals aficionado ought to know about the historic span.

It’s pronounced GO-thuls

If, like most people in the region, you pronounce it “Gah-thuls,” you’ve got it wrong. The first syllable is “go” – appropriate for a bridge. This comes from the best possible sources – the many living descendants of Major Gen. George Washington Goethals, who played an important role in the bridge’s creation and whose great-great grandchildren Abigail Goethals, Lucia Goethals Poster and Ben Goethals Poster all live in New York City. 

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George Washington Goethals, the man behind the bridge.

Goethals never lived to see his namesake bridge completed

The man who built the Panama Canal and was the first consulting engineer for the Port Authority died five months before completion of what was first called the Elizabeth-Howland Hook Bridge. The Port Authority renamed the bridge in Goethals’ honor and the first cars rolled over it on what would have been his 70th birthday: June 29, 1928. 

The Goethals and its twin, the Outerbridge Crossing, were the first facilities built by the Port Authority

The two bridges, similar in design, were the first facilities constructed by the Port Authority. The Outerbridge Crossing opened later the same day, and the Port Authority now had two impressive modern structures joining New York and New Jersey.

The original car toll was 50 cents — 25 cents on horseback

When the Goethals Bridge opened nearly nine decades ago, a passenger car had to pony up 50 cents, though a ride on horseback only cost a quarter. Tractor trailers were a dollar per crossing. You could walk across the bridge for a nickel. Only military, police and fire department vehicles were exempt from tolls. Times have changed. Among other things, horses are no longer allowed on any Port Authority bridge. 

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“Good Until Used” – your ticket across the old Goethals Bridge.

The designer considered cantilevered bridges “uncompromisingly ugly”

The original Goethals is a steel cantilevered truss bridge. At the time, it offered the best way to cross the Arthur Kill without impeding the navigation of ships. John Alexander Low Waddell, premier bridge engineer of the early 20th century, did not share Port Authority’s belief that the bridge was destined for aesthetic greatness. He called structures of this kind “uncompromisingly ugly.” Despite his reservations, Waddell did the best he could with the designs for the Goethals Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing. The new Goethals Bridge features a cable-stayed design, the new and more attractive standard for modern bridges.

The Goethals wasn’t the first bridge between Staten Island and Elizabeth

The Goethals is not the first bridge to span the Arthur Kill. Its predecessor was a temporary, floating pontoon structure built by the British during the Revolutionary War. After losing to the Continental Army and militia at the Battle of Springfield in June 1780, the British retreated back to Staten Island and destroyed their creation. The world would have to wait 148 years for a new span.

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Cars crossing the Goethals in the early 1930s.

 

Renowned Mohawk steelworkers from Canada were among its builders

Workers from the Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), a band of Mohawks, helped build the original Goethals Bridge as well as the George Washington Bridge, Bayonne Bridge and other bridges and skyscrapers throughout the region. They were legendary for performing skilled construction work hundreds of feet in the air – fearless, immune to the stomach-churning vibrations of the rivet guns and uniquely qualified for difficult steelwork at vertiginous heights.

The Goethals helped create the Port Authority Police Department

The development of the Goethals Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing required the creation of what today is America’s largest transportation-related police force. The first 40 recruits signed up on June 1, 1928 – just weeks before the two bridges opened – and were subject to a crash course in police methods, traffic control, first aid, firefighting and toll collection.  With police authority in both New York and New Jersey, they were originally known as “Bridgemen” and “Bridgemasters” until 1939, when those titles were changed to Police Officer and Sergeant. 

Tony Soprano drives past it in every rerun of The Sopranos

It’s fitting that one of the finest examples of bridge-building is featured on one of the finest television series of the modern era. The original Goethals Bridge has a cameo in the opening credits of The Sopranos. See it at the 33-second mark here.

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The bridge under construction in the 1920s.

 

 

 

 

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