Why “First” Is Meaningless

New York has a lot of bridges. In addition to the ordinary highway, street, and rail overpasses that every city has, we have bridges over small bodies of water (e.g., the Newtown Creek between Brooklyn and Queens, and the Bronx River), causeways over large but shallow bodies of water (e.g., Cross Bay Boulevard over Jamaica Bay), and large bridges over wide and deep bodies of water. The last group includes the East River bridges, the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River, and the Verrazano Narrows bridge at the entrance to the harbor. Four of those bridges – Brooklyn, Williamsburg, GW, and Verrazano – were the longest suspension bridges in the world when constructed. Where did this all start? With the minuscule footbridge seen above.

The Dutch colonists in New York, perhaps taking the name Nieuw Amsterdam a bit too literally, constructed several small canals in lower Manhattan. It’s a lot more difficult digging them here than in the soft soils of Amsterdam, but it was possible because they were so small and partially followed the line of an existing creek. As seen above, in a mid-1800s illustration of a scene already 200 years old, the canals were quite small. The illustration does not show any garbage in them, which is apparently an oversight, historically speaking. As they developed into open sewers, they were eventually filled in. The main canal on what is now Broad Street was opened in 1646, when the colony was about twenty years old, and was finally filled in in 1676. The first permanent bridges in the colony were the pedestrian footpaths over these canals. The Castello Plan, originally drawn in 1660, shows the bridges and the village as a whole:

The wood palisade on the right, marking the northern boundary of the village, is now the line of Wall Street. The East River waterfront at the bottom is the line of Pearl Street, missing the landfill between Pearl, Water, Front, and South Streets. Fort Amsterdam, located at the site of the (now old) Customs House and the southern half of Bowling Green, probably didn’t look quite that nice. The location of those four small bridges suggests that the canals were never meant for anything larger than a small barge or a rowboat: the sailing ship in the illustration above can’t get past the bridge without removing its mast, which seems like a lot of effort for little gain.

If that illustration is reasonably accurate – and there are reasons to think it might be – then the first bridges in new were short-span timber girder bridges. And knowing that tells us absolutely nothing about the history of bridges here. It’s not even an interesting bit of trivia in its own right, as there’s nothing to be learned about the building techniques of the colonists by studying these tiny spans.

Even more trivial trivia: the rectangular block at the foot of the canal, between the two bridges and on the left side of the canal (towards the fort) is the site of our office.

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