The Newburgh-Beacon Bridge
The most traveled of the New York State Bridge Authority’s spans, the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge carries more than 26 million crossings a year on Interstate 84. Preceding construction of the bridge, tradition has it that Native Americans regularly crossed the Hudson River at the point between what is now Beacon and Newburgh, long before Europeans arrived in America.
In 1743, an “official” ferry was established when Alexander Colden received a royal charter from King George II to carry passengers and goods for profit. The American Revolution brought national importance to the ferry, making it possible to keep open communication between patriot forces in New England and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
George Washington and both John and Samuel Adams used the ferry to lead armies. By the nature of the territory, George Washington was convinced to set up headquarters in the area before the Battle of Yorktown and to use the site to oversee British withdrawal following Cornwallis’ surrender.
The right to operate ferries between Beacon and Newburgh was bestowed upon the Ramsdell family by the heirs of Alexander Colden. They ran the ferry through the Steamboat Era until 1956 when NYSBA took over ferry services.
In the years before bridges crossed the Hudson, ferry routes were present throughout the Valley, carrying passengers between Garrison and West Point, Poughkeepsie and Highland, Kingston and Rhinecliff, Catskill and Greendale, and Hudson and Athens. However, one by one, they all ceased to exist. When NYSBA took over the Newburgh-Beacon ferry, it had been in poor shape for years and soon became the last ferry route north of New York City.
In February 1951, NYS Assembly Majority Leader Lee B. Mailler of Cornwall introduced a bill calling for test borings to be conducted for a bridge between Beacon and Newburgh. The local Chambers of Commerce as well as civic groups helped mobilize public support for the bill, which was passed and signed by Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Test borings and site surveys were completed and by February 1952, the cost of the bridge was estimated at approximately $18 million, not including legal expenses and the cost of rights of way.
In 1953, Assemblyman Mailler introduced further legislation to authorize actual bridge construction. It was approved but contained no appropriation, leaving the Bridge Authority with no way to build it. Work was also prohibited by law until after completion of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. In 1954, the Mailler-Hatfield Bill was passed by the Legislature, removing the constraints which prevented construction of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge until after completion of the Kingston-Rhinecliff project.
The Bridge Authority lacked the bonding ability to build both bridge crossings at once but the 1955 bond issue which covered the costs of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge also included a $1.2 million development fund to pay design costs and help speed construction of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.
During the Harriman Administration (1954-1958) it was decided by the Bureau of Public Roads that the bridge would need to be at least 4 lanes wide to carry an Interstate Highway. Federal aid for the bridge was then approved because it would be part of what would eventually become the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. The project was delayed however, when 1959 federal funds were redistributed and less money was available. Finally in 1960, at the urging of Governor Rockefeller, the State opted to build a less expensive, two-lane bridge without federal assistance
Before the construction of the other Hudson River bridges, ferries carried passengers between Garrison and West Point, Poughkeepsie and Highland, Kingston and Rhinecliff, Catskill and Greendale, and Hudson and Athens. However, as bridges were built, one by one, they all ceased to exist. When NYSBA took over the Beacon ferry in 1956, it had been in poor shape for years and soon became the last ferry route north of New York City.
The last ferries, named the Beacon, the Dutchess, and the Orange (the last two both built by Newburgh shipyards) maintained ferry service until Sunday, November 3, 1963, one day after the opening of the original Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. Shortly after 5 P.M. that day, the Dutchess and the Orange met at mid-river, signaled a final salute and formally retired the Newburgh-Beacon ferry into history after 220 years. For $2 drivers crossed the Hudson on the ferry for the last time and returned via the new bridge.
In 1997, the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge was ceremonially renamed the Hamilton Fish Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in honor of Hamilton Fish, who served as New York Governor, US Senator and United States Secretary of State, and for the five generations of the Fish family who represented the Hudson Valley in Congress, the State Legislature and the Presidential Cabinet from the Lincoln administration through the 1990s.
In 2005, a privately-owned business revived the Newburgh-Beacon ferry. It now carries commuters from the west side of the river to the train station on the east side where they can catch the Metro-North Hudson Line to Grand Central Terminal.
Construction began on what is now known as the “north span” in March of 1961. The span was built using riveting to hold the massive steel beams and plates together. Each rivet came from the factory with a cap on one end of the shaft. The red hot rivets would be slid through two pieces of steel by one man. On the other side, another worker with a riveting hammer would pound the scorching metal into a mushroom shape while the rivet was held in place, so there were now two caps on the rivet, with the steel between. As the rivets cooled, they would contract and bring the steel tightly together.
The piers for the bridge were constructed using caissons. They were set into the riverbed and driven down to bedrock using the weight of the caisson while the machines dug out the silt below. The deepest caisson on the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge was set 163 feet below sea level.
On November 2, 1963, Governor Nelson Rockefeller cut the gold ribbon on the bridge, opening it to traffic.
Before its construction, it was estimated that the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge would carry 25,000 cars each day, requiring a four-lane design. When funding became difficult, Gov. Rockefeller had decided that the bridge would never carry that many vehicles, and a two-lane structure would be sufficient. Unfortunately by 1964, 25,000 vehicles were using the bridge on a daily basis, and traffic jams were becoming a major problem. The need for greater carrying capacity was critical.
By 1972, the State was considering ways to expand bridge capacity. Completion of new portions of Interstate 84 in Connecticut further increased traffic flow, leading to more problems on the bridge. It was finally decided that a second span would be built on land already owned by the Bridge Authority, south of the first span and that the original bridge would be widened.
The new “south span” and the reconstruction of the north span were financed primarily by the federal government as part of the Interstate Highway Fund. Ninety percent of the cost of the $94 million span was funded through federal money, leaving just ten percent for the Bridge Authority to finance.
The foundations for the piers were built using caissons and cofferdams. On Pier 7, digging on one side of the caisson went faster than the other, resulting in the whole block being tipped to one side. It took months to set correctly and was a “breath-taker” in the words of one construction company foreman. The bridge’s superstructure was built using new weathering steel, which forms a protective coating and eliminates the need to paint the metal. When it was completed, the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge was the longest bridge in the world constructed from the new weathering steel.
On August 21, 1980 boaters and hundreds of on-land spectators joined to watch the placement of the final section of the bridge. The 2,000-ton span was hoisted by four engines and secured in place by 2.5-ton bolts.
Bridge dedication ceremonies took place on November 1, 1980, almost 17 years to the date the original span was dedicated. To commemorate the occasion, a 5-mile race was held through Newburgh and across the bridge. The bridge was officially opened with a motorcade of local officials and dignitaries riding over the bridge (in the wrong direction) from the Beacon toll plaza to Newburgh and back. In 1981, the bicycle and pedestrian crossing opened, only the second to cross a span carrying a federal interstate.
The north span of the bridge was closed in December 1980 for widening and strengthening. It was repainted to match the protective rust color of the weathering steel on the south span.
In 2006, the west approach was repaved and a new truck inspection area was built to allow the State Police to conduct inspections in a safe area that would not interfere with regular traffic flow.
From 2012-2014, the second largest capital improvement project in the Authority’s history was completed when the south span of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge underwent a deck replacement. Deck replacements are critical for ensuring long-term safety of bridge crossings.
From 2018-2019, the Authority oversaw the rehabilitation of the I-84 overpass over Route 9W on the bridge’s west approach. This project involved raising the overpass by two feet, from 14 feet to 16 feet, in order to provide better clearance for truck traffic below on Route 9W and to meet current interstate highway standards.
Beginning in 2020, the Bridge Authority began another significant, once-in-a-generation project when it began replacing the deck of the north span of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. The contract signed with Yonkers Contracting Co. represented the largest capital contract ever signed in the Bridge Authority’s history. The westbound span last had its deck replaced in the 1980s.
Newburgh / Beacon Crossing – Interstate Route 84