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Cruising around Manhattan: A bridge spotter’s guide

By: Dave Gunner

August 2, 2018

A boat ride around Manhattan is a couple of hours well spent. Just being out on the water is reward enough but if you happen to be a pontist – that’s someone who appreciates the aesthetics and engineering of bridges – you’re in for a real treat. You’ll be cruising under some of the most recognisable bridges in the world. These are Goliaths, masterpieces of engineering, impressive and imposing in equal measure and each with their own story. Some of them you’ll recognise from the movies, while a couple of others feature in popular songs.

The Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise takes around two and a half hours and is a great way to see Manhattan from a different angle, with plenty of big ticket sights along the way. At every turn, there’s the familiar. That skyline, for starters. The unexpected: just how green parts of Manhattan Island are. And the delightful, like nesting cormorants. But if bridges weren’t previously on your list of Big Apple must-see sights this trip will change your mind.

Bridges are so easy to take for granted. Yet cities are often defined by them. Think Tower Bridge in London, Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Bridges are part of our culture, they drive economies, connect people and transform landscapes. A bit like, dare we say, airlines! From the oldest, a slab-stone single-arch bridge over the river Meles in Izmir, Turkey, built in 850 BC, to modern design masterpieces such as the Lucky Knot Bridge in China, every bridge has something different to appreciate. And by going underneath them, you’ll often get an entirely different perspective on their construction.

  • The Macombs Dam Bridge

  • Brooklyn Bridge

The bridges of Manhattan carry thousands of people every day, by train, bus and car as well as pedestrians and cyclists. Most were built around the turn of the 20th century, and in their time they were modern marvels. To add to the drama, many people lost their lives during their construction.

he cruise will initially take you down the Hudson River and past Ellis Island for some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty. You’ll then head up the East River under three of the big landmark suspension bridges:

Brooklyn Bridge. The first bridge on the trip and the first of the three big suspension bridges built on Manhattan. One of the true icons of New York, it took 14 years to build and was completed in 1883. Originally used by horse-drawn carts and trains, Brooklyn Bridge now sees more than 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and 3,100 cyclists cross every day.

Manhattan Bridge. The third suspension bridge to be built opened to traffic in 1909. This is the massive double-decker bridge that carries cars, lorries and a subway train, as well as pedestrians and cyclists. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, it connects Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River and has featured in several movies, most memorably in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.

The third massive suspension bridge you pass under, and the second to be built, is the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge connects the Lower East Side in Manhattan with the Williamsburg neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It carries eight lanes of cars and two subway tracks, plus pedestrians and cycles. It’s also the longest Manhattan bridge at 2,227 meters.

Continuing up the East River the next bridge is known as the Queensboro Bridge, the 59th Street Bridge or more officially as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, and is a cantilever bridge that connects Manhattan with Long Island. It’s featured in loads of films and TV shows – including the opening credits of hit 1970s sitcom Taxi – and even has its own song; Simon & Garfunkel’s The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).

The boat now heads under the Ward’s Island Pedestrian Bridge onto Randall’s Island and then onto the Harlem River and ten bridges that link Manhattan to the Bronx.

Robert F Kennedy is a series of three bridges that link Manhatten to Randall Island and then on to the Bronx and Long Island, hence its other name which is the Triborough Bridge. Now it gets more complicated. The part of the Triborough or Robert F Kennedy Bridge that crosses from Manhattan to Randall Island is called the Harlem River lift bridge. Once you’ve passed under this bridge, there’s a series of four swing bridges:

Willis Avenue Bridge, which forms part of the New York Marathon course.       

Third Avenue Bridge, which opened in 1898 and was rebuilt in 2005 (and features in a documentary of ‘Mega Builders’ which you can still catch on Discovery!)

Followed by the Madison Avenue Bridge and 145th Street Bridge.

Continuing along the Harlem River, the next two are some of the oldest of Manhattan’s bridges:

First is Macombs Dam Bridge, which opened in 1895, then High Bridge which is a stone arch bridge and the oldest in New York City, having originally been a viaduct. Opened in 1848, it was restored in 2006 and reopened as a pedestrian bridge.

The final three bridges on the Harlem River are the steel arch Alexander Hamilton, then the Washington Bridge, another steel arch bridge carrying six lanes of traffic as well as pedestrians. The last bridge on this stretch of the cruise is University Heights Bridge, a steel swing bridge and a recognised New York City Landmark.

Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, opened for the boat

Shortly after this you’ll turn left into Spuyten Duyvil Creek and under Broadway Bridge, an impressive double-decker lifting bridge. Next up is the Henry Hudson Bridge, and then a highlight, the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, a railway bridge which rotates to allow your boat through. Finally, you’ll turn left back onto the Hudson, past the point where Sully’s aircraft ditched (some of the Circle Line sightseeing boats were involved in the rescue) and under the last bridge on the tour, the magnificent double-decker suspension George Washington Bridge, the busiest motor vehicle bridge in the world. (Keep an eye out for the Little Red Lighthouse under the bridge; the subject of a popular children’s book by Hildegarde H. Swift.).

The George Washington Bridge (with the Little Red Lighthouse underneath)

ust before docking is the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier Museum, a great place to visit after your cruise.

If you’re not a card-carrying pontist by the time you disembark, you’ll certainly come away with a renewed respect for these magnificent structures and the people who design and build them.

The cruise is run by Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises and leaves from Pier 83 in Midtown.

Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.

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