Dutch Kills Swing Bridge

Dutch Kills Swing Bridge
Dutch Kills Swing Bridge, 2008

Crosses: Dutch Kills
Location: Long Island City, Queens [satellite map]
Carries: 1 freight track (Long Island Railroad)
Design: (former) swing bridge, now fixed into place
Date opened: 1893

The Dutch Kills Swing Bridge was built by the Long Island Railroad as part of its Montauk Branch in 1893. Located in the southern part of Long Island City, it crosses the Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek.

Dutch Kills and the Growth of Long Island City

As discussed in the history of the Hunters Point Avenue Bridge, the land surrounding Dutch Kills (“kills” is “creek” in Dutch) was originally marshland. The area’s first European settlement was in 1642 by Richard Bruntall, who owned 100 acres of land on the eastern side of Dutch Kills where it meets Newtown Creek [1]. To the west lay an area purchased by minister Dominie Everardus Bogardus for use by the Dutch Reformed Church called Dominie’s Hoek (Hook). In 1664 it became part of the Town of Newtown and later was given to British sea captain George Hunter. It was renamed Hunters Point in 1825. Both Hunters Point and the area surrounding Dutch Kills remained quiet farmland and estates until the 1840s, when industry began to grow on Newtown Creek. The railroads arrived in the 1850s, and industrialization continued. In 1870, Astoria, Ravenswood, and Steinway incorporated with Hunters Point to form Long Island City. Both Newtown Creek and Dutch Kills were used heavily by factories and other businesses located on their banks necessitating the construction of a number of movable bridges.

The Railroads and Hunters Point

The Hunters Point area of Long Island City has a long history as a transportation hub. As New York City expanded, so did the need for commuting. Before bridges and tunnels connected Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey, passengers relied on ferries to cross the East and Hudson Rivers, often directly linking to railroads continuing to points further afield. In 1854, the Hunters Point Terminal was opened by the Flushing Railroad. It was the first railroad to operate in Long Island other than the Long Island Railroad (founded in 1834) and ran from the Hunters Point waterfront where Newtown Creek empties into the East River to Flushing, Queens. The ferry followed soon after the railroad: from 1858 until its closure in 1925, the Thirty-fourth Street Ferry crossed the East River between Manhattan’s east side and the Hunters Point Terminal. The Flushing Railroad was reorganized in 1859 as the New York and Flushing Railroad. Hunters Point continued to grow, and by 1873 two additional railroads had moved in: the Flushing, North Shore and Central Railroad and the South Side Railroad both constructed terminals. By 1884 all the railroads had been merged into the Long Island Railroad. Passengers could travel via the Lower Montauk Branch across the Dutch Kills to Penny Bridge (which provided access to Calvary Cemetery) and points further east.

Dutch Kills Swing Bridge, 2011
Dutch Kills Swing Bridge, 2011

C.C. Schneider’s Bridges

The first rail crossing of the Dutch Kills opened in 1854 along with the railroad; no information about it was found. The expanding Long Island Railroad replaced it with a two-track swing bridge in 1880. The bridge was designed by the German-born American civil engineer Charles Conrad (C.C.) Schneider. Schneider later wrote that the span opened, but with difficulty:

It occurred to the writer that a bridge which is to be used as a fixed span, but must be designed so it can be opened, should meet, in the first place, the conditions most desirable in a permanent structure, viz., when closed it should be practically a fixed span, resting on substantial supports, which, however, could be removed if it should become necessary to open the bridge. This, to the writer’s knowledge, was the first swing bridge where wedges were used as supports at the center. The arrangements for operating the wedges was very crude. [2]

The wedge design for swing bridges never caught on, but Schneider continued to build bigger, more well-known bridges. In 1882, the Michigan Central Railroad asked him to submit a proposal for a bridge across the Niagara Gorge; his design for a two-track cantilever bridge was accepted and built the following year and came to be known as the Niagara Cantilever Bridge (it was replaced in 1924-5 by the Michigan Central Railway Bridge, of an arch design, which is abandoned but still standing). Also in 1883, he started his own civil engineering firm in New York City. In 1885 his design for an arch bridge across the Harlem River north of High Bridge was selected and opened in 1889 as the Washington Bridge. He partnered with the Pencoyd Iron Works in 1886. The company, founded in 1857 and located along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania, had started out making wrought iron but by that time had become a major supplier of steel for bridge building. Schneider, using Pencoyd steel, designed and built bridges for various railroads, among them the Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake and Ohio. He was an early engineer on an East River bridge proposed by the Long Island Railroad in 1893. Construction on that bridge started in 1895 but quickly ended due to a lack of funds–later the Blackwell’s Island Bridge was built (now known as the Queensboro Bridge) across the same stretch of the East River.

Dutch Kills Swing Bridge, 2008
Dutch Kills Swing Bridge, 2008

Current Bridge

While not nearly as high-profile as the Blackwell’s Island Bridge, Schneider designed another bridge in 1893: a replacement for his 1880 span across the Dutch Kills. The channel for boats was widened and demand to use the waterway was up, so the new swing bridge was larger, longer, and carried three (rather than two) railroad tracks. It was of a more modern swing design and, while providing little clearance above the water, it was capable of opening far faster than its predecessor. As was the case with its predecessor, the rail line was in use by both freight and passenger trains. It was operated from a tower called DB Tower south of the tracks on the west side of Dutch Kills.

Wheelspur Yard

A train yard which came to be known as the Wheelspur Yard was located on the western side of the creek and took up much of the land south of the tracks. It included a turntable and was used to store passenger trains. The yards were enlarged northward in 1903-4. During another yard expansion in 1915, DB Tower it was demolished and replaced by a small building on the east side of the creek, known as DB Cabin; the Dutch Kills Swing Bridge is also referred to by this name.

The East River Tunnels

The Long Island Railroad, despite its heavy use, continually failed to be profitable and the Pennsylvania Railroad bought a controlling interest in it in 1900 and began subsidizing it. Penn Station opened in 1910, along with its East River Tunnels, which meant that LIRR passengers could travel from Manhattan to Queens and Long Island directly by rail. The PRR had built Sunnyside Yard (northeast of Wheelspur Yard) to store its trains and much rail activity in the area moved there. In 1917 the East River Connecting Railroad (which includes Hell Gate Bridge) opened, meaning that passengers could leave Penn Station for points in the Bronx and as far north as Boston. Shortly after the opening of Penn Station, a connection between the Lower Montauk Branch and Sunnyside Yard was created, called the Montauk Cut-off. A Scherzer Rolling Lift bridge was built just north of the Dutch Kills Swing Bridge and was operated from Cabin M on the east bank of Dutch Kills.

Dutch Kills Swing Bridge and Newtown Creek, 2007
Dutch Kills Swing Bridge and Newtown Creek, 2007


Penn Station and all the changes it brought added up to a steep decline in use for the Lower Montauk Branch. The Thirty-fourth Street Ferry suffered such a loss of ridership that it shut down operation in 1925. By 1930, Wheelspur Yard was seldom used, though it was resurrected during the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Flushing and was then used for train storage by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The rail industry in general suffered after World War II and the struggling PRR stopped subsidizing the LIRR. The Long Island Railroad went into receivership in 1949 and was then subsidized by the State of New York. By 1959, the Pennsylvania Railroad had ceased to use Wheelspur Yard, and much of it was sold off and its tracks removed. In 1966, the LIRR was taken over by the newly-created state-funded Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority (which changed its name to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968).

Dutch Kills Swing Bridge plaque
Dutch Kills Swing Bridge plaque

As use of the line decreased, tracks were removed; eventually only one track remained on the Dutch Kills Swing Bridge, but it was off-center. According to an account on LTV Squad, in the late 1980s an opening was attempted but failed because the bridge was unbalanced on its center pier. Emergency repairs were made and the single track was relocated to the center, but the bridge has remained in the closed position ever since. The New York and Atlantic Railway took over the LIRR’s freight operation in 1997 and continues to run freight trains over the route to this day. In 1998, LIRR trains stopped for the last time at five of the Lower Montauk’s stations: Penny Bridge, Haberman, Fresh Pond and Richmond Hill. Once-daily commuter service continued on the line out of Long Island City but had ended by 2013. The bridge is in a sorry state. Historical photos of it are hard to come by, but several images, such as those on Arrt’s Archives, from the 1950s and 1960s show it to have been painted black (many bridges were painted black during WWII). It has since been painted an off-white hue which has flaked off to the point where the bridge appears mottled: rust-brown overtaking lighter tones. The bridge’s northwest beam once bore a plaque that read “built by the Pencoyd Bridge & Construction Co / Pencoyd PA / 1893.” It is now broken and rusted, its lower half missing. (An intact plaque can be seen on a plaque located in Harpers Ferry.)

The Return of Wheelspur Yard

During the 1960s, another rail tunnel under the East River was proposed; it was eventually decided to build it at 63th Street and work began in 1969 on what would carry both subway (MTA) and commuter (LIRR) trains; the LIRR would then connect directly with Grand Central Station. Like other tunnel projects in New York City, work progressed slowly and costs continually rose. Construction was cancelled entirely in 1976, though a subway connection to Long Island City was later finished, opening in 1989. In 2007, work began on the East Side Access project which would complete the LIRR connection to Grand Central–it may be completed by 2023. The project has already had an impact on Long Island City, though (beyond the large construction area). Much of the land that was once Wheelspur Yard had been built upon in the years since its demise and housed various commercial tenants. Between 2010 and 2012, many of those tenants were evicted or otherwise forced out–the MTA had plans for the land. The East Side Access project had taken over most of the nearby Arch Street Yard, which LIRR’s freight tenant the New York and Atlantic had previously used. So, the MTA planned to rebuild Wheelspur Yard for the NY&A. Before all the buildings had vacated, however, Hurricane Sandy hit. On October 29, 2012, much of the low-lying former marshland was inundated with up to six feet of water. Remaining tenants suffered severe damage. The flood was followed by a fire in another building weeks later. The buildings were slated for destruction regardless, and those not destroyed by fire were demolished soon after.

In early April, 2015, freight cars began to return to Wheelspur Yard for the first time since the late 1950s. In June, Mitch Waxman noted on the Newtown Pentacle that the increased railroad activity meant that the drawbridges spanning Dutch Kills would likely be replaced. He says of the Dutch Kills Swing:

It’s not long for this world, as the LIRR and MTA are rekajiggering a bunch of their operations in LIC at the moment. The Wheelspur Yard actually has freight rail running through it again, for instance, and there’s been a lot of chatter about plans for the relict Montauk Cutoff tracks which has reached me recently. [3]

Just what the future holds for the Dutch Kills Swing Bridge remains uncertain. For now its rusting presence is a reminder of a time when the Dutch Kills and Newtown Creek were vital waterways and the railroads ruled over Long Island City.

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Central Railroad of New Jersey Newark Bay Bridge

Newark Bay Bridge piers
Central Railroad of New Jersey Newark Bay Bridge piers, 2015

Crossed: Newark Bay
Connected: Elizabeth and Bayonne, NJ [satellite map]
Carried: 4 railroad tracks (Central Railroad of New Jersey)
Design: Vertical lift bridge
Date opened: November 27, 1926
Date demolished: 1980-1988

The Central Railroad of New Jersey Newark Bay Bridge was a two-mile-long vertical lift bridge which consisted of two spans that each carried two railroad tracks. The bridge crossed two shipping channels in Newark Bay and therefore had two lift spans, each with two draws that could be moved independently. The bridge carried both passenger and freight trains.

Previous Bridges

The Central Railroad of New Jersey, also known as the Jersey Central (and often shortened to CNJ), was a railroad that had its beginnings in the 1830s. Originally called the Elizabethtown and Somerville Railroad, it connected Elizabethport and Elizabeth, NJ in 1831 before extending outward to Somerville in 1842. It was renamed the Central Railroad Company of New Jersey in 1849, as it continued its expansion by building new track and acquiring other railroads; by 1852 it reached Phillipsburg, on the Delaware River. The first bridge built by the CNJ across Newark Bay was a wooden trestle with a steel swing span that opened on a central pier. It carried two tracks and opened in 1864; this line ended at the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, located on the Hudson River waterfront in what is now Liberty State Park in Jersey City (the original 1864 building was replaced in 1889 with the Romanesque structure which still stands).

A double Scherzer Rolling Lift bridge replaced a swing bridge in 1904. (Source: Engineering-News Record, Vol. 49, No. 9)
A double Scherzer Rolling Lift bridge replaced the 1864 swing bridge in 1904. (Source: Engineering-News Record, Vol. 49, No. 9)

In 1903, work was begun on a replacement for the wooden bridge. Maritime traffic had increased steadily, and the volume and size of the trains crossing the bridge had also grown. The swing span had to open frequently and the CNJ also wanted to plan for an expansion of the crossing from two tracks to four. The design selected consisted of two Scherzer Rolling Lift spans; a key advantage over the swing bridge was that the bridge would not need to open fully to allow passage of barges and other low ships. The two-track sections could be expanded to four by building an additional span with identical Scherzer Rolling Lifts next to the existing spans. The west leaf of the movable span was floated into place on February 14, 1904 [1] and followed by the east leaf a few months later. The new span was seen as a vast improvement over the wooden trestle.

From Newark Meadows to Port Newark

However, the character of Newark Bay continued to change. The city of Newark began dredging the shallow Newark Meadows during the 1910s to create an additional shipping channel, which later became Port Newark (it is now known as the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal). During World War I the U.S. government used Port Newark to station troops. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was formed in 1921 and was followed by the Rivers and Harbors Acts of 1922, which authorized the creation of even more shipping channels. As the crossing closest to the new facilities and the longest crossing, the bridge came to be seen as a huge obstruction to the growing port [2]. Authorities in Newark were in favor of demolishing the bridge altogether and replacing it with a tunnel (which wouldn’t obstruct marine traffic at all). Cost was an issue; a tunnel was estimated at $100 million whereas a replacement bridge would cost $9 million. Proposed by the CNJ in 1922, the replacement bridge, of a vertical lift design, would have two spans (200 feet and 125 feet wide) that would raise for a maximum clearance of 135 feet above the water; they would replace the Scherzer spans which were 85 feet wide each. U.S. Secretary of War John W. Weeks decided in favor of a vertical lift bridge in December of 1922 [3]. However, that was not the end of opposition to the bridge. In November, 1924 a case was brought to the Supreme Court against the CNJ by the state of New Jersey (led by Newark and Jersey City), questioning the right of a railroad to build across a state’s navigable waters [4]. On March 2, 1925 the Supreme Court decided in favor of the railroad [5] and plans to replace the bridge moved forward.

Vertical Lift Bridge

Vertical lift draws in the open position, looking north (Source: Historic American Engineering Record, NJ-37-42)
Vertical lift draws in the open position, looking north (Source: Historic American Engineering Record, NJ-37-42)

The Central Railroad of New Jersey sped construction of the new bridge as soon as approval had been granted. The bridge’s designer was John Alexander Low Waddell, a civil engineer well known for his vertical lift bridges. Waddell had moved to New York City in 1920 and was towards the end of a bridge-building career that had begun with a lift bridge in Chicago in 1892-3. The bridge was “believed to be the world’s longest drawbridge” [6]; the bridge’s Chief Engineer Arthur E. Owen declared it to be “the largest drawbridge assembly in the world” [7]. While neither claim was ever definitively proven, it would be hard to argue that the bridge was not impressive. The new spans carried four tracks over Newark Bay; the two shipping channels were crossed by double vertical lift spans that each operated separately from one another. The main difference in the functionality of the new bridge was that its height in the closed position was a minimum of 35 feet above the water, so while the Scherzer Rolling Lift improved upon the previous swing in that it only had to open partially for barges, the new bridge spans only had to open at all for taller ships (allowing the passage of many vessels at all times).

The new Central Railroad of New Jersey Newark Bay Bridge was formally opened on November 27, 1926. It had cost roughly $14 million (far higher than the original $9 million estimate several years earlier). The inaugural train riders included twenty-two “veteran” commuters of the line, most notably a resident of Elizabeth named K.S. Kiggins, who had also attended the first bridge opening in 1864 [8]. New Jersey governor Harry A. Moore, several New Jersey mayors, CNJ president Roy B. White, and many holding high positions at various other railroads were also in attendance. In 1927, W.C. Hope, the passenger traffic manager of the CNJ, released statistics stating the the new bridge had allowed 60% of all marine traffic to pass below it without opening, a steep decline in openings compared to the older bridge [9].


At 10am on September 15, 1958, a CNJ commuter train heading towards Bayonne from Bay Head plunged off the south span, which was partially lifted, and into Newark Bay. The train had proceeded past three stop signals; evidence of mechanical failure was never found and it was believed that the engineer had suffered a heart attack. After a dramatic rescue and recovery effort over the next several days, it was declared that 48 people had died in the tragedy–45 passengers and three crew members. Notable among the dead were former second baseman for the Yankees George (Snuffy) Stirnweiss and John Hawkins, the mayor of Shrewsbury, NJ. Later in 1958, the CNJ announced it would be adding new safety measures: automatic trippers would bring rogue trains to a stop if they ignored stop signals (by using a derail system), and “dead-man” controls would stop trains if the operator released the throttle [10].

Abandonment and Demolition

Deck of vertical lift span (Source: Historic American Engineering Record, NJ-37-16)
Deck of vertical lift span (Source: Historic American Engineering Record, NJ-37-16)

The bridge was in for more trouble, however. On a very foggy May 19, 1966, the French freighter S.S. Washington hit the northeast vertical lift span, rendering the two tracks it carried unusable. Furthermore, he overall decline of the railroads was taking its toll on the CNJ; overall ridership was down and in May 1967 the Aldene Plan went into effect. It rerouted CNJ trains departing from Aldene (in Roselle Park, NJ) to Newark rather than over the Newark Bay Bridge. This meant that the only passenger service over the bridge was a shuttle running from Bayonne to Cranford; nicknamed the “Scoot,” its service was very limited. In light of these changes, the damaged span was never repaired.

Use of the bridge continued its steady decline. By the 1970s, CNJ had moved the rest of their freight operation to Elizabeth and only two freight trains a day crossed the span.The Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) took over the operations of the Central Railroad of New Jersey on April 1, 1976 and moved all freight operations to the Pennsylvania Railroad Newark Bay Bridge, north of the CNJ span. The last passenger train crossed the bridge was on August 6, 1978.

The abandoned bridge was deemed a hazard to navigation and an attempt was made to save the bridge by the City of Bayonne. The city was unsuccessful, and on July 11, 1980 explosives were used to partially demolish the bridge. The vertical lift spans and towers fell, engulfed in smoke. The approaches and remaining trestles were removed in 1987-1988, leaving only portions of the piers along the shorelines as visual reminders of the structure that once crossed the bay. The Bayonne Historical Society held a memorial for victims of the commuter train crash in 2008, 50 years after the accident, but other than that the bridge has been largely forgotten. Some remaining portions of the bridge were blasted away as recently as February, 2012 [11]. On the Bayonne waterfront, cormorants and seagulls can be seen roosting on the few crumbling piers that still extend into Newark Bay today.

CRRNJ Newark Bay Bridge piers, 2015
Central Railroad of New Jersey Newark Bay Bridge piers, 2015

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Bronx River Bascules

The three Bronx River Bascules as they were originally constructed, 1909 (Copyright: Bronx Historical Society)
The three Bronx River Bascules as they were originally constructed, 1909 (Copyright: Bronx Historical Society)
The current bridges, with the tower and one span removed
The current bridges, with the tower and one span removed

Location: Bronx River north of the Westchester Avenue Bridge, Bronx, NY [satellite map]
Carries: 3 railroad tracks (Amtrak and CSX)
Design: Scherzer Rolling Lift (bascule)
Date opened: summer 1908

The name “Bronx River Bascules” is not an official one. In fact, these bridges do not seem to have ever been given a proper name. The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, which constructed them, referred to them simply as “bridge number 3.40” [1]. They cross the Bronx River just north of Westchester Avenue and were put into service in the summer of 1908.

The Harlem River Branch

The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad began running passenger and freight service on their Harlem River Branch in 1868. Two jackknife drawbridges carried trains over the Bronx River at the present site until 1893, when they were replaced by a four-track swing bridge. In 1907, the swing was removed and two temporary jackknife drawbridges were put in place. Between 1908 and 1910 the Harlem River Branch was completely rebuilt to carry six tracks and run on electricity. New stations were also built along the route. The closest was the Westchester Avenue station, which stands in ruins today to the south of the bridges, local passenger service having been discontinued in the 1930s.

Diagram showing original configuration (Source: The Engineering Record)
Diagram showing original configuration (Source: The Engineering Record)


The bridge superstructure, as originally built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, was made up of three parallel two-track spans with separate piers on each end, staggered to accommodate the curve of the Bronx River (see diagram). Since the channel is so narrow (about 100 feet wide), the type of bridge chosen was a bascule, which did not obstruct the waterway as the swing bridge had. The particular type of bascule is the Scherzer Rolling Lift, invented by William Scherzer in Chicago; they operate by rolling back into the open position, rather than turning on a fixed axle as in other bascule designs. Since the Harlem River Branch was being electrified, tall towers were put up to carry high voltage wires above the bridges while in the open possition. Each leaf of the bridge was powered by two Westinghouse 25 horsepower, 550 volt direct current motors. All three leaves could be raised simultaneously in about a minute, and as a backup could be opened manually with a chain, though it was never necessary to do so.

Growth & Decline

About 200 trains passed over the bridges daily during their first years of operation; on average they opened 5 times a day during the winter and 12 times a day throughout the rest of the year [2]. With the opening of the Hell Gate Bridge by the New York Connecting Railroad in 1917, the Harlem River Branch became part of a much larger through route accommodating trains traveling from Penn Station to Boston. Over the years rail service declined, as did use of the Bronx River by boats requiring bridge lifts for passage. At some point, the tower containing the operating machinery and one two-track span were removed. The bridges now have only three tracks: one used by CSX for freight and two carrying Amtrak passenger trains on the Northeast Corridor Line.


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