Oral Histories: Remembering the Original Tappan Zee Bridge
by Krista Madsen
When Anne Petry of then-North Tarrytown was in the fourth grade, her teacher emphatically told the class, “there will never be a bridge” across this part of the Hudson. Citizens of Nyack and the Tarrytowns, separated by one of the widest parts of the river, got from one side to the other by putting their cars on a ferry or driving to the Bear Mountain Bridge or the George Washington.
By the time Petry was 19, she was sitting next to someone on the train to the city who was on the bridge committee; he insisted the bridge was coming here. She was incredulous. Even as she watched the project progress from her daily commute, she had her doubts about this bridge.
Petry’s first trip over the grand new span, all three miles of it, was white-knuckled as her dad drove the family. He was eager to explore what was now so easily accessible to them.
The bridge only took three years to build, from 1952-1955. At a cost of $81 million, it was made on the cheap with hollow concrete and the technology of the “floating caissons” used as portable harbors during World War II. Its controversial placement out of the purview of the Port Authority ensured the toll proceeds would fund the growing State Thruway.
Pete Adamovic grew up on Hudson Street (next door to Helen Manca, 99, who I interviewed last session; and, as it happens, in the very house my family now lives in). The river was his front yard and his obsession. Over lunch recently at Sunset Cove, Adamovic recounted how watching the bridge go up before his pre-teen eyes fit right into the mechanical life path he was already on. The boy who immediately dismantled his first tricycle was later a machinist for Philips, based in Briarcliff Manor, where for nearly 40 years he made parts that went as far as outer space.
Watching the bridge go up may not have inspired him to go into large-scale construction, but he was fascinated. The riverfront he explored daily was a tangle of factories and garbage; Hudson Street sat on the edge of the most industrial part of town. The bridge staging area was in a Quonset hut that later became the Washington Irving Boat Club house. When the Boat Club was founded in the early ‘50s, it actually used the basin that has since been filled in by Losee Field. “If you knew what this place looked like when I was a boy,” Adamovic said. “The pollution, garbage dump, smoldering insulation from the Tensolite wire company.”
The original bridge’s lifespan is up – “you can’t paint rust,” Adamovic laughed – and the work seems to be accelerating now as blue spans connect. The construction is quieter, if showier, with “gangs and gangs of cranes,” said Adamovic, including that celebrity super-crane.
Josephine Galgano said she remembers the noise of the first construction being much louder than this one – notably there weren’t the noise restrictions we have today and the pile driving went day and night. She also recalled the fanfare surrounding the opening celebration and the parade.
Adamovic said on opening day you could walk the length of the bridge. He went halfway and turned back. In the WI Boat Club (of which he’s a lifetime member), he showed me the old aerial photographs of the land and the early bridge, along with the framed certificate from the Tappan Zee’s dedication banquet at Tappan Hill.
The manager of Sunset Cove is a daily witness to this new monumental construction project, slated for completion by 2018 at a cost of just under $4 billion. Javier Rosas, who’s worked here since 2003, said it’s been his honor to see the new bridge going up just outside the large plate glass dining room and patios. He worked on the beautiful May day in 2014 when President Barack Obama came to town to drum up support for this bridge. The construction is historic, he said. “One of these experiences that probably in 100 years we’re going to talk about.”
About the time when we’ll be needing a third Tappan Zee Bridge.
This month, we’ll be recording stories from locals who have managed to make a life for themselves in the arts. Please join us by RSVPing to firstname.lastname@example.org or calling the reference desk at (914) 631-7734. The Artists Session will be held Friday, March 11 at 1 p.m. on the second floor of the Warner Library.