Verrazano-Narrows Bridge Opens 

U.S. #1258 was issued on the day the bridge opened.
U.S. #1258 was issued on the day the bridge opened.

On November 21, 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge first opened to traffic.

Since 1888, New Yorkers looked for an easier way to cross the Narrows, the tidal strait between the boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn. These earliest discussions called for a tunnel, but were scrapped when talk of a bridge arose. The bridge idea was then dropped and they returned to the idea of a tunnel. In fact, they began digging tunnels but ultimately abandoned those too. However, some of those tunnels still remain today.

For decades, the debate continued on whether to build a bridge or finish the tunnels.   Then, finally, in 1946 real progress was made by New York Parks Commissioner and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority head Robert Moses.   He planned the bridge to complete an expressway system he’d built over several years.

U.S. #1012 pictures the George Washington Bridge, also designed by Ammann.
U.S. #1012 pictures the George Washington Bridge, also designed by Ammann.

Moses hired Othmar Ammann as the Chief Engineer. Ammann had designed many other famous New York bridges including the George Washington, Bayonne, Bronx Whitestone, Triborough, and Throgs Neck Bridges.

After plans for the bridge were made public, suggestions were submitted for a name. In 1951 the Italian Historical Society of America proposed the bridge be named for Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to see New York harbor.   As Verrazzano was largely unknown to the public, the society worked tirelessly to get his name out there. They managed to get April 17 (the date he arrived in New York harbor) named Verrazzano Day. But the bridge and tunnel authority refused because his name was too long and they’d never heard of him.

U.S. #4052 – The Verrazano Bridge was honored in the Wonders of America set.
U.S. #4052 – The Verrazano Bridge was honored in the Wonders of America set.

The society continued to push for the name and eventually got a bill to the New York State Assembly. In 1960 the bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. A few years later, after president Kennedy was assassinated, there were calls to have the under-construction bridge named in his honor, but they failed. And even after the bridge was completed, many people refused to use the name Verrazano, instead calling it the Narrows Bridge, or the Brooklyn-Staten Island Bridge. The society lobbied for many years to ensure the name remained. In spite of all their efforts however, its interesting to note that the name of the Verrazano Bridge is misspelled, as its namesake had two z’s in his name.

Construction on the bridge officially began on August 13, 1959, and progressed quickly. The bridge entrances were built upon the sites of Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth, two historic seacoast fortresses erected after the Revolutionary War to guard the strategic Narrows of New York Harbor. However, it was also at the center of a large controversy because it was planned to be built in the Bay Ridge neighborhood. Ultimately, about 7,000 people were forced to move so construction could continue.

U.S. #4872 paid the rate for a Priority Mail flat-rate envelope.
U.S. #4872 paid the rate for a Priority Mail flat-rate envelope.

Over the course of five years, about 12,000 men worked on the bridge. After three men fell to their deaths, workers went on strike demanding safety nets. These nets were brought in within four days and the men returned to work. The nets eventually saved the lives of three men who fell during their work.

The bridge’s upper level was completed in 1964 and an official opening ceremony planned. That ceremony was held on November 21, 1964. According to a New York Times article, “The sun shone, the sky was cloudless; bands played, cannons echoed up and down the harbor, flags waved, and thousands of motorists yesterday became part of the first – and perhaps only – blissful traffic jam on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.” Just before opening, local politicians cut a ribbon with golden scissors in front a grandstand filled with 1,500 people. The toll to cross the bridge on that first day was 50¢ each way (today a $16 toll is collected for people traveling westbound into Staten Island).

U.S. #1258 – 1964 Verrazano Bridge First Day Cover.
U.S. #1258 – 1964 Verrazano Bridge First Day Cover.

When it was completed, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It lost that title in 1981 to the Humber Bridge in England, but remains the longest bridge in the U.S. In fact, it’s 60 feet longer than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco! The year following its opening, the number of cars using the bridge was estimated at 48,000 each day. A lower deck, originally scheduled to open in 1975, was opened in 1969 due to traffic demands. The bridge also led to a massive increase in homes and businesses on Staten Island, doubling its population from 221,000 in 1960 to 443,000 in 2000.

U.S. #4872 FDC – 2014 Verrazano Bridge First Day Cover.
U.S. #4872 FDC – 2014 Verrazano Bridge First Day Cover.

The bridge is 13,700 feet long and contains enough concrete to build a single-lane highway from New York to Washington, D.C. Two 693-foot towers that weigh 27,000 tons apiece support the bridge. Three million rivets and one million bolts hold each tower together. More than 143,000 miles of cables support the bridge. Laid end to end, the wire would reach halfway to the moon. Seasonal expansion and contractions of the steel cables cause the double-decked bridge to be 12 feet lower during summer months.

The Verrazano has been the starting point of the New York City Marathon since 1976, and as the gateway to New York Harbor; all ships must pass under it.

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  1. I vaguely remember when the bridge was opened. As a historian I knew about Verranzzano, but did not know anything about either the construction of the bridge or the controversy about its naming. Learned a lot from this article.

  2. I watched this bridge go up on the Brooklyn side. I was a teenager then. It was a shame to watch all the homes destroyed in Bay Ridge for the approach lanes to the bridge. The effects of that displacement is still seen today where many streets do not go straight through the neighborhood. I love the signs on the bridge that say ” Life is Worth Living ” and a hotline number. It has stopped a few potential jumpers .

  3. The bridge, like most of its kind, is a beautiful thing and a monument to those who conceived, designed and built it. My own acquaintance with it was in that (exciting) first crossing of the New York City Marathon in 1976. Sports Illustrated published a centerfold photo of that crossing, and to my astonishment I can easily find myself in the picture. Of course, I’m moved to brag about my ‘centerfold photo’ now and then. (Tsk!)

  4. Your article is scholarly impartial. Historical facts and the technical details are impressive. Great work. Thank you MYSTIC .

  5. My dad was an army engineer in Fort Hamilton after the war, and he designed a bridge that included an extension of the 4th Avenue Local subway (now the R train) so people could ride it into Staten Island and vice-versa. Public transportation is now achieved by way of an express bus, which is not very express during traffic jams. He never knew what happened to his design. BTW, the car toll is paid on the Staten Island side, not the Brooklyn side. At all bridges, you pay to get off Staten Island and not to get on it.

  6. As a young boy i lived on Staten Island back in the 60s and marveled how this bridge was constructed.
    It was really fun watching it be built. I liked taking the Staten Island was really fun. But. The bridge was fascinating.
    Really wild when my dad first drove us across the bridge. What a wonderful view. Thanks for sharing the history and the stamps. I really like your app and view it daily.
    Best regards

  7. Does anyone know of a commemorative coin that was given to those who helped build the bridge? My husband’s grandfather had one but it was stolen.

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