When looking at the most recent examples of redesigned bridges in the city, the democratic process that led to the new Kosciuszko Bridge is an inspiration. Its proximity to Manhattan and that it carries the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway made it deserving of an ambitious redesign. Further away on the Flushing River, Northern Boulevard’s crossing of the stream has steadily declined in its design, resulting in its present highway overpass appearance.
The current bridge was completed in 1980, a concrete and steel crossing that carries New York State Route 25A on its 73-mile path between Long Island City and the North Fork of Long Island. The previous bridges at this location were much more attractive.
Northern Boulevard’s crossing of Flushing Creek has a long history, as old as Flushing itself when a ferry route connected the town to the western half of Queens on the other side. A dock at the water’s edge took travelers to Manhattan and beyond. It was here in 1790 that recently elected president George Washington disembarked on his visit to William Prince II’s famous plant nursery in Flushing. At the time, a ferry operated across the creek, directed by James Rantus and Thomas Smith, two middle class African-Americans, a rarity at the time.
Recognizing the importance of building a bridge, Prince founded the Flushing and Newtown Road and Bridge Company, with a toll crossing completed in 1801, along with a turnpike to points west. The bridge washed away two years later and was quickly replaced with its second version.
Looking at the 1841 map of Flushing, Prince’s bridge was the only crossing on the creek at the time. The only other overland alternative was to travel south towards Jamaica and then east towards Brooklyn. For reference, present-day Northern Boulevard, Main Street and Kissena Boulevard are highlighted, and the bridge is circled.
As traffic picked up on the roadway and the river, the bridge was torn down and replaced with wider, higher designs that opened up for passing ships. In 1866, the third bridge constructed at this location was a wooden swing bridge, which pivoted on an artificial island in the middle of the creek, similar to the bridges crossing the Harlem River.
State lawmakers abolished the bridge toll in 1871.
In the 1880s, a metal swing bridge appeared in its place with gantries on both shores holding up trolley wires. Above the gantries, a plaque named the bridge, its engineers and year of completion.
At the time, Flushing was the seat of the Town of Flushing, a collection of villages in northeastern Queens that included Bayside, Fresh Meadows, College Point, Whitestone and Little Neck. The bridge was narrow and wobbly, but its artistic elements cannot be denied.
A photo from October 24, 1902 in the Municipal Archives shows the fancy ironwork holding up the bridge’s name plaque. Below the plaque is a regulation: “Driving over this bridge faster than a walk is forbidden under penalty of the law.” The penalty is not listed, but the sign is reminiscent of the Carroll Street Bridge in Brooklyn, where the penalty levied for crossing too fast was $5.
Although it Flushing lost its independence as a town in 1898 when it merged into New York City, its population continued to grow and in 1906, a fifth drawbridge was constructed, arguably the most beautiful of them all.
The first decade of the twentieth century was the time of beaux arts architecture and the City Beautiful movement, when landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal, the Plaza Hotel, and the General Post Office were constructed. Looking at the redesigned drawbridge, it appears to have turret-like towers resembling a medieval fort guarding the approach to town.
The gantries holding the trolley wires also have an artistic element in sun ray cut outs on their joint supports. The photos above and below were taken by legendary city photographer Percy Loomis Sperr in 1935 and can be found in the New York Public Library collection.
Over the following three decades the future of Flushing Creek was debated with ideas such as a Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay canal promising to further increase traffic on the creek. Instead, the arrival of the 1939 World’s Fair permanently terminated most of the river’s use as a shipping route. Meanwhile on land, increased use of automobiles required widening Northern Boulevard and in 1935, the beautiful drawbridge was demolished.
A rendering from the Municipal Archives shows the sixth bridge, a flat overpass with the control room in the middle that opened on April 26, 1939. As there were still coal yards and cement plants along the shore using barges for deliveries, there was still a need for a drawbridge at this location.
On June 7, 1971, vandals broke into the control room, raised the bridge and destroyed some of the equipment. Rush hour traffic stretched the length of Northern Boulevard into Nassau County on that day. By then, boat traffic on the Flushing River had significantly decreased since the opening of the bridge.
In 1980, the seventh and final bridge was completed, a utilitarian structure with no artistic merit welcoming travelers into one of Queens’ oldest neighborhoods. The clearance is higher than its predecessor but it is a fixed span.
Looking north on Flushing Creek, more cement plants and barges making use of the stream. The bridge has one sidewalk, on its northern side with a very inhospitable approach that involves crossing highway ramps on its western side, and a busy intersection on the Flushing side.
Like many modern bridges in the city, this one has a life expectancy, after which it must be either replaced or reconstructed. Perhaps at that future date, Flushing will receive a more attractive bridge that would serve as a gateway to the eastern half of Queens.
To continue traveling east on Northern Boulevard, see Kevin Walsh’s 2006 photo essay on the local architecture. If the history of the city’s bridges are your interest, Rosalba Ferrari’s Bridges of NYC blog visited nearly all of them, counting 107 1/2 so far.
Books on Flushing
As today is Wednesday, I would like to share some stream-related reading materials. For the former town of Flushing, which includes Flushing Creek, Kissena Lake, Mill Creek and Bowne Pond, the following books were used as sources:
“Flushing: 1880-1935” By