Stony Point, NY - As early as 1868, there were intentions to build a suspension bridge across the rugged Hudson Highlands Fjord. The idea was to carry coal to the Naugatuck Valley from Pennsylvania. Initial plans proposed a design similar to the Brooklyn Bridge, including two stone masonry towers. The Long Depression of the late 1800s, which included stock market panics, sabotaged these early attempts.
In 1913, New York State opened Bear Mountain State Park. It quickly became a highly desirable getaway and vacation destination for New York City residents. Ferries were the only transportation across the Hudson, and they were quickly overwhelmed. There was no service at night or during the winter, and daytime wait times ballooned up to four hours. There was a great need for a practical and permanent solution.
In the 1920s, New York State authorized the creation of the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Company. Among their board of directors were E. Roland Harriman and George W. Perkins, two men whose last names have been memorialized in the region. The state legislature imposed certain requirements on the project: that it would take no more than 3 years, and that the company would operate the bridge for 30 years after which time ownership would revert to the state. There was also an option for the state to take control of the bridge at an earlier date for a specified price.
Building stone masonry towers would make the 3-year deadline impossible to meet. They settled on a steel tower construction to support the deck and cables. This raised concerns about its effect on the appearance of the surrounding Hudson Highlands scenery, with editorials written in opposition to the project. It was redesigned to better fit its surroundings, including arches that evoke a tunnel-like appearance -- similar to the "tunnel" of the Hudson Highlands Fjord.
After 54 years in the making, construction finally began in 1922. The bridge was to stretch from the site of Fort Clinton to Anthony's Nose. This would make it the only Hudson River crossing south of Albany. With a time limit of 3 years, the bridge was constructed in only 20 months at a cost of $2.9 million ($43 million in 2018). In an era where construction fatalities were commonplace, the bridge was completed without a single loss of life. It became the longest suspension bridge in the world at 2,255 feet, and construction methods pioneered here would influence the construction of the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges. It was officially opened to public traffic on Thanksgiving, 1924.
The expensive construction costs, coinciding with the onset of the Great Depression, made the bridge a financial failure for the BMHRB Company. After only 16 years of private operation, New York State invoked its early buyout clause and acquired the bridge for $2.3 million. The state immediately lowered the 75 cent toll rate ($13+ in 2018), which eventually dropped by nearly 70% over the next few years. Starting in 1970, the New York State Bridge Authority collected tolls for eastbound drivers only, matching the policy of its other Hudson River crossings from Albany to New York City.
Today, the bridge serves up to 20,000 vehicles a day and 6 million annually. It was renamed the Purple Heart Veterans Memorial Bridge, signed into law by Governor Anthony Cuomo in October 2018. This is the result of a compromise: it was the original name for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, which was instead named after the governor's father, Mario M. Cuomo.
Whichever name we choose to call it, the Bear Mountain Bridge is an integral part of Hudson Highlands scenery. Views of the bridge come from many different angles, including Popolopen Torne, Anthony's Nose, Bald Mountain and more.
The Timp: The bridge appears as a gateway to the Highlands corridor, anchored firmly into the foot of Anthony's Nose.
Dunderberg Mountain: Iona Island aligns with the bridge.
Sugarloaf Hill: The northernmost view of the bridge, Sugarloaf is the site of a planned Revolutionary War redoubt as part of West Point fortifications. Though it was never built, it is indeed a clear angle to see all northbound vessels as they pass beneath the bridge.
Popolopen Torne: A rugged climb up a bald granite peak is one of the more popular eastward views of the bridge. Route 6 is seen approaching the bridge from the west.
Fort Montgomery: Fort Clinton was demolished during the construction of the bridge, but Montgomery survives today as a National Historic Landmark. Both forts were built to defend a chain that stretched from Fort Clinton to Anthony's Nose. It was the first in a series of chains preventing unauthorized vessels from heading north on the Hudson during the Revolutionary War. Today, the Bear Mountain Bridge follows the same path as the chain.
Bald Mountain: A climb of over 1000 feet is required to reach the overlook on Bald Mountain. Well worth the effort, it is a fine place to view Bear Mountain and its bridge. A trestle carrying a CSX-owned freight railway is seen crossing an area of the Hudson known as the Doodletown Bight.
Anthony's Nose: The site of the bridge's eastern anchor. Unquestionably one of the most popular views of the bridge, it draws thousands of visitors every year.
Bear Mountain: The mountain after which the bridge was named is one of most popular tourist attractions in New York State. The view of the bridge -- stretching across the Hudson towards Anthony's Nose -- remains one of the most classic scenes in the Northeast. Bear Mountain is home to the first section of Appalachian Trail. After the peak, the trail descends to its lowest elevation across its entire 2,174-mile length (124 ft). The AT immediately crosses the Bear Mountain Bridge thereafter.
Information in this article was obtained from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, New York State Bridge Authority, New York State Department of Transportation, NYCroads, and LoHud.