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This 2006 photo shows the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge (RI 138) looking west from Conanicut Island. The photo was taken shortly after the old steel span was demolished. Note the piers awaiting demolition. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

THE OLD JAMESTOWN BRIDGE: From colonial times, Narragansett Bay proved to be a formidable obstacle to continuous travel, both intrastate and interstate. A trip to the other side of Narragansett Bay meant either a long ferry ride (one that began service in 1675) or a circuitous land trip through the crowded streets of Providence. The introduction of steam service across the West Passage in 1888 cut travel times modestly, but still could not guarantee a fast all-weather route.

Planning for the original Jamestown Bridge began in 1920 and was spurred by financial troubles at the Newport Ferry Company. These plans were bolstered in 1934 when the state of Rhode Island sought Federal aid to build bridges over the West Passage and East Passage of Narragansett Bay.

As the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the bridge - and its promise of employment - received widespread support from many state and local officials. Despite opposition from pockets of wealth in Newport, Jamestown, and North Kingstown, the Rhode Island House of Representatives approved the proposal by a 96-to-1 vote; President Franklin Roosevelt's approval paved the way for Federal funding. However, it took the devastating "Long Island Express" hurricane of September 21, 1938 - which destroyed the ferry docks and one of the ferryboats - to change the minds of those along Narragansett Bay who had opposed the bridge and now were left without ferry service.

Work on the Jamestown Bridge began on an accelerated schedule in January 1939. Designed by the engineering firm Parsons, Klapp, Brinckerhoff and Douglass (now called Parsons Brinckerhoff), the 6,982-foot-long Jamestown Bridge, which was to surpass the nearby Mount Hope Bridge as the longest bridge in New England, was comprised of 69 different spans of varying length and design from west to east:

  • 37 trestle spans, western approach: 2,035 feet total

  • 16 girder spans, western approach: 1,500 feet total

  • Three deck truss spans, western approach: 807.5 feet total

  • Main cantilever span: 1,152 feet total (600-foot main span and two 276-foot side spans)

  • Three deck truss spans, eastern approach: 807.5 feet total

  • Seven girder spans, eastern approach: 680 feet total

The bridge had a mid-span clearance of 135 feet to accommodate Navy vessels from Davisville (North Kingstown) and Quonset Point. The 22-foot-wide roadway, which accommodated two lanes (one in each direction) of vehicular traffic, was made of concrete except for on the cantilever span where a steel-grate deck was used to reduce wind tress. More than 1,100 tons of reinforced steel, 18,000 feet of steel H-beams, and 43,000 tons of reinforced concrete were used in the construction of the old bridge.

The Jamestown Bridge opened to traffic on July 27, 1940 at a cost of $3 million, which was financed by a 90-cent toll collected in Kingstown (later reduced to 35 cents and later 25 cents). It was only two months behind schedule and more than $100,000 under budget. About 200 men worked on the bridge, and unlike many other major construction projects of that time, there were no construction fatalities.

The Jamestown span held the title as the longest bridge in New England until the 11,906-foot-long Mystic River (Tobin) Bridge opened in Boston in 1950. The toll was collected on the old Jamestown Bridge until the nearby Newport (Pell) Bridge opened in 1969.

These 2004 photos shows the old Jamestown Bridge on the western approach (left photo) and on the main cantilever span. (Photos by Steve Alpert.)

MADE OBSOLETE IN LESS THAN 20 YEARS: Over the years, the Jamestown Bridge became known as the "Hail Mary" bridge because of its steep slope from the causeway approaches to the main span and the slippery grating at mid-span. The bridge soon became unable to handle the growing number of large trucks and buses, and the Jamestown Bridge Commission imposed a rule of one large truck or bus on the bridge at a time. This made for a length trip for high school students in Jamestown who had to commute to North Kingstown because there was no high school on Conanicut Island.

As officials began plotting the course of the state's expressway network in the mid-1950's, they realized that the existing Jamestown Bridge would need to have at least a parallel two-lane bridge, if not replaced altogether, as part of the proposed RI 138 Expressway connecting I-95 to Newport. In 1970, officials decided that the bridge needed complete replacement because of its inability to accommodate increased traffic and higher speeds, inadequate lane width, steep grades, and high maintenance costs. These concerns came to the fore after the opening of the Newport (Claiborne Pell) Bridge one year earlier. By the end of 1970's, the plan became a race against the clock as small chunks of concrete from the bridge began to fall into Narragansett Bay.

AN INTERSTATE HIGHWAY REPLACEMENT: In 1971, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) changed its I-895 plans for a Lower Narragansett Bay crossing from a highly controversial one further north. The proposed I-895, which was to extend more than 40 miles through Rhode Island and Massachusetts, included plans for a new four-lane Jamestown Bridge to replace the existing span.

The RIDOT initiated corridor location and environmental impact studies in November 1975. Following the December 1978 publication of a draft environmental impact statement, the RIDOT and Massachusetts Department of Public Works (MassDPW) held four public hearings on the route during the summer of 1979.

After years of environmental studies and contentious public hearings, the RIDOT and the MassDPW requested deleting I-895 from the Interstate highway system in December 1979. However, it was not until December 30, 1982 that the FHWA formally removed the I-895 designation through Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Almost immediately after I-895 was cancelled, the RIDOT used I-895 trade-in funds to begin design work on the new Jamestown Bridge. It selected consulting engineers to design two alternative bridge designs - one for a concrete bridge and one for a steel bridge - in compliance with Federal guidelines. The RIDOT advertised bids for the bridge in September 1984, and three months later a joint venture (Clark-Fitzpatrick-Franki Foundation, or CFF) submitted a low bid of $63.4 million.

DESIGN OF A NEW SPAN: The new 7,350-foot-long bridge - which was to exceed the length of the old span by 368 feet and assume its place as the second-longest bridge in New England (after the nearby Pell-Newport Bridge) - was to be a four-lane freeway bridge built approximately 100 feet north of the existing two-lane bridge. It was to be comprised of 52 spans: world-renowned design firm T.Y Lin International designed the 23-span superstructure, while Pawtucket-based Gordon R. Archibald, Inc designed the 29-span causeway section.

On the 23-span main section of the bridge, 15 of the spans were pre-cast in Davisville and shipped south to the construction site, while the remaining spans were cast in place. The span over the main navigation channel measured 636 feet from pier to pier (36 feet more than the main span) while providing 135 feet of vertical clearance at mid-span. Engineers built in thousands of steel strands within the concrete superstructure to not only provide additional structural integrity, but also connect the segments into one solid structure.

The 75-foot-wide roadway on the new bridge, which was more than three times wider than the roadway on the old span, was to accommodate four 12-foot-wide traffic lanes, a five-foot-wide raised concrete median, two eight-foot-wide right shoulders, and two three-foot-wide walkways. However, the walkways are not open to pedestrian or bicycle traffic.

A LONG, SLOW START TO CONSTRUCTION: Construction of the new Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge began soon after the first contract was signed on June 12, 1985. Almost immediately, CFF encountered a problem with the type of pilings and the depths necessary to support the load of the bridge. Although the original design specified that depths of 90 to 105 feet would be adequate, additional tests conducted by the state found that depths of 150 to 200 feet were necessary to support the concrete bridge and the four lanes of traffic that would be carried on it. CFF also encountered problems with the concrete foundation work and the Jamestown approach.

With construction only about 25 percent complete, CFF went to State Superior Court on February 18, 1988 to prevent the state from requiring it to install the deeper piles under breach of contract, contending that the new piling system required a new construction contract. The two parties agreed formally to terminate the contract on March 21, 1988; the state subsequently countersued CFF for contractor incompetence.

For nearly a year and a half, nearly all construction activities ceased on the span as the RIDOT sought new bids to complete the bridge. A new joint venture of the Guy F. Atkinson Construction Company and the Kiewit Construction Company submitted the winning $101.5 million bid on June 21, 1989. Construction resumed on the new span that September.

The new Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge opened to traffic on October 8, 1992. To the west, the bridge connected to a newly expanded RI 138 Expressway, which was widened from a two-lane undivided ("super 2") controlled-access road to a four-lane, median-separated freeway one year earlier. To the east, connections were provided to an upgraded RI 138 Expressway through Conanicut Island to the Pell-Newport Bridge, which opened in 1994. The $161 million cost of the new span was nearly three times the 1984 estimate and almost 54 times the cost of the original 1940 span.

This 2002 photo shows the westbound lanes of the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge (RI 138) across Narragansett Bay near mid-span. To the left is the old Jamestown Bridge, which was closed to vehicular traffic in 1992 and torn down in 2006. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

WAITING FOR IT TO ALL COME DOWN: During the design and construction of the new Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge, the state planned to convert at least parts of the old span as a park and public fishing pier. An alternative plan offered by the Sierra Club called for the state to maintain the old bridge in its entirety as a multi-use trail for use by pedestrians and cyclists. Both plans were to be serviced by a parking area in North Kingstown with dedicated ramps to and from the RI 138 Expressway.

However, the RIDOT soon stopped maintenance on the old bridge, and its state of disrepair accelerated. Attempts to rehabilitate the old bridge ran into state and Federal funding roadblocks during the 1990's, but this race against the clock did not turn out in the bridge's favor. Subsequent inspections found that the bridge had deteriorated beyond repair, and the decaying bridge was considered a hazard to navigation to the U.S. Coast Guard, which threatened to fine the state. By the end of 1999, the towns of Jamestown and North Kingstown requested that the RIDOT tear down the old bridge.

In the meantime, the costs of the demolition had increased from $12 million to $20 million. Short of funding, the RIDOT tried an innovative solution: it offered Hollywood studios the chance to blow up the old bridge if they paid the demolition costs. It also tried to give the bridge away to anyone who wanted it, but its advanced state of deterioration likely deterred buyers.

In February 2003, the RIDOT prepared a draft environmental impact statement that called for the demolition of the main cantilever span and the Jamestown approach, but kept the North Kingstown approach as a public recreational pier. However, a November 2003 inspection by Gordon R. Archibald, Inc. found that western approach also reached an advanced state of disrepair.

The final decision of record released in March 2004 called for the demolition of the entire span. It called for the structural steel to be recycled, while the concrete debris was to be carted to several sites in Lower Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound for the creation of artificial reefs.

IT WAS A BLAST! The old Jamestown Bridge passed into history on April 18, 2006 with the detonation of the main cantilever span. Engineers laid 75 pounds of explosives in 350 charges at 20-foot intervals along the main span. A second detonation of the deck truss and girder spans one month later required the use of 1,100 pounds of explosives. Traffic was stopped on the new Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge during both operations. Additional demolition work to remove the concrete piers and causeway approaches is expected to continue through early 2007.

NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON'T: These photos show the detonation of the main cantilever span of the old Jamestown Bridge on April 18, 2006. The flanking deck trusses and girder spans were detonated on May 17, 2006. Demolition work is scheduled to continue through early 2007. (Photos by Chuck Aube, Rhode Island Department of Transportation.)

Type of bridge:
Construction started:
Opened to traffic:
Length of main span:
Length of side spans:
Total length of bridge and approaches:
Width of bridge:
Number of traffic lanes:
Clearance at center above mean high water:
Cost of original structure:

Segmental concrete box-girder
June 12, 1985
October 8, 1992
636 feet
340 feet
7,350 feet
75 feet
4 lanes
135 feet

The Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge should be incorporated into the proposed "Narragansett Turnpike," a four-lane turnpike would extend along RI 138, RI 114 and RI 24 / MA 24. The new route, which would be designated I-695, also would incorporate existing expressway sections of RI 138 and RI 24 / MA 24 (Fall River Expressway).

Pedestrian and bicycle traffic should be permitted on the bridge's walkways during daylight hours, weather permitting.

SOURCES: "Rhode Island Roads," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1956); "A Highway Program for Rhode Island," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1959); "East Shore Expressway," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1966); "Proposed Interstate System Adjustment," Rhode Island Department of Public Works and Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1968); "Interstate 895: Final Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Rhode Island Department of Transportation (1984); "State Route 138: Final Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Rhode Island Department of Transportation (1987); "Review of the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge," Office of the Auditor General, State of Rhode Island (1990); "Jamestown Bridge Replacement Project: Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Rhode Island Department of Transportation (2004); "Soon We'll Be Saying 'Where the Old Bridge Used To Be" by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, The Providence Journal (4/09/2006); "Men Who Helped Build Bridge on Hand To Mark Its Destruction" by Ray Henry, The Associated Press (4/18/2006); "Old Jamestown Bridge Is Demolished," WPRI-TV (4/18/2006); "Memories of a Bridge Little Loved but Respected" by Katie Zezima, The New York Times (4/19/2006); "In Second Round of Demolition for Jamestown Bridge, a Job Well Done" by Randal Edgar, The Providence Journal (5/19/2006); "Public Access to Shoreline Recreational Fishing in Narragansett Bay: Evaluation of the Old Jamestown Bridge Site," Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (2006); Jamestown Historical Society; Alexander Svirsky.

  • RI 138 shield by Barry L. Camp.
  • I-895 and I-695 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Pedestrian and bicycle crossings signs by R.C. Moeur.
  • Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.




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