THE FIRST BRIDGE OVER NARRAGANSETT BAY: The Mount Hope Bridge connects Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island - which originally was called Rhode Island - with Bristol on the original "Providence Plantations." It is located at one of the narrowest gaps in Narragansett Bay, and was the site of an active ferry service since the early 18th century. Before the ferry operated, Captain Benjamin Church (considered the first American Army Ranger) and his troops crossed the bay at the point to defeat an uprising by the Wampanoag Indians.
The original resolution for the bridge was sponsored by William L. Connery of Bristol in the Rhode Island General Assembly on March 9, 1920. Connery called for a joint committee to study a bridge between Portsmouth and Bristol when he noted that members from Aquidneck Island frequently missed General Assembly sessions during the winter months, when ice in Narragansett Bay stopped ferry service. The state determined that it was not in its financial interests to build a bridge across Narragansett Bay.
As traffic demands grew statewide during the 1920's, the need for a bridge between the Rhode Island mainland and Aquidneck Island intensified. After initial resistance, the State Legislature awarded the New Hope Bridge Company rights to build a bridge between Portsmouth and Bristol.
TAKING THE "ISLAND" OUT OF RHODE ISLAND: The bridge was built by the firm of Robinson and Steinman, a partnership that was formed by bridge-building pioneers Holton Robinson and Robert Steinman. Robinson and Steinman's suspension bridge was designed to "take the Island out of Rhode Island."
Robinson spent his early years with the firm Buck and McNulty, where he worked as an assistant engineer on the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, and later worked with Rudolphe Modjeski on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Steinman, a young professor of civil engineering, worked with Robinson on the Florianopolis Bridge in Brazil and the Carquinez Strait Bridge in California; the Mount Hope Bridge was to be his first suspension bridge project as chief engineer. The firm later went on to design landmark spans such as the Henry Hudson Bridge, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Mackinac Bridge.
BUILDING THE BRIDGE: Construction of the Mount Hope Bridge began on December 1, 1927. The project began with building the tower foundations, which were dug 54 feet below the bottom of Narragansett Bay. Work also progressed on building the 18,000-ton Bristol anchorage and the 27,000 ton Portsmouth anchorages, which were to anchor the main cables of the span.
The design of the 285-foot-tall towers borrowed from the cross-braced design of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, except that there was a Gothic arch above the roadway. The towers provide a balance to the uniformly deep truss of the roadway. In a departure from black and grey bridges of the time, Steinman decided to paint the towers green to blend the bridge into the landscape.
Once the towers were erected, work began on spinning the bridge's two main cables. Over Steinman's objections, the contractor, McClintic-Marshall, employed an unproven technique using heat-treated steel for the cables. The two 11-inch-diameter cables, each of which had 2,450 wires, were strung from shoreline to shoreline atop the towers. The cables, which had a combined 2,620 miles of wire, had a strength of 230,000 pounds per square inch. From the main cables, workers descended suspender ropes to meet sections of roadway, which were hoisted from the bay below.
TAKING IT APART AND STARTING ALL OVER: In January 1929, just four months before the Mount Hope Bridge was scheduled to open, engineers discovered that three strands of cable near the Bristol anchorage were broken. After finding more strands of deficient cable, the bridge was declared unsafe, and had to be dissembled. Two new main cables - this time composed of more conventional galvanized, cold-drawn steel - were strung across the bay, and laborers worked around the clock to finish hoisting the roadway sections and hooking up to the suspender ropes. It cost McClintic-Marshall $1 million to dissemble and re-assemble the bridge. The problems at the Mount Hope Bridge prompted an investigation into construction methods at the Ambassador Bridge, another Robinson and Steinman project being built at the time, between Detroit and Windsor.
At the same time, work proceeded on finishing the steel viaduct approaches. The four girders supporting the viaduct roadway were 150 feet long each, the longest ever fabricated. The viaduct sections are supported from below by steel piers.
The $5 million Mount Hope Bridge was opened to traffic on October 24, 1929, some five months behind schedule. It held onto the title as longest suspension bridge in New England until the Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge opened 40 years later.
The following excerpt is from the Mount Hope Bridge Company's press release upon the bridge's opening:
The Mount Hope Bridge forms the last great link uniting the highways which heretofore ended on the shores of Portsmouth and Bristol. This mammoth span of steel and concrete, with its spacious roadbed, its commanding view, and its attractive approaches, now stands as a permanent monument of strength and beauty to those whose vision, genius and engineering ability have made its erection possible.
The roadway layout was the same as it is today: two 12-foot-wide lanes (one in each direction), flanked by two-foot-wide walkways. The opening toll was 60 cents one-way, and one dollar for a round-trip.
SURVIVING THE 1938 HURRICANE: On September 21, 1938, the most powerful hurricane to hit the Northeast in recent times buffeted the Rhode Island coast with wind speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour. The hurricane and storm surges killed 688 people throughout the Northeast and caused millions in property damage, but the Mount Hope Bridge emerged from the eye of the hurricane unscathed.
PLANNED AS PART OF AN EXPRESSWAY NETWORK: In 1954, the state took over the operations and toll colleting functions from the Mount Hope Bridge Company, which had been $2.9 million in arrears and had filed for receivership. The following year, the state drew up proposals to tie the Mount Hope Bridge into a "bridge to bridge" highway facility connecting to the Washington Bridge in Providence. The proposal evolved into the East Shore Expressway, a four-to-six lane expressway along the RI 114 corridor. A later proposal called for a new suspension span alongside the existing Mount Hope span.
In 1964, the state revised the charter of the "Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority" (RITBA) such that tolls from the Mount Hope Bridge were to be used to build the Newport Bridge. This accelerated plans not only for the new bridge, but also for new connecting expressways.
In 1971, the Mount Hope Bridge and the proposed East Shore Expressway were considered as a possible corridor for the proposed I-895, a southerly bypass of the Providence metropolitan area. The proposed Interstate met with considerable opposition, particularly in Newport and Bristol.
In 1979, the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts withdrew their application for I-895, citing that it was not necessary for inclusion in the national Interstate network. Three years later, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) formally removed I-895 from the Interstate system. The RIDOT used the Interstate trade-in funds for the construction of a new Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge, as well as a connecting highway on Conanicut Island between the Jamestown-Verrazano and Newport spans.
THE MOUNT HOPE BRIDGE TODAY: According to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), the Mount Hope Bridge carries approximately 15,000 vehicles per day (AADT). The bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
On May 1, 1998, the RITBA collected tolls for the last time on the Mount Hope Bridge at the Bristol toll plaza. The authority found not only that was the toll plaza unsafe, but also that the costs associated with toll collection were more than the 30-cent tolls could generate. The toll plaza was demolished in 1999.
The RITBA has undertaken major rehabilitations of the bridge in recent years. Between 1998 and 2004, the authority spent more than $15 million to replace wires in the main cables and suspender ropes, make minor repairs to the roadway deck (which was fully replaced in 1985), upgrade the electrical system, replace the railing, and repaint the bridge. The repairs were paid for by tolls on the Pell (Newport) Bridge.
This 2002 photo shows the southbound New Hope Bridge (RI 114) approaching mid-span. The two-lane roadway is flanked by narrow pedestrian walkways. Bicycles share the main roadway with motor vehicles. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
Type of bridge: Construction started: Opened to traffic: Length of main span: Length of side spans: Length, anchorage to anchorage: Total length of bridge and approaches: Width of bridge: Number of traffic lanes: Height of towers above mean high water: Clearance at center above mean high water: Steel used in superstructure: Concrete used in superstructure: cubic yards Number of cables: Diameter of each of two cables: Total number of wires per cable: Total length of wires:miles Cost of original structure:
SOURCES: "Dedicating Ceremonies of the Mount Hope Bridge," Mount Hope Bridge Company (1929); "Traffic and Highway Study for East Providence, Barrington, Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island," Wilbur Smith and Associates (1955); "Rhode Island Roads," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1956); "A Highway Program for Rhode Island," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1959); "Proposed Interstate System Adjustment," Rhode Island Department of Public Works and Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1968); "The Interstate Highway System in Rhode Island: A Force for Change in Rhode Island" by Dieter Hammerschlag, Brian K. Barber and J. Michael Everett, University of Rhode Island (1976); "Interstate 895: Final Environmental Impact and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Rhode Island Department of Transportation (1984); Great American Bridges and Dams by Donald C. Jackson, Preservation Press-John Wiley and Sons (1988); Engineers of Dreams by Henry Petroski, Vintage Books-Random House (1995); "Slice of History Lost With Razing Tollbooths" by Raghuram Vadarevu, The Providence Journal-Bulletin (2/28/1999); "Mount Hope Bridge Opened 70 Years Ago Amid Pomp, Salutes and Spectacle" by Raghuram Vadarevu, The Providence Journal-Bulletin (4/26/1999); "Construction Ties Up Traffic on Mount Hope Bridge" by S.I. Rosenbaum, The Providence Journal-Bulletin (7/17/2000); "Mount Hope Bridge," Bryant College (2001); "Bridge Work May Bring Travel to Crawl" by Steve Peoples, The Providence Journal-Bulletin (5/18/2004); ArmyRanger.com; Cianbro Corporation; Nathan Lynch; Dan Moraseski; Scott Oglesby; Shannon Quigley; Alexander Svirsky; Tim Schwarz.
RI 114 shield by Barry L. Camp. I-895 shield by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.