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This 2000 photo shows the Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge (RI 138) from the Newport Naval Station. State officials overcame stiff opposition from the Navy to get the bridge built. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

EARLY PLANNING: Through the middle of the twentieth century, 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.

Beginning in 1934, the state of Rhode Island sought Federal aid to build bridges over the West Passage and East Passage of Narragansett Bay. The bridge over the West Passage, later called the Jamestown Bridge, opened to traffic in 1940. Preliminary studies subsequently began on the bridge over the East Passage, but were delayed by the onset of World War II.

Planning resumed in 1944 for the East Passage crossing as a postwar project, but it was not until April 1948 that the Rhode Island State Legislature approved the Jamestown-Newport Bridge proposal. From this date on, at least 32 engineering studies were made for a suspension bridge, cantilever bridge, tunnel or a combination bridge-tunnel between Conanicut Island (Jamestown) and Aquidneck Island (Newport area). The studies investigated the following locations, from north to south:

  • East Shore Road and North Main Road, Jamestown to RI 114, Portsmouth (near the current junction of RI 24 / Fall River Expressway): This northerly location would have had minimal interference with Navy installations, and approaches would have been fairly easy to build. However, construction costs were higher because this route has greater water distances than the other three alternatives.

  • Eldred Avenue, Jamestown to Browns Lane, Middletown (via Gould Island). The location would have lent itself well to high-level bridge construction, but would have required extensive relocation of Navy property.

  • Taylor Point, Jamestown to Admiral Kalbfus Road (RI 138), Newport (via Coasters Harbor Island Naval Station). This route would traverse a heavily navigated area of the East Passage near the Newport Naval Station on Coasters Island, and require significant relocation of installations on the island. Both bridge and tunnel alternatives were studied for this location. A 1949 U.S. War Department hearing yielded unanimous approval among state officials and business leaders, but the Navy raised strong objections to the location.

  • Bull Point on Conanicut Island (near Fort Wetherill State Park) to Newport Neck, Newport (near Fort Adams State Park). As an alternative to the Taylor Point-Coasters Island proposal, the Navy approved a high-level bridge crossing about two and one-half miles south of the current bridge. The bridge and its approaches were not only too expensive, but also too southerly to be practical. It also ran into significant local opposition from residents on Newport Neck. Although the alternative received preliminary approval from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1950, the Navy decision effectively blocked construction of the East Passage crossing for years.

This 1967 photo shows the towers and approach piers nearing completion on the Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge. (Photo by Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.)

NEW LIFE FOR THE NEWPORT BRIDGE: The Newport Bridge received a new lease on life early in 1954 when the State Legislature created the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA). In addition to financing, building and maintaining the proposed East Passage crossing and its immediate approaches, the new authority took over jurisdiction of the Mount Hope Bridge (RI 114) connecting Portsmouth with Bristol.

The Newport Bridge received another boost during the late 1950's when the Rhode Island Department of Public Works (RIDPW) unveiled plans for a statewide expressway network. The new network included the proposed East Passage crossing and a more ambitious "Cape Cod Expressway" (proposed earlier by a multi-state consortium) that was to connect to the bridge. However, the "Highway Program for Rhode Island" report scheduled the project for the post-1965 period, putting off hopes for prompt construction.

In 1960, the RITBA commissioned the engineering firm of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas to design the Newport Bridge. The location of the suspension bridge and causeway was to be variation of the earlier proposed Taylor Point- Admiral Kalbfus Road alignment, but instead of going in a straight line through the Naval Station on Coasters Island, the alignment was to veer south toward Washington Street before turning west.

However, getting the project approved proved to be a difficult process. Voters rejected a 1960 statewide referendum that would have given the RITBA the ability to sell bonds for the Newport Bridge. A second referendum attempt in 1964 was successful, and the measure was re-ratified in 1965. At that time, the bridge was estimated to cost $47 million.

The RITBA selected Alfred Hedefine, who was the principal engineer and partner at Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas, to design the Newport Bridge. Since 1932, Hedefine distinguished himself with his arch, lift and bascule bridge designs, and also was famous for the "Trylon and Perisphere" design for the 1939-1940 World's Fair in New York. The Newport Bridge would be his signature bridge project.

CONSTRUCTION GETS UNDERWAY: By the end of 1965, the RITBA received final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy regarding the final location and clearances for the bridge. Construction of the approach piers began on April 5, 1966, and work on the tower piers and anchorages began one month later.

Creating the foundations for the tower piers and anchorages was an arduous task. More than 800 steel piles had to be driven down to bedrock. Some piles were dug as much as 162 feet below the water's surface, which still is a record for pile driving. When divers began to cut off the tops of the piles, they found that they could only stay down for 30 minutes before returning to the surface. A diving tank was sent to the bridge site, and the divers' productivity went from one pile a day to 15 piles a day.

Once the steel piles were set, prefabricated forms were sent by barge to the site. The largest of these forms weighed 420 tons and stood ten stories high. To remove these forms from the barges and set them in place, engineers used a 309-foot vessel called the Avondale Senior, which had twin booms that could handle 500 tons. Two powerful storms wreaked havoc with the forms, so engineers had to straighten the forms before concrete could be poured for the two tower piers and the 52 other piers.

The 90,000 cubic yards of concrete in the piers and anchorages - the largest amount of concrete ever poured underwater - were poured by the "tremie" method, a low-pressure procedure that involves pouring grout into a tremie tube. Compared to traditional methods, the "tremie" method exerts less pressure on the pier walls when the concrete is being poured. At the time of the piers' erection in 1966 and 1967, the Newport Bridge held the single-project construction record for the use of the "tremie" method.

During the summer and fall of 1967, workers erected the two 400-foot-tall steel towers of the bridge. The streamlined towers and arched portals are reminiscent of those found on bridges designed by Othmar Ammann such as the Verrazano-Narrows, Bronx-Whitestone, Walt Whitman and Delaware Memorial bridges.

Workmen complete pavement and electrical work on the Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge in this 1969 photo. (Photo by Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.)

A RIBBON OF STEEL ACROSS NARRAGANSETT BAY: Until the Newport Bridge was built, main suspension cables were created by spinning each strand wire by wire, from anchorage to tower, tower to tower and tower to anchorage. This conventional cable-spinning process was repeated thousands of times.

For the Newport span, Bethlehem Steel developed a new construction method that used prefabricated parallel wire strands. The two main cables, each of which measured just over 15 inches in diameter, were coated with a glass fiber-plastic protective casing. Each of the bridge's main cables had 76 strands, and each strand had 61 wires (each 0.2 inch in diameter and measuring 4,516 feet long). Laid end to end, the wires would stretch for more than 8,000 miles. The cables weighed a total of 2,280 tons. This work continued from late 1967 through mid-1968.

By late 1968, workers began work on hoisting the roadway into place. Floating cranes hoisted the conventional steel truss sections on the main suspension span from Narragansett Bay. The distance between towers is 1,600 feet, and at center span, the roadway provides a 206-foot vertical clearance for ocean-bound vessels. On either side of the main suspension bridge, there are 11 deck-truss spans measuring a total of 3,450 feet; 15 girder spans measuring a total of 2,524 feet; 300 feet of multi-girder spans and 2,000 feet of pre-stressed concrete beam spans. The concrete deck is seven and one-half inches deep. Approximately 17,500 cubic yards of concrete were used to build the roadway deck.

The finishing touches included the installation of 35 miles of electrical wire for the bridge's lighting system. New approaches were built on the Newport side of the bridge to connect with future expressway connections.

The $61 million Newport Bridge opened to traffic on June 28, 1969 with a ceremony at the Jamestown toll plaza, which also houses the headquarters for the RITBA. The bridge won awards for excellence in engineering design from the New York Association of Consulting Engineers, the Consulting Engineers Council, the American Iron and Steel Institute, and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

THE BRIDGE SURVIVES A DIRECT HIT: In February 1981, a tanker loaded with 50,000 barrels of oil made a direct hit on one of the main piers of the bridge. The only damage sustained to the bridge was a smear of gray paint from the tanker, a testimony to the strength of the bridge. Meanwhile, the impact crushed the bow of the tanker inward by ten feet.

Despite this success, the RITBA is investigating the need for pier protection. At the present time, there are no fenders to protect the bridge's piers.

This 2003 photo shows the Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge (RI 138) from the Newport shoreline, looking west toward Jamestown. (Photo by Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.)

ONCE SELECTED AS AN INTERSTATE ROUTE: In 1971, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Works (MassDPW) selected a new 40-mile-long routing for the proposed I-895 after an earlier route closer to Providence had been rejected. The two states' reason for rejecting I-895 was that the right-of-way went through established neighborhoods in East Providence, and the proposed bridge over Narragansett Bay was too close to T.F. Green Airport.

The new I-895 was to begin at I-95 near EXIT 3 (RI 138), then follow the route of RI 138 to the Newport Bridge. After crossing the Newport Bridge, I-895 would have paralleled RI 114, and continued north either over the Mount Hope Bridge along the East Shore Expressway (proposed RI 116) routing, or over the Sakonnet Bridge along the Fall River Expressway (RI 24) corridor.

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.

Despite its denial of Interstate status, the Newport Bridge still carries its share of interstate traffic. According to the RIDOT, approximately 30,000 vehicles use the bridge each day (AADT). On December 16, 2008, the RITBA installed the first EZ-Pass electronic toll collection lanes at the toll plaza to facilitate local and interstate travel.

HONORING CLAIBORNE PELL: In 1997, Rhode Island State Legislature dedicated the Newport Bridge in honor of six-term U.S. Senator Clairborne Pell upon his retirement. During his tenure in the Senate, Pell created the eponymously named financial aid grants for college students, and sponsored legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Pell, who was the longest serving U.S. Senator in Rhode Island history, died on January 1, 2009 at the age of 90.

This 2002 photo shows the Claiborne Pell (Newport) Bridge (RI 138) near the Newport tower, heading west toward Jamestown. Note the lack of a median barrier on the span. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority should install the EZ-Pass electronic toll collection system at the Jamestown toll plaza. The installation of EZ-Pass would help alleviate congestion, particularly on summer weekends.

In the longer term, the Claiborne Pell (Newport) 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).

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 suspended structure:
Reinforcing steel used:
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Concrete used in roadway and approaches:
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Suspension
April 5, 1966
June 28, 1969
1,600 feet
687 feet, 9 inches
2,975 feet, 6 inches
11,248 feet, 2 inches
48 feet
4 lanes
400 feet
206 feet
23,280 tons
4,000 tons
2 cables
151/16 inches
4,636 wires
8,000 miles
136,000 cubic yards
17,500 cubic yards
$61,000,000

SOURCES: "New England Road Project Backed," The New York Times (10/29/1953); "New England South Shore Highway," Interstate Study Committee (1953); "Narragansett Bay East Passage Crossing: Preliminary Engineering and Economic Report," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (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); "New Bridge Ends Ferry Ride to Newport" by Walter Hackett, The New York Times (6/15/1969); "Construction of Newport Bridge over East Passage of Narragansett Bay," Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas (1969); "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); "Alfred Hedefine," Memorial Tributes: Volume 2, National Academy of Engineering (1984); "Transportation 2010: Ground Transportation Plan," Rhode Island Department of Transportation (1992); "Bare Bridges: Can Pell Bridge Withstand Impact?" by Alison Bologna, WJAR-TV (11/17/2003); "EZ-Pass Passes Its First RI Test at Pell Bridge" by Maria Armental, The Providence Journal (12/16/2008); Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority; Maguire Group; Bob Chessick; Douglas Kerr.

  • RI 138 shield by Barry L. Camp.
  • Pell Bridge shield photo by Douglas Kerr.
  • I-895 and I-695 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.

CLAIBORNE PELL (NEWPORT) BRIDGE LINKS:

CLAIBORNE PELL (NEWPORT) BRIDGE VIDEO LINK:

CLAIBORNE PELL (NEWPORT) BRIDGE CURRENT CONDITIONS:

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