2013-01-24 / News

Jamestown Historical Society Feature

Building a bridge across Narragansett Bay’s East Passage

At the end of World War II, the town of Jamestown – either directly or through a town-controlled commission – owned both the bridge across the West Passage and the ferry across the East Passage. While the bridge income generally exceeded operating expenses, the ferry lost money almost every year.

Faced with a $250,000 debt and with two aging coal-powered ferryboats to maintain, Jamestowners voted in 1951 to lease the ferry system to the state of Rhode Island for 15 years at $1 a year. Five years later, the state bought the ferry system and all its assets for $270,000, allowing Jamestown to pay off its accumulated debt.

The state takeover of the ferry system increased pressure across the state for an East Passage bridge. Determining who would be in charge and how the bridge would be built took another 10 years.


The Jamestown Bridge Commission, which controlled the Jamestown Bridge, initially wanted to control both bridges. Tolls on the West Passage bridge would, according to the original federal grant, be phased out in 1969, while maintenance costs began to rise steadily after 1950. A new source of revenue to maintain the bridge was needed. In addition, islanders knew that the toll takers on the bridge and the pursers on the ferryboats kept an eye on visitors to the island.

A section of steel roadbed foundation was secured at the center of the suspended span to maintain the tension on the suspension wire before the roadbed on either side was put in place. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY A section of steel roadbed foundation was secured at the center of the suspended span to maintain the tension on the suspension wire before the roadbed on either side was put in place. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY Early in 1954, the state created the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority and gave it jurisdiction over planning for the East Passage bridge. The state then postponed building the bridge for 10 years, hoping to incorporate it in a proposed Route I-895 – a road that would have crossed southern Rhode Island approximately along the path of Route 138 and continued across southeastern Massachusetts to Cape Cod.

Jamestowners fought a rearguard action against the bridge, defeating a 1960 referendum, 597- 393. A proposed $20 million Newport Bridge bond issue lost statewide that year by approximately 3-2. Four years later, however, voters approved bond issues totaling $47 million – $30 million pledged by toll revenues and $17.5 million guaranteed by the state until toll revenues were adequate to meet all financing.


At least 32 engineering studies were conducted between the end of World War II and 1960 to determine the location of a bridge to Newport. The U.S. Navy required an access channel 1,500 feet wide with a 205-foot clearance. They favored a southern route from the Dumplings to the Fort Adams area, with a 3,000-foot suspension span across almost the whole water gap. Both aesthetic and engineering objections were raised immediately. Engineering considerations led to the selection of Taylor Point as the Jamestown terminus early in 1959, but the Newport terminus continued to be debated almost until construction began on April 5, 1966.


At the location of the two main towers of the bridge, Narragansett Bay is more than 100 feet deep. The bottom is silty, and deep below the silt is rock. Depth to the rock varies, and at the east tower is about 430 feet. The steel pilings for the west tower are anchored in rock 162 feet below the surface, but at the east tower 512 steel friction piles grip the sand. The divers who built the piles lived in a diving tank – a complete underwater habitat – for a week at a time, emerging to work six hours a day.

Once the pilings were in place, huge prefabricated forms – the largest stood 10 stories high and weighed more than 400 tons – were lifted in place from a barge. Concrete was pumped into the forms through a pipe the lower end of which was immersed in the fresh concrete so that the concrete rose from the bottom, displacing the water that filled the submerged form. The 90,000 cubic yards of concrete poured using the “tremie” method is believed to be a world record.

The cables from which the center roadway is suspended were prefabricated – a breakthrough at the time. Each cable was made up of 4,636 wires – each wire about the diameter of a lead pencil and 4,520 feet long. A new plastic coating, rather than paint, as had been used formerly, protected the cable.

Sections of the steel roadway foundation were lifted into place. The final section was put in place on Sept. 19, 1968, and finishing work began. The $61-million bridge opened with much fanfare on June 28, 1969.


The immediate effect of the Newport Bridge on Jamestown was to destroy the prosperity of the village and particularly of the East Ferry waterfront. The effect was not unexpected and both the town and the Jamestown Businessmen’s Association made several attempts at mitigation. The area did not recover fully until the 1980s when the renovation of the stores in the Hunt block and the building of the Bay View Condominiums brought a new, fresh look to the area.

The longer-term impact of the bridge, augmented by improved transportation on the mainland, can be seen in the numbers.

Jamestown’s population in 1970, the year after the bridge opened, was 2,911. In 1990, two years before the new Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge further simplifi ed access, the population had risen to 4,999.

In 1970, there were approximately 1,100 year-round households on the island with an average family income of $9,500. By 1990, there were 1,973 households with a median family income of $41,500. Adjusted for inflation, family income had risen almost 30 percent.

Traffic on the old Jamestown Bridge increased from 3,200 vehicles per day in 1969 to 20,400 per day in 1990.

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