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Build the Bridge: The Eagle Backs a Failing Venture

Jun 11, 2009 2:27 PM | 0 comments

If the Eagle had gotten its way, the New York skyline would look quite different. 

A tunnel from South Brooklyn to the Battery had been on the drawing table for at least a decade in 1939.  However, when federal funding started to dry up, it became unclear who would fund such an expensive venture. 

Enter Robert Moses, whose Triborough Bridge Authority had more than enough spare cash on hand.  Moses "graciously" agreed to help and he soon unveiled his proposal - not for a tunnel, but for a bridge. 

A bridge, he argued, would be cheaper and more effcient.  But a bridge, even an inexpensive one, was an unpopular idea; a bridge would block the skyline, destroy the Battery and cause disruption in the harbor.  Moses, not one to accept rejection, went to work immediately selling his idea.  He used the power of the Triborough Bridge Authority to create visual aids, press coverage, and pamphlets (several of which we have here in the collection.)  The pamphlets argued that a bridge was the only realistic option, citiing one alternative idea as a "Preposterous Scheme" and questioning the experience of tunnel advocates: "Is There Any Reason to Suppose They Are Right Now?"

As the only man in New York willing and able to fund the crossing, Moses made an unpopular idea successful.  He received approval from city council, and moved on to the "formalities" of federal approval.  However, Moses had an enemy in the federal government: President Roosevelt.  The two shared a mutual animosity that put a snag in Moses' plans.  Moses was shocked when the War Department rejected the bridge and hit harder with more publications and criticisms.  

Many historians have written about this famous scheme, and all of them describe the effort as Robert Moses versus everyone else.  Scanning the New York Times supports this.  Many articles and editorials questioned Moses' motivations and described the plan as "controversial."  But Moses had at least one supporter on his side: the Brooklyn Eagle.  The Eagle seemed to favor the bridge from the beginning.  Our Eagle collection includes many images of bridge diagrams and smiling members of Moses' team.  In an April photograph of traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, the caption indicates that such backups would continue until the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge was complete, as if the proposal had already been approved. 

In June of 1939, when many began to believe that Moses' plan was never going to succeed, the Eagle showed its support with a highly publicized "Build the Bridge Rally."  From Sunday, June 4 through Wednesday, June 7 of 1939, the rally made the front page of the Eagle.  Each day, the purpose was repeated: "To demonstrate Brooklyn's unanimous support of the span proposal."  Like Moses' publications, the Eagle showed no room for alternative solutions.  The articles and images repeatedly demanded that a new crossing be built, but they never considered that a tunnel might work just as well.  Articles, political cartoons, and images encouraged Brooklynites to attend, arguing that Brooklyn needed this bridge to happen.

The Eagle even paid to have a giant typewriter on exhibit at the World's Fair type an ad for the rally once every hour:

Over 100 civic groups across Brooklyn sent delegates to the event - an impressive show of support for an idea that was regarded as unpopular.  A series of speakers led the rally, with the most prominent speeches being broadcast live on WNYC.  (The New York Times listed the broadcast as a "leading event" in radio that week.)  Speakers asked "for an end to the War Department's 'red tape'" and they represented "a major segment of borough life."  Speakers included Borough President Robert Ingersoll and Robert Moses, as well as prominent citizens like banker George McLaughlin, postmaster Frank J Sinnott, towing magnate Eugene F. Moran and Miss Frances Woodward, a "Brooklyn Heights resident and prominent educator."  The rally was, according to the Eagle, "a stern warning that Brooklyn will not be turned aside."

Unfortunately, the rally did little to rouse interest in the proposal.  The Times had one article on the event, which focused on Moses' latest rants during his rally speech.  Six months later, almost one year after the idea began, the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge proposal was officially called off.  Moses could not strong-arm the federal government, and the city quickly began seeking a loan for a tunnel.

Moses wasted no time moving on to other projects that would permanently change the shape of the city.  And the Eagle moved on as well.  Over the next ten years, it chronicled the completion of the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, with little lament over Brooklyn's lost bridge.